Cast your minds back to 1992. In the USA, Hurrican Andrew was rattling off the coast of Florida, while elsewhere in the world, the Summer Olympics would be deemed a huge success after landing in Barcelona, Spain. 1992 was also the year that Bosnia Herzegovina declared independence, NASA launched the Endeavor, and China opened its first McDonald’s. Meanwhile, in North London, while all of this was under way, the BBC were setting up to broadcast what would go on to be one of its most controversial television shows of all time – Ghostwatch.
Airing for the first – and possibly only – time, on Halloween night, Ghostwatch was described as a genuine live broadcast from the most haunted house in the whole of Great Britain. From the outside, the house looked like countless other red brick terraces in the UK. Inside however, as the story went, the residents had been terrorized for months by a malevolent spirit known only as ‘Pipes’.
Shot using a mixture of studio reactions, interviews with neighbors, and actual footage from cameras inside the family home, the program professed it would uncover the truth of the haunting, and prove the existence of ghosts for the very first time, on mainstream television. As long as the family weren’t lying of course.
In truth though, it wasn’t the family we needed to worry about – it was the filmmakers themselves. The show was pre-recorded, the family just a bunch of hired thespians, and the skeptical hosts, which included your grandmother’s favourite celebrity – Michael Parkinson, were all in on the joke too.
Looking back, years later, it’s not that hard to see how fake Ghostwatch actually was. The ‘none-acting’ is terrible, the ‘real footage’ completely preposterous, and the ending … well, there’s no way anyone would fall for that. Right?
But back in 1992, plenty of people did. In fact, the show was received so badly that the BBC received over 20,000 complaints by letter, and as many phone calls. How could such a reputable source as the BBC be complicit in such a horrible rouse? How could they ever be trusted again?
Film historians have compared the aftermath of Ghostwatch to that of Orson Welle’s famous radio broadcast, ‘War of the Worlds’, which also caused mass panic back in 1938. But those were very different times, and the target audience perhaps significantly less sophisticated than the ones watching TV over half a century later. So why did so many people fall for the joke? To their credit, the team behind the 90 minute special, were meticulous with the production, planting a handful of blink and you’ll miss them moments that caused audiences to doubt what they had seen. Adding a (staged) phone in option, where members of the public talked with the crew about what they’d seen hiding in the background of shots, was enough to plant that seed of doubt. That’s all it took. The Great British public did the rest for themselves.
In today’s culture, it’s hard to believe a show like Ghostwatch would ever fool anyone. We’re all too desensitized to this kind of thing, thanks in no small part to the abundance of ‘real haunting’ TV shows that littler the landscape when you peruse the TV guide these days. But any one of these shows would kill for the notoriety Ghostwatch gained 25 years ago. It caused so many sleepless nights it has never been repeated since its original broadcast, which has only added to its mystique. Somewhere out there is a 25 year old man or woman, whose mother went into forced labor that Halloween night because she was so terrified by the events unfolding on screen. That’s quite a legacy for a low budget, English production that was never meant to be anything more than filler.
If you’re looking for a sophisticated, scarefest this Halloween, to satisfy your haunted house itch, then there are plenty of options out there. However, if you fancy something different, and you’re willing to look beyond it’s many flaws, you could do worse than find a copy of Ghostwatch. Who knows, if you suspend disbelief just enough, maybe you’ll find out just why so many people slept so uncomfortably in their beds that Halloween night, a quarter of a century years ago.