You don’t have to believe in ghosts to believe in “Ghostwatch.” BBC aired the infamous, ahead-of-its-time mockumentary on Halloween night, 1992, creating such an uproar with the program that it never made the airwaves again. Twenty-five years later, “Ghostwatch” can finally be seen again: As it did with “The Devils,” Ken Russell’s oft-censored, long-unavailable act of feature-length blasphemy, horror streaming platform Shudder has made the film available to stream.
Presented by the Beeb as a totally above-board enterprise, the 90-minute special purports to seek (and perhaps even offer) irrefutable proof that ghosts do in fact exist. The organizers do so by spending the night in a house that’s said to be haunted, with an entire team both in the studio and out in the field live; the coverage resembles that of a high-profile footie match. Well-known presenters play themselves in the production, which only makes it more understandable that so many were taken in by the ruse.
The most obvious point of reference is “The Blair Witch Project,” which kicked off the ongoing found-footage craze, but a more apt comparison might be Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds.” More trick than treat, “Ghostwatch” was likewise accepted as legitimate by many tuning it at home: 30,000 phoned in to BBC’s switchboards within an hour and many more expressed their outrage in the days and weeks that followed. (One suicide was even linked to it.) It’s never once been shown on UK television again and never aired at all in the United States, where it hasn’t even been released on home video.
Decades later, the most compelling thing about “Ghostwatch” is its pace. The program lulls us into a false sense of security with the talking-head format and bright, comforting studio lights. An entire production crew is in the house itself, bobbing for apples and playing jokes on one another; back in the studio, the hosts look on in mild amusement as the evenings unfold. Occasionally they take calls from skeptics and true believers alike. There’s the sense that these people are experts and that, as long as the cameras are rolling, nothing too frightful can happen — isn’t the whole problem with ghosts that they never appear when those seeking proof need them to?
Still, the two little girls and their mother are terrified. They’ve seen and felt an entity nicknamed Pipes several times before, whether we believe them or not, and soon their fear will be ours. Eventually the siblings try to go to bed, the lights off and the camera still on them, and “Ghostwatch” truly becomes a horror film.
There are a number of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sightings of Pipes — Wikipedia has a list; see how many you spot without consulting it first — whose cumulative effect is chilling: Knowing about them without actually seeing any is almost more frightening than catching a glimpse of the supposed spirit. Thirty minutes in, you may have unknowingly seen it (him?) three times already. That’s the kind of otherworldly experience that could make a true believer out of even the most ardent skeptic.
Stream “Ghostwatch” on Shudder.