Small Screen Big Frights: Ghostwatch
Halloween in England used to be far quieter than it is nowadays. We barely had trick-or-treaters and dressing up was not a necessity to have some fun. In our house it usually passed by quietly with my mum watching a horror film and she would let me stay up late to watch them with her. But in 1992, for some reason, we had a party with my sister and me being able to invite one friend each. The usual games were played and we settled on the sofa to watch, as my mum called it, “a real ghost hunt on the BBC." What happened over the next 90 minutes was the most scared I had ever been in my 11 years while watching a TV show.. Because in my mind, as well as millions of others watching, we thought it was real.
The BBC had billed Ghostwatch as a drama, but not many people had read the article in the Radio Times so when the show started a majority of the 11 million viewers were under the impression that everything unfolding was real. And why wouldn’t we? Michael Parkinson was presenting and everyone knew him as a pillar of British TV, along with Sarah Greene and her husband Mike Smith who were well known on the TV and radio it all seemed legitimate. The show centered around the Early family who lived in Northolt, London. The story went that their house was a hotbed for poltergeist activity and the show would be a paranormal investigation into the cause, with the public helping by calling up and giving information that the presenters may have missed on the cameras (they even used the same phone number that was used on Crimewatch, the country’s number one true crime show).
The ghost in question was named Mr. Pipes by the young daughters of the house (because he knocked on pipes) but as the show went on he would become more violent, even possessing the girls. Fake callers would call up and tell the studio that they could see a ghost in the background of a shot which we could all see clearly, but when the video was replayed it had disappeared. This was terrifying to me as I started to question what I was seeing and thought a ghost was actually able to remove itself from film and plant itself somewhere else –– and I was convinced that it was in my house.
As the show progressed the “public” would call in and expand on the story telling the flustered presenters that a child molester had lodged there in the1960s and had hung himself under the stairs, where most of the activity was, and his face had been eaten by cats. The longer the show went on, Mr. Pipes became more and more violent and powerful until he was able to take control of the cameras and trap the possessed girl and presenter Sarah Greene in a cupboard, where they disappeared from when it was forced open. Panic ensued at the studio where people were fleeing for their lives until all that was left was a possessed Michael Parkinson wandering around talking in the voices of Mr. Pipes.
At this point, everyone watching with me realised it had been fake and breathed a sigh of relief, but I was scared beyond anything I had felt before. To this day I can still feel the anxiety and fear I had walking upstairs and going to bed, and even though I slept with the lights on I still lay there shaking with fear over what I had seen... and I wasn’t alone. Thousands of complaints flooded in from angry parents whose children were traumatised after seeing the show, and even a priest who said even though the show was fake, it had raised a demonic spirit.
The BBC apologised a few weeks later and tried to clear the air but unfortunately the show had already claimed the life of 18-year-old Martin Denham, who after seeing the show became obsessed with ghosts and hung himself with a note in his pocket for his mother which said, “If there is ghosts I will now be one and I will always be with you as one." The BBC was in shock and locked the show in a vault with no plans to show it again. But in 2002 Ghostwatch was released on DVD, to the anger of Martin’s parents. Watching it back now, you can see it for what it was: a Halloween drama that took on a life of its own much like Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, scaring the public and cementing itself into the annals of Halloween history.
There has never been anything like Ghostwatch since 1992, and they would be hard-pressed to trick the public into the level it did. And similarly to when I was a scared eleven-year-old, Mr. Pipes haunts me the same way 26 years later.