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Cult Corner: Shudder Is Now Streaming ‘Ghostwatch,’ The Terrifying British Horror Mockumentary Blamed For A Viewer’s Suicide

When we talk about streaming culture, we’re usually enthusing about what’s new, but one of the best things about streaming is how it’s made old and obscure cult hits available to a new generation. Presenting Cult Corner: your weekly look into hidden gems and long-lost curiosities that you can find on streaming.

In today’s current horror movie landscape, the idea of a fake supernatural documentary has become such a common film format, it’s become a bit of an eye-rolling trope. However, one of the first times the format was used, it produced widespread panic, was accredited to cases of PTSD, and received a 10-year ban. I’m not talking about The Blair Witch Project. I’m talking about Ghostwatch.

Written by Stephen Yolk and directed by Lesley Manning, Ghostwatch only aired on BBC1 one time in 1992. The film takes the format of a live news segment that’s covering the supernatural activity of one home. But as the “live” broadcast continues and goes over its time limit, things go from flippant and fun to deeply disturbing. As a part of the reality horror mockumentary subgenre, Ghostwatch is a piece of art, smartly blending believable newsroom characters with authentic reactions and out-of-focus frights. However, it’s gone down in horror movie history for tricking much of the UK into thinking BBC was airing a supernatural investigation in real time. Now this frightful gem is finally available to stream on Shudder.

The first and only time Ghostwatch premiered in the UK was on Halloween night in 1992. The special, which was produced for the BBC anthology series Screen One, was aired with little to no promotion in BBC1’s drama slot. Later, the BBC and the film’s creators would point to that as well as the movie’s 9 p.m. air time as evidence that the documentary wasn’t real. However, it seems as though most viewers took the mockumentary at face value, and the “reality” they were watching was horrifying. After Ghostwatch aired, it was estimated that BBC received 30,000 calls in a single hour. The following day, British newspapers heavily criticized the misleading program, specifically Ghostwatch’s graphic depictions of possession and mutilation as well as its haunting finale. Because of all these things, it’s hardly surprising that the film was banned from airing in the UK for a decade.

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Ghostwatch has also been credited for causing its real-life audience trauma. The saddest case of this is the story of Martin Denham, an 18-year-old young man who suffered from learning disabilities. Denham’s parents claim that after their son watched the only screening of Ghostwatch, he became obsessed with the sound of knocking pipes — a major theme in the film. Five days after the movie aired, Denham committed suicide, writing in his note “Please don’t worry – if there are ghosts I will be a ghost, and I will be with you always as a ghost.” Denham’s family did not press charges against the BBC, though they blamed the network entirely. They said they could not afford the lawsuit.

A report published in the British Medical Journal also linked Ghostwatch to two cases of PTSD. The report was published in February in 1994 and focuses on two children, both of whom were 10-year-old boys.

So is the movie as terrifying as many in the ‘90s claimed? Overall, yes. Ghostwatch is a well-paced and disturbingly believable mockumentary that still holds up despite its age and without the element of surprise. It may not be the scariest movie in history, but it very well may be the one film in the history of horror to produce the most chilling real-world effects.

Stream Ghostwatch on Shudder

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