‘Ghostwatch’ – Secret Origins of the Docu-Horror, or Why Paranormal Activity is for Sissy Babies

Confession time.  There was a week or so, when I was around 14, when I sort of believed the Blair Witch Project (1999) was real.  There were mitigating factors: I had watched it on a grainy pirate VHS stolen from my older brother, giving it an added aura of danger; the lights were off; I was 14, and rather gullible.  Also, back then every new item of pop culture wasn’t instantaneously dismantled, catalogued and sapped of all its personal value by an army of incredibly tedious Buffy fans.  The internet was a wild and primitive place, where men were men (or women or children) and fortunes could be won or lost on the roll of a digital die.  The only ready online source of information about the film came from its fiendish creators – which is where they really went to work.

Horror fiction in the guise of fact is nothing new of course, and the film itself is perhaps less impressive than Artisan’s expensive and inventive marketing campaign, which allowed the story to spill out beyond cinemas.  The seeds of doubt were planted partly by use of the actors’ real names, and the requirement that they lie low during its distinctly morbid publicity (pictured), but above all by an extensive online library of documents and secondary ‘documentaries’ which fleshed out a backstory barely hinted at on-screen.  Death row footage of Rustin Parr, the child murderer who I knew without really being told had been possessed and absorbed by a malevolent female presence (possibly herself part of a darker, more undefined evil) stimulated my soft young brain more than anything in the actual film – and, indeed, any ‘documentary horror’ film made since.

As I said, I was around 14, and rather gullible.

Confession time again.  Until a few weeks ago, I’d never seen Ghostwatch (1992).  Charlie Brooker’s latest series may have been a tedious repackaging of material which was funnier the first time for a DVD release, but I still owe it a huge debt for introducing me to Stephen Volk’s Halloween TV special.  On the surface a rather dated, very British early-90’s haunted-house drama, closer inspection reveals an occasionally naff but highly inventive precursor to the  ‘docu-horror’ sort-of-genre currently terrifying noisy green children around the world.

ONE-MAN TIMESTAMP

The entire plot has been pre-spoiled for anyone who saw Blair Witch first.  A camera crew, consisting of a female presenter and two male cameramen, enter a claustrophobic environment pursuing rumours of supernatural goings-on.  Initially frustrated when the only troubling events they encounter are decidedly human in origin, they end up getting much more than they bargained for.  Again our narrative is formed entirely from footage shot by characters with the same names as the actors playing them, but in Ghostwatch those actors were well known TV personalities, and the drama presented to its original viewers as a live broadcast rather than edited recordings.

That added layer of deceit tells you, in a nutshell, what makes this unwieldy prototype so much more interesting than Blair Witch or any of its recent imitators: it’s actually quite a nasty piece of work, seeming to genuinely have it in for its audience.  I am no longer 14, nor was the room quite so dark as before, and therefore I was not the least bit scared while watching.  However I later found, during several late-night trips to my private reading room, that just moving through the house would make the hairs stand on the back of my neck.

SOMETIMES I TAKE MY LAPTOP

This was because rather than a gothic castle, or even a north-American forest, Ghostwatch is set entirely in the confines of an average suburban home, and restrains its full-on horror until the end.  For the first hour or so most of the action consists of moving past curtains and lampshades, up and down stairs, and into/out of well-lit kitchens, living rooms and bathrooms in a first-person perspective.  This means that the bulk of what you see in the programme is more or less exactly what you see once you stop watching, contaminating everyday sights and sounds with a creeping sense of dread.

THE HORROR . . . THE *HORROR*!!

It’s a more insidious approach to the business of frightening than most modern horror gives us, and a lot more substantial.  Despite its similarly mundane setting only the first few creaky nighttime scenes of Paranormal Activity (2007) have any real power, before the film loses its nerve and starts flinging demonic hoofprints and burning ouija boards around in an effort to raise the stakes.  The reason so few recent horror films are capable of scaring anyone old enough to pronounce the word “paranormal” is that none of them aspire to do anything to the viewer that will last longer than five seconds.  The twists and turns of a rollercoaster might make you scream, but you’re not going to tell stories about it on dark, stormy nights.  At least, not stories anyone’s going to listen to.

HE THINKS THE SEQUEL IS EVEN SCARIER

The potential ‘boo’ moments in Ghostwatch could be counted on one severely maimed hand – and I am counting the bit where Craig Charles actually says “Boo”.  Not content to make its audience spill their drinks, it boldly tries to frighten you without you even noticing it’s happening.  Not only its characters but its viewers are haunted by a spectral presence, which appears in glimpses so brief that some are barely even visible without multiple replays.  The ‘ghost’ itself is again a basically mundane, familiar creation, combining that grubbily British folk devil ‘The Paedo’ with the real-life urban horror of Victorian-era “babyfarmers” (the same ghost-within-a-ghost double act lifted for The Blair Witch).  Fittingly its presence is announced by the banging of pipes and eerie shrieking of cats, two sounds pretty much guaranteed to have disturbed the sleep of any city dweller at some point.

The misguided moral squall which followed saw the show banned from screens for a decade, seen by concerned guardians as tailor-made to lure in and traumatise unsuitably young audiences.  Despite leaving its most horrific images to the viewer’s imagination, it is filled with an intense atmosphere of menace and some considerable sexual overtones.  (On a side note it also fleetingly showed a child’s drawing of Christ on the cross with a giant, jizzing cock, but apparently they got away with that one).  Quite the reverse is true.  What it tried to do was make an adult audience feel like children – specifically children who have stayed up past their bedtime, and rather wish they hadn’t.

“You didn’t believe that story about Mother Seddons … did you?”

YEP, THAT LOOKS FINE TO ME.

A wilfully over-the-top climax is the perfect analogy for its ambition to invade the homes and heads of viewers with a very intimate nightmare, pioneering the horror mockumentary thing for that purpose.  It seems typically British that this spontaneous outburst of creativity was smothered with morally indignant waffling, rather than celebrated as the achievement it was.  Thankfully Ghostwatch is just about available on DVD, for anyone interested in the origins of a genre which seems set to become ever-more pervasive and profitable.  Alternatively, you could just wait for Paranormal Activity 3 to come out.

(SPOILER ALERT – it will be shit.)

By Tim Kelleher

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