Everybody knows about Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, done as a Halloween program as part of The Mercury Theatre On Air. Welles drew a lot of ire from people at home by presenting the story of a Martian invasion as a news report, complete with “Stay inside, don’t leave your homes!”-style warnings and descriptions of what the alien tripods were doing. We all sort of laugh about that now; how on Earth could people at the time have been so dumb as to believe it were true? Well, a similar thing happened in 1992 (yes NINETEEN NINETY TWO) in the United Kingdom when BBC 1, as part of its Screen One anthology series, presented a Halloween special done for all the world like a live news magazine special all about casing a reportedly haunted house. The result was undeniable, with thousands of people calling the station to either complain or voice concerns that what they’d seen was true. That program was Ghostwatch.
The wholly fictitious Ghostwatch was written by Stephen Volk and directed by Lesley Manning and was never advertised as anything other than another film in the anthology series, but it somehow was thought to be real simply by the fact that it was shot in the same manner as the BBC’s various live broadcast specials. It also had the added verisimilitude of being hosted by Michael Parkinson, the stately chat show host who’d been a television staple since the 1960s. Adding to this were children’s TV presenter Sarah Greene, her husband Mike Smith (another famous radio and TV presenter), and Red Dwarf actor Craig Charles all playing themselves in the fake documentary.
The story of Ghostwatch features Greene taking a camera crew into a typical North London home which just happened to have gotten reports of poltergeist-like activity. Her job on the program is to hang out and see if anything supernatural occurs. While she does that, Charles was outside talking to people on the street about ghosts and other such scary things, and back in the studio Parkinson would interview “experts” while Smith took calls from the “general public” on the regular BBC phone-in line that anyone could call. A lot of people did try to call during the show, so many in fact that they all just got a busy signal, adding further to the confusing. In truth, the scenes in the home were shot six weeks before the studio scenes, and all of that was shot well in advance of the broadcast.
The little girls in the fictional family talked to Greene about having a ghost which they called “Pipes” be around them all the time. Throughout the broadcast, when shots of rooms in the home were shown, there would occasionally be a glimpse of a man in ghostly makeup and costume standing motionless, or mostly motionless, in the corner of rooms or outside windows, just enough for people at home to think MAYBE they’d seen something. There’s even a sequence where a room is shown and people at home are invited to see if they can spot a ghost. One time they show it, there’s clearly someone in the room, another time it’s faded, and the third time there’s legitimately no one there, all the while the presenters say “No, I don’t think I see anything at all.” Though the exact total is up for debate, at least eight quick glimpses of “Pipes” were built in throughout the 90 minute broadcast.
At a certain point in the special, things really start to go haywire, with one of the little girls suddenly speaking in a demonic voice, things flying around the house, doors slamming, and finally Sarah Greene is pulled into a cupboard by the ghost, seemingly never to be seen again. In the studio, the ghost has somehow made its way through the cameras and wreaks havoc on everyone there, until finally the screen fades to black as Michael Parkinson begins mumbling incoherently like he’d been possessed or simply was a man who’s just lost his mind.
A lot of this stuff simply doesn’t look real, and probably didn’t even back in 1992. It was very convenient that the day a film crew showed up at a supposedly haunted house, they got THAT MUCH of a result, to the point where it had a climax and everything. It was a film, and a definite precursor to found-footage kind of faux-documentaries that would follow like The Blair Witch Project. But, perhaps because of the way it was shot or because it was Halloween, people at home watched it by the truckload and over 2 and a half thousand people phoned the BBC that night and the next day to complain about the disturbing nature of the program or simply to complain that they were scared and concerned. “Your film was very effective” was essentially what these allegations amounted to, but that didn’t stop tabloids and newspapers from criticizing the Beeb for being irresponsible and scarring children for life.
I watched Ghostwatch a couple of years ago, on Google Video of all things, after having heard about it from friends, reading about how and where one could see “Pipes” in the show, and even all the backlash and fervor that it caused. And you know what? It still mightily creeped me out. There is something about that style of television news show, that looks so real and live, that makes it all seem credible even though it clearly isn’t. And it’s not the best-made piece of television ever, but it’s undoubtedly affecting.
Ghostwatch has still never been rebroadcast in the UK and was only released on VHS and DVD in 2002, ten years after the event took place. It’s like even the mere mention of it, or acknowledgement of it, caused people distress. Whereas The War of the Worlds has become a cultural touchstone both in the US and abroad, Ghostwatch is still that little nightmarish program families watched that Halloween evening, caused a huge stir, and then was swept under the carpet, or in the cupboard with Pipes himself.
You can watch the whole thing on YouTube if you so desire, but maybe keep the lights on.