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Unreal screens: ‘GhostWatch’ and ‘WNUF Halloween Special’

This post was originally published at Certified Forgotten on 2 December, 2020.

Film still from Ghostwatch. Two men and a woman. The men wear suit and tie, while the woman wears a purple blouse and earrings. Behind them a row of televisions spell out Ghostwatch.

The screen is a fascinating concept for horror filmmakers. The very idea of watching a scary movie projected onto a 20-foot white wall or through pixels and light of a television (or laptop monitor) aids in separating the audience from the frights being shown. We can jump at the monster appearing from behind a corner or curl up into a ball as an innocent teenager runs for their life from a homicidal maniac, but we ultimately know it isn’t real. It’s what allows for that cathartic release that so many experience from horror.


But what about when a film uses the screen as one of its tricks and hooks? Does that separation dissipate? Filmmakers have long experimented with breaking down that divide. Sometimes demons emerge from screens like in Poltergeist or Ringu, turning everyday technology into something that can harm us (there’s a metaphor in there, folks; I’m sure of it!). And other times, like in Scream 2, filmmakers turn the experience of going to see a movie in a cinema surrounded by strangers into a life or death situation.


And then there are films like The Blair Witch Project, the Paranormal Activity franchise, or Lake Mungo that skirt the boundaries of their audience’s inherent disbelief in ghosts by presenting them with rustic, handheld proof. Your mileage may vary, but each has an unsettling quality that is enhanced by the rough video that comes with the territory of “found footage.” Most recently, laptop-based movies like Unfriended and Host have turned video chats into lo-fi haunts for ghouls from the other side.


Two of the most enjoyable have stretched that line between what is real and what is make-believe even further. Certainly harder than most, going so far as to create elaborate fake realities that in at least one case was so convincing it was banned. GhostWatch and WNUF Halloween Special may be wildly different in tone, but each are such fully committed cinematic stunts that they work more successfully to blur the lines between fact and fiction. One used real television personalities as the gateway to frightening a generation, while the other scratches at nostalgia to provoke an increasing sense of dread that something really is about to go terribly wrong.


Each film is so successful that somebody who wasn’t in on the joke could theoretically discover them in a stack of VHS tapes inside a spooky thrift store and assume they were the genuine item. Worse films—films that don’t trust their audience, or films less devoted to their endgame—would include a framing device, which would only seek to diminish their impact (I’m looking at you, V/H/S). But even those who know what directors Lesley Manning and Chris LaMartina are doing in GhostWatch and WNUF, respectively, will surely find much to admire in the way these films seamlessly come out through the screen. They might even, if just for a moment or two, be convinced that what they are seeing wasn’t just an elaborate hoax.


To read the full article, visit Certified Forgotten.

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