As October draws to a close we start the inevitable slide to Halloween, the spookiest day of the year. I’ve never been a fan of thrills, spills or indeed chills when it comes to my film and TV viewing, so this time of year is particularly uncomfortable for me. This year I’ve decided to get into the spirit (get it?) of things and return to what could well be the source of my delicate disposition – Ghostwatch.
For those of you who are too young to remember Ghostwatch allow me to bring you up to speed. Ghostwatch was a Halloween-themed documentary-style drama that aired on the BBC in 1992 when I was at the tender age of 10. The show is perhaps one of the most controversial things to ever grace the BBC because it seemed to be a genuine documentary that gave irrefutable evidence that ghosts really did exist and that they could attack and kill people. Following the original broadcast, the BBC actually banned it from being re-shown for a decade. Even now, 26 years after its original broadcast, it is still held accountable for filling a generation with traumatic memories.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I probably watched Ghostwatch when I was slightly too young. I remember very clearly believing it to be completely genuine at the time and as scared as I was, I couldn’t be torn away from the TV as the horror unfolded. Even now, close to three decades later, I can’t even think about Ghostwatch without my pulse quickening and my mind beginning to race. I’ve decided it’s time to face my fears and finally revisit Ghostwatch. I’m not quite sure why I’ve chosen to watch this when I’m at home alone when it’s dark outside and the wind is making some scary noises outside.
I think one of two things will happen: Ghostwatch is nowhere near as scary or life-changing some 26 years later, or this article is slowly going to descend into terror and madness. Strap in, folks.
One of the things that made this seem so realistic (and terrifying) when I was a kid was that it was presented by actual TV presenters and not just actors. The anchor in the studio is played by Michael Parkinson, a chat show host of some renown; he’s a familiar face, not someone who would ever lead me astray. Then there’s the host out in the field, Sarah Greene, who used to present children’s TV programs. Surely she wouldn’t be involved in anything too scary or ever deceive me? I was wrong.
Ok, enough time wasting. I’m going in.
The whole thing opens with the TV crew arriving at what is supposed to be one of the most haunted houses in the UK, with Sarah Greene onsite with Craig Charles (of Red Dwarf fame) and Michael Parkinson back in the studio with some experts and a team of people to take phone calls from the general public. It might seem like a boring start but even the mundanity of the setup is bringing a sense of unease. Oh no. This isn’t good.
The occupants of the house are a single mother, Pamela Early, and her two daughters Suzanne and Kim, who are being terrorised by a ghost that the girls have affectionately dubbed Mr Pipes. A name whose very mention still strikes fear into my heart and gives me that flutter of terror in my chest. Curse you, Mr Pipes, you win this round. Again.
Everything seems quiet and serene at the start; it’s lighthearted, knock about Halloween fun. It’s what I’d expect from a primetime show trying to prove that ghosts actually exist – some silly backstory, a few false claims, and then everyone goes home happy. I know what’s coming, though, and it seems like it isn’t much more fun to watch the second time around.
Oh god, there he is, my old nemesis Mr Pipes. Things seem to be fun and light and then there’s a noise upstairs. The camera dashes up and there in the background is a ghostly shape of a man in the background – no one comments on it and the camera doesn’t linger, but I saw it! He barely gets any screen time, just flashes here and there, but Mr Pipes remains one of the scariest characters I’ve ever seen (or thought about, over and over again).
Now we’re getting to find out some more of the history of Mr Pipes. First of all, there was Mother Seddons, a child-minder who became a murderer, but then there was also a man who lived there, Raymond Tunstull, who committed suicide after being possessed by Mother Seddons. Great. I’d forgotten about this bit. Tunstull’s body wasn’t found for days and his extensive collection of cats started to have a little chew on him in the absence of Whiskas. This is not what I need to know right now, when I’ve got my own two cats sat next to me. They want a piece of me, don’t they? They can smell the fear!
Looking back on this now I can see that it is quite hokey, and to anyone watching for the first time in 2018, it would be rather quaint. I’m pretty sure that the effect that it has on me is entirely down to some twisted version of nostalgia. It’s like the Blair Witch Project but based entirely in the suburbs of London.
Things really start to ramp up from here on in, there are a lot of horror tropes on display and it’s almost like possession by numbers. One of the daughters is speaking in tongues and has a face covered in cat scratches. Hold on. One of my cats is making a play to get on my knee; I’m not sure if this is just a prelude to scratching my face up like poor Suzanne Early.
Phew, false alarm – my cat just wanted some food and I didn’t really like to say no in case they took inspiration from Ghostwatch and took a nibble on my fingers. Where was I?
We’ve got Suzanne being possessed and now her younger sister is drowning her stuffed toys because Mr Pipes told her too. I really hate Mr Pipes, he’s such a dickhead.
This is where things start to get a bit silly. Everything looks peaceful and quiet in the house but we’re really seeing some old footage – the ghost is in the recording equipment and is trying to cover up the absolute scenes that are going on in the house. Oh shit. There’s a dead sound engineer being carried to an ambulance!
One of the girls is trapped in a cupboard under the stairs, a place of some serious ghostly activity over the years. NOOOOOO! SARAH GREENE DON’T GO IN THERE! It was Mr Pipes all along and now Sarah Greene has been taken to some hell dimension. Oh, bloody hell. Even Michael Parkinson is possessed now. I never got to see this bit originally, my parents made me go to bed before the end like I was ever going to go to sleep. Pretty much the same as tonight I would guess.
Ghostwatch is definitely of its time but it still holds a place in my heart; it just so happens that place takes the form of a flutter of terror in my chest. I was hoping watching this again might actually make me realise this is just a cheaply-made TV special, but the reality is that it still stands up pretty well. As something I never want to see again.
You’ve won this round Mr Pipes. I’ll see you again in another 26 years.