Many people call “The Blair Witch Project” the beginning of the found footage craze, but a few years before that film was a little British broadcast on BBC, “Ghostwatch”. Airing in 1992, the faux news program follows a crew as they investigate what’s declared as the “most haunted house in Britain”. What begins as a slow, uneventful wander through this small house, ends in a pulse-pounding horror show of strange voices and ghost apparitions, ramping up in perfect step to create a truly chilling experience.
“Ghostwatch” is presented in the style of a BBC news program, with a host, famed UK Broadcaster Michael Parkinson, commentary of psychologists, even a goofy news crew. There’s even a switchboard (called jokingly the “Witchboard” by one of the producers), where the hosts take calls from viewers (which eventually becomes an important plot in later parts of the show). We follow this crew as they look into the hauntings of a family in their small house in Northolt, Greater London, which has been the site of numerous hauntings over several months. Along the way, we’re introduced to a para-psychologist Dr. Lin Pascoe, who gives a psychological view into the goings-on, with regular appearances from a New York skeptic, who gives his own counterpoints throughout to cast doubt on the findings. Though things start off slow, we’re soon presented with strange bumping and scratching, the wailing of cats, and even brief appearances from the ghost itself. One of the joys of watching the special is trying to catch all of these appearances, which are easily missed by terrifying when actually you catch them. The footage ends in a heart-stopping heat-vision camera scene that ranks as one of the best in the found footage genre, before a shocking, if a tad goofy, finale.
As with the first Paranormal Activity, or the best moments of the Blair With Project, “Ghostwatch” proves that some of the best horror stories are told with the smallest of budgets. The special doesn’t rely on big special effects or heavy post-production, but instead, with little more than a basic TV film crew, some sound effects, and some superb child actors, they create a heavy, haunting atmosphere. Like most of the best found footage films, the scares come from the basics of the technology, such as when the boom mic picks up strange noises that normal ears would not have heard, or a mounted camera shows us something that we wouldn’t have caught otherwise. Indeed, the broadcast format also acts as a tool for scares, as tape replays itself or a stream is lost, leading to even more frights. One of the best scares in the piece comes from the sudden glimpse of the ghost’s face in a blast of static near the end of the piece, which could only have come from this kind of presentation.
Much like the 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast, “Ghostwatch” caused no small amount of controversy upon its release. Though it was aired as part of a drama series, there were reports of individuals believing that they were watching a real news program, which not only resulted in thousands of angry phone calls, but unfortunately also resulted in the suicide of a young man five days after the special’s airing, and there were many reports of children being psychological scarred by the experience (which was not helped by the fact that one of the stars was the host of a popular children’s program at the time). The special was never re-aired in Britain, and had been rarely seen, before the streaming service Shudder saw fit to make this enjoyable bit of ghosty goodness available for viewers in the US. For fans of found footage, or haunted house films in general, it’s a must-see.