Ghostwatch and The Blair Witch Project: A Step Ahead, by Alexander Miller
Horror movies had grown stagnant in the late nineties. Slasher films kept getting more roman numerals, for some reason Gus Van Zant remade Psycho, Stephen King adaptations had gone from The Dead Zone and The Shining to The Mangler and Thinner, and Japanese (or J-Horror) remakes were around the corner. The Blair Witch Project succeeded because it felt new. Sure, it was scary but it was a new kind of style of filmmaking. Whether or not we like found footage, it’s here to stay and the 1999 The Blair Witch Project is a touchstone in this particular horror subgenre.
With a new Blair Witch iteration in theaters, people everywhere can’t help but think about the original 1999 film that captivated moviegoers, scared the hell out of audiences, reigned at the box office, and, thanks to a brilliantly effective media campaign, fooled masses of people who thought the whole affair was real. Turning the meager budget of sixty thousand into 248 million in box office returns, Eduardo Sánchez, Daniel Myrick laughed all the way to the bank while masses of people debated the validity of the true story claims and whereabouts of the “cast”.
Prior to the sensation that occurred in the wake of The Blair Witch Project, another, more sensational scandal occurred in England due to the BBC1 broadcast of Ghostwatch, a mockumentary ghost hunting show that caused a national uproar on par with the controversy that erupted over Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast back in 1938.
There is a gaggle of movies contending for the title of “the first of the genre,” one of them being the infamous 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust. While it was ahead of its time, that film falls more into the category of mondo cane exploitation fare. It also leaves a bad taste. They do kill a lot of animals, the dicks. Alongside is the seminal (and twisted) French/Belgian production Man Bites Dog, which feels less like a found footage film than satirical mockumentary, it’s a terrific creation for those with a strong stomach for violence, and is in some ways a “horror” movie but only in the sense that people are doing horrific things on screen.
Despite some hair splitting precursors, the less-mentioned Ghostwatch aired Halloween night 1992 on BBC1 and terrified a nation. The program was aired as a Ghost Hunter/ paranormal reality show, focusing on a working class London family who has reported that they are living with a menacing poltergeist. A team of paranormal investigators are installed at the home in question where a single mother resides with her two daughters; equipped with surveillance cameras, temperature and motion sensors transmitting the live feed back to the BBC.
Written for television, Ghostwatch succeeds where so many modern horror films fail and that is in its ability to deliver genuine scares. This postmodern concoction of faux reality television as a vehicle for a ghost story is brilliant. Ghostwatch remains faithful to the grammar of horror but the punctuation has changed. We can sidestep familiarity and tropes because this is reality imitated and there are no guidelines because found footage doesn’t exist yet. Frissons of fear are conveyed without clichés (jump scares, exposition, etc.) in rendering the most classic form of horror, which is a simple, haunting story.
What we see of the possession is presented exactly as if we were viewing a reality show—instant replays and enlarged images. Sometimes we can make out a figure in the curtains, other times they’re nowhere to be found, are our eyes playing a trick on us, or is it the filmmakers?
And throughout this captivating slow burn bumps in the night grow louder, angry spirits become dangerous, and history of the house reveals itself as the creepy proceedings become downright frightening.
Hindsight is a major factor when you look at anything with a significant cultural impact. In the case of Ghostwatch, it gets deeper seeing as it predates the never-ending glut of reality television and the series of paranormal ghost hunter shows that followed as a result. The presentation of Ghostwatch was brilliant in that it aired as if it were a reality show and in the early segments, it seems as if they were trying more to debunk a hoax than record a haunting. Hosted by noted BBC personality Michael Parkinson (affectionately referred to as “Parky”) and in concert with other BBC1 programs (Hospitalwatch, Crimewatch), a potential Ghostwatch would seemingly slide right into a programming slot and not arouse suspicion.
The only compromising factor (aside from the obvious) that makes Ghostwatch seem unrealistic is that it’s simply too good, even though there are interludes of slack time, the Ghostwatch hotline (which was a real number), and TV personalities joking about it. I’d hardly say that being too exciting is a strike against the show.
Conviction is usually center to a successful horror movie but legions of people were outraged by the skillfully crafted horror program and, in being successfully scary, it became a subject of nationwide controversy.
For many viewers, the sting was that it came in the form of television, a representation of security and comfort. A thread of shows that ended in “Watch” and, of course, the inclusion of Michael Parkinson only legitimized the notion of a Ghostwatch program.
Creator Stephen Volk and Producer Richard Baumgarten seduced a mass of people through the safety of their homes and scared the shit out of them. Audiences weren’t just mad; they felt betrayed by the BBC for letting Ghostwatch get them at their most vulnerable. Imagine if a trusted media personality such as Walter Cronkite exposed a possession on live television here in the states?
Endless reports of traumatized people locked up phone lines (an estimated 20,000 people tried to contact Parkinson), pregnant women went into labor, producer Ruth Baumgarten and Richard Brooke were paraded on interactive talk shows to confront an audience of mostly belligerent people who were offended by the content.
Playing on our fixation with reality television well before it was the international regiment, it would be a fair assessment to say that Ghostwatch has improved over time due to how ahead of the curve it is. Ghostwatch and The Blair Witch Project are successfully scary in channeling traditional horror stories through documentary style. The biggest difference between the two is that Ghostwatch met the public on the small screen and The Blair Witch Project on the big.
A major bone of contention with found footage is the strain of credibility and the lengths at which said footage is captured, the largest compromise to the implied sense of realism is that the silliest thing someone can do in a terrifying situation is to make sure they record it.
The setting for Ghostwatch isn’t “ghosts are scary, let’s run for our lives” but a team of people that are going to run towards any whiff of the supernatural. After all, it’s Ghostwatch. Despite the contrast of method, both titles take the smarter route with their exploration of the macabre, and that is the less is more school of thought. Ghostwatch is up close and personal and The Blair Witch Project concerns strangers in a strange land but the moments that make your skin crawl are our own making; implied horror is inherently scarier and in the mold of pioneering horror producer Val Lewton, the creative minds behind both of these films knew that the greatest fear is that of the unknown.
The illusion of found footage in horror is more or less a trick. In the case of Sanchez and Myrick, they made such a convincing case for three campers disappearing (or dying), it made their modest film a runaway success, whereas producers Baumgarten and Brooke were raked over the coals. As if the Wellesian connection wasn’t prevalent enough, after his War of the Worlds broadcast an Ecuadorian radio station team would do their own production of the H.G. Wells story only to become a fugitives after the show incited riots resulting in multiple deaths. To bookend the analogy Welles career that took off with his work with the Mercury Theater and ended with a freewheeling documentary about hoaxes and trickery with F for Fake, if only he were around to offer his insight on the found footage phenomenon.
Amid the glut of all of the found footage films in the horror genre, The Blair Witch Project seems like the most effective and original. There have been some worthy successors (V/H/S, The Sacrament, REC) but The Blair Witch Project seems to be the gold standard for this horror subgenre. And for all the found footage precursors, it’s shocking that Ghostwatch is barely mentioned. So do yourself the favor and check out Ghostwatch and, while you’re at it, you might as well revisit The Blair Witch Project. It holds up. As far as the new Blair Witch is concerned, I’m looking forward to it regardless.