Ghostwatch, The greatest horror hoax in TV history

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Banned BBC horror documentary comes back to life on Shudder, after causing national British panic in 1992
Ghostwatch was created by screenwriter Stephen Volk, but British audiences didn’t quite get the joke, leading to lawsuits and even a suicide

At 9:30 p.m. on October 31, 1992, 25 years ago this Halloween, the BBC quietly — and, depending on who you ask, imprudently — foisted the most compelling hoax on an unsuspecting public since Orson Welles excited mass panic on the airwaves half a century earlier with his notorious War of the Worlds.

 

The ruse was a simple 90-minute work of what appeared to be authentic investigative reporting, broadcast live and enjoyed, or in some cases endured, by more than 11 million oblivious viewers across the United Kingdom — none of whom had any reason to doubt that what they were watching was real. As far as the audience knew, the BBC’s actual, presumably reliable hosts and anchors Michael Parkinson, Mike Smith, and Sarah Greene were presenting a routine special on paranormal phenomena: a dry look at the supernatural by the Beeb.

They called it Ghostwatch. By the end of its hour-and-a-half, the better part of the country was convinced it was the most disturbing thing they’d ever seen.

It began unremarkably. Parkinson, in the studio, introduced the subject of the evening: hauntings in Britain. He presented a guest, an expert in the paranormal called Dr. Pascoe, and spoke with her of her experiences in the field. The show cut to a council flat in Ealing, where Greene was on hand with a small film crew to investigate a real-life horror story — a family that claimed to be terrorized by a menacing poltergeist. And all the while Smith manned the phone lines, fielding calls from viewers interested in contributing their own opinions on matters of the extramundane. The topic was a bit spooky, perhaps. But in all respects, this programme seemed as ordinary as any other.

Then some unusual things started to happen.

The BBC denounced the show, apologized and have never once aired it again since.

A spectral figure may have appeared in the background of a scene: dozens phoned in alleging they saw it. Greene, camped out in the home where the Early family insisted a ghost resides, heard strange banging noises in the walls, and found a perfect, unaccountable ring of water on the living room floor. One of the Early children woke from bed with scratches all over her face. A framed picture was flung inexplicably from the wall. Toward the end of the program the situation graduated to sheer chaos: panic-stricken anchors, screaming kids, a full-blown bogeyman glimpsed unmistakably in the reflection of a window.

The nation reeled. It’s easy to overstate the credulousness of the viewing public in moments of cultural deception — witness the persistent myth of silent cinema audiences who fled in terror from L’Arrivee d’un train en gare de La Ciotat. But, in this case, the legend is true. People, and particularly young people, really did seem to believe Ghostwatch was real, and furor really was whipped up amid the confusion. The phone lines were jammed. Children refused to sleep. Even animals were losing it: it later transpired that the creators of the show had run a high-pitched tone throughout the programme to agitate England’s pets.

“I had a breakdown from British Telecom, and during the peak five minutes, it was over a hundred-thousand,” the show’s producer, Ruth Baumgarten, said in an interview about the number of calls the BBC received from viewers about Ghostwatch. “So assuming they started ringing in after 20 minutes, it must have been, I think, over a million altogether.”

A million calls: the general feeling in the studio was that it was a million complaints. Baumgarten had to defend the programme on a consumer watchdog show against charges of malicious deceit. Greene was obliged to appear on Children’s BBC the following week to prove to kids that she was in fact still alive and unharmed. The BBC denounced the show, apologized and have never once aired it again since.

Meanwhile, the psychological fallout went on to be as famous as the special itself. “Five days after the programme’s transmission, an 18-year-old boy with learning difficulties, Martin Denham, hanged himself, having fallen into what his stepfather described as a trance,” an article on Ghostwatch’s legacy in The New Statesman recounted earlier this month. The boy had “become obsessed with Ghostwatch and was convinced that there were ghosts in the water pipes of his Nottingham home.”

 

Nor indeed did the damage stop there: about a half-dozen children in the immediate aftermath of the broadcast were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. Medical studies have been conducted on the show’s emotional repercussions. Many of the children who happened to catch Ghostwatch live in 1992 still remember it as indelibly terrifying today.

Of course it’s difficult to imagine what it would have been like to experience Ghostwatch on Halloween night in 1992. It is, happily, available to enjoy in North America on the boutique horror streaming service Shudder, and I’d encourage anyone intrigued by this momentous affair in television history to go through it themselves firsthand.

You may find, as I did, that even wrenched out of its persuasive original context, seen 25 years later to the day and entirely aware that it’s fiction, Ghostwatch remains very frightful and provocative. Deliberate, deft and fiendishly clever, this programme is a lesson in how to terrify with careful blocking and artful misdirection — a canny haunted-house picture, put simply.

The legend has made Ghostwatch history. But it’s also earned its place in the canon on its strengths as a horror movie alone.

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