Warning: the following article contains spoilers about the film Ghostwatch. Read no further if you don’t want to know about major plot details. You can watch on Shudder then come back.
The year was 1992, the month October; Halloween night actually, and United States horror fans were watching Candyman at the theater while Britain sat in front of their television sets to witness one of the most terrifying live broadcasts in BBC history.
The show was called Ghostwatch, and if you wanted to compare it to anything from today, I would say it looks like a cross between Ghost Adventures and 60 minutes, only much scarier.
The program was a live broadcast from the most haunted house in England located in Northolt, and featured a remote reporter, camera crew and other hosts as they interviewed the family who lived in the house and tried to capture all the alleged paranormal activity terrorizing the single mother and her two young daughters.
Imagine Zak Bagans, his vans and crew in a quiet U.K. neighborhood.
Meanwhile back in the studio, host Michael Parkinson and parapsychologist Dr. Lin Pascoe talk about what they were seeing while another reporter mans the telephone lines answering any questions viewers may have about the house, the people in it or whatever was being captured as it happens.
It turns out this broadcast would capture the most compelling poltergeist evidence in history, proving that supernatural forces and possessions do exist.
Based on those images and the actions of the crew, people from all over the country panicked, called BBC in mass hysteria, jamming the network’s phone lines in utter fear.
Only Ghostwatch was all a hoax. Sort of. Accidentally.
Ghostwatch was a mockumentary, it wasn’t filmed live even though it appeared to be. The segments between studio host and the haunted house crew were filmed separately, the studio performers reacting to taped footage not a live feed. The whole thing was then edited seamlessly.
People who tuned in late to Ghostwatch missed the Screen One intro; a popular anthology drama series that ran each week back then, vewers fell for what they were seeing on “live” TV, hook, line and sinker. The BBC never ran a disclaimer after the program saying it was all fake. That’s some Orson Wells stuff.
Besides being so convincing as a live broadcast, Ghostwatch also happens to be one of the most terrifying films under the “found footage” moniker of today. The Blair Witch Project wouldn’t trick U.S. audiences the same way for another seven years.
What made Ghostwatch so scary was the actual ghost “Pipes,” a name the children give to him because of the noises he makes.
As cameramen in the house pan back and forth, glimpses of the ghost can be seen subliminally.
If you blink you will miss them, but if you see him it can be quite a shock. Do yourself a favor don’t rewind anything until the movie is over: it’s fun too see how many times you can spot Pipes on the first go.
It has become legendary to try and figure out how many times Pipes appears, the most popular guess is 13.
He is an androgynous ghost, the spirit of a man possessed by a woman who used to drown children on the property years ago. He’s bald and wears a dress just to give you clue on what to look out for.
You may find similarities between Ghostwatch and The Conjuring 2, that’s because the story was based on the notorious Enfield ghost, the same one depicted in that sequel.
The movie ends with a special effects twist that seems ridiculous on the surface, but think about it a little bit and the whole thing will chill you to the bone.
Ghostwatch was so effective in its perceived legitimacy it caused viewers some physiological problems too.
Deaths were reported after its broadcast, some so convinced that the show proved the existence of the afterlife that they took their own lives in order to be with loved ones. One couple even went to court claiming their son had been “hypnotised and obsessed” during the broadcast before taking his own life.
The Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC) agreed with the grieving family saying the BBC should have taken extra steps to notify viewers what they were watching wasn’t real and that it was excessively distressing and graphic.
Kids were allegedly affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, namely those between the ages of 10 and 14. But the British Medical Journal dismissed those claims as “brief anxiety” after the children quickly recovered.
The Ghostwatch phenomenon generated a real documentary, a retrospective of the film and its affects called Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains.
The movie hasn’t been readily available since its first broadcast in 1992, but if you have the streaming service Shudder, you can watch it there.
Creating a movie that terrorized an entire country is not an easy task, so I suggest you view it for yourself to understand exactly how it did. It’s creepy, has a huge rewindability factor and an ending so epic you may have wondered why it’s eluded you for so long.