With the Halloween-Industrial Complex in full swing — pumpkin-ifying everything in sight — streaming services have embraced the season and stocked up on creepy programming in spades. Netflix’s highlights include the undeniably charming reboot of Sabrina and the surprisingly intriguing tween anthology series Creeped Out. Huluween boasts an impressive and well-curated array of hair-raising programming divided up into categories such as “Scary as Hell" and “Spooky, Not Scary.”
And then there’s Shudder.
Shudder is the streaming service launched by AMC a couple years ago, and its horror/thriller/suspense bonafides go well beyond the ~500 titles they offer on the service. Shudder is run by true-blue (bled-red? core-gore?) horror experts with programming credentials from places like Fangoria and the Toronto Film Festival. If you’re a genre fan, it’s well worth the $3.99 per month, chiefly because they track down titles that you won’t find anywhere else.
Exhibit A: “Ghostwatch”
Up until last week, I’d never heard of Ghostwatch, a British “reality” show that caused such a stir in its initial airing on the BBC in 1992 that it was shelved for over a decade and became the subject of judicial review and media thought-pieces for decades to come. Shudder acquired the show last year, giving it its first exposure in the U.S.
The special aired on Halloween night 26 years ago, a scripted 90-minute show written by Stephen Volk. He had originally pitched the idea as a multi-part series that documented the investigation of poltergeist activity in a council flat outside of London. The show centers around a single mother and her two children, who live under the oppressive specter of “Pipes,” the ghostly antagonist whose constant tormenting echoes the rattling of heating pipes in the walls. When the idea was rejected, Volk re-pitched it as a one-time, “live” event in the spirit of Geraldo Rivera’s Al Capone Vault Opening.
Director Lesley Manning cast news reporters and talk show presenters in the main roles, setting up a mobile unit outside of the fictional household where the paranormal incidents had been occurring. Hosted by the venerable Michael Parkinson — or “Parky” as he’s affectionately known in the UK — the special unfolds with various experts and on-the-ground commentators weighing in on the veracity of supernatural hauntings. Parky delivers what turns out to be a truly chilling performance in the end. The entire cast strikes a pitch-perfect balance of gravitas and diversion as they delve into the investigation. The term “mockumentary” has been attached to the show, but that implies a winking, “we’re all in on the joke” tone. “Ghostwatch” plays is straight down the middle, only breaking a sly little smile in the over-the-top opening credit sequence.
The BBC took a lot of flack for airing the special, which it quickly reframed as a “spoof;” calls poured into their switchboard, a suicide was attributed to a disturbed viewer, and irate tabloids decried the network’s lack of standards. It’s evidence of what a different era that was, only a couple decades ago, when the line between news and entertainment was just starting to blur. Volk intended the show as something of a commentary on the growing trend he had observed in soft-focus “news magazine” shows like A Current Affair and the 24-7 cable news cycle.
It’s hard not to see that commentary, as “Ghostwatch” builds out a circus-like atmosphere around the purported haunted house. It’s done subtly, but with the benefit of hindsight (and a full understanding of the fake-reality context), it’s clear that the show is presaging the ills of vacant punditry, both-sides-ism, media saturation, and over-hyped reportage. That said, I wonder if events like “Ghostwatch” simultaneously warned us about the rise infotainment while nudging open the floodgates that would steadily inure us all to the growing subjectivity of news. Reality TV began its ascendance in 1992 with the premiere of “The Real World;” Fox News launched a few years later; the OJ phenomenon soon followed.
Did "Ghostwatch” open the proverbial Pandora’s box? No. But it did crack open lid to take a chilling peek at what was inside. The fact that the show remains both a startling commentary, as well as a genuinely spooky and fun show to enjoy on its own merits, is a credit to how expertly the creators devised this groundbreaking pop culture event.