Ghosts in the Living Room: The Televisual Gothic on Britain’s Screens

Since the invention of the magic lantern, a ‘small Optical Maceehn that shews by a gloomy Light upon a white Wall, Spectres and Monsters so hideous, that he who knows not the Secret, believes it to be perform’d by a Magick Art’, ghosts and the screen have shared a long and intimate history (Owens 2019: 132). This article builds on Helen Wheatley’s work on Gothic Television, which she defines as ‘a domestic form of a domestic genre which is dleeply concerned with the domestic, writing stories of unspeakable family secrets and homely trauma large across the television screen’, to propose a Televisual Gothic, comprising texts in which broadcasting is central to both narrative and form (Wheatley 2014: 1). In Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972), a team of engineers attempt to harness hauntings to develop ‘a completely new recording medium’ to disastrous ends. Twenty years later, Kneale’s pioneering drama inspired Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch (1992), which purported to be ‘a live investigation of the supernatural’ that culminated in the entrapment and probable death of beloved children’s presenter Sarah Greene, the possession of television bulwark Michael Parkinson, and the transformation of the BBC studio into a ‘massive séance’ that threatened the entire nation. In the twenty-first century, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Mark Gatiss, three quarters of the erstwhile League of Gentlemen, took up the baton. Two episodes of Shearsmith and Pemberton’s horror-comedy anthology series Inside No 9, ‘Séance Time’ (2015) and ‘Dead Line’ (2018), delve once more into the horror that lurks behind television cameras. Aired just two months after the latter, Mark Gatiss’s ‘The Dead Room’ (2018), an original offering for the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas seasonal strand, explores a haunted radio studio, but nonetheless engages with televisuality. Ultimately, this article seeks to provide an overview of Britain’s Gothic preoccupations with the spirit box in our living rooms and its interventions in discourses of authority, nationality and morality. As increasing mistrust in the BBC and a proliferation of suicides associated with ITV reality programming make British television an increasingly horrific space, there is no better time to tune in and reckon with our spectres.

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