film / tv / substack / social media / lists / web / celeb / pajiba love / misc / about / cbr
film / tv / substack / web / celeb

Ghostwatch BBC.jpg

Want Something Truly Terrifying This Halloween? Check Out ‘Ghostwatch’

By Kayleigh Donaldson | TV | October 31, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | TV | October 31, 2023 |

Ghostwatch BBC.jpg

Many of us don’t need an excuse to watch scary movies, but Halloween is always a welcome moment to indulge our cravings for horror. I’m a big fan of the genre and also a massive chicken, although I’ve hardened a little over the years, so I can keep at least some of the lights off after my spooky film of choice. You’ll all have seen lists of Halloween movie recs, with the expected horror favourites front and centre. If you’re in the mood for something a little rarer, however, let me introduce you to one of the most controversial pieces of television ever made in the history of Great Britain.

On Halloween night of 1992, BBC One broadcasted Ghostwatch, a supposedly live show with the objective of finding proof that ghosts exist. Hosted by presenter and the cuddly grandfather of British telly, Michael Parkinson, the set-up seemed pretty banal, like Watchdog but for the paranormal. Presenters Sarah Greene and Craig Charles were sent out to a suburban neighbourhood to meet the Early family, who claimed to be tormented by a poltergeist. It seems like harmless stuff at first, probably a prank that got out of hand. But then the kids start talking about a spirit named Pipes, and there are glimpses of something unnerving in the corner of the screen…

Inspired by the story of the Enfield Poltergeist and live TV drama broadcasts such as The Quatermass Experiment, writer Stephen Volk wanted to make something as realistic as possible. The presenters were familiar faces to national audiences, the studio scenes were recorded on BBC turf, and the call-in phone number shown on screen was the standard BBC call-in number at the time, 081 811 8181. It’s tough to capture the verisimilitude of such a concept without the audience catching up to the twist, especially nowadays. The early ’90s were obviously different in a pre-internet and social media age, but the BBC still added opening credits to the broadcast, including the writer’s name. It was never truly sold as real. But what if you’re just channel-hopping across the four stations available to you and you see this in progress? How much does that change things?

It all starts out so cozy. Parkinson, so affable and inviting, is the no-nonsense presenter who is earnest about the show’s agenda, if a tad obvious in his cynicism. ‘Viewers’ call in with stories of their own apparent experiences with ghosts, which are silly and not especially frightening. The build-up of terror is so subtle that you barely notice how quickly you’ve gone from excited to scared. The ghost, Pipes, starts appearing in scenes, in the background or the side of the frame. In one moment, we see hidden camera footage of the Early children’s room, and when the light goes off, a man is standing above them. Yet, when the footage is rewound later on in the broadcast, he’s gone. Imagine experiencing that for the first time without being able to pause and check yourself. Even today, it’s an effective scare, so simple in its execution that it demands repeat viewings. It’s not just the Early family who are impacted by Pipes. Soon, ‘callers’ ring up to claim that the programme is making their own children and pets act strangely. They can’t stop staring at the TV…

I tend to be most frightened by stories of hopelessness, of tales where terror is inescapable and inevitable, no matter how much you try to escape it. Ghostwatch revels in this idea, setting up a broadcast where your viewing of it, especially a contemporary one, will end in doom for all involved. The show ends up being one big summoning for Pipes, a way for him to return to the world of the living and wreak havoc, and seeing kind and beloved children’s presenter Sarah Greene being engulfed by the torment is stomach-churning. Going from that to BBC news must have been the biggest case of TV whiplash for those petrified viewers.

Made several years before The Blair Witch Project and a solid decade before the boom of reality TV, Ghostwatch is as prescient as it is scary. We’re all used to tatty ghost-hunting shows made by abject con artists who think a cameraman rustling a motel curtain is equivalent to The Exorcist, and Ghostwatch puts them all to shame. There are no spooky castles here or anything remotely gothic. The most dangerous of beings haunts the most normal of suburban homes, and the sturdy safeness of the BBC is shaken to its core through teatime entertainment. No wonder audiences freaked out.

The BBC received tens of thousands of phone calls complaining about Ghostwatch. The tabloids said the programme had gone too far. Many reported that their children had suffered greatly as a result of believing the show was real. An 18-year-old named Martin Denham, who suffered from intellectual disabilities, died by suicide after the programme aired. The family home he lived in had suffered with a faulty central heating system which had caused the pipes to knock; Denham believed the problem to be the work of Pipes. The BBC faced a judicial review form the Broadcasting Standards Commission, with their ruling declaring that they ‘had a duty to do more than simply hint at the deception it was practising on the audience. In Ghostwatch there was a deliberate attempt to cultivate a sense of menace.’ Following the inquiry, Ghostwatch was never again repeated in full on any UK-based channel. It wouldn’t receive a home release until 2002.

Nowadays, it’s viewed as a cult classic, a pioneer of the horror mockumentary and icon of British horror that has influenced everyone from Derren Brown to the League of Gentlemen. It’s available in a fancy Blu-ray release and is streaming in a variety of places. Even if you’re a genre cynic or worry you won’t click with the Britishness of it all, I highly recommend a viewing of Ghostwatch. Just keep an eye out for Pipes…