Most horror films, while capable of offering a great thrill ride for their run time and make people confront the dark ideas they present, aren’t capable of being truly scary. This is because the audience recognizes that the film presents a fantasy that will eventually end.
Or at least, that’s the case for me. I admire many horror films for being well put together and for causing me to care about the characters and hope that they survive whatever ordeal their placed it. I was certainly tense watching the new Halloween movie as I wondered if Laurie Strode would survive. But to me, being “scared” is something different. It involves the complete destruction of the line between fantasy and reality.
For a while modern horror films tried to create such a separation with mixed results. The Paranormal Activity franchise tells its story through security cameras. Saw attempted to introduce a more realistic murderer with no supernatural background, setting him apart from Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger. The start of the entire movement can be traced back to The Blair Witch Project, a pseudo-documentary about a group of amateur filmmakers who find themselves trapped in woods that may or may not be haunted.
But there are two other horror films that took the concept even further. One was produced in the U.S., the other in the U.K. Not only does it provide examples of what each society finds scary, but it also provides a contrast of how far filmmakers were willing to go to present their fiction as reality.
To celebrate Halloween, I will be looking at both these films and examining the impact they had on their audience.
Ghostwatch (dir: Lesley Manning, 1992)
When I said that I would be examining a fake news story that was from the UK, I’m sure a few people immediately thought of the notorious Ghostwatch. This is the film that influenced all other subsequent found footage films since its broadcast.
For those not in the know, Ghostwatch has a good claim at being the most controversial TV movie ever released. It aired in the BBC’s drama slot on Halloween night in 1992 but was so convincing that many people came away believing that they had seen a haunting in a London suburb.
The set up to the film is simple. A slew of BBC television presenters, including Sarah Greene and Craig Charles, go to a flat that has been the site of poltergeist activity. The family – a single mom and her two daughters – are desperate to get people to believe their story. According to them, a poltergeist they’ve nicknamed “Pipes” has been wreaking havoc on their home. Dr. Lin Pascoe joins legendary English broadcaster Michael Parkinson to try to explain what’s happening. And from there, things go horribly wrong.
The opening was incredibly prescient for future entertainment. It plays routine now, like a scene from some ghost hunting show on SyFy. But at the time, no one had ever seen anything like a scene in which a TV presenter discusses the technology designed to specifically see ghosts.
The film looks like an actual news broadcast, with (fake) callers calling in to tell their own ghost stories. “We don’t want to give viewers any sleepless nights,” Michael Parkinson states to the camera in a convincing manner. At the start, it’s a very relaxed program that has the tone of a New Year’s Eve special. The presenters clearly just want a fun Halloween special and don’t take the idea of ghost activity seriously. No one wants Pipes to be revealed. And when he not only proves his existence to the world but takes over an important British symbol, the result is nothing short of terrifying.
It’s little wonder how this film was so traumatizing. What audiences saw were real people they admired and respected trying to figure out a growing mystery about the ghost activity that is increasing across the nation. And watching it today, I still felt convinced that I was watching a ghost slowly take over the BBC transmitters.
The influence can still be felt today. That clickbait article you’ve seen about the ghost cameos in Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House? Ghostwatch did it first, inserting Pipes in random scenes throughout the program. (As of 2018, some of those cameos have still not been found.) As stated earlier, this movie predicted the rise ghost chasing TV. And using actual news anchors in fictitious settings is something that’s very commonplace in dramas now.
But Ghostwatch, for me, was a ghost story that I could be scared of because the film plays the idea straight. Everyone took the premise seriously, which is something most horror films don’t try. But that’s the key to being scared. If I can believe something is happening, I believe it can happen to me.
Special Bulletin (dir: Edward Zwick, 1983)
Special Bulletin is not a true horror film in the way Ghostwatch is but covers a lot of the same ground. It’s a fictional film presented as a news story in a way that is quite convincing and equally scary.
And the film was very influential. Coming out at the height of the Reagan administration, the film was a unique way to talk about nuclear paranoia. Director Edward Zwick and writer/producer Marshall Herskovitz became legendary among TV fans for creating thirtysomething and My So Called Life. Not to mention the fact that Zwick would break into Hollywood and direct The Last Samurai. This film feels like an important stepping stone in the path to examining an important writer/director team.
Of course, being an American production, the blow was still softened for the audience. Nominally, The Special Bulletin is presented as a real-life news broadcast about a group of domestic terrorists who threaten Charleston, S.C. with a nuclear bomb unless the U.S. surrenders its nuclear capabilities. The group gives a deadline and the media speculates on how the government will respond.
But the impact is lessened because the creators (or Standards and Practices) were not willing to commit fully to the premise. The film is constantly interrupted by messages saying that the film “is a realistic depiction of fictional events.” Beyond that, the film’s news broadcasters work at the fictional RBS network and are not recognizable figures in the same way Michael Parkinson is.
Again, horror has to feel real in order to be truly horrifying. By constantly reminding us that what we’re seeing isn’t happening has the same effect as showing us how they applied the makeup to Linda Blair to make her look possessed. All it does is remind me that I am not watching actual events.
Still, it begins well. We see a commercial for RBS and its programming before we abruptly cut into the story. And actors Ed Flanders and Kathryn Walker at least look the part. I could imagine them reading the nightly news about a local barbecue festival or about an in depth piece of a controversy in the U.S. treasury. And the format works for the story. It keeps the audience questioning what will happen next and keeps up the mystery of who, exactly, these terrorists are. One of the anchors is kidnapped by the terrorists and the news camera becomes the primary way that the terrorists communicate with the world. It’s only become more authentic as time went on and terrorism became the primary focus of the news. Like Ghostwatch, the anchors are initially skeptical of the claims that the terrorist group has a nuclear weapon. And also like Ghostwatch, the professional news anchors allow their emotions to show as the situation becomes worse.
But while I understand the decision to include those teasers revealing the fictional nature of the program, they still utterly ruin the effect. And I can tell they were added after the fact. Zwick and Herskovitz tried their best to create as authentic a film as possible. But it was ruined by the constraints of American TV. Now, Ghostwatch was a significantly controversial film for seemingly refusing to acknowledge that it was a work of fiction. But that’s what made it effective. By taking shortcuts, Special Bulletin’s impact was ruined.
I once examined nuclear holocaust films from the 1980s and beyond to see how different artists in different countries reacted to the Cold War seemingly heating up. What I found was that America, even though the people in it were horrified at the prospect, were still not able to address the reality of the situation. Special Bulletin has the same problem, especially when compared to Ghostwatch. The network constantly reminded people that what they were seeing was a drama, which ruined the illusion. While the UK is willing to commit to an idea, the U.S. wants to make sure that no one is offended. It ruins the artistic effort, but that’s not the fault of the creators. They had an idea about how destructive a terrorist attack could be in a very prescient way. It was still effective, but it was also easy to see how Special Bulletin could have been transformed into a masterpiece.