Cultural Moments: ‘Ghostwatch’-The Aftermath
If you haven’t read my breakdown of Ghostwatch then please read the previous blog post, I assure you it’s worth it. I am going to write about the ways in which the fallout from Ghostwatch was likely more infamous than the broadcast itself, though this is less a forensic search for fault and more of a musing on the concept of fear. There is an excellent clip on YT called ‘Bite-Back: Ghostwatch’, which begins as a review and then very quickly becomes a Kangaroo Court of very angry people who subject the show’s producers to tirades of what borders on abuse. The vitriol is amazing, as is the surprise from some of the audience that a show on Halloween entitled ‘Ghostwatch’ might possibly feature supernatural themes. Honestly, Middle-England.
So, in the hours that followed the broadcast of Ghostwatch, a sizable number of people voiced their displeasure at what they called “obscene” and “distasteful” deception on the part of the BBC. That last word is important here because the issue wasn’t that people were scared by a ghostly drama; people were angry that they had been duped.
Complaints flew in that claimed it was unfair that they had used such familiar household names as it had meant children who would have ordinarily been in bed had decided to stay up. Others claimed that their children had nightmares (those that would go to sleep, that is) and that they refused to sleep without all the lights on. Sarah Greene even had to go on live television to reassure her young audience that she was not dead or locked in the…cupboard under the stairs with a violent entity.
A priest, presumably with no sense of irony, phoned in to say that he thought the BBC had been ‘complicit in summoning pure evil’ as the evil focused on children.
One lady wrote an angry letter that detailed how her husband, a military veteran, had soiled himself and she demanded that the BBC pick up the bill for a new pair of corduroys.
Finally, and not in the least bit amusing, an 18-year-old young man with learning difficulties was so distressed by the program that he took his own life. He wrote a note that said ‘If there are ghosts, then I will always be with you as one.’ It would be inappropriate, even all these years down the line, to express anything but sadness about this. A unique set of circumstances, including living in a house with faulty plumbing that caused the pipes to creak and clang, were at fault and it remains tragic. The BBC were found to have been guilty of ‘cultivating a sense of menace’, though there were no criminal charges.
Isolating that, just for a moment, it’s important to try and analyse the very real human reaction to fear. When playing a prank on someone it is often a guessing game of how far you can go before that prank stops being amusing and becomes hurtful or damaging. I will always remember my dad gearing up my mini Hi Fi to a short-wave radio station, turning it up and then putting my favourite toy (Steggy, the stuffed Stegosaurus) in front of it. He then hid in the next room with a microphone — it boggles the mind that my dad ever had this technical knowhow given that he’s only just discovered Whatsapp in 2020 — and began talking to me in a deep voice, which the seven-year old me believed was unmistakably coming from Steggy himself. Bear (ha) in mind that Toy Story had warped my brain into believing that all my toys were plotting my downfall, I ran screaming out of the room. I believe my dad slept on the sofa that night.
During my expat days in Korea, I planned a prank on my co-teacher for Halloween in which I was to jump out of the cupboard in a scary mask. I had told the kids to cough when she was in the room. A weak joke, for sure, but the language barrier made witty repartee difficult. I hid, I hid some more, and just when I was getting worried that she was going to be late, I heard a single polite cough and sprang into action. The reason she had been late was that she was leading the principal, the vice principal and an assorted delegation of local bigwigs from the Office of Education and they wanted to see this white boy they were wasting their budget on. I have never seen so many older Korean people sprint so fast, impressive given that they were all wearing socks and sandals.
The point is: pranks and japes rely on a moment of discomfort, or there’s no payoff. When you’ve been the victim of a prank, the relief that it’s over is part of the ride. The general public decided that Ghostwatch had decided to ‘trick’ the nation, without the suffix of the ‘treat’ that the season usually insists on. For a start: there were credits at the beginning that clearly signposted that this was a drama, it was featured in the Radio Times and there was a parachute option in that infamous phone number: call it and you would hear a message that said words to the effect of “All the events in Ghostwatch are fictional, please don’t worry. If you would still like to leave us a message with your own paranormal experiences then please do so.” Of course, that was if you could get through to the switchboard; over 20,000 calls came through and so most people would only hear the low, uncomforting beeps of the engaged tone. Given that they were watching pictures that went in and out of focus and continuity had been deliberately warped to mimic the idea of a ghost in the machine, this would have added to the sheer terror. It’s also worth mentioning that a scheduling conflict had meant that lots of people had tuned into BBC One at 21.35, when the program (and the all-important credits) would have already been shown.
That canny duo of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton paid homage to Ghostwatch in their episode of ‘Inside №9’ which aired on Halloween night in 2018 and had a similar twist of trickery (in which they cleverly used Twitter as an extension of the disbelief in a ‘live’ scene where they think they’re off-air.) It was cracking, though I confess I was out at my usual Wednesday commitment and so missed it live, which upset me greatly. The fact is: the language of television has changed so thoroughly that a program like Ghostwatch wouldn’t just not get made, it wouldn’t work even if it did and this is not the fault of the show but of ourselves. We live in a shallow, fast-twitch, fully-connected time and people are always looking for the reasons not to believe their eyes, which is deeply ironic, given that we all now have the ability to render ourselves with puppy ears and other filters that augment reality. Sarah Greene refers to the infrared camera that they have at their disposal, saying something about the ghost would have “nowhere to hide.” This seems laughably quaint, these days and possibly shows us why ghost stories are harder to pull off in a fully digital age.
Yet, survive they do. The presence of online content that passes itself off as fact (or in that sweet-spot of ‘maybe’ true, ‘maybe’ not) shows that the appetite for fear is as healthy as ever.
The things that were so scary about Ghostwatch at the time are very much a time-capsule and one that you would be predisposed to if you had ever lived in your archetypal British house. The carpets, the cramped corridors, the oddly popular pictures with gold frames. This harkens back to a slightly grotty, imperfect, and frankly boring existence in an ordinary house in an ordinary neighbourhood. Where people frequented their local pub once a week, went to church on Sunday, their kids played in the streets with scabby knees and they would one day dream of maybe leaving for somewhere really exciting, like Lambeth. I appreciate this sounds like the kind of thing your opinionated aunt shares on Facebook — imagine the Hovis advert theme, plaintive in the background — about how she used to play outside every day, ate what her mum gave her, worked hard and sang God Save the Queen extra loud in assembly (“and I turned out alright, share if you agree!” Omitting the fact that higher education was free and the housing market wasn’t taken up by people who had bought their council houses for a steal. Sorry.) The point is: this was a more innocent time, in many ways. Before a story can be scary it first needs to be relatable and, indeed, this was one of the complaints levelled at Ghostwatch: it was too close to home, pun intended. The security of your own home, with the comforting babble of BBC One in the background was compromised, making the broadcast feel akin to a home invasion. This probably also why Pipes is so horrible as a spectre, he represents that very British trait of repression and of otherness being persecuted but he is also a corrupting presence in the way he has clearly targeted Suzanne; extremely dark undertones for something shown by Auntie Beeb.
Then again, ‘horror is sometimes the business that goes too far’ and it’s important to remember that our relationship with fear is primal and unfiltered. We may think ourselves civilised, but that doesn’t stop us from wanting to feel that cold drop in our stomach at the prospect of a scare-it reminds us that we are, right now at least, alive.