[written by author, NKKingston]
“WE DON’T WANT TO GIVE ANYONE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS. WE DON’T WANT TO CAUSE A PANIC.”
On October 31st 1992, at 9:25, a seminal piece of drama was aired. For the next two decades it would regularly top ‘scariest ever’ polls. Frequently compared to Orson Welles’ ‘War of the Worlds’, it would not be shown by the BBC again, but it’s been aired by other channels around the world.
Legitimate DVD’s are so hard to get hold of these days even the show’s writer suggests you watch it on YouTube, though personally I think you lose something with all the stops and starts. If you can get hold of a DVD (LoveFilm has it, I don’t know about Netflix) watch it without pausing, rewinding, or otherwise taking advantage of the fact it’s a DVD. If you want to really relive the experience, watch it at 21:25, the original time of broadcast. It’s the 18th anniversary tonight.
Have you done so?
Are you going to sleep tonight?
I didn’t think so.
But why does it work? Well, if you’re British you’ll understand the kind of weight Michael Parkinson brings to the proceedings. If you’re American, imagine it presented by Oprah Winfrey. They’ve both interviewed Tom Cruise, after all.
Add to this the presence of well known presenters Sarah Greene and Mike Smith, married couple, and comedian Craig Charles (in his Red Dwarf heyday). Bear in mind that all those psychic shows you see now, like ‘Most Haunted’ and ‘Paranormal Investigation: Live’, didn’t exist. That very few people had satellite or cable television and thus no ‘info’ button to explain the premise of the show to them. That since it didn’t start on the hour many people missed those all important writers credits in the first few minutes.
It’s not all good casting and serendipity, of course.
“I felt someone all over me.”
In the first clip claiming to offer evidence of the ghost, you’ll note that the banging of the pipes doesn’t start until one of the girls leaves the room. For the first hour of the show the majority of phenomena can be explained as the actions of one girl or the other (usually Suzanne). There’s some false scares and a lot of larking about amongst the crew, as you’d expect from a live broadcast. Parkinson explains that other shows will come on later and Ghostwatch will offer updates between them until midnight. Except… at the hour mark the show is still running.
“Do you think Mr Pipes wants to hurt you?” “I think he wants to hurt everyone. I think he wants to do bad things.”
It’s around this point that Suzanne is caught fabricating phenomena. Parkinson becomes thoroughly convinced of the hoax while Dr Pascoe tries to explain Suzanne’s behaviour away. Dr Sylvestri (had the Americans done something to offend us recently? That’s the only explanation for such a dud performance in an otherwise sterling show), our out-and-out sceptic, has a field day with it. Meanwhile, even the most unobservant audience member has probably seen Pipes at least once. He’s actually appeared four times now.
“We thought you’d leave us. All we were is noises to you.”
The non-plot ghost stories told by audience members and the taped interviews (and even Sarah Greene’s own) are all true. Sadly, we don’t get to see as many as we’d like because Pipes strikes. The ghost is literally in the machine. Callers are getting hysterical, Parkinson has been wrong footed, and Suzanne is in a trance. Parkinson informs the viewers the next show will be late, as too much is happening.
“We have to stay. Pipes says we have to stay.”
There are three more sightings of Pipes between now and the end of the show (four if you’re being picky, but two are so close I count them together). The ‘onion skin’ element of the haunting is revealed through phone calls. The phenomena in the house extend to bangings, breakings, and Pipes speaking through Suzanne. Even the camera man gets a glimpse of him. Parkinson’s scepticism dissolves, Dr Pascoe looks increasingly distraught, Mike interrupts repeatedly as his concern for Sarah reaches desperate levels, and Craig and the outside crew have no clue there’s anything going on. Anarchy reigns.
“What big eyes you have. What big eyes you have.”
And then all is calm. And then it’s not.
“It’s in the Machine.”
And then it gets worse.
What makes Ghostwatch work so well, I believe, are the unacknowledged appearances of Pipes. The “did you see him? did I see him?” element. That’s what gives theatrical ghost stories an edge over the literary (if you want to see a genuinely theatrical ghost story, get yourself to London and see Ghost Stories. Thank me later). By giving the audience glimpses the characters are denied Ghostwatch ramps up the tension without dissolving the suspension of disbelief.
The phenomena reported and seen can all be tied back to real world hauntings such as the Enfield Poltergeist. Circular patches of liquid, banging sounds, crude images and words, scratches, temperature changes, smells, even the tying up of phone lines…Ghostwatch hits all of them. It’s this level of research that makes it all the more believable. Unlike certain horror films, the more a viewer knows about the subject the more frightening the show become.
As well as the straight forward haunting there’s a strong sexual theme running through the show. Poltergeist activity commonly focuses on pubescent girls, making it somewhat inevitable, but this is deliberately added to with the stories of Mother Seddons taking in the babies of unwed girls, of Raymond Tunstall sexually assaulting children, and Pam Early’s experience in the glory hole. “I felt someone all over me,” she says, and you know from her tone that it wasn’t just the physical presence that was intimidating. Glory hole is, of course, a perfectly common phrase all over England used to describe the cupboard under the stairs. However, it can also mean a hole in the wall of a public toilet cubicle, made for purposes you can probably work out for yourself. Is the entendre intentional? Well, probably not, but it does add another layer to the sexual imagery.
Ghostwatch has its faults, of course. The aforementioned Dr Sylvestri is so over the top I want to apologise on his behalf to any Americans watching it. Some of the acting (especially the children’s) is decidedly ropey, though as the story progresses you notice it less and less, and a lot of viewers find the ending a bit too much.
The show has an almost mythic status in British television history. Rumours such as Sarah Greene exhorting her child-viewers to watch in during Going Live (disproved by the Ghost Watch: Behind the Curtain blog ) give the show a touch of the conspiracy theory about it, though BBC never tried to pretend it was real. Even the pre-programme trail refers to it as a ‘film’ and the presenters as ‘stars’. It’s credited as the first television show to give viewers Post Traumatic Stress.
The BBC have never reshown Ghostwatch. Shortly after its original showing, a teenager committed suicide. His parents blamed the show for his death. Though the BBC take no responsibility for his death, out of tack they have opted not to show it again. It’s a shame, but a reasonable decision.
Ghostwatch was the first film to ever really scare me. Not ‘make me jump, not ‘gross me out’, but to genuinely, seriously scare me. When you place ghosts amongst other supernatural entities they have a massive advantage. Even the toughest vampire with stagger back when hit with a chair, but a ghost can be everywhere and anywhere, untouchable but all too able to touch you. Even through your TV screen.
And make you scared of your own curtains.
“Did you believe the story of Mother Seddons? Did you? Fee Fi Fo Fum.”