Stu Neville’s feature on Ghostwatch at 30 and Jon Dear’s equally illuminating personal recollections of the broadcast [FT424:46-49] gave me the push that I needed to pluck up the courage to watch it again, and on 22 October I attended a screening at Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Star & Shadow cinema.
I have avoided rewatching it all these years for a variety of reasons, not least that on first broadcast I was eight years old and utterly terrified. In the years prior to the broadcast there had been schoolyard tales of ghosts and ghouls that were simply daft fun, except for a girl who told us about a poltergeist in her house. Grey ladies and headless monks were creepy but ephemeral, offering a controlled way for us to safely scare ourselves and move on. I think one of the important roles these sorts of tales play is for people to learn to manage emotional responses in a controlled environment – but poltergeist stories were of a different order. They were told in nervous whispers as if the telling would give the entity more power and the phenomena would intensify. That particular aspect of poltergeist lore deeply affected
me, so after being unable to sleep following Ghostwatch, there was no way I was going to talk to anyone about it.
Years went by and memories faded, but certain key images remained burned into my mind, frankly, as fundamental childhood horrors. Other TV shows were revisited via reruns,VHS & DVD releases and deconstructed through fanzines and books, so my original memories of these shows were overlaid by memories of later viewings and tinged by critical reviews – but Ghostwatch was never repeated and very little was written about it, so those memories remained pure.
I read briefly about the broadcast on its 20th anniversary but decided not to revisit it at that stage, partly due to a worry that it might not live up to my childhood memories and partly due to a certain cold sweat that spread across my shoulders when thinking about it.
I am glad that for 30th anniversary I finally took the dive. At the screening I attended, it was heartening to hear others of a similar age talk about their similar memories, aversion to discussing the broadcast at the time and the enduring impact it had on them. It was also reassuring to see that I remembered things much more accurately than I expected and, for the most part, it stood the test of time. Aside, that is, from the attempt to make hints at Pipe’s backstory more explicit, which give us crude caricatures of mental illness and transphobia. But, 30 years on, I am glad to be able to finally start to think more critically about the work, flaws and all.
I also think there is more to be said about the difference between responses to Ghostwatch and to more recent shows such as Most Haunted or even YouTube series such as Buzzfeed Unsolved or Ghost Files. A lot of the complaints about Ghostwatch came, as Jon Dear pointed out in his article, from embarrassment at having been drawn in. In the years since, viewers have become increasingly media literate. I don’t believe that viewers of the vast array of ghost hunting shows now on offer are any more or less credulous; but there is a certain element of postmodern play about how these shows are viewed. Whereas a certain section of Ghostwatch’s audience was angry at being duped, the contemporary ghost hunt audience is very much invited in.
Sunderland, Tyne & Wear
Ghostwatch conjured for me the love-hate relationship I’ve had with television my whole life. As far as Ghostwatch goes, I do recall seeing in the papers that it was, in quotation marks, “a drama”, but this was swiftly overridden by my naive magical thinking when the show came on. I was sucked in, although I did think it odd that a serious paranormal investigation would involve Craig Charles interviewing people about neighbourhood dog mutilations, since he was familiar to me from Red Dwarf.
The late Eighties and early Nineties were a weird time to grow up, around burgeoning visual entertainment technology. For example, my parents accidentally hired ‘Forbidden World’, a Roger Corman horror film, from our video rental emporium ‘Golden Disc’, because they had confused the title with the Disney sci fi ‘Forbidden Planet’ with Leslie Nielson! And then I was sent to a boarding school where an inappropriately BBFC-certificated horror VHS was screened for the house every Wednesday night. To this day I wonder if that counts as grooming, since ‘Flatliners’ is hardly family-friendly viewing. I mean, I enjoyed a PG film as much as anyone, and back in the day school playgrounds I found, to my shock, other kids asking me if I’d seen ‘I Spit on Your Grave!’
Not to mention that visiting friends’ houses I would find them watching something deplorable like ‘Death Wish’ (the dad fast-forwarded the inappropriate scene), ‘Booby-Trap’ (I didn’t see the end, so felt compelled to hunt it down as an adult), or ‘Spookies’ where a monster melts a lady’s face off. Is that folk horror? Am I walking wounded or ‘Scarfolk’? I found out at the time that ‘Ghostwatch’ had resulted in “the first childhood death from televisioninduced PTSD”.
James Wright Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex
Stu Neville’s article commemorating the 30th anniversary of
Ghostwatch inevitably touches on the influence of the Enfield poltergeist case. In an interview with Neville, writer Stephen Volk downplays the connection, maintaining “the setting was about as far as it went.” Enfield investigator Guy Lyon Playfair would have disagreed with this statement, as he noted a strong resemblance.
In an article in the SPR’s
Paranormal Review, ‘The Enfield Saga: From This House is Haunted
(1980) to The Enfield Haunting
(2015)’ (issue 75, summer 2015, pp.26-7) Playfair says that an account of the Enfield poltergeist’s journey from page to screen would fill a book, and he sketches its contents. A chapter would be devoted to Ghostwatch.
He describes the consequences of the transmission in gleeful terms: “Chapter 3. The BBC shows
Ghostwatch, a hoax ‘documentary’ rather obviously (in my opinion) based on my book [This House is Haunted] and infringing my copyright. Legal action is taken; I get an out-of-court settlement and a well-earned free holiday.” I’m surprised Neville didn’t think to challenge Volk on his claim.