In 1992 on All Hallows’ Eve, BBC came out with a mockumentary-style paranormal investigation that shocked the nation. It was expected to be a fun Halloween watch, but what followed was widespread outrage from the UK, one death, and a number of children who were reportedly plagued with PTSD.
The premise was simple: invite a camera crew into a haunted house to investigate the spirits lurking on the property.
Thousands had watched in horror as two young girls were seemingly plagued by a malevolent spirit in their home. This ghost could be seen as a shadowy figure in the background of the girls’ bedroom, and would often bang on the water pipes in the home.
The images spooked audiences across the UK, who were under the impression that the program being shown was live. Though, the footage was actually taped earlier that July. And everyone featured in the program? Actors.
In the 1990s, the idea of reality television, of a program that looked real but was actually scripted, was ahead of its time. Add to the fact that Ghostwatch had used thermographic cameras and fake phone-in callers and you’ve got yourself a really, really believable story.
Nobody could have predicted the aftermath of the program. Thousands had called to complain about how their children were terrified of what was being shown on screen, describing how it was almost as if the children were in a “trance”. Hate mail was sent to the show’s producers with similar sentiments.
One boy, Martin Denham, 18, committed suicide and cited Ghostwatch as the reason why he could not take his mind off “Pipes”, the fictional poltergeist featured in the program. A handful of children had been diagnosed with PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, in the following years.
The world was not ready for such a realistic portrayal of a fake story. Consequently, BBC pulled the program, which was intended to be a part of an anthology, and never showed it again.
Looking back, we now see how Ghostwatch was able to pioneer the found footage horror trope. The Blair Witch Project, credited for jumpstarting the genre that would lead to Paranormal Activity and other found footage horror films, would not come out for another seven years.
What was seen as a horrible joke played on the British public nowadays would be considered an amazing feat. In a world where reality television almost always blurs the lines between what’s real and what’s fake, Ghostwatch would have fit right in.
Ghostwatch is available on online streaming service Amazon Prime.