This past weekend, I took part in a 25 hour horror movie marathon that has left me drained and nearly unable to readjust to real life. My mind still isn’t working right a day later. We watched 16 full length movies over a little more than a day with unexpected catnaps interspersed. Of these 16, I want to talk about two movies that proved themselves to be big surprises: the two faux documentary-style broadcasts about investigating a haunted house that book-ended the lineup.
The first, a 90 minute BBC program that aired in 1992 called GHOSTWATCH. According to Wikipedia and IMDB, the show caused a considerable amount of confusion and fear despite being billed as a fiction program. Like Orson Welles’ 1938 Halloween broadcast of War of the Worlds, there are rumors aplenty of audiences mistaking the program for something genuine. The program was presented as a call-in show revolving around a live investigation of a family whose home was haunted by a malevolent spirit nicknamed “Pipes.” The opening is a clear inspiration for the Paranormal Activity films, with surveillance cameras catching two children waking from sleep to find supernatural shenanigans afoot. Ghostwatch utilizes a nice slow burn, initially feeling like a vapid reality show. Cutting between a studio presentation (with real British celebrity hosts) and on site footage cobbled together from a camera man, surveillance cameras, infrared cameras, and the like - the show feels genuine.
Through some very clever slight of hand and convincing effects, events escalate. The show smartly gives glimpses of “Pipes” in reflections, hiding behind doors, standing in shadows. Yet the show never lingers on these sightings or comments on them. Occasionally, the camera will sweep back for a second look - only to find nothing there. It’s an eerie effect - particularly when Pipes appears only faintly in the darkness behind one of the hosts as she listens to a creepy recording. Eventually, the show builds to a startlingly chaotic climax that never breaks the delicate atmosphere of dread that the show has built. As one would expect, there’s a tug of war of sorts between skeptics and believers, but as the audience we want there to be something there. That’s why we’re watching. Little is definitively explained, and I find all the trivia on the show absolutely fascinating (for instance, the Internet documents eight sightings of Pipes, but the producer insists there are thirteen). In the years immediately after, BBC banned the show from being aired again. The ban has apparently been lifted, but the BBC has still never re-aired Ghostwatch. This movie was the surprise highlight of the marathon.
The second movie I want to talk about was the last movie in the 24 hour marathon: the WNUF Halloween Special. Like Ghostwatch, this movie is presented as a live call-in show airing on Halloween night. Although made in 2013, the show is aged and edited to look like a local television special that aired 1987. Full of fake local commercials and schedule bumpers, the WNUF special is presented as someone’s long forgotten VHS tape, with someone occasionally hitting fast forward when the commercials become boring or repetitive. It opens in the middle of the local WNUF news. The anchors dressed in embarrassing Halloween costumes and teeter-tottering between appropriate gravitas and playfulness - depending on the stories being covered. The news then gives way to a local special in which a camera crew investigates a haunted house and takes calls for the psychics on hand. The host interviews costumed bystanders who relate stories of devil worship and decapitations. There’s movement in the windows and sounds from upstairs. And as with Ghostwatch, there’s numerous nods to skepticism (personified by the grumpy host) that buckle to the desire for exploitive showmanship.
Also like Ghostwatch, events escalate, leading the befuddled producer to cut to commercial more and more frequently. And while, the WNUF special ends on a dark note, its intentions are more satirical. The commercials revel in low-budget eighties cheese. They include advertisements for a gun range (fun for the whole family!), airlines, anti-drug PSAs, and a comedy airing on Thursday called Doggone It! It feels more actorly and employs more comic relief than its British counterpart. I have no idea how the WNUF Halloween Special was originally shown, but it is seems to be an Internet-only phenomenon.
Ghostwatch has more ambitious intentions than the WNUF Special. Not just in its original presentation, but in its style. Ghostwatch strives to get under the viewers skin. The WNUF Halloween Special goes for laughs ... until it suddenly turns and moves to shock. Both demand that you pay attention to the details of the screen, and both leave most of what you see unexplained. They're both extremely similar in set-up and execution, yet vastly different in tone. I’m not saying I want the fake Halloween broadcast to become its own sub-genre, but both Ghostwatch and the WNUF Halloween Special are a hell of a lot fun.