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Friday, October 29, 2021

‘Ghostwatch’: The Scariest Hoax in Television History [Horrors Elsewhere]

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

Nine years before The Blair Witch Project hoodwinked audiences on a large scale, 11 million British viewers saw a poltergeist possess Michael Parkinson on ‘live’ TV. On Halloween night in 1992, BBC1 pulled off a daring experiment like never seen before. People lured in by the real-time investigation of an allegedly haunted house ended up watching two beloved telly stars succumb to a malefic force. However, the producers’ audacity was not above reproach; Ghostwatch was met with an unprecedented amount of complaints and legal reprimand.

The 2013 documentary Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains describes this Screen One production as one of the “great ‘do you remember’ moments” of British television. Although things might have turned out much differently had the creators stuck with their original ideas. This sensational TV stunt — inspired by the famous Enfield haunting — began its life as a standard drama series until writer Stephen Volk and producer Ruth Baumgarten went in a different direction. Not only did they go from focusing on several haunted houses at once before shifting to the most chaotic location, they also chose to depict Ghostwatch as a live program. That last and most important change eventually generated both acclaim and backlash.

Ghostwatch Michael Parkinson

Ghostwatch begins with a pithy advisory from the host himself before jumping straight into the show. From a soundstage, Parkinson and parapsychologist Dr. Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan) remotely converse with Sarah Greene and Craig Charles at the haunted house in question. The ‘Ghostwatch’ studio, fashioned like a telethon with Greene’s husband Mike Smith overseeing a small team of phone operators nearby, is distinguished by a sixteen-screen video wall behind the hosts. This is where live video, really a collection of pre-taped recordings filmed several weeks earlier, is piped in. Meanwhile, Greene and Charles stand by at the Early house with their crew. At this point, savvier viewers have already detected something is amiss once they realize Foxhill Drive, Northolt is not a real place. Nevertheless, enough people back then were either fooled or willing to play along.

The investigation’s subjects are the Earlys, made up of Pam (Bríd Brennan) and her two young daughters, Suzanne and Kim (Michelle and Cherise Wesson). Greene follows them around their supposedly haunted home, along with a real BBC cameraman, Chris Miller, in hopes of catching the supernatural presence on film. What they instead find is two desperate sisters playing their own tricks; they are the source of the eldritch sounds previously attributed to the ghost now dubbed “Pipes”. An already skeptical Parkinson is now confident this is all part of a “deliberate fraud” — the irony of it all — but Dr. Pascoe thinks otherwise.

Ghostwatch Sarah Greene

While Ghostwatch could have revealed its cards sooner than later, it practices a good amount of restraint; for almost an hour essentially nothing all that weird happens. Volk nestles doubt in the viewers’ minds early on by suggesting this is all a waste of time. Playing up the uncertainty is Parkinson and a correspondent from the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), who each challenge Pascoe’s theories and play devil’s advocate all throughout the night. That sense of disappointment, on the other hand, only makes future events impactful and the audience more responsive when the program finally experiences its eerie windfall. As the wall of reality crumbles, the fun of Ghostwatch truly begins.

Earlier reports from callers about seeing a strange figure in the girls’ bedroom start to pay off after being dismissed as mere shadows by Dr. Pascoe. To everyone else, they notice the same ominous shape becoming more and more pronounced with every return to the girls’ bedroom. Is this the power of suggestion, or is there really something there? Adding gas to the fire is the assortment of call-ins and interviews; viewers and on-screen characters submit their own personal ghost stories both real and fabricated. The orchestrated calls add pieces to the puzzle at hand — they provide a backstory for the festering apparition haunting Suzanne and Kim.

Ghostwatch Gillian Bevan

All evening, Dr. Pascoe talks to brick walls as everyone around her casts doubt on her findings or debunks her theories. Besides their mother and Greene, the doctor is the only one still standing in the Early girls’ corner after their ruse was exposed. Pascoe goes as far as proposing this is something like sympathetic magic rather than a straight-up ploy for attention. Not every trauma leaves physical marks — even evidence like spontaneous scratches across Suzanne’s face was passed off as self-mutilation — so the children do whatever they deem necessary to make the cameras stay. Unfortunately for everyone, imitating Pipes’ activities in order to convince everyone he is real works too well.

The scariest aspect of Ghostwatch is the unsettling revelation that everything taking place in those last thirty minutes is the work of audience participation. As Dr. Pascoe speculates toward the end as both the studio and the Earlys’ house are inundated with ghastly winds and guttural growls; they and everyone else have created a “massive séance.” A paranormal amalgam of everyone’s theories, myths, and fears has been summoned. Pipes might not have been born had ‘Ghostwatch’ not intervened and granted the spirit an audience. A portal to reality.

Ghostwatch Mike Smith

The significance of Ghostwatch was immediately overshadowed by the outcry. The producers were fairly transparent about this program being scripted ahead of time, but as evidenced by the furor, people will believe what they want to believe regardless of facts or contradiction. Ghostwatch aired at a time when everyone was generally more unsuspecting when it came to television. Audiences today are the opposite; they are more questioning and see through artifice. Similar undertakings like Inside No. 9’s 2018 Halloween special was meticulously conceived and made in reverence, but viewers were not fooled. As for Ghostwatch, it benefited from a receptive turnout that trusted every word and moment in those notorious ninety minutes. Parkinson and Greene were considerable influences as well.

Listing off the achievements both good and bad of a telefilm mired in controversy is easy. The harder task is looking beyond the scandal and hype and deciding if this holds up as a legitimate and worthwhile horror movie after all these years. To put it simply — yes, it absolutely does. The instant things go south, Ghostwatch earns its status as one of the most effective and unnerving pseudo-documentaries to date.

Ghostwatch Gillian Bevan Michael Parkinson



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3689199/ghostwatch-scariest-hoax-television-history-horrors-elsewhere/

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