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Ghostwatch, War of the Worlds and Unreality Broadcasting

Over the last few years we’ve seen the lines between fictional and non-fictional TV blurred almost entirely due to the rise in popularity of the (baffling oxymoron) ‘scripted reality show’. When the modern reality genre was first introduced through shows such as ‘Big Brother’, viewers were encouraged to believe that everything they were seeing was spontaneous, unscripted and therefore must-see appointment viewing as ‘anything could happen’.

Of course it wasn’t long before executives and producers realized that hour after hour of relatively boring people sitting around a house, talking and occasionally going for a shower wasn’t going to hold an audience’s attention in the long-term, and so manufactured situations and forced conflicts began to creep in. (What will happen if we only give the ten people enough food for six? What if we kick two of them out this week instead of one? Let’s give them a sauna and some massage oil and see if we can get them to get naked, etc.)

This formula of ‘spicing up’ mundane reality steadily bled throughout the copycat shows to other fly-on-the-wall documentaries leading us to the point we’re at today, with entire series of what are in essence soap operas being winkingly presented to a knowing audience under the thin guise of ‘docu-drama’. The public have learned that television on the whole is not to be trusted, not to be taken seriously and if something says it’s real, that’s all the more reason to believe that it’s fake. With that in mind,  let’s take a look back to the long gone days when television – and radio before it – were treated far less skeptically. The announcer’s voice was one of authority, and the notion of fiction being presented to reality was allegedly enough to send the audience running for the gun cabinet.

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Orson Welles’ 1938 radio play of ‘The War of the Worlds’ remains one of the most talked about events in broadcasting history and one that you’re more than likely familiar with to some degree or another. Broadcast the day before Halloween at a time when tensions were high owing to the impending threat of World War II, the 60 minute broadcast presented H.G. Wells classic tale of a Martian invasion in the form of a series of news bulletins, even going as far as to simulate regular programming that these ‘newsflashes’ were interrupting. This muddying of audience perception – particularly amongst those who’d tuned in late or caught the broadcasts in passing  – created chaos and panic among listeners who believed that alien invaders has indeed landed and were wreaking havoc in New York City.

Just how much of a furore was caused by the broadcast is a matter of intense speculation. In the aftermath newspapers carried sensational headlines claiming that small town people had taken to the streets, weapons loaded and aimed at the sky. While this may be an exaggeration, it is known that several newspapers, police districts and the radio station itself received hundreds of phone calls demanding answers, with some demanding to know why the truth was being ‘covered up’. In fact due to the high level of phone activity in the town of Concrete, Washington  a power outage was experienced mid-broadcast, no doubt leaving the skeptical feeling uneasy and the frightened positively paralytic! Lawsuits were even filed by some listeners who felt their trauma was deserving of compensation, however these were summarily dismissed. We can only hope that no young alien-masked Trick or Treaters had the misfortune to knock on these individuals doors the following night.

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‘Trick or Treat’, coincidentally was the spirit in which Welles’ claimed his play was intended. During the broadcast’s epilogue, Orson broke character to inform the listeners that the play was a ‘Halloween concotion’ and “the equivalent of dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying, ‘Boo!'” Of course as with any practical joke, there are always some who won’t see the funny side and by the time the closing speech aired, it probably came as little comfort to those who were already hysterical or running half a mile from their home with a rifle in hand.

A bold and mischievous experiment in radio and a pop culture landmark, ‘The War of the Worlds’ broadcast was not actually the first of its kind. In 1926 the BBC aired a satirical newscast depicting a spate of London riots which is claimed to have caused similar uproar. It is also claimed (but seemingly unverified) that Orson Welles heard this broadcast at some point and used it as inspiration for his own play.

If nothing else, Welles’ telling of ‘The War Of The Worlds’ shows us a 1930s Ghostwatchaudience’s paranoia and willingness to take what they are being told at face value by a voice on the radio. Certainly these were the early days of home entertainment and audiences were perhaps naive. Surely by the 1990s audiences were much more savvy and discerning? Surely this kind of experiment couldn’t be repeated to similar effect over fifty years later? On Halloween night of 1992, screenwriter Stephen Volk did exactly that.

Recorded in advance but presented as live, ‘Ghostwatch’ was a 90 minute drama depicting a TV investigation of a reportedly haunted London house. The program has a style similar to later paranormal investigation shows such as ‘Most Haunted’ and ‘Ghost Hunters’ and used well known BBC personalities including children’s TV presenter Sarah Greene, ‘Red Dwarf’ star Craig Charles and veteran talk show host Michael Parkinson, each appearing as themselves alongside in-character actors. Indeed, beyond the ‘written by’ credit and ‘Screen One’ (the BBC’s anthology drama series) ident at the beginning of the program – both insisted upon by BBC execs who already feared public reaction to the show – the casual viewer had no reason to doubt that the events shown on screen were real, live and unembellished.

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It was claimed that the spirit of a mentally disturbed man, Raymond Tunstall, nicknamed Pipes (after his penchant for rattling plumbing) was haunting the premises. As the show went on, further insights into the man’s past were given, such has his suicide in the 1960s following his own possession by a dark spirit. As viewers soaked in this information, shadowy figures and apparitions subtly appeared on screen for brief moments, occasionally noticed by the team of reporters but more often than not, left for the viewer to notice on their own.

These events continued to escalate – a soundman was knocked unconcious by a flying mirror, static filled screens and lights exploded. The reporters eventually realised that all of the attention Raymond was receiving was magnifying his powers, and ‘Ghostwatch’ had been effectively acting as a seance for him on a national scale. While Orson Welles’ ‘War of the Worlds’ had ended with an attempt to reassure audiences that it had all been a bit of Halloween fun, ‘Ghostwatch’ continued to hold its audience breathless with fright as the spirit reached the peak of its powers, dragging Sarah Greene to her off-screen death, possessing the normally sober and formal Michael Parkinson, and finally taking control of the BBC itself.

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The extent to which ‘Ghostwatch’ terrified viewers is well documented. Around 30,000 alternately angry and frightened calls were received by the BBC in a single hour. Newspapers were particularly critical of the show’s disturbing imagery and chilling scenes (with the Parkinson possession was often singled out). Sadly, sleepless nights were not the only consequences of this broadcast. An 18 year old man, Martin Denham, who suffered from learning difficulties committed suicide five days after ‘Ghostwatch’ aired. He had become obsessed with the program, linking his family’s faulty heating system and knocking pipes to Raymond Tunstall. Ghosts were pointedly referred to in his suicide note. There were also reports of possible post-traumatic stress disorder among several young and elderly viewers. The Broadcasting Standards Commission became involved in Martin’s family’s complaints and ruled that the show had been ‘excessively distressing and graphic’, criticising the use of Sarah Greene due to her links with children’s television.

The BBC issued an apology for ‘Ghostwatch’ and the show was never re-aired. This has naturally ensured that its reputation has grown throughout the years, and it is now available on DVD along with a recently released documentary, ‘Ghostwatch: Behind The Curtains’ which examines the program’s production and legacy.

Other TV experiments have followed through the years, but arguably none have had the lasting cultural impact of ‘Ghostwatch’ or ‘The War of the Worlds’. Perhaps these type of programs will continue to be attempted in the future, or perhaps the ever-growing worries of daily life have surpassed anything that the threat of the spectral or extra-terrestrial can throw at us. More than likely, we simply no longer trust the media enough to be blindsided by a hoax or a prank. In 2013, we do not have to look far to find evidence that our mistrust is justified.

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