Monday, 8 January 2007

Ghostwatch

I've been watching this classic 1992 mockumentary starring Michael Parkinson and the surprisingly good Sarah Greene again lately and I've been trying to put my finger on exactly why it leaves me feeling uneasy, despite being a 30 year old who has never experienced the supernatural in any direct way. It may well be that this is in fact the reason, but that aside, there are a number of threads in it I'd like to draw out. If you're unfamiliar with the programme, look it up on wikipedia. The following ramble does contain spoilers.

Firstly the setting is Northolt. Ever since I was very small I have always found the concept of a supernatural event in a totally banal setting quite terrifying. To the extent that for some years in my teens (caused by what I'm not sure) I found something deeply spooky about rows of terraces and semis themselves. In my twenties of course, this transmuted into a similar fear, via Threads,this time of the same streets being blown apart. For me as a child and in some lingering sense as an adult, to look at a switched off television, empty arm chair or dark landing - is itself disquieting.

Secondly there is something more than ghostly about it. As is suggested on the commentary on the DVD, poltergeist cases generally carry with them the hint of psychosexual drama: they ask us questions about what teenage girls (who are often at the centre of these dramas) are: are they children to be protected, or are they "people who can be reacted to sexually" (a slight paraphrase of the show's producer on the commentary). Our culture has a deepening conflict here, and I just wonder, watching the sensitive way Ghostwatch develops the elder girl as very much being on a cusp between vulnerable childhood and powerful, independent adolescence, how well we're dealing with it. Sexuality is later revealed to be relevant, albeit as paedophilia; and there are passing references throughout to girls going missing, and brutal (possibly sexual) murders.


Thirdly the conceit - of how a 90s style daytime tv show would handle a genuine supernatural event - is very well handled. It plays effectively on the unthreatening and cheerful screen personalities of its presenters, in the process exposing the reassuring distance and "control" we subconsciously expect from our tv shows. Yes, we can and have, many times, deconstructed television. But we all turn to it, still, as a source of information and comfort.

Fourthly, the poltergeist is thoroughly nasty. It is some kind of composite, or aggregate of historical evil: evil is here shown to have a real existence. We don't like this concept, generally speaking but for me at least it retains its power. Unlike real world poltergeist activity this one does actually harm people and has a plan, which it executes. Like with The Ring, I have a lot of trouble, intellectually and morally, with supernatural beings who just happen to be unadulteratedly nasty. I don't really know why. Incidentally, I find the US version of the The Ring more frightening than the Japanese original.

there had been discussion, before it was transmitted on 31.10.92, as to whether Ghostwatch was a real documentary or not. Quite apart from the credits, and the Screen One drama stand logo, and the Radio Times listing, the cue for disbelief is in the tree foliage you see within one minute, and the too-good home video footage. But it undeniably feels real, especially to someone whose childhood was largely spent watching Sarah Greene and Mike Smith on children's or childish programmes as well as Craig Charles on Red Dwarf.

If you have seen it, I'd appreciate your thoughts (on the show and on my neuroses). If you haven't - get it on dvd asap.

8 comments:

Matt M said...

It's been added to my DVD rental list.

I remember reading about Ghostwatch years ago. As someone who's quite sceptical about the paranormal but finds psychology fascinating, I've long wanted to see it. If nothing else it'll be interesting to see how it compares to the likes of 'Most Haunted'.

I seem to recall that there were a lot of people who took the show seriously, with a number of them phoning in with claims that they'd witnessed someone spooky going on in the background.

The Tin Drummer said...

If I remember rightly people took it seriously partly because of the media talk and trailers in the previous week - I know I was waiting for it quite eagerly.

I'd be interested to know your thoughts, Matt - I think you're a bit younger than me so seeing Sarah Greene in a haunted house might not have the same effect on you!

james higham said...

Unfortunately, I have no access to such things here. Why do you say: "Unlike real world poltergeist activity this one does actually harm people?" Don't you think the real ones can harm you?

As for the US Ring, yes, it's nasty and I think the horse going off the ferry is the nastiest part. Incidentally, I ran a post on all the things which went wrong during the filming of that.

The Tin Drummer said...

I say it because of my youthful reading of the subject, which suggested that although frightening and annoying, poltergeist activity was not generally physically harmful. Of course if I am wrong please do let me know. I hope I'm not...

The Ring is really another post in itself. I can't explain my genuine unease about the US film. The horse sequence is unpleasant but in fact it's the beginning bit that does it for me - the girl opens the bedroom door to find a well (I'm shivering as I write this) on the tv and then screams and it begins...It taps effectively into my long held fears about bedrooms and televisions and into old old dreams of mine. Where's Freud when you need him?

The Tin Drummer said...

James can you point me to that post about The Ring?

The Tin Drummer said...

Matt says:

I seem to recall that there were a lot of people who took the show seriously, with a number of them phoning in with claims that they'd witnessed someone spooky going on in the background.

yes, it's Pipes, the ghost, who appears, I'm told 7 times during the programme, in the house, studio and outside. I can only see 5 though, some are very fleeting.

Deogolwulf said...

"I have always found the concept of a supernatural event in a totally banal setting quite terrifying. . . . I found something deeply spooky about rows of terraces and semis themselves."

Interestingly, I have found the same thing. Perhaps we could put it down to a primeval dread in the deepest recesses of the mind, coupled with snobbery!

The Tin Drummer said...

snobbery!!! cheeky cow!