Unreal Screens: ‘GhostWatch’ and ‘WNUF Halloween Special’
The screen is a fascinating concept for horror filmmakers. The very idea of watching a scary movie projected onto a 20-foot white wall or through pixels and light of a television (or laptop monitor) aids in separating the audience from the frights being shown. We can jump at the monster appearing from behind a corner or curl up into a ball as an innocent teenager runs for their life from a homicidal maniac, but we ultimately know it isn’t real. It’s what allows for that cathartic release that so many experience from horror.
But what about when a film uses the screen as one of its tricks and hooks? Does that separation dissipate? Filmmakers have long experimented with breaking down that divide. Sometimes demons emerge from screens like in Poltergeist or Ringu, turning everyday technology into something that can harm us (there’s a metaphor in there, folks; I’m sure of it!). And other times, like in Scream 2, filmmakers turn the experience of going to see a movie in a cinema surrounded by strangers into a life or death situation.
And then there are films like The Blair Witch Project, the Paranormal Activity franchise, or Lake Mungo that skirt the boundaries of their audience’s inherent disbelief in ghosts by presenting them with rustic, handheld proof. Your mileage may vary, but each has an unsettling quality that is enhanced by the rough video that comes with the territory of “found footage.” Most recently, laptop-based movies like Unfriended and Host have turned video chats into lo-fi haunts for ghouls from the other side.
Two of the most enjoyable have stretched that line between what is real and what is make-believe even further. Certainly harder than most, going so far as to create elaborate fake realities that in at least one case was so convincing it was banned. GhostWatch and WNUF Halloween Special may be wildly different in tone, but each are such fully committed cinematic stunts that they work more successfully to blur the lines between fact and fiction. One used real television personalities as the gateway to frightening a generation, while the other scratches at nostalgia to provoke an increasing sense of dread that something really is about to go terribly wrong.
Each film is so successful that somebody who wasn’t in on the joke could theoretically discover them in a stack of VHS tapes inside a spooky thrift store and assume they were the genuine item. Worse films—films that don’t trust their audience, or films less devoted to their endgame—would include a framing device, which would only seek to diminish their impact (I’m looking at you, V/H/S). But even those who know what directors Lesley Manning and Chris LaMartina are doing in GhostWatch and WNUF, respectively, will surely find much to admire in the way these films seamlessly come out through the screen. They might even, if just for a moment or two, be convinced that what they are seeing wasn’t just an elaborate hoax.
The story behind GhostWatch is legendary, but as Halloween rolls around every year, I discover how few people even know of its existence. Made by the UK’s BBC1 and airing “live” on the network at 9.25pm, GhostWatch purported to be a live prime time special: a Halloween-night broadcast from one of the country’s most haunted houses. Popular TV figures including talk-show host Michael Parkinson and children’s presenter Sarah Greene grounded the so-called documentary in reality, as did the use of video instead of film and utilizing of-the-moment technologies like infra-red.
Audiences were so hoodwinked that they began calling the network expecting to speak to the on-screen switchboard, only to be told by actual BBC staff that it was just a movie. Audiences were so traumatized by the film that it was banned by the network for many years. One young man, Martin Benham, tragically died by suicide believing the spirit from the movie was in his own home’s rickety pipes—the calling sign of the fictional Mr. Pipes.
Given what occurred following the release of GhostWatch, it’s probably not a surprise that it failed to make a larger cultural impression beyond the UK. Likewise, the novelty of seeing well-known performers playing themselves doesn’t have the same novelty to American audiences if the performers haven’t been regular features on your television for years already. But this was meta-horror several years before Wes Craven discovered self-awareness, and just seven years before many audiences were taken in hook, line and sinker by another ruse, The Blair Witch Project. Perhaps it was ahead of its time, but one of the most successfully convincing hoaxes since Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds should probably boast a greater legacy. It is often forgotten in horror roundups of the 1990s and has just two (albeit fresh) reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
But if GhostWatch took the nuts and bolts of national live TV broadcasts and used them to scare eleven million viewers in primetime, WNUF Halloween Special attempts something much smaller yet no less authentic. I had a genuine moment of uncertainty with WNUF, unsure if it really was something dug up from the archives of some local network—or maybe partly? We live in a world full of movies that want to play pretend in the 1980s sandbox, labelling themselves “cult” from inception and using digital 16mm effects. But here was one that genuinely looked like it had been taped off the TV in 1987 (helped immeasurably by the copious use of stock footage for its pretend commercial breaks directed by LaMartina and a few friends).
WNUF Halloween Special is theoretically a comedy, although how funny you find it may depend entirely on your interest in reliving your experiences of watching cheaply produced community television. But I suspect those whose childhoods are marked by rabbit eared television sets—screening snow-covered local broadcasts and do-it-yourself commercials for local pizza joints or small-town psychics—will find much to enjoy and be swallowed in by its fuzzy lust for nostalgia.
Neither film was released theatrically, lending themselves to be viewed at home where the very television you’re watching them on could hold the power to decide whether they work for you or not. The Halloween Special, in fact, was initially released only on video cassette (although it’s now more widely available on Shudder). Some audiences today might dismiss these movies as far too smart for their own good, but both films hum with an impeccable attention to detail that is hard to replicate.
Unlike movies with haunted cell phones or any number of ghosts in machines (literal or otherwise), GhostWatch and WNUF Halloween Special feel like something altogether different. They are portals to our fears in ways that other films can only dream. By bypassing everything that separates us from on-screen horror, they tap more directly into what haunts our memories. These are fascinating experiments as well as great horror entertainments. Whether it’s the famous chat show presenter or the small-town newsreader, beneath the gimmicks are lo-fi stories of possession that come out through the very screen we’re watching them on. And even if we still know they’re not real, there’s something about that that just gives me the creeps.