Halloween. 1992. The BBC broadcasts a program called Ghostwatch. It aired only once…
The 90-minute drama was structured as a live investigation into a supposedly haunted house that aimed to prove the supernatural was real. Unfortunately, some Brits took it at face value and started a media controversy that still reverberates to this day.
The infamous faux-paranormal mockumentary Ghostwatch, which has long been dormant to North American audiences is now widely available to view via the streaming service Shudder. Ghostwatch was produced as part of the BBC anthology series called Screen One. It was presented as proof of paranormal activity and was subsequently banned after its premiere because it disturbed and disrupted viewers and the television corporation so intensely.
The program aired during a time slot traditionally reserved for scripted programming, but given the fact that so many viewers tuned in after the prologue, which sets up the entire thing as a faux documentary, many started to believe they had just stumbled on a breaking news investigation. Ghostwatch writer Stephen Volk explained in a documentary (yes, a documentary about the making of a fake documentary), “One woman wrote into the producer at the BBC, and she demanded money from the BBC, because her husband, who I think was a paratrooper, had actually soiled his trousers he was so scared, and she wanted the BBC to refund her.”
Over the single hour the program aired, the BBC received 30,000 calls about it. Some parents filed formal complaints citing their children suffered PTSD from watching the disturbing content, and one family claimed the show contributed to the suicide of their son. No other fictional program had so thoroughly convinced a general populace since Orson Welles’ famed radio broadcast of War Of The Worlds.
Not long after that did the BBC respond by banning Ghostwatch from ever airing again. That is until Shudder stepped in 25 years later. The premium streaming service operated by AMC made Ghostwatch available in its full, unedited version. Even cleverly classifying Ghostwatch as “documentary”, complete with quotation marks and all, in their synopsis. The title has since left the service due to licensing arrangements but it was enough to bring the cult oddity back into the public eye. Everything from The Blair Witch Project to the entire found-footage horror phenomenon has in some way or another Ghostwatch to thank. It’s also no surprise in a culture so plagued by “fake news” that a film such as this would find relevance with a whole new audience. This BBC horror mockumentary sure has had long legs.
If you get a chance to view Ghostwatch, you’ll notice that it still remarkably holds up. Sure the news broadcast feels a little stagey but the aesthetic and delivery from all the actors, including actual broadcaster Michael Parkinson, creates a convincing atmosphere. The story itself is a 90-minute TV broadcast of an investigation of a house in Northolt, Greater London. Through revealing footage and interviews with neighbors and the family living there, they discover the malevolent ghost nicknamed Pipes.
Some instances of the appearance of Pipes throughout Ghostwatch
The appearance of Pipes hidden throughout the movie is one of several reasons Ghostwatch beckons repeat viewings (you can see him hidden under stairs, during static outbursts, and amongst crowds). The program begins to unravel the identity and history of the man (now: ghost) known as Pipes. The program ends with the reporters realizing that the broadcast itself has been acting as a sort of “national séance” allowing Pipes to gain his power and unleash its fullest extent. Michael Parkinson himself is a studio focal point; even becoming possessed by the film’s end.
In an interview with RadioTimes, conducted more than 20 years after Ghostwatch‘s first airing, Parkinson said no one thought they were creating something that would become one of TV’s most infamous programs. “It was a simple ghost story based on a fairly ordinary premise that there’s a show on television and things start to go wrong,” he said. “It was only when I saw it back that I realized it had a certain kind of power.”
Ghostwatch was released on DVD by the British Film Institute in 2002—but has never aired at all on American TV, or been available on home video in the U.S. Shudder has yet to bring the film back to its service and it appears, yet again, that this infamous cult oddity has slipped through readily available public fingers. Seek it out if you can.
Images: BBC, Shudder