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The Strange Case of the Ghostwatch Panic

In recent years the world of the paranormal has had an increasingly strong presence on television. There are all manner of ghost hunting TV programs nowadays, wherein various teams of researchers wander about spooky locales hoping to capture some evidence or glimpse of the unknown, and if not then sometimes just faking it. These shows are of varying quality and veracity, most often mostly just fluffy, mindless entertainment, but every once and a while one comes along that truly changes the game, although not in a good way. In this day of groan-inducing, fake ghost programs, perhaps none stand out as much as a show released in Britain in the 1990s, which would truly stretch the limits of what was morally acceptable and cause more than its fair share of real world ghost reports.

It was Halloween night, 1992, and around 11 million viewers were huddled around their TV sets to watch a highly promoted and publicized program broadcast on the British network BBC, titled Ghostwatch. There was a lot to like about the premise of the show in this season of Halloween, with the show billing itself as a live investigation into ghostly phenomena at a real haunted house owned by a family called the Earlys, in Northolt, in north-west London, and not only was it broadcast on a trusted channel, but the whole thing was to be hosted by beloved anchorman Michael Parkinson, along with presenters and reporters Craig Charles, Sarah Greene, who was mostly known for children’s programs, and Greene’s husband Mike Smith, all well-known personalities at the time.

The show was set to be a mixture of studio discussion on the phenomena interspersed with a live investigation of the house, along with viewer calls from people talking about their own strange experiences, and along with Parkinson in the studio was paranormal investigator Dr. Lin Pascoe, who was there to give feedback on any strange happenings at the house. Those who sat down to watch it did so with good cheer and great expectations. At the time it would have seemed like any other spooky event TV programming, all good Halloween fun, but this was all about to turn sinister very quickly.

The program began with a very skeptical vibe to it all, with both the anchors and the reporters at the scene not really taking any of it seriously at all. Indeed they joke around and play Halloween pranks on each other, and the whole thing seems like they are out to mock the idea of haunted houses. However, things start to become more and more mysterious as the show goes on, when strange occurrences begin to happen at the house, which is emphatically dubbed “the most haunted house in Britain” many times throughout, and which viewers were told had been under investigation by researchers for the past 10 months. The reporters at the scene begin to report strange occurrences such as temperature drops, moving objects, anomalous noises such as bangs, thuds, and the sound of cats, and even fleeting glimpses of some sort of robed apparition, as well as various other phenomena such as household objects that have been viciously twisted and broken, and much of this is caught on film, much to the horror of the studio anchors and those watching.

It comes to light that these disturbances are from a malevolent entity that they called “Pipes,”because it likes to bang on water pipes, and which is later identified by a caller as the spirit of a man named Raymond Tunstall, who supposedly hanged himself on the property. Over the course of the program the entity begins to demonstrate the ability to possess people. On several instances members of the family, the children, or the television crew itself are allegedly possessed, during which time they act maniacally, twitch about, and recite off-kilter nursery rhymes. Adding to this is a nearly tragic accident in which a large mirror falls over for no apparent reason and just barely misses a crew member. All through this the studio panel becomes more alarmed at the events unfolding, and their distress is palpable, although Parkinson himself continues to remain stoically skeptical.

Adding to this steadily building dread are the calls from panicked viewers, many of whom begin to complain of having their own ghostly experiences right then and there as the program is being aired, and with many of them describing the exact same appearance of the spirit Pipes, who is said to have a badly mauled, disfigured face and wearing a buttoned up woman’s coat. Greene, who is on location at the haunted house, becomes visibly more distressed and unraveled as more and more supernatural activity goes on all around them, which also increases in intensity. Viewers witness a pool of water form out of nowhere, scratches appear on the face of one of the Early family kids, and objects flung about with great force. This all spirals out of control, with the family kids eventually going missing as the power goes out, and the reporters in the house sporadically losing radio contact with the studio. All through this viewer calls continue to come in of increasingly menacing poltergeist activity in their own homes.

Things all reach a crescendo when the studio paranormal investigator Dr. Pascoe begins to theorize that the whole program is serving as a sort of “national séance,” and that this is fueling Pipes’ growing power. Things begin actually happening in the studio, much to the sheer horror of those present, such as moving objects and a wind whipping up out of nowhere to blow papers off the desk. There is even a cup hurled off to go smashing upon the floor, and meanwhile back at the Early house Greene goes off trying to find the missing kids and gets yanked by an unseen force behind a door to disappear, and paramedics and police can be seen arriving at the premises. The studio lights then begin to go on the fritz and some bulbs even spectacularly explode in a rain of sparks, causing the crew and other anchors to get out of there as the camera remains trained on Parkinson, who begins panicking and wondering what is going on, before mumbling nonsensically and reciting nursery rhymes in a demonic voice. Fade to black.

Viewers who were watching were left in a state of dumbfounded bafflement. It was a live broadcast, so what had they just seen? What was going on? There was a big, collective WTF hanging over everything, and the hotline for the show was immediately inundated with calls, with over 30,000 coming into the BBC switchboard within just an hour. Frightened viewers wanted to know what was going on, and many were completely terrified or conversely pissed off. What none of them knew at the time was that the entire program had been completely fake, the twisted brainchild of writer Stephen Volk and director Lesley Manning. The whole thing had been a sham.

Whereas the viewing audience were under the impression that this had been a real, live broadcast, the truth of the matter was that it had all been filmed weeks in advance, and was part of an effort to provide something different to the landscape of television. It had originally been conceived of as a drama, and was indeed produced under the banner of the BBC’s Screen One, which was used for fictional dramatic television, but the creators got it into their heads to go in a different direction, making it into a realistic, documentary-style program. It was envisioned as a full-on, found footage style affair, before that was even really a thing, and the BBC spared no expense to make it happen. The show was given a huge budget, and utilized not only these beloved TV personalities, but also the use of shaky, handheld style footage, a gritty feel, top-notch special effects, and as much attention to realism as possible to lend it the feel that it was all actually happening.

All of those depicted in the program were either in on it or actors, and even the “viewer calls” were completely fabricated and rigged, and everything else was clever special effects and smoke and mirrors. Not a single frame of it was real, yet it had all been presented as a very straight laced realistic documentary, with next to nothing to designate it as anything else other than its designation under Screen One, which no one really paid any attention to anyway. It was all so real, in fact, that the BBC almost pulled it before it ever went to air, but go to air it did. The result was perhaps beyond what the creators had ever imagined, and they had gone so overboard with the content and it was all so realistic that nearly everyone who watched it took it to be the real deal. Such was the backlash that Sarah Greene even later appeared on her children’s program to prove that she was alive and well, and to tell the many child viewers of Ghostwatch that it had all been just a show.

This backlash was not confined to mere complaints and concerns by frightened viewers, many of whom claimed to have seen the same ghost in their homes, but it also extended to real physical effects as well, and among the many, many calls that came into the station some of the seemed pretty serious indeed. Perhaps the most famous casualty of Ghostwatch was that of a 18-year-old boy named Martin Denham, who was learning impaired and had the mental age of only 13. The boy had been obsessed with ghosts as it was before the program aired, but things were exacerbated when during the show his own house’s central heating system became faulty and produced various bangs and thuds. The mentally challenged boy took this to be a sign that the very same ghost featured in the show was haunting his own home, and became utterly fascinated with the idea. He would commit suicide 5 days later, leaving a note that read “if there are ghosts I will be … with you always as a ghost.” His parents would go on to launch a crusade against the BBC, claiming that they had possessed and hypnotized their child, but it was ignored at first.

Newspaper report on the incident

Other parents came forward with similarly harrowing accounts, such as two 10-year-olds who had developed serious symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder from watching the program, and there were at least 4 other children who were reported as having similar symptoms, as well as several elderly viewers and countless other children who were suffering from crippling nightmares due to watching the show. Many adults also complained of experiencing severe distress after watching the program, with some even reporting ghosts themselves, others having heart attacks, and it all srt of spiralled out of control. In response to all of this, the the Broadcasting Standards Commission would eventually come forward with a statement of apology saying that the program had been deceptive in its intents towards the viewers, and the BBC would go on to disown the show and issue a ban on the program, with Ghostwatch only finally being available on DVD in 2002. For his part, one of the original masterminds behind the doomed project, Volk, has said that the show was always meant to be presented as a fictionalized drama and was not ever meant to be a manipulative hoax, saying:

We never used the word hoax, and it was quite a shock to see the word used in the press in the aftermath. It was never intended as a prank, but as a piece of drama. The producer didn’t want to put out advance screenings or previews because that would have brought the artifice tumbling down. The fact was, it was drama but it was plausible drama, and people believed it.

The whole debacle was even made into a follow-up retrospective documentary called Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains in 2012, which sought to document the making of the now notorious program and which quickly sold out. The show has been an inspiration for a variety of found-footage syle movies and TV shows, and although many may not know of the original program its presence is still certainly felt. It shows that the power of media is a pervasive one, and that for many these are not just pieces of pure entertainment, but rather things to be taken very seriously indeed. Ghostwatch truly went overboard, truly Orwellian in nature, and has launched itself into the upper pantheon of strange TV shows and other media that made a disturbing impact and were taken as so real that they may as well have been.