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A Retrospective- Ghostwatch (1992)

Nearly thirty years ago today, the BBC aired a programme so controversial that its existence was swept under the rug in a hurried PR salvage operation, and would not be seen again for decades. The show, Ghostwatch, would soon become cemented in the annals of horror history.

It was the brainchild of writer Stephen Volk, who already was well-experienced in the horror genre, having wrote the scripts for Ken Russell’s The Kiss (1980) and William Friedkin’s The Guardian (1990). Inspired by the infamous Enfield poltergeist case of the 1960s, which comprised the second instalment of The Conjuring franchise, it was originally envisioned as a six-part series, but was condensed into one hour-long installment. Staged as a documentary, it purported to depict the ghostly phenomena plaguing a mother and her daughters in a council estate in Northolt. Its blending of fact and fiction is especially significant, considering that it predated the far more successful The Blair Witch Project (1999) by seven years. The presenters, which included esteemed BBC presenter Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene and actor Craig Charles of Red Dwarf fame, added to its credibility, being already trusted household names. As the investigation continues, the haunting is traced back to a sinister former resident known as ‘Pipes’ (Keith Ferrari) who hijacks for the broadcast to extend his own spectral influence, causing chaos.

Despite being aired with disclaimers that it was a staged drama, many viewers took the programme as actuality. The impact was immediate, causing a furore akin to the mythologized panic surrounding Orson Welles’ 1938 radio production of H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds (1898), which convinced a majority of America that the planet was under attack from hostile extraterrestrials. The BBC switchboards received thousands of complaints, mainly from irate parents who claimed that the programme had traumatized their children. It was noted alongside the long-running British medical drama Casualty in causing cases of childhood PTSD. Sarah Greene, then a popular children’s tv presenter, had to assure her young viewers that the show was fiction. A vicar called in to warn that the programme was inviting occult influences into the viewers’ home. But perhaps the most tragic effect of the broadcast was the death of Martin Denham. An eighteen-year-old factory worker with learning difficulties, he was so heavily influenced by the show that he became adamant that his home was haunted and took his own life. In his suicide note, he promised his parents that he would always be with them as a ghost.

The magnitude of complaints led to the BBC completely disavowing the production and to this day, it has never been re-aired on television. But Ghostwatch’s staying impact is undeniable. Its inspiration can be seen in Derren Brown’s faux documentary special Seance (2004) and anthology comedy show Inside No. 9′s brilliantly genre-busting 2018 Halloween special ‘Dead Line’. It even received an eventual sequel as a short story ’31/10′ by the original writer Stephen Volk, which explores the aftermath of the events of the television special. Ghostwatch has become the very thing that it set out to allegedly capture- a phantom, haunting the subconscious of all those who viewed it, whether for better or for worse.

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