Monday, 30 October 2017

October Nightmares III #30: Ghostwatch (1992) - Ghost in the Televisual Machine

"We don't want to give anybody sleepless nights..."

These days, in this era of alternative facts and fake news, no one in their right mind trusts the media. Especially if you live in the UK where we have a weird sort of Orwellian deal going on, in which we're constantly fed propaganda but also have the privilege of paying for it. But there was a time when this wasn't necessarily the case. A time when you could almost believe the idealistic nonsense the bright-eyed, well-respected, news presenter was spouting, even if deep inside you knew it was wrong: like putting pineapple on a pizza.

Ghostwatch, a reality-horror/mockumentary TV film which aired on BBC 1 (UK) on Halloween '92, definitely belongs to a less cynical era. An era when you could take things at face value, without devolving into some know-it-all determined to prove how smart you were and how everyone else was wrong. If Ghostwatch came out today it'd have to work a lot harder to avoid being buried by the denizens of the internet, who'd proclaim how "fake and gay" it is.

The concept behind Ghostwatch is a simple one: a bunch of beloved Nineties UK TV personalities (Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith, and Craig Charles) perform a 'live' televised investigation of a haunted family home. A 'plot' which closely follows the Enfield Poltergeist case: a supposed real-life haunting which served as the basis for The Conjuring 2 and The Enfield Haunting, but was probably just another case of council house brats acting up. There's more going bump in this house at night than Uncle Jim's naked super-happy-fun-time with Mother.

Ghostwatch goes through all the usual ghost hunting motions - strange noises, fleeting glimpses, and use of technology that I'm sure is made up just to sell to the nerds who grew up watching Ghostbusters - but as it's intentionally put on here the audience gets to see more than the average episode of Most Haunted. And yet Ghostwatch always remains within the realms of 'reality', offering only blurry sightings of its deformed ghost, and nothing far out like Derek Acorah's spazzy fake possessions. Though Michael Parkinson does get possessed by the ghost paedo near the end - which is probably his get out of jail for free card when the next round of the TV personality paedo hunt begins.  

Despite being thoroughly marketed as 'a fictional event', a surprising number of people bought into Ghostwatch's fake set-up. It's one of those moments which cause you to lose what little faith you have in the intelligence of the average human. Just as everyone lost their shit at Orson WellesThe War of the Worlds broadcast, so too was there a mass-triggering after Ghostwatch aired. The show caused a massive influx of viewer complaints, and reports of PTSD and suicides persisted in the media for days. Imagine the reaction of Tumblr if Supernatural was ever cancelled, and you'd be halfway there.

So controversial was this 90-minute special, that the BBC buried in their vaults for ten years after airing - alongside all their other radical projects, like a positive news article about Jeremy Corbyn. I didn't even see Ghostwatch until the mid-00's and by that point its legend was better than the actual show. In '92, Ghostwatch was a trailblazer - one of the first TV specials to blend reality with fiction, years ahead of today's scripted reality TV shows. In 2017, the scariest thing about Ghostwatch are the Nineties perms and seedy cameramen who make it seem as though Parkinson and Charles are going to double team Greene.

It is difficult to blame the public for failing for Ghostwatch's ruse, given that the level of effort the creators put into maintaining the ruse. That'd be like digging a hole outside a blind man's house and calling him a twat for falling in. We people of the Nineties were primitive after all, with our obsession with flannel shirts, Ace of Base, and yo-yos. As part of the conceit the show is presented as one of those news specials, with trappings of found footage. Parkison does his best patronising grandfatherly presenter, and Sarah Greene is the kindly on-site reporter with Craig Charles as the comedy sidekick. 

There're even phone-in callers, reporting their own experiences and building up a picture of dread as parts of the backstory are revealed in piecemeal. Essentially a negative force (known as "pipes" as the family's mum would attribute the ghostly banging to the water pipes) comprised of the aforementioned ghost paedo, who offed himself and was eaten by his cats, and the 19th century baby farmer/child killer who tormented him, haunts this normal British family. Ghostwatch starts off relatively low-key, but by the end Pipes is howling and dragging Sarah Greene off into a closet, possessing Parkinson, and taking over the BBC Studios. Well, that wouldn't be the first time a paedophile has been in charge at the BBC. 

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