Most readers are familiar with the big hoaxes of pop culture history. There is, of course, Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, a program that—so the story goes—duped and terrified countless listeners. Even The Blair Witch Project stirred up plenty of "is it real?" controversy during its theatrical release in 1999.
Far fewer people, however, may know of Ghostwatch, one of the most terrifying and successful faux-documentary horror programs in recent memory—if "successful" is the right word for a show that gave children PTSD, was banned in England for "cultivat[ing] a sense of menace", and, according to one family, even led to a suicide.
Broadcast on Halloween night in 1992 on BBC1, Ghostwatch was given all the trappings of a genuine news show. The cast included familiar TV personalities, "live" on-the-street interviews with trick-or-treating youngsters, and a phone-in panel complete with a telephone number that the viewing public could "call" to discuss paranormal phenomena.
The 90-minute program was presented as live television on Halloween night; in fact, it had been shot weeks ago. Its premise was simple: A BBC news team travels to the town of Northolt to conduct an on-air investigation into a reportedly haunted residence. There, they learn of a sinister spirit nicknamed Pipes. Pipes is actually the disgruntled ghost of Raymond Tunstall, a troubled man who—according to one phone-in caller—killed himself on the property decades ago and was himself haunted by the spirit of a 19th century child killer named Mother Seddons.
As the program progresses, the paranormal activity gets more intense. To their horror, the newscasters realize that by taping the proceedings they have inadvertently created a nationwide séance. The malevolent spirit feeds off this energy, growing in power. In Ghostwatch's terrifying final act, one host is dragged screaming behind a door, another is possessed, and Pipes infiltrates the transmitter network of BBC studios.
Somewhere around 11 million viewers tuned in to Ghostwatch on Halloween night. Many were traumatized. Viewers flooded the BBC with angry phone calls, while British news outlets chastised the broadcaster for its disturbing program and the way in which they presented it.
Then, in the week after Ghostwatch aired, an 18-year-old named Martin Denham hanged himself. His stepfather said that he had watched the show and was obsessed with it, convinced that there was a ghost living in the pipes of their Nottingham home. He left behind a note, saying that if there were actually ghosts like those depicted in Ghostwatch, he’d be back to see his parents.
Just over a year after the show was broadcast, doctors began coming forward with cases of children suffering from PTSD as a result of seeing Ghostwatch. Three years after the show first aired, the Broadcasting Standards Council of the UK convened a hearing and concluded that the show had set out to intentionally "cultivate a sense of menace." Ghostwatch was never shown on the BBC again, and was basically unavailable to watch anywhere legally until 2002. Not that that stopped some from watching the show—or talking about it.
Indeed, Ghostwatch's banning, combined with the public outcry it caused and Martin Denham's suicide, sealed the fate of the program. It was now a real-life horror story whispered about on playgrounds, a phantom bootleg copy seen by a friend of a friend of a friend. When the British Film Institute released Ghostwatch on DVD in 2002, after years during which it was unavailable to watch legally, Denham's parents spoke out against the decision, claiming that the show caused their son's death. Despite their disapproval, Ghostwatch was released.
Fast-forward to the present day, and Ghostwatch is now available on the horror-themed streaming service Shudder. Surprisingly, it still holds up as an effective piece of found footage horror. Even knowing the program's staged nature, there is a reality to Ghostwatch, a matter-of-factness that makes its escalating scenes of spookiness feel all too real. Perhaps this is, in part, because the haunting featured on the program is based on the case of the Enfield Poltergeist, a real-life paranormal event from 1977 that also served as inspiration for the 2016 horror hit The Conjuring 2. No doubt director James Wan was familiar with the infamous BBC special.
That may certainly be a part of it, but a huge portion of the power of Ghostwatch comes from its credibility. In a world glutted with found footage horror flicks, too few of them have the feel of real artifacts, even when we know that they're manufactured. Ghostwatch has that feeling in spades, and no doubt influenced other films that have tried similar shenanigans over the years, such as 2013's low-budget WNUF Halloween Special, which takes its "taped off of actual TV" premise to such lengths that it actually includes ginned-up regional commercials as part of its running time.
It is rare to watch something that haunted viewers so completely as Ghostwatch did in 1992. When we do, we are often disappointed. Not so here, where, even stripped of its legendary status and simply viewed as a piece of horror filmmaking, Ghostwatch stands as an underseen classic of the found footage genre.
Featured still from "Ghostwatch" via BBC