I often wonder what it was like to hear Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast when it originally aired. I think everyone to some extent wonders about the experiences of people at the center of a major pop culture moment — Woodstock, the Beatles playing Shea Stadium, seeing The Empire Strikes Back before anyone said “I am your father” in their best James Earl Jones voice — but I’ve always been most fascinated with that infamous broadcast. What was it like to hear Orson Welles over your radio and honestly believe that the world was being invaded by aliens?
Pop culture consumers have generally become more jaded since then — we look for the wires and complain about clumsy CGI and laugh when an actor and their stunt double look nothing alike — but every now and then we get the wool pulled over our eyes. This was definitely true of the infamous Ghostwatch, a “live investigation” into a haunted house aired on the BBC on Halloween night in 1992. It was an early mockumentary-style attempt at horror, and it was so well done and so convincingly frightening that the BBC banned the program in the wake of complaints from angry, traumatized viewers who thought the whole thing was real.
When I heard about Ghostwatch, I had to watch it immediately. (Thank God for Shudder, by the way. I was not familiar with this story, but I ran across an A.V. Club article about it after Shudder added the movie to its streaming library. The article linked to an interesting piece on Mental Floss that gives a lot more detail regarding the program’s infamy — I highly recommend it.) I approached Ghostwatch with the idea to try to put myself in the shoes of the unsuspecting BBC viewers back in 1992. It will be just like recreating the War of the Worlds broadcast, I thought. After just a few minutes, though, I realized I wouldn’t have to try very hard to pretend to be a traumatized viewer. I didn’t have to pretend at all. Ghostwatch is TERRIFYING.
The story focuses on the Early family, who are being terrorized by a ghost that the Early children call Pipes. A host and camera crew are stationed in the house to try to film evidence of the haunting. Outside, another camera crew interviews the family’s neighbors, who (along with viewers supposedly calling in to the live broadcast) provide bits of local history and gossip that slowly reveal Pipes’s backstory to be progressively darker and scarier.
The script is smart and well-balanced — some of the BBC anchors are obviously quite skeptical of the haunting, at least initially, and there are some really nice moments of misdirection. Between that and the naturalistic acting, it very much comes across as a true story. There are a couple of plot points that I think would be laughable if they had been introduced too early, but as scary and well-paced as this program is, I think they work.
Ghostwatch was ahead of its time in the found footage subgenre — you see elements of it in The Blair Witch Project, The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, the Paranormal Activity franchise, and many other films. The camerawork is top-notch: there are tight shots that limit our POV and raise our anxiety, quick pans that reveal Pipes just long enough for us to register a terrifying presence but just short enough to make us doubt our own eyes, and long shots that have the viewer scouring the frame to see where Pipes will appear next.
To add to the realism, Stephen Volk, the author of Ghostwatch, even wanted to add a frequency to the broadcast that would cause any pets in the viewers’ homes to react negatively to the TV, which is so diabolical that I have to wonder if he’s secretly a Bond villain.
If you haven’t seen Ghostwatch yet, I highly encourage you to watch it as soon as you can. Even if you have, I recommend watching it again. I think it will become part of my annual Halloween marathon. And if you were part of the original audience watching live in ’92, please leave a comment and tell us all about it! Even if you’re the man whose wife called the BBC and complained about you soiling yourself. This is a judgment-free zone.