On 31st October 1992, the BBC aired a drama that terrorized the nation. Recorded two weeks before transmission, Stephen Volk’s GhostWatch was broadcast as a live on-air investigation into alleged poltergeist activity in a house in Northolt, London. Presented by journalist and chat-show host, Michael Parkinson, the program had live link-ups with reporters Sarah Greene and Mike Smith, on location at the haunted house. The documentary form of the show and its use of journalists, caused the majority of the British public to believe the televised events were in fact real.
Viewers watched as a series of cleverly constructed interviews, with the family who lived at the house and their neighbors, revealed details of the poltergeist, nicknamed Pipes, so-called from its habit of knocking on the house’s plumbing. The reporters discovered Pipes was the ghost of a psychologically damaged man called Raymond Tunstall, who was believed to have been troubled by the spirit of Mother Seddons – a baby farmer turned child killer from the 19th century. As the show developed, it was revealed (in Quatermass fashion) that the broadcast was acting as a “national seance,” giving Tuntsall’s ghost horrific powers. It ended with host Parkinson possessed by the evil spirit, and reporter Greene seemingly killed.
Like Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast, a mass panic ensued. Over 30,000 telephone calls were made to the BBC switchboard in 1 hour, with some people claiming poltergeist activity in their own homes. One man, 18-year-old Martin Denham, was so disturbed by the drama that he committed suicide 5 days after its broadcast. The central heating in his home had broken down and caused the pipes to knock, as in the show. Denham left a suicide note that said, “if there are ghosts I will be ... with you always as a ghost.”
In February 1994, a report in the British Medical Journal described cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in two 10-year-old boys. It was the first recorded occasion that a TV show had caused PTSD.
After its screening, GhostWatch was banned by the BBC for a decade. Since then it has only ever been shown once on Canada’s digital channel Scream and the Belgian channel Canvas
Stephen Volk, author of the screenplay, recalled in a BBC interview the effect GhostWatch had:
What surprised me was the avalanche of ‘IT SHOULDN’T BE ALLOWED’, ‘HEADS MUST ROLL’ and ‘HOW DARE THEY INSULT OUR INTELLIGENCE!’ The anger at being, as certain members of the viewing public saw it, duped and hoaxed by trusted Auntie Beeb.
I think the only [serious] review I read about it as a piece of drama was in Sight and Sound where Kim Newman, bless his cotton socks, referred to Quatermass and obviously got ‘it’.
We were doing a piece of drama with a theme and nobody discussed that. It was all ‘SHOCK, HORROR, SICK’ tabloid stuff.
I must say in all honesty that in all the meetings I had with the Drama Dept at the BBC, I never heard anyone at any time use the word ‘hoax’. We were just doing a drama in a particular style (as The Blair Witch Project has done more recently) to give a modicum of authenticity. The idea that we wanted to make fools of people is absurd and just wrong.
Subsequently Ghostwatch has become a staple subject for Media Studies projects: one University lecturer told me that somebody chooses it virtually every year!
In 2002 the British Film Institute released a DVD of GhostWatch.