On Halloween night in 1992, the BBC aired this program as a live, reality show (although it was actually neither). Banks of telephones were at the ready to receive calls from the general public to hear about their own brushes with the supernatural. Viewers were promised an evening in the most haunted house in England–not some ancient gothic-style edifice with towers and secret passages and a long history of beheadings and nuns walled up when the place was an abbey, but an ordinary looking council house in a post-war suburban development in a place called Fox Hill in Norfolk.
What gave the show not only a sense of being real, but a certain air of respectability, was the presence of some of the BBC’s prominent personalities of the day. The host was journalist Michael Parkinson–a face very familiar to the British viewing public since the 1970s; the closest American equivalent would be someone like Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw. Also appearing were Mike Smith and his wife, Blue Peter’s Sarah Greene. But the person I’m most familiar with among the group is Craig Charles, who was Lister in Red Dwarf, and who provides the comic relief until things get too gruesome for comedy.
After a brief introduction by Michael Parkinson, we are shown a piece of videotape recorded by psychic researchers inside the house at Fox Hill, in a bedroom where two little girls are just going to sleep. A time code in the lower right corner shows that it’s nearly 4 am when thumping sounds are heard coming from the walls. Things start to fly around the darkened room. Both girls are screaming and their mother comes in.
Mr. Parkinson is seated in the studio with a parapsychologist, Dr. Lin Pascoe, who’s been involved with the Fox Hill haunting.
Mike Smith mans the phones like it’s a PBS telethon except that the Beeb isn’t asking for money and they aren’t giving away canvas shopping bags. (Although I do like the black T-shirts with the Ghostwatch logo that Sarah Greene and some of the television crew are wearing.)
Sarah, along with a cameraman named Chris and a sound guy also named Mike, will be spending the night in the house with the family, whose name is Early. Remote cameras have been placed in all the rooms and can be viewed at the studio and from the monitors in the equipment vans parked outside, where Craig is stationed.
Although the DVD runs a straight 90 minutes, dialog here and there indicates that the scenes that follow were shown at intervals between other programs throughout that Halloween night.
The evening starts off peacefully enough, after Craig plays a prank on Sarah by jumping out of a cabinet wearing a fright-mask and is banished from the house. Sarah, the two crew guys, and the Early girls bob for apples and play board games. Pamela Early and her two daughters tell Sarah their story.
The ghostly manifestations began about a year earlier, in late 1991. There’s some obvious tension between the mother and elder girl, Suzanne, who is at the brink of puberty. No one says so distinctly, but Mrs. Early seems to feel that Suzanne is somehow behind all that’s going on, and Suzanne is resentful.
The younger girl, Kim, has drawn a picture of “Pipes,” which is what they call the ghost. The name originates from the banging noises the family heard around the house; the mother would try to explain it by saying it was air in the pipes having to do with central heating system–like the sounds an old-fashioned radiator make.
Kim tells Sarah that Pipes hides in the corner of their room.
Mrs. Early shows Sarah the little room under the stairs (she calls it a “glory hole,” which is certainly not a phrase we would use for that space in the States.) The door has been boarded shut. Mrs. Early says that the last time she went in there, to look up some papers stored in boxes, she sensed a man’s presence, felt his breath and a touch of a hand, and felt that she was in great danger.
The local media got hold of the story, but made a joke of it and made the Early family look like they were crazy or attention-seeking hoaxers. The town council refuses to provide them with different housing.
Dr. Pascoe saw one of the local interviews and that’s what brought her to investigate the phenomena the family were reporting. She believes wholeheartedly in their story.
Back at the studio, people phone in to tell their own personal ghost stories. Some sound like drunken idiots or pranksters. There are also a few video interviews.
The first interesting thing occurs when the caller asks about the footage we saw at the beginning of the program; she wonders why no one has mentioned the figure that can be seen standing by the bedroom window.
Dr. Pascoe says she’s never noticed it and a short time later, the video is replayed.
What’s really interesting about this is that, if you go back to the beginning of the show and watch that original video, there’s no ghostly figure to be seen. But it’s distinctly there now. Dr. Pascoe still doesn’t see it. When she suggests that it’s a trick of light on the curtains, she indicates the wrong place.
She then talks about her experiences with the family at Fox Hill. She shows Michael Parkinson some items that were damaged in the house, and shows a photograph of Suzanne with scratches that appeared spontaneously all over her face. They look like cat’s claw-marks. She plays an audiotape of Suzanne speaking in Pipes’ voice when the spirit takes possession of her. It’s a very creepy voice, deep, growling, and guttural, and all the more disturbing for its propensity to use nursery rhymes.
The second odd thing happens during this sequence. The lights in the studio have been turned down while the tape is being played. Over Dr. Pascoe’s shoulder, a glimmer of a figure can be seen behind her. Is it one of the studio crew, or the ghost?
Outside the house, meanwhile, Craig Charles is cracking jokes, chatting with little kids in Halloween costumes, interviewing the neighbors as well as a man who tried to exorcise the house, but Craig can’t keep up his cheery attitude when he hears about missing and murdered children and the disemboweled dog in the playground.
More people have phoned in to confirm the figure on the videotape with descriptions of what they are seeing: a bald man or perhaps woman, with deep-set eyes, wearing a long dress.
A lady who used to live in the Fox Hill neighborhood as a child phones to tell a story about a local woman name Mother Seton, who lived in one of the old houses in Victorian times before the current housing development was built. Mother Seton was what used to be called a “baby-farmer”–someone who could be paid to look after illegitimate or inconvenient children and may not have actually taken much care of them. This woman was said to have murdered a number of children in her custody.
More people call in to report stopped clocks, pets acting oddly, appliances on the fritz, and a glass table shattering. Mr. Parkinson seems to think most of this is more pranksters or mass hysteria and wants people to calm down, but Dr. Pascoe is tallying it all up as important. She’s especially interested in the stopped clocks.
Back at the house, things are getting exciting. Sarah and Mike the sound-guy hear scrabbling sounds inside the walls upstairs and are moving the furniture around in one of the bedrooms to try and track where the noises are going. They follow the sounds downstairs to the kitchen, where the lights are flickering and a number of child’s drawings, presumably Kim’s work, are scattered all over the floor.
Sarah crouches to pick them up… and is startled by a cat just on the other side of the patio doors (there’s something else in the glass doors, but I’ll get to that later).
The children upstairs start screaming about Pipes. When the banging resumes shortly afterward, Sarah is about to go up and investigate, when Michael Parkinson back at the studio tells her to wait; the camera in the girls’ bedroom shows that Suzanne has left her bed but hasn’t left the room. A quick check and some pans using the other remote cameras upstairs locate Suzanne, behind the door and banging on the wall with a shoe.
For the BBC people, that would seem to be the end of the so-called haunting: a hoax by a pre-teen girl who says she was giving them what they wanted and that she was afraid her mom would leave them (like their father did). Only Dr. Pascoe refuses to believe it’s only been Suzanne all along and Mrs. Early backs her up to support her daughter. They say they’ve seen too many odd things.
It’s at this point that Dr. Pascoe looks at the descriptions they’ve been hearing via phone calls, and goes back through her recorded interviews with Kim and Suzanne to locate one where the younger girl described Pipes. Kim had drawn that picture shown at the beginning of the show, but that wasn’t very distinct–a sort of bloody-headed blob with large buttons on its clothes. This recorded description, made some months ago. is more like the ones the callers are providing: bald headed man in a long dress (with those big buttons), and Kim adds a detail that his nose is damaged, cut or scratched.
Mr. Parkinson is doubtful that Kim’s description has never been made public before, but before there is much of an argument with Dr. Pascoe over this, their attention is drawn quickly back to the house, where things have suddenly gotten very exciting. Sarah is hearing the sounds of cats inside the walls and ceiling, yowling “like they’re trapped.”
Suzanne is discovered lying on her bed with fresh claw-marks all over her face. There’s initially a suggestion that she may have done this herself with her own fingernails–until her mother says “What fingernails?” and lifts one of Suzanne’s hands to the camera to show that her nails are all bitten to the quick.
Sarah is completely overwhelmed by the situation and repeatedly asks “What do you want us to do?” What she first does is dart into the bathroom to run a washcloth under cold water in the sink. We hear the sound of a man breathing nearby and she whirls, insisting that she just saw someone behind the door.
After she bathes Suzanne’s face with the wet washcloth, they decide to take both girls out of the house right away. But Kim stands in the corner, “talking” silently to Pipes and says that they can’t leave.
The two women and Mike the sound guy hasten Suzanne and Kim out of the room. As Chris’s camera whirls to take in the room as he’s about to follow the others out, he catches a blurred image of a man at the window. But when he pans back a moment later, the figure is gone.
Downstairs, Suzanne is now crouched in the living-room behind an armchair. She begins to speak in that creepy, deep, possessed voice, saying “What big eyes you have.” A picture flies off the wall.
Sarah notices that Kim isn’t with them and goes in search of her; the remote cameras pick her up as she runs from room to room, upstairs and down, calling the girl’s name. In the kitchen, the lights are flickering and the decorative apples strung up over the counter are swinging wildly back and forth. Sarah finds a stuffed bunny in the sink, pushed down into a big bowl of water; I think it’s the bowl they were using for apple-bobbing earlier.
The lights go out, but the refrigerator door is open and Sarah finds Kim hiding behind it. The little girl says that she “drowned” the bunny because Pipes said to. She has also torn out its eyes, and she shows these to the horrified Sarah. The cats start yowling again and a big mirror on the wall in the hallway starts to wobble.
Sarah and Sound-guy Mike trace the sound of the cats to the door under the stairs and unwisely start to pull off the boards nailed over it. Once the boards are down, the door swings open–and we just glimpse Pipes standing inside before the wobbling mirror comes down and hits Mike on the head.
We can hear Suzanne saying things like “He’s touching me. He’s hurting me…” and then the camera goes out.
The people watching this back at the studio are naturally concerned. Michael Parkinson calls out for the technical staff to try and restore their connection to the house so they can see what’s going on. Mike Smith wants to be sure his wife is all right.
The first connection they get isn’t inside the house, but to a camera at the van outside where Craig and one of the psychic experts he spoke to earlier are standing around, chatting and joking in a completely unconcerned way. Mr. Parkinson assumes that Mike the sound-guy has already been taken to the hospital and that everyone else is otherwise fine.
When the remote camera in the living-room is restored soon afterwards, everything does seem to be okay. Sarah, Chris, and the two girls are quietly playing a board game.
Another phone call comes in, this one from a man who says he has some information about the history of the house. Dr. Pascoe says that she’s already looked into all that, but she doesn’t know that the elderly couple who lived there during the 1960s rented out a room to their nephew, Raymond.
Raymond was a deeply disturbed individual; the caller knew him through his own job as a social worker and says that Raymond should never have been released into the general public. He’d been incarcerated as a child molester and after his release, while living at the Fox Hall house, he only got worse. He developed a delusion that his body was being taken over by someone else–a woman–and he began to wear a dress. In the end, he killed himself in that room under the stairs while his family were away. His body was undiscovered for 12 days, until the numerous cats he kept, who were trapped inside the house, began to yowl. And, as the caller concludes, having no food, they “got to work” on him.
Here, Dr. Pascoe adds a wonderful Nigel-Kneale tone to the haunting, calling this incident “the onionskin.” It’s only the last event. How many more terrible things have happened in this same spot before? How far back does it go into history, or even pre-history?
Then she realizes that the scene they’re still seeing on the monitors of Sarah and the others playing a board game is from earlier in the evening. That picture that was flung off the wall while Suzanne was speaking in the creepy voice is back up again. They’ve been given this recycled image to conceal the truth. “It’s in the machine!” (Another Knealish touch, echoing The Stone Tape’s “It’s in the computah!”)
So what’s really been going on at the house all this time?
We get a confused jumble of previous footage, and a wind rises up in the studio. Dr. Pascoe says they’ve been creating an enormous nationwide seance and that’s why these weird events are happening all over the place tonight. Pipes is gaining power.
Back at the house, the outside camera is showing an ambulance just taking away the injured sound guy. Mrs. Early and Kim are outside with Craig, who puts them into a car. For once, he’s very upset.
Then we’re back inside the house, presented with an image that takes a little time to decipher. Before they went into the house, Chris demonstrated an infrared filter on his camera; this is turned on now. Also, the camera is lying on its side at the foot of the stairs. What we’re seeing is someone’s red-tinted legs coming down the stairs, viewed sideways.
The person is Sarah, searching in the dark for Chris and Suzanne. The infrared is kind of cool-looking and spooky, even though nothing happens during these minutes until the lights come back on.
As soon as the lights are on, the noises start up again, cats yowling, and Suzanne is calling out for help; her voice seems to be coming from that room under the stairs and Sarah goes to investigate. Things are flying around back at the studio too. An unmanned camera rolls by. Then it all goes dark.
When the camera in the studio returns, Michael Parkinson seems to be alone and wandering dazed among the chaos. He notices that one of the autoprompters is on and begins to read the text, which seems to be nonsensical fragments taken from nursery rhymes and children’s stories. When he gets to “Fee Fi Fo Fum,” his voices changes to that deep and creepy one…
It’s a little slow getting started, and a bit over a top at the end once the wind starts blowing through the studio, but in between Ghostwatch really manages to spook me by using precisely the criteria I use to judge whether or not a ghost story is really effective. It doesn’t matter so much if it disturbs me while I’m watching–how does it affect me afterwards? Does it bother me if the closet door is slightly ajar? Am I uncomfortably aware of the dark spaces in the corners of the kitchen, hallways, or the stairwell? How reluctant am I to turn off the lights? If I don’t care if the closet door is open and can turn the lights right off and go to sleep, then your supposedly spooky movie has failed.
But Ghostwatch plays directly into that sense of peripheral horror by placing its ghost in the dark corners and showing him only in glimpses. Not all of the appearances are as obvious as the ghost on the videotape. Some go by so quickly that you may not observe them clearly or even consciously, but they create a general feeling of unease.
Another review I’ve read of this show says that the ghost is shown 8 times. Once I read that, I went back over it with the DVD remote in hand to pause and advance slowly over some moments to see what I could find:
- The ghost in the video.
- The glimmer of a figure behind Dr. Pascoe in the darkened studio.
- When Craig is about to interview the man who tried to perform an exorcism, he walks past a group of people standing on the sidewalk; behind them is someone grinning who looks like the ghost.
- My personal favorite–when Sarah is picking up the papers in the kitchen and is startled by the cat, a figure in a long dress is either reflected in the glass door, or standing on the patio outside.
- The blurred image in Chris’s pan of the bedroom.
- Just before the picture flies off the living room wall, Sarah is talking to the camera; there’s a burst of interference and for a moment another, distorted face appears.
- The figure glimpsed in the room under the stairs when the door opens.
I haven’t found the 8th appearance yet. The one place I thought it would be, when Sarah says she just saw someone behind the bathroom door, I can’t see anything.