'Ghostwatch' Is The Most Underrated Found Footage Movie You've Never Seen
Photo: BBC

'Ghostwatch' Is The Most Underrated Found Footage Movie You've Never Seen

Years before The Blair Witch Project popularized the found footage horror movie genre, one of the creepiest examples of the style was broadcast on Halloween night in 1992. The show was called Ghostwatch and it became one of the most popular TV movies on the BBC, while also exposing the producers and showrunners to the controversy that led to the creepy videos being suppressed for more than a decade. To this day, Ghostwatch has never aired again in its entirety, and it remains one of the most controversial movies around, having been linked to cases of PTSD and even one person's untimely end.

Set in a fictional council house on Foxhill Drive, the story of Ghostwatch sounds simple enough. As a Halloween special, a news crew is planning to spend the night in a reportedly haunted house. As the night drags on, it seems the resident ghost, which the children call "Pipes," may be more real, and far more sinister, than most anyone was prepared for. 

Part of what made Ghostwatch such a controversial hit was that it was filmed and presented as a live television broadcast, in spite of having been recorded weeks earlier. It also used real TV personalities, playing themselves, as part of the cast. Years before reality TV and found footage horror became de rigueur, this technique of blurring the line of authenticity made sure Ghostwatch was remembered, while its subsequent censorship by the BBC lent it an air of urban legend in the years that followed.

  • 'Ghostwatch' Is Like 'War Of The Worlds' For The TV Era

    'Ghostwatch' Is Like 'War Of The Worlds' For The TV Era
    Photo: BBC

    While the makers of Ghostwatch may not have specifically set out to dupe the British public into thinking there really were ghosts infecting a local house and the airwaves, the elements that caused viewers to perceive the broadcast as authentic were very intentional. Originally conceived by screenwriter Stephen Volk as a six-part drama, when the idea hit to compress Ghostwatch into a 90-minute special for Halloween, Volk suggested doing it as a "live transmission from a haunted house."

    The show, which aired on Halloween night as part of the BBC's Screen One time slot, featured real-life TV personalities playing themselves in many of the lead roles, including Sarah Greene and her husband, Mike Smith; Craig Charles; and host Michael Parkinson. This combination of faux-documentary filmmaking and real reporters and anchors led people all over Britain to believe what they were seeing was real, in spite of credits at the beginning and end of the show.

    While the BBC apologized for the furor caused by the program, Volk has since written that, while the hoax may have been somewhat unintended, "Ghostwatch was, of course, also about television." And, specifically, about exploring that line between what's real and what isn't on TV, a line that has become even more blurred in the years since Ghostwatch was released on an unsuspecting populace.

  • The Film Was Written By Horror Author Stephen Volk

    The Film Was Written By Horror Author Stephen Volk
    Photo: BBC

    Before he came up with the idea of Ghostwatch, horror author and screenwriter Stephen Volk was no stranger to blending fact and fiction. His first produced screenplay was for Ken Russell's film Gothic, detailing the fictionalized events of one night at the Villa Diodati, which led Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein

    Having been inspired by the works of Nigel Kneale, specifically The Stone Tapes, as well as Nicholas Roeg's adaptation of Don't Look Now, it may come as no surprise that Volk penned Ghostwatch. He has since gone on to write several novels featuring real figures, such as Peter Cushing and Alfred Hitchcock, as characters, not to mention short story collections and screenplays for several other horror films, including The Guardian and The Awakening.

  • When It Aired On Halloween Night, Britain Panicked

    When It Aired On Halloween Night, Britain Panicked
    Photo: BBC

    Ghostwatch aired for the first and last time on the BBC at 9:30 pm on Halloween night in 1992, shortly after the "9 o'clock watershed," when programs considered unsuitable for children were allowed to broadcast. At one point in the film, host Michael Parkinson actually informs a (fictitious) caller irate at what her children are watching that they are after the 9 o'clock watershed and her children should probably be in bed.

    Neither the show's relatively late hour nor the credits at the beginning and end of the program prevented many of its estimated 11 million viewers from reacting with panic, indignation, and anger. Screenwriter Stephen Volk recalled how the production team was celebrating as the program aired when producer Ruth Baumgarten "arrived with a white face and said the switchboard had been jammed at the BBC."

    So many people were upset over the program that the BBC issued a public apology and has never shown Ghostwatch again.

  • There Were As Many As 1 Million Calls Of Concern And Complaint

    There Were As Many As 1 Million Calls Of Concern And Complaint
    Photo: BBC

    As part of its structure aping a real-life television special, Ghostwatch featured a number shown onscreen that viewers could call to tell stories of their own ghostly experiences. Heightening the realism, the number was the standard BBC call-in line, the same one used in popular shows like Going Live!

    Callers were supposed to reach a message telling them the show was fictional before getting the opportunity to share their own stories of ghostly encounters to actual members of the Society for Psychical Research, including Maurice Grosse, who had been a part of the investigation of the "Enfield Poltergeist" case which served as a partial inspiration for the show. Except so many people called in that the phone lines quickly became jammed, leading callers to receive a busy signal instead, which inadvertently stoked the panic that gripped those who believed what they were seeing.

    While it is impossible to know for sure how many people phoned the BBC that night, estimates range as high as 1 million calls, with as many as 30,000 - maybe more - in a single hour.

  • Children Who Watched The Show Reported PTSD Symptoms In Later Years

    Children Who Watched The Show Reported PTSD Symptoms In Later Years
    Photo: BBC

    Just a year after Ghostwatch aired on the BBC, the first cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by the show were reported in the British Medical Journal. A 10-year-old spent eight weeks in an inpatient facility where he was admitted after banging his head "in an attempt to free himself from thoughts of Ghostwatch and its evil spirit, 'Pipes.'"

    Four more children with similar symptoms were reported in short order. There was also an 18-year-old who took his own life after becoming obsessed with the program.

    The show's producers were rebuked by the Broadcasting Standards Commission, but while Ghostwatch may have traumatized a generation of viewers, screenwriter Stephen Volk later recalled a more positive reaction, describing people coming up to him and saying, "I had to sleep with the light on for three weeks but it got me into film-making," or even, "it got me into horror." He described those interactions as "the best result" of the infamous show.

  • The Parents Of A Man Who Took His Own Life Blamed 'Ghostwatch' For Their Loss 

    The Parents Of A Man Who Took His Own Life Blamed 'Ghostwatch' For Their Loss 
    Photo: BBC

    Martin Denham was an 18-year-old with learning difficulties who became "hypnotized and obsessed" during the Halloween broadcast of Ghostwatch, according to his mother and stepfather. After the show, Martin asked to change bedrooms. He never explained why, but his stepfather thought it was because the pipes in the house knocked, like those in the show had.

    Just five days after the show was broadcast, Martin ended his life. Martin's parents cited Ghostwatch for their loss. "He seemed entranced with the talk of ghosts," Martin's mother said of her son's behavior in the days leading up to the incident. 

    When BFI finally released Ghostwatch on DVD in 2002, Martin's mother condemned the decision, claiming the show took her son away from her.