Ghostwatch and unleashing spirits on the BBC

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Oct 23, 2018, 12:01 PM EDT

On October 30, 1938, a radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds featuring a voice performance by Orson Welles caused mass panic when listeners mistook a dramatization of a Martian invasion for the real thing. Fifty-four years later, the BBC had viewers convinced a séance was being performed live on TV and that two of its most popular hosts were in grave danger. This isn’t quite the same level of thinking the planet is in peril, but viewers of Ghostwatch were suitably scared by this one-off drama.

Halloween fell on a Saturday in 1992. I had recently turned 10 and a friend was sleeping over at my house for a night of spooky fun. This included decorating the living room with fake cobwebs and bats, dressing up as a vampire and staying up late for Ghostwatch. Like a lot of kids, I was interested in the supernatural, and still am. Stories of the unexplained, of ghosts, vampires and witches were my go-to, so when I heard that Ghostwatch would be taking viewers into Britain’s most haunted house I knew this would be the television event of the year. Little did I know the impact it would have and the controversy it would cause.

TV listings magazine the Radio Times featured Ghostwatch on the cover for that week; in the article, it noted this was a drama, not a documentary. However, everything about the setup suggested it was both real and a live broadcast, neither of which was the case — it was both scripted and filmed weeks in advance. Writer Stephen Volk’s name appears in the opening credits, but this subtle cue was missed by most, including myself. I definitely believed I was watching a real séance unfold live on TV.

Well-known presenters gave further credence to its authenticity; at the time of Ghostwatch, Sarah Greene was also a host on the Saturday morning kids TV show Going Live! Greene was on location talking to the family affected by the spirit, and we would watch as Greene got dragged behind a door toward the climax of the show. Her husband (also a TV and radio personality at the time) Mike Smith was part of the in-studio team. Red Dwarf star Craig Charles was out on the street talking to other residents, and back in the studio Michael Parkinson — a British TV icon — spoke to paranormal expert Dr. Lin Pascoe about what viewers were witnessing. Pascoe was not really an expert; she was actually actress Gillian Bevan.

Using well-established faces meant the audience trusted what they were seeing, and having a children’s TV presenter made it seem family friendly even if it did air after the 9 o’clock watershed — the time in the UK in which shows can become more mature in content. Blending public figures with a cast of unknown actors blurred the lines between reality and fiction. Real-life sisters played the Early daughters, further adding legitimacy to the project.  

So what made this the most haunted house in Britain? The house in question is situated in Northolt, Greater London where Pamela Early (Brid Brennan), and her two young daughters Suzanne (Michelle Wesson) and Kim (Cherise Wesson) lived. They claimed to have been experiencing a long period of supernatural activity and a poltergeist they referred to as Pipes — Pamela initially explained away the banging noises in their home as a result of old pipes. But Pipes was getting bolder; banging had turned into smashing crockery, and Suzanne had been acting strangely, including talking in a terrifying voice.

The Pipes backstory is a ghost within a ghost story. Former resident Raymond Tunstall had died in the house after being plagued by the spirit of Mother Seddon. Seddon was based on the notorious Victorian serial killer, baby farmer Amelia Dyer. When Tunstall died, his body lay undiscovered for weeks; in this time, his cats got hungry and ate parts of his body. This is why Suzanne ended up with cat scratches on her face (there are no cats in the house) and cat sounds are heard. Nursery rhymes spoken in a creepy, croaky voice link back to Mother Seddon, while Suzanne was recorded speaking in familiar rhymes in a scene resembling The Exorcist.

If this story sounds particularly familiar, that’s because it is. The Enfield poltergeist — featured in The Conjuring 2 — provided the story inspiration for Ghostwatch writer Stephen Volk. Volk had originally envisioned this as a miniseries ending with a live episode rather than a one-off special (in 2015, The Enfield Haunting starring Timothy Spall, aired on Sky Living), but producers felt it would have more of an impact as a 90-minute special filmed in a documentary style.

Ghostwatch is not the first mockumentary, nor was it the last, but it came at a perfect time before the ability to rewind live TV, social media and the ubiquity of the internet. The production department made newspaper clippings that looked like they had been cut from the local paper — the secret in making it look authentic was ensuring there was print on the other side of the page that slightly bled through. This was long before the term “fake news” as a shorthand for “news I don’t agree with” had entered our collective lexicon. In 1999, The Blair Witch Project would also use horror verité as a way to make audiences question the veracity of this project. The lead-up to the release of The Blair Witch Project played on the notion that it was a real documentary.

It wasn’t just the presenters that made this seem like a real event. Other factors such as viewers being asked to share their ghost stories via the usual BBC telephone number for live TV call-ins (including Going Live!) added to the realistic aesthetic. If a viewer got through they heard a message explaining this was actually a fictional event; however, because so many people were dialing the number, the switchboard was jammed and the only thing they heard was an engaged tone. It is estimated that over 20,000 viewers tried to call 0181 811 8181 — a number I still have memorized — during the airing of Ghostwatch.     

Everything about the Ghostwatch set-up looked real, from the presenters to the style in which it was shot. As with a horror movie, timing is important when building tension. Beginning with jovial jump scares, including scary masks and revealing the girls were the ones making the banging noises, put the viewers at ease that nothing bad was going to happen. Later in the show, the banging started again when the girls were in the shot, so they couldn't be blamed for Pipes’ actions. A creepy cloaked figure appeared momentarily behind curtains, under the stairs, in reflections, and in the outdoor shots — long enough to register a presence. But when they replayed some of that footage in the studio the figure was no longer there, making viewers doubt what they saw. Again this was pre-DVRs and the ability to rewind live television. So when it all descended into chaos, it came across as very real.

The show ended with presenter Michael Parkinson in a darkened studio after Pipes had taken control of the BBC studio network. He started reading from the teleprompter in his normal tone, switching to the same creepy Mother Seddon voice we previously heard, as he started talking in nursery rhymes. It sounds ridiculous, but at the time it was terrifying. Even rewatching this moment now gives me goosebumps.

The reaction to Ghostwatch was so strong that it was not broadcast again — 10 years later, it was released on VHS and DVD — as the BBC tried to distance itself from the controversy. Some viewers were angered they had been duped, but one family believed Ghostwatch was the reason why their 18-year-old son killed himself. Martin Denham died five days after it aired, and his parents believed it was in reaction to what he had watched as his suicide note had mentioned ghosts. The Broadcasting Standards Commission did an investigation into the production and found that the BBC had “a duty to do more than simply hint at the deception it was practicing on the audience. In Ghostwatch there was a deliberate attempt to cultivate a sense of menace." A 1994 report in the British Medical Journal noted there had been some cases of children experiencing PTSD after watching Ghostwatch.

Since that Halloween night, I have seen Ghostwatch again, watching it in a reality television class as part of my Film and Television Masters. Revisiting something in the context of academia as an adult was quite the experience. I had been both terrified and fascinated by what I had witnessed when I was 10 and remember being pleased I had a friend to share my room with that night. Seeing it through older eyes with knowledge — not only that it was fake, but also with an awareness of what horror conventions it utilized, made it compelling viewing. A lot of it seems ridiculous, but certain elements are still creepy, particularly the brief flashes of Pipes lurking. Subliminal shots are still an effective way to make you question what you are seeing.

Martians didn’t invade in 1938, and a spirit did not take over the BBC transmitter network in 1992 — but for listeners and viewers of both, it was easy to believe they had. 

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