The Brilliant BBC Halloween Stunt That Terrified The Nation
“Ghostwatch” might look rather dated to the modern eye, especially in the scenes set in the studio, but that blandness was key to what director Lesley Manning wanted to achieve. As film critic Kim Newman noted (via the documentary “Behind the Curtains”):
“There are many, many households where the default setting is the television being on, and so therefore no one actually watches it… Of course, ‘Ghostwatch’ depends on that in order to sneak past, depends on it looking, at least at the beginning, like the kind of programming that is just wallpaper.”
That approach caught the viewing public off guard on the night and it loses some of its fright factor when you know it isn’t the real deal. One thing that remains is this: “Ghostwatch” is still a really chilling ghost story.
The slow-burn build-up creates a sense of mounting dread, and the urban legends provide a disturbing background for the action. Then there is the sheer normality of the setting. As Parky says at the beginning, “no creaking gates, no gothic towers, no shuttered windows.” The family lives in an ordinary semi-detached house, much like my family’s and just about everybody else I knew, too. It felt all too real.
I’m always struck by the mundane setting’s claustrophobic effect. When we’re watching Sarah Greene running around the house on CCTV, we see how small the space is. There is nowhere to go, which also has a scarier connotation: She is never far away from where the ghost could appear next.
Pipes is still terrifying, precisely because we almost never see him. Made up to look like someone mauled by hungry cats, we get only the briefest glimpses, leading up to the horrifying scenario when Greene disappears into the Glory Hole with him, never to be seen again.