Haunted Ulster Live

Haunted Ulster Live (2023)

Haunted Ulster Live had its world première on Sat 26th Aug at FrightFest, as part of the First Blood strand

Haunted Ulster Live is a TV show like no other,” says presenter Gerry Burns (Mark Claney), introducing an experimental simulcast live just after the watershed on Hallowe’en, 1998, from Castle Gardens in the north of Ulster. A family home on this street is said to be haunted, and Gerry is presenting in situ television coverage with his much younger colleague Michelle Kelly (Aimee Richardson) at the same time as DJ Declan (Dan Leith) is mixing music for his radio show Ice FM from supposedly the spookiest room in the house, the attic. Single mother Sarah McKillen (Siobhan Kelly), her son Stephen (Jay Lowey) and younger daughter Rose (Libby McBride) have borne witness to the paranormal activity within, even though there is some disagreement between tech-heavy ‘ghostbusters’ Kyle (Owen James) and Daryl (Brendan Quinn), sensitive medium Sinead Love (Antoinette Morelli) and dowser Robert Pratt (David Fleming) as to whether the source of this haunting is the century-old house’s builder and first resident John Newell, or older figure of local legend and song Blackfoot Jack, or just paranoia and superstition.

Haunted Ulster Live is not really “a TV show like no other”, but instead very much like Lesley Manning’s Ghostwatch (1992), which similarly purports to be a live paranormal investigation in a residential house, but which, significantly, screened across the UK on BBC 1 on Halloween exactly six years before the time of Haunter Ulster Live’s supposed broadcast, and over three decades before writer/director Dominic O’Neill actually made this film. Of course, unlike Ghostwatch, O’Neill’s feature debut Haunted Ulster Live is not a TV show at all, and so lacks the frisson of Manning’s work, whose fictions were framed both to convince and to discomfit viewers as they watched the ‘live event’, hosted by real television personalities, from their own similarly ordinary-seeming homes. So much like Gerry himself, a washed-up television ‘dinosaur’ who knows he is on his way out, there is something self-consciously second-hand and shopworn about this film – or at least about the show of the same name to which Gerry ascribes, from the outset, a pioneering novelty that, plainly for all to see, it does not have. You cannot persuasively claim originality for a work that clearly, closely resembles something else – indeed a cause célèbre – that is chronologically prior to it. The timing just does not work.

Haunted Ulster Live

In fact problems of timing are built into Haunted Ulster Live, whose gradually emerging games with chronology are in fact precisely where it parts company with Ghostwatch. For while a work set in West London’s Northolt may have been the initial inspiration for this Northern Irish reimagining, in the end it shifts closer to a Venezuelan haunting, and leaves viewers to read the map and to work out how pagan prehistory, local mythology, twentieth-century domestic history and the present day can all meet in the one place and time. The film also has an awareness of its own derivativeness built in. “I know youse want to recreate this night for laughs,” one character will say, “but this actually happened to me.” It is that slippage between popular entertainment and lived experience, between creepy comedy and personal tragedy, that creates the contradictory layers of meaning in O’Neill’s film, where what Gerry speculates may be “a double haunting“ will turn out to be rather more involuted.

Haunted Ulster Live belongs to a recent run of ‘haunted broadcast’ films like Damien LeVeck’s The Cleansing Hour (2019), Christian Ponce’s History of the Occult (Historia de lo Oculto, 2020), Cameron and Colin Cairnes’ Late Night With The Devil (2023) and Michael Hurst’s Transmission (2023), all existing very much in the shadow of Ghostwatch’s tradition (although none more so than this one), and all running what are ultimately very much their own live specials in which the irrational encroaches upon reality and the medium becomes the message. Yet for all the apparent specificity of its time – a 1998 where Heartbeat is television’s biggest ratings winner and the World Wide Web is a new-fangled mystery for the likes of Gerry – O’Neill pulls a fast one on the viewer precisely by collapsing past, present and future, and defying us to tell the difference. For here, history is always repeating, all the time.

strap: Dominic O’Neill’s feature debut purports to be a live television broadcast from a haunted house over Halloween in 1998 

© Anton Bitel