Ghostwatch, the birth of paranormal reality TV

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Ghostwatch terrified MJ STEEL COLLINS as a child when it first aired way back in 1992. She now looks back and finds some interesting parallels with a notorious English poltergeist case and contemporary paranormal reality TV.

Let’s turn back time to 1992 when I was 10 and enjoying Hallowe’en. I watched Ghostwatch, had the living daylights scared out of me and then later woke up terrified during the night.

A few days later, my gran pointed out the newspaper reports over the chaos caused by lots of people believing Ghostwatch to be real, when it was just a TV drama.

BBC personalities Mike Smith, Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene played themselves in Ghostwatch.
BBC personalities Mike Smith, Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene played themselves in Ghostwatch.

So how does it stand up today, and what can I glean from it these days after years of fascination by the paranormal that funnily enough started not long after I saw Ghostwatch?

Behind The Pipes

Ghostwatch was written by Stephen Volk and directed by Lesley Manning for the BBC One drama anthology serial Screen One.

Originally it was meant to be a six-part drama, but doubts cast on this format actually working led to it being portrayed as a live 90 minute TV broadcast.

The show was actually filmed six weeks before it was shown.

The BBC almost canned the drama before broadcast over concerns about how it may affect viewers, and so insisted that Volk’s writing credit and the Screen One title sequence were added at the start to show that it was fictional.

TV listings of the show also mentioned that it was a fictional drama.

Ghostwatch also listed the old BBC general call in number 0181 881 81 81, which is still etched in my memory from CBBC.

Fiction Taken As Fact

At first, callers phoning in during the Ghostwatch broadcast were told that the show was fiction, but that they were welcome to share personal ghost stories.

But as the show progressed, the switchboard became jammed, tying in with what was happening on the show, so helping to create the illusion it was real, which many people bought into.

Following the broadcast, the BBC was inundated with several thousand complaints about Ghostwatch and the impact people claimed it had.

The end result was that the BBC banned it from being broadcast for a decade, and indeed, it hasn’t been broadcast in the UK since.

It has appeared on overseas TV, and was released on DVD in 2009, and in 2013 a documentary, Ghostwatch: Behind The Curtains looking at the show’s legacy, was released.

Echoes of 284 Green Street

The background of haunting depicted on Ghostwatch will probably give any paranormal aficionado a distinct sense of déjà vu, of the sort I had on rewatching.

The story centres around a single parent family, the Earlys, who live on Foxhill Drive in London.

The family comprises of divorced single mother Pamela and her two daughters, Susan, on the brink of adolescence, and Kimmie.

For 10 months, beginning in December 1991, the family’s council home has been the scene of an intense poltergeist infestation that has involved the local council, social services and subsequently led to widespread mocking in the national press, and Susan being picked on at school.

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Does it ring any bells yet?

TV legend Michael Parkinson's appearance on Ghostwatch created the illusion that the Halloween broadcast was a legitimate documentary.
TV legend Michael Parkinson’s appearance on Ghostwatch created the illusion that the Halloween broadcast was a legitimate documentary.

It certainly did with me, as the basis of the story reminded of the Enfield Poltergeist case involving the Hodgson family, where the focus was 13 year old Margaret and her 11 year old sister Janet.

Voices That Shouldn’t Come From A Kid

That family faced a press furore, extreme scepticism (in fact, Janet was still batting off sceptics on This Morning within the last decade) and the girls were bullied at school.

Their mother Peggy was also a divorcee, and the family lived in council housing.

The initial scenes of Ghostwatch, showing banging and things being thrown about in Susan and Kimmie’s bedroom matched the start of the Enfield case in Margaret and Janet’s bedroom.

Another striking similarity was the recording of Susan talking in a gruff male voice, something she was able to do even with her mouth full of liquid.

Famously, Janet did the same during the Enfield case, and the recordings of that can be heard on YouTube.

I wasn’t surprised when the end credits of Ghostwatch rolled to see that Guy Lyon Playfair, who investigated the Enfield case with Maurice Grosse, was consultant. Later research also dug up that the Enfield case was the basis of the Ghostwatch back story. (You can read an article that Guy Lyon Playfair wrote for Spooky Isles about the Enfield haunting here.)

The similarity to Enfield was one I enjoyed a lot, and shows that the Enfield case as a cultural phenomenon certainly has made deep waves.

Ghostwatch And Horror Entertainment

It’s an often stated fact by some paranormal investigators that they were partly inspired by seeing the Ghostbuster movies in their youth.

The impact Ghostwatch has had on later fictional paranormal TV and even movies is notable – it is cited as an influence on Derren Brown’s The Séance and The Blair Witch Project.

Ghostwatch's Michael Parkinson is joined by paranormal expert Dr Lin Pascoe (played by actress Gillian Bevan).
Ghostwatch’s Michael Parkinson is joined by paranormal expert Dr Lin Pascoe (played by actress Gillian Bevan).

But what I found interesting on seeing Ghostwatch was just how much it had in common with paranormal reality TV.

Shows depicting paranormal teams investigating haunted locations have been immensely popular for almost two decades, starting with Most Haunted in the UK and Ghosthunters in the US.

Was Ghostwatch The Birth Of Paranormal Reality TV?

Most Haunted, and the immensely popular US show Ghost Adventures are the ones I am the most familiar with.

And now for my disclaimer – I’m not especially one for joining either camp of the Great Debate on whether Most Haunted or Ghost Adventures are faked or genuine.

They are what they are, and frankly, yes, I have found them rather entertaining on several occasions.

It’s thanks to having watched several episodes of both that helped make re-watching Ghostwatch especially interesting.

All of them have so many tropes in common that it begs a question or two. Although fictional, can Ghostwatch be seen as a forerunner to Most Haunted?

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And has the influence of Ghostwatch even crossed the pond to the likes of Ghost Adventures and various other American paranormal TV shows?

Enter The TV Crew And Paranormal Experts

Whether British or American, these shows, follow very similar formats to that seen in Ghostwatch.

The TV crew, investigators and various experts roll up at a haunted location.

Some are sceptical, seeing it as a joke, some are not sure what to expect and some are eager at what might unfold.

Craig Charles, reporting from the 'haunted' house, interviews Pamela Early (played by actress Brid Brennan) during Ghostwatch.
Craig Charles, reporting from the ‘haunted’ house, interviews Pamela Early (played by actress Brid Brennan) during Ghostwatch.

As the night draws in, the gear is set up, with someone monitoring it all from a hub.

Things start off with great subtleness, but slowly builds.

It’s A Demonic Entity, Dude

A dark history of the location is pieced together. As Ghostwatch unfolds, it’s Mother Seddons the baby farmer and the horrific Raymond Tunstall.

Then it all kicks off. Bangs and thuds are heard. Figures are seen. People begin to act a little strangely and are highly terrified. Strange vocalisations are heard. Someone is possessed and/or physically injured.

The entity at the heart of it is declared as evil or demonic.

It happens in Ghostwatch, to a much greater extreme than Most Haunted and Ghost Adventures.

A Significant Moment In Spooky Popular Culture

This says a lot about the influence and legacy of Ghostwatch.

At the time people thought it was real life in 1992, despite it being fiction.

Nowadays you can turn onto the Really Channel and watch several variations of its non-fiction counterparts.

Paranormal TV is fairly big business these days.

It’s safe to say that Ghostwatch certainly tapped into something that was ahead of its time.

Spooky Isles Readers remember Ghostwatch

We recently asked our readers on the Spooky Isles Facebook page about their memories of watching Ghostwatch back on Hallowe’en night, 1992.

Here’s what some of you said:

Lisa Clarke: Loved it although it terrified me at the time. Brought it on dvd a few years ago. Brilliant.

Heidi Patchett: It was very good, and has stuck in my mind ever since. However, despite me believing it was real at the start, there was something about the mum that made me doubt it, she was too polished in front of the camera, not amateurish like a regular person… so I found myself watching the rest of it as a drama instead of a supposed documentary. Still enjoyed it though.

Chris Wallace: Yeah, I remember watching this back in the day, very effective with well respected broadcasters people fell for it.

Selene Paxton-Brooks: Yes, we were at a party and all sat down to watch. I knew it was bunkum, but others thought it could be real! I had ‘War of the Worlds’ in my head 😂

Ray Favourite: I was nine years old: my brother came in and turned off the TV. I pretended I was annoyed at him but I was secretly thankful since I was quite terrified by the poltergeist stuff! Caught it again as an adult and loved it!

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Richard Phillips-Jones: It’s impossible to recreate or fully describe the effect this show had when it was first broadcast – a wonderful memory.

Julie Guest: Scared me silly, but didn’t deter me, I love the paranormal and part of a investigation team. 😁

Anne-Marie Ormsby: I thought it was terrifying! I had nightmares about Pipes for ages after and I remember girls being hysterical at school the next day because they thought it was real! Great great television!

Adam Sinclair-Greenwood: Yes I saw it and believed it was real – well, I desperately wanted it to be real so I over-looked the couple of pointers that it wasn’t. Knew by the end ‘though. It’s an amazing film and just as good now as when I was 12 😀

Andy Mercer: I was off work the week before it was on and saw Michael Parkinson being interviewed on ‘This Morning’ (there wasn’t much else on in the morning in those days) Parkinson mentioned that he was doing a ‘bit of acting’ at the weekend, which gave it away, so I knew it was going to be fake. (Plus, it said right at the start, that it was written by Stephen Volk who wrote Gothic – so it was clearly a drama) But I kept quiet when I watched it with some friends ‘live’ on Saturday. They were all spooked and scared silly – and I totally played along! 😉 pointing out all the scary bits and overreacting, while trying not to laugh.

Siofra Connor: I was allowed to stay up and watch it as it was my birthday. I still can’t hear the word Pipes without getting goosebumps on my arms…

Lisa Martin: Very entertaining. I loved it. Had watched and read a lot of horror before seeing this, so wasn’t freaked out by it, but it still held my attention.

Chris Halliday: Walked home from a Halloween party early to watch this. A brilliant bit of TV, genuinely scary and with a fantastic ending.

Philip Hutchinson: Yes. I thought it was genuine until they interviewed the little girl. Her acting was so bad I realised it was fake and turned it off.

Neal Browne: Ahead of it’s time terrifying at the time. I was tricked until Pipes started speaking through the girl and I caught myself and went “hang on…” I maybe misrembering but was the one and only screening followed by John John Carpenter’s The Fog? What a double bill.

Tracy Watton: It scared the wits out of me but I was so disappointed when it turned out to be fake 😂

Tony Ham: All I remember is Craig Charles being seriously annoying.

Robin George Blay: Watched it and still has the dvd lol.

Cheryl Grundy: I clicked it was a staged drama by about two minutes in as the acting was so bad, but my best friend was terrified by it and took some convincing that it wasn’t real.

Have you got memories of watching Ghostwatch when it was first broadcast? Have you seen it since? Tell us your thoughts in the Comments Section below.

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