Ghostwatch is basically one of the best pieces of television made by the BBC.
Ghostwatch is a controversial British mockumentary broadcast only once by BBC 1 on Halloween Night 1992, depicting the fictional investigation of a haunted house by a team of journalists. Featuring actual BBC reporters, equipment, and on-screen graphics, the film was meticulously crafted to look like a real-life news special. This staunch realism caused many viewers to believe they were seeing actual paranormal activity, leading to an estimated 30,000 call-ins during the “live” broadcast and enough public outcry in the days that followed for the BBC to decide to ban the film outright.
The film begins outside of an average-looking home where a mother and her two daughters are living in quiet fear of a supposed poltergeist. One of the daughters, curiously fixated on the entity, has dubbed it “Pipes” because of its tendency to rattle the house’s plumbing. The BBC team gets acquainted with the Early family, fast realizing just how terrified they are. As the investigation continues and the details of just what Pipes is and what it wants are slowly uncovered, the ghost begins to manifest itself around them. It looms in corners, outside of windows, and in reflections; a gruesome subliminal image, disappearing so quickly that neither reporter Sarah Greene nor her cameraman (nor anyone watching on TV) realizes what they’ve seen until they no longer see it. Some sightings are obvious, designed to instill fear both in the characters and in the audience. Others are there only for the truly observant, unnoticed by the cast, visible only for a few fleeting frames.
Intertwined with this staged investigation is an in-studio leg of the special hosted by veteran English broadcaster Michael Parkinson. He interviews several fictional experts on the paranormal and fields a number of scripted call-ins from “viewers” of the program. Mundane at first, the studio presentation starts to get stranger and stranger. The “callers” get more distressed, continuously claiming to have seen apparitions in the investigation feed. All the while, a graphic on the bottom of the screen keeps flashing a number for call-ins. This was intended as a way to let viewers know the film was a gag; phoning the number would redirect you to an automated message confirming just that. Due to the high volume of callers, however, most people got nothing but a busy signal that ultimately served only to further the ruse.
By the time Ghostwatch hits its climax — I won’t spoil it, no worries — much of its October ‘92 audience had suspended their disbelief and fallen under its spell. It’s an ending that, keeping in mind the context within which it lived that night, works like few ever have. It’s not that scary NOW, sure, but when it aired? It must’ve been disturbing. A finish specifically designed to engineer War Of The Worlds style mass hysteria a few short years before the internet would make such a thing impossible, it sparked a slew of complaints. Multiple cases of younger viewers suffering symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder were reported. One watcher, an 18-year-old factory worker known to suffer from learning disabilities, committed suicide just five days later. The plumbing in his family’s home began to creak, just as Pipes had made happen in the film, because of a problem with the central heating system. He left only a note reading “if there are ghosts I will be … with you always as a ghost”.
The BBC’s ten year ban on the film has expired, but they’ve never re-aired it.