Why was ‘Ghostwatch’ so successful?

This was first published on Much Ado About Cinema on March 24, 2018.

Arguably the most fascinating phenomenon within television history is BBC’s Ghostwatch. It first aired on Halloween night in 1992 and never aired again on British television. The BBC kept it buried deep until they released it on VHS ten years later, with the DVD release in 2011. Ghostwatch was a programme with a very simple premise. It was broadcast as live television as its hosts explored the haunting of a very ordinary British family in Greater London. The story was based on the famous Enfield Poltergeist case which also loosely inspired the plot of The Conjuring 2, though was perhaps not as effective. The hosts themselves were real life television personalities Michael Parkinson (host of talk show Parkinson) and Sarah Greene (of Blue Peter fame), as well as Greene’s husband Mike Smith. It was written as a drama by Stephen Volk who eventually pitched to the BBC that they do a The War of the Worlds type of thing. Even though it aired under Screen One — the BBC’s drama department — its documentary on-air investigation style, in addition to real-life hosts, led the majority of its 11 million viewers to believe that what they were witnessing was in fact real.

Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene and Mike Smith, presenters of ‘Ghostwatch’ © BFI
Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene and Mike Smith, presenters of ‘Ghostwatch’ © BFI

It played out perfectly: Ghostwatch opened with the familiar face of Parkinson exchanging friendly banter with his co-hosts, and slowly moved into unravelling the tale behind malevolent ghost “Pipes” with Greene on scene at the family’s home. It raised enough doubt in its audience before unleashing various twists and turns, and subsequently ending in complete terror and loss of control. It was the loss of control at the end that was most terrifying and is what makes it stand out as a seemingly live broadcast. It was distressing when things started going wrong at the house, but became absolutely unnerving when the ghostly happenings reached those at the seemingly safe studio. It was a frightening yet truly remarkable thing to watch the mayhem unfold “live” on screen, which assumes Parkinson to be possessed or even dead in the programme’s final moments. Presenters usually have a lot of control over live shows, but in Ghostwatch there were times when the presenters had no idea what was going on — it was chaos.

Once people either realised or read that Ghostwatch wasn’t real, the BBC received an estimated 20,000 complaints mostly from outraged parents whose children had watched the show. Many parents argued that the programme, which aired at 9:25pm, had aired too soon after the watershed, and the presence of Greene — a familiar children’s programme presenter — misled parents to believe that Ghostwatch was safe for their children to watch. However, considering the programme’s premise and the fact it did air on Halloween night, it’s hard to believe how any parent would let their child watch it unsupervised. Greene herself said “the bottom line is [children] shouldn’t have been up. But they were. Because it was Halloween and because I was in it. They associated me with Saturday mornings, and there I was on Saturday night.” Many complaints were from people seeking some form of compensation for their terror, but the most concerning incident is the suicide of an 18-year-old boy from Nottingham. Two years later, the British Medical Journal even published a study outlining the first two cases of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by a television programme, which focused on two boys who developed problems after watching Ghostwatch at ten-years-old.

But why was Ghostwatch so successful in fooling its audience? The main reason is that 1992 was the perfect year for a programme like this one to air. At the time, many people didn’t like feeling as though they’d been conned by the BBC, who they considered to be a serious and trustworthy broadcaster. Volk said, “People felt the BBC was something they could trust, and the programme had destroyed that trust.” Ghostwatch was also using incredible technology at the time, including a genuine infrared camera which they demonstrated at the beginning of the programme to show the audience the equipment they’d be using. It was perhaps considered difficult to fake a ghost in 1992 on what people thought was live television. They even recorded everything on video to make it look like an authentic broadcast. It’s very rare that something like Ghostwatch would work today in an internet-fuelled era of “fake news”, where most people question everything they’re fed regardless of its source.

The detail put into the programme is something else that worked in its favour, in collaboration with the fact that people thought it was actually live. During live broadcasts, people pay close attention to see if anyone makes any mistakes. But with Ghostwatch, it meant people were also looking out for something else — ghosts! The programme was so well-scripted that the way presenters spoke with one another didn’t seem scripted at all, but seemed instead like general conversation. They also scripted in fake live callers to aide the telling of their ghost story. One of the callers noticed a ghostly figure earlier in the programme, and so Parkinson takes a look back at the footage. On first look, there is actually something there (a mysterious ghostly figure in the background by a certain), but upon a second replay of the tape there’s suddenly nothing there (at least nothing as prominent as before). Parkinson claims to have seen nothing both times, and this was perfectly designed to raise enough doubt in its audience to make viewers at home question if what they were seeing was real. Could they be seeing something the presenters weren’t, or were they the only ones who could see it? If so, was the ghost targeting them directly through the live broadcast? It must have been a terrifying thought — especially to children — and so it was an incredibly effective use of editing. About an hour into the programme, they even predicted the complaints the programme actually received in real-life. Parkinson took a call from a “viewer” who was complaining about the fact the programme was upsetting her children. “My children are frightened — why are you doing this?” Parkinson pointed out that it was passed the 9pm watershed after all, but the woman argued that she could not pull her children away from the television. As the show was airing, the BBC did get real call-ins just like this one.

A side-by-side comparison of two frames from ‘Ghostwatch’ — note the “ghost” by the curtains.

Ghostwatch is one of those things I wish I could’ve experienced watching during the first time it was broadcast, but — to my dismay — I wasn’t born until 1993. Now that we live in a hyperaware, desensitised, internet-driven society, it’s very rare that something today could emulate the effects Ghostwatch had on children in 1992, or even the effects The Exorcist had on cinema-goers in the early 70s — we’ve seen everything. The closest thing we have today is perhaps “found footage” movies which play on the fact that it could be real. Even though they’re seen as a new phenomenon, found footage movies actually go way back — like to the 60s — but weren’t made popular until the late 90s. When The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, it was advertised as a real recording of events which was a clever way to create conversion around the movie. The marketing executives even commissioned missing person posters for the actors to further authenticate the advertising. Although it seems inspired by the unintentional success of Ghostwatch, the filmmakers didn’t actually know about that programme until after they made their movie. It’s this element of realism is why people — especially children — found Ghostwatch so scary. Those who went into the cinema believing The Blair Witch Project to be a real recording of events were likely more scared by the movie than those who went in knowing it was a complete work of fiction. Even still, the found footage technique was popularised by this movie, and served as a new way to revitalise the horror genre and evoke fear into people who were familiar with all the tropes of the genre. Real life horrors are always the scariest, and this is something author Kier-La Janisse believed growing up. In Bill Ackerman’s podcast Supporting Characters, Janisse explained that as a child she watched horror movies about anything because she knew it wasn’t real. However, the one thing she couldn’t handle was the movies where humans were the monster because it could be real. In Ghostwatch, whether you believe in the supernatural or not is irrelevant because everything became so much more real when the “ghost” reached Parkinson in his seemingly safe studio.

A missing persons poster used to advertise ‘The Blair Witch Project’ © Getty Images

Ultimately, Ghostwatch was ahead of its time. When Volk wrote it, no one — including the BBC — knew just how big of an impact it would have on the 11 million people watching. It’s an experience that keeps you fully invested with its authentic set up and light-hearted ghost-related activity that jumps to an expected extreme towards the end. Volk’s intention was never meant to manipulate or catch people out. He says, “it wasn’t a prank or a hoax. It was written as a drama […] that had to be told a certain way. I imagined people might think it was real for 10 minutes, tops, then realise pretty quickly it was a drama.” Real or not, one of the most terrifying things about Ghostwatch is when they finally uncover the backstory of “Pipes” as a child molester haunting actual children. It’s an unsettling surprise revealed towards the end that plays on another element of horror entirely.

A freelance film and tv writer from England, who enjoys horror films, cats and middle-aged actresses.

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