“Ghostwatch”: The Grandaddy Of Ghost-Hunting Found Footage Films
Although The Blair Witch Project is often thought of as the first found-footage horror film, aficionados will point to movies like Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox as the real progenitors of the genre. Yet The Blair Witch Project was the first film to utilize the “ghost hunting” trope as part of its allure. Or was it?
In 1992, BBC 1 aired a 90-minute program called Ghostwatch. It purported to show an investigation into the evil entity that had been terrorizing the Early family (mother Pam and young daughters Suzanne and Kim) in Northolt, North London. The program included real-life TV news personalities like Sarah Greene and her husband Mike Smith, Craig Charles, and Michael Parkinson, which lent it an air of believability. It was also filmed in multiple locations (the allegedly haunted home on Foxhill Drive and a TV studio with a call-in center) with a mixture of fixed cameras and hand-held ones, which gave it a more live documentary feeling. Anyone who turned into the program (which ran on October 31) and missed the opening credits might actually have been convinced that it was real.
By focusing on supposedly “real” people and not actors, Ghostwatch made it seem like this was an event that was unfolding as viewers were watching. It includes a mixture of both paranormal enthusiasts (Dr. Lin Pascoe) and skeptics (Dr. Emilio Sylvestri), thus allowing the audience to find purchase within the varying levels of believability.
The BBC’s actual call-in phone number was provided on screen for viewers to call and express their thoughts about not only the program, but also their own experiences with the paranormal. The program utilizes technology as a means of drawing in the audience. Motion detectors, temperature sensors, carefully placed cameras, including a thermographic one, which seems to predict the night-vision cameras that would become such an integral part of films like [REC] and Grave Encounters.
Ghostwatch also utilizes slow-burn pacing. Like other outstanding examples of found footage films, for a long time, nothing really happens. There are a few false scares (Charles popping out of the pantry to scare Sarah and a cat appearing behind a sliding glass door) but for the most part, the show is uneventful. This means that when unexplained and downright scary events start to ramp up, it catches the viewer off guard, especially when it appears that technology has failed. The screen appears glitchy at several key points and when it is discovered that the livestream has been interrupted, everyone involved appears rattled.
Perhaps the most important factors in making Ghostwatch such an effective and influential found-footage classic are the ways it keeps trying to acknowledge that it is, in fact, a particularly well-constructed hoax. In the second half of the program, one of the hidden cameras reveals that Suzanne has been making at least some of the “unexplained” noises herself. At this point, Dr. Pascoe seems embarrassed, though she tries to rationalize the sudden turn of events. Then, more inexplicable and potentially dangerous things occur: photos fall off the wall, Suzanne begins to chant nursery rhymes in an otherworldly voice, Kim suddenly disappears, Chris the cameraman is knocked down by a falling mirror, and Sarah vanishes into a basement room underneath the stairs, one that is considered to be the locus of the malevolent spirit.
At that point, the signal is interrupted, causing some consternation among the BBC staff, especially Mike Smith, who seems genuinely concerned about his wife’s well-being. When the feed is restored, it depicts Chris and Sarah, along with Suzanne and Kim, happily playing board games in the living room. Perplexingly, everything looks like it’s back to normal, until Dr. Pascoe points out that the framed photo on the wall is still there when everyone clearly saw it fall before the signal was interrupted.
The ending of Ghostwatch is a melee of confusion and creepy phenomenon, one that is best left unspoiled for those viewers who have yet to see it. It is, however, incredibly effective and undoubtedly one of the finest examples of found footage in horror.
Audiences of the time were definitely fooled. Ghostwatch caused a panic with viewers who didn’t realize it was fiction, which resulted in thousands of complaints to the BBC. As a result, the program was never aired again. Ghostwatch was blamed for one man’s suicide and even cases of PTSD among some young children.
One can trace many of the factors that made the original The Blair Witch Project so successful back to Ghostwatch: folk horror mystique, unknown actors appearing as “real” people, shaky cam documentary-style camera work, and technology run amok. These have since become staples of the found footage subgenre. It's also obvious that the roots of The Conjuring franchise lie in Ghostwatch, which was also inspired by The Enfield Haunting.
After many decades of being relegated to VHS tapes and YouTube uploads, Ghostwatch is now finally available to watch on Shudder. After Blair Witch’s awful critical reception in 2016, many horror fans have wondered if the found footage subgenre can ever recover. While we wait for that question to be answered, we can marvel at the forward-thinking Ghostwatch, which gets everything just right.