I’m not sure whether Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds is the first mockumentary, but it’s probably the first notable one for how it freaked out so many listeners. They weren’t yet accustomed to the wide range of stuff kicked off by Blair Witch Project’s success. Back then, there wasn’t even a word for mockumentaries. Another notable episode that predates jaded Blair Witch Project audiences is the 1992 BBC broadcast Ghostwatch, which is eerily prescient of reality TV and mockumentaries. There are conflicting reports about how much audiences were actually freaked out, but the reaction to the show was just as much a part of Ghostwatch as the show itself. And perhaps most surprising of all, the show itself actually holds up.
The premise is that a film crew visits a haunted house on Halloween night while a live studio broadcast checks in with them periodically. Callers call in, reporters on the scene offer updates, and experts unfold some obligatory backstory on a ghost with the unlikely name Pipes. It’s got a lot of Poltergeist going on, but with the dry British sensibility that got the Queen’s subjects through the fall of an empire, World War II, and Margaret Thatcher. BBC hosts react pretty much like you’d expect when confronted with strange goings on and unexpected developments. And I love how Ghostwatchers plays with the divide between the on-the-scene crew and the studio hosts.
You can watch the entire episode here. Save the money you would have spent on Paranormal Activity 3 and watch Ghostwatch instead. In fact, I recommend an annual Halloween viewing to share this with friends who haven’t seen it.