Although American TV had some stellar movies of the week in the 70s and 80s, there is no doubt that the BBC TV movie Ghostwatch (1992) is my favorite TV horror movie of all time. Even knowing it is a mockumentary I find myself quite literally on the edge of my chair while watching. Despite clearly having actors credited for playing the victims of the haunting as well as researchers and the ghost himself, Ghostwatch scared some Britons so badly that it has never again been shown on British TV. Sadly the program was also blamed for a suicide and two cases of PTSD. It appears to have been the “War of the Worlds” broadcast of the 1990s.
Ghostwatch is framed as a live TV special and stars, along with the actors, four actual TV presenters playing themselves. The format shows journalist Michael Parkinson and presenter Mike Smith in the studio while Sarah Greene and Craig Charles report “remotely.” The show also features voice actors “calling in” with not only their own ghost stories from the past but also reports of events happening during the broadcast which seem to be caused by it. The flow of the movie is nearly perfect as it begins with one false scare, moves on to several glimpses of the ghost (only one of which is addressed), then increasing poltergeist activity on either side of apparent but premature proof of a hoax, leading finally to a shocking conclusion involving one of the presenters being trapped by the ghost and another possessed. Appropriately, the show was broadcast on Halloween night.
Over the years many people have continued to report being affected by the original airing of Ghostwatch, to the point that a documentary about its legacy is planned for the 20th anniversary. Before I watched it, I thought such negative reactions to be ridiculous, but the movie is actually very effective. There were plenty of clues to its being fictional; however, what might the effects of presenting such a mockmentary, without a clear statement that it is fictional, be on someone with an existing mental condition or a person who had experienced hauntings in his or her own life? It begs the question, is the BBC right for refusing to air Ghostwatch again? Or is the banning of Ghostwatch just another example of what cynics call the “nanny state?” I just wish I could have seen its debut for myself. But hey, at least I got to see Geraldo open Al Capone’s vault.