Friday, 23 March 2012

The Fuss About Ghostwatch

Ghostwatch, aired by the BBC on the evening of Halloween in 1992, is a masterpiece.

Shot and presented as if it were a factual show going out live on that evening, Ghostwatch was actually a cleverly constructed pre-recorded fictional 'drama' that followed the exploits of a TV crew investigating the strange activities in an alleged suburban haunted house.

What made the program infamous to this day however was the sheer number of complaints it received shortly after airing.

Complaints mostly fell into two categories: either that the audience thought it was real and got really shitted up (sample: ‘my 11 year old son was left shaking and physically sick after 10 minutes’); or that the audience felt ‘duped’ thinking the events were real when it was actually a hoax (ie: they got shitted up but didn't want to admit it).

The fear thing I can kind of understand.

Things that are presented as real definitely ARE scarier than those that you know are fictional from the off. Hence the power of telling a ghostly tale around a campfire being magnified simply by a variation on the words this is a true story or this actually happened to a friend of mine.

Case in point, before ‘found footage’ films became popular in the horror genre, The Blair Witch Project (1999) made a killing at the box office simply in the way in which the film was presented, entertaining the notion that the events depicted just might be true.

With Ghostwatch, it is easy to look back on it now with hindsight and think how can people not see it’s a hoax? But at the time it must have been a very different story. As well as having genuine numbers flash on the screen throughout the program for people to call in on (which they did), the use of household name presenters such as Sarah Green, Mike Smith, Craig Charles and Michael Parkinson, contribute heavily to the illusion. Each of them plays their part entirely straight and, for the most part, convincingly.

After all, they are presenters acting like they are presenting – not much of a stretch I know.

The other actors on the show are a mixed bag – some do a good job (the mother and the various experts are mostly convincing) others fairly transparent in their acting (the two girls). So sure, the majority of it is done well, but watching it now, just based on the performances of the actors in the show, it would be fairly improbable that anybody watching would be taken in by it.

Two reasons I think contribute heavily to this change in audience reaction.

Firstly, the rise of mockumentary (including found footage) and reality TV shows in today’s culture. So many programs now adopt the reality approach in today’s popular entertainment that audiences have become pretty savvy about whether or not something is real, fake, fake passing off as real, etc.

The same goes for the rise in popularity of ‘found footage’ horror movies within the last two decades (the double boon of being cheap to make and the implied ‘trueness’ of the footage adding to the scariness – for example the Paranormal Activity series).

These things didn't really exist in 1992, which could have greatly contributed to the fuss caused following the airing of Ghostwatch.

The second thing vastly different about today’s popular culture is the use of the internet. Back then they didn't have forums or message boards where people could discuss shows like this – picking apart its workings or pointing out telltale signs that it was a hoax; or even YouTube where the prevalence of hoax videos causes people to doubt and look for holes in something from the off.

You could say we now live in a cynical age where nothing can escape the eagle eyes and a thousand minds of the collective consciousness on the web. If there is even a tiny inkling of something being a fake or hoax, you can be pretty sure people will be on to it straight away.

Again, this network of people quickly sharing ideas simply didn't exist back in 1992. It was just you and your family, sitting at home on a Halloween night watching something on TV and being genuinely frightened by it and not knowing what to do - (compounded by the fact that the scary goings on depicted in Ghostwatch were happening in a normal suburban house… just like yours!)

So although I don't agree with the people who complained about this show at the time, I can kind of understand why they did – as something like this must have been genuinely scary at the time in context – much like the Orson Wells War of the Worlds radio drama back in 1938 that people mistook for a genuine alien invasion.

I personally remember watching this program as a child and being terrified by the simple notion of a brown stain mysteriously appearing on the floor, such was its execution.

So my point is that the reaction to the program was to do with when it was aired and not so much to do with the actual content. I’ll bet that if you showed this program on TV now (or one similar to this), say next Halloween, the reaction would be vastly different from how it was in 1992.
Message board discussions and YouTube videos would spring up overnight scrutinizing every detail with a wealth of opinions - and that's even if it gets that far. Most viewers would cry hoax immediately from the comfort of their sofas by scrutinizing the actor’s performances or by pointing out that since they seem to be watching an episode of Most Haunted but something scary is actually happening for a change, it must be a fake.

Sure, there are always people out there who would complain but the overall majority reaction would be totally different in today’s popular entertainment climate than it would have been back in the early 90s.

Still, watching the Ghostwatch today, it’s fascinating to see how effective the programme was in convincing people at the time (the buildup is fantastic) and if anything else the sheer stones it had in its execution. The show was way ahead of its time and is highly recommended for you to seek out and watch.

Similarly the complaints, some of which can be seen in programs such as Points of View and Bite Back, are also interesting to watch (and not just for the hilarious 90s fashion that some of the audience are sporting) to gauge the sheer outrage that some people felt at the show.

In that respect we can at least admire Ghostwatch for managing to shit up an entire nation - which can't be said for many programs aired on national TV.

23 Mar 2012

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