Ghostwatch: The BBC Halloween Hoax That Traumatized Viewers

Michael Parkinson, Mike Smith, and Sarah Greene in Ghostwatch (1992).
Michael Parkinson, Mike Smith, and Sarah Greene in Ghostwatch (1992).
BFI Video

After more than 20,000 phone calls, one induced labor, and thousands of angry letters, the UK's Broadcasting Standards Council convened for a hearing. On June 27, 1995, they ruled that the producers of Ghostwatch, a BBC program that aired on Halloween night less than three years earlier, had deliberately set out to “cultivate a sense of menace.”

Put another way: The BBC had been found to be complicit in scaring 11 million people senseless.

Airing from Northolt, North London, Ghostwatch alleged to report on the paranormal experiences of the Early family, which had been besieged by the actions of a ghostly apparition they called “Pipes.” Four recognized BBC presenters appeared on the show, which took on the appearance of a straightforward documentary and offered only subtle clues that it was an elaborate hoax. For a significant portion of viewers, it appeared as though they were witnessing documented evidence of a malevolent spirit.

Viewers grew so disturbed by the content that the network became embroiled in a controversy over what audiences felt was a ruse perpetrated by a trustworthy news source; cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in children were even reported in the British Medical Journal. What the BBC had intended to be nothing more alarming than an effective horror movie had petrified a country—and would eventually lead to accusations that it was responsible for someone’s death.

 

There is something of a myth surrounding Orson Welles’s infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast of October 30, 1938. As the decades have passed, accounts of how Welles used the H.G. Wells story to fool a nation into believing aliens had invaded have become embellished. Listeners had supposedly become so infused with terror that they leapt from windows and suffered nervous breakdowns. Major cities had streets crowded with people craning their necks and looking for signs of a violent galactic attack.

While it’s true a number of people may have been disturbed by the “accounts” of military forces being overwhelmed by aliens, it’s unlikely to have been as widespread as later accounts would have it. Newspapers eager to browbeat the competing medium of radio exaggerated the show’s effect, then quickly dropped the matter; it’s not likely all that many people were even listening in the first place, with the program going up against a popular comedy show airing at the same time.

A scene from Ghostwatch (1992).BFI Video

As perpetrators of hoaxes go, only Stephen Volk seems to have lived up to the standard Welles is thought to have set. A screenwriter, Volk pitched the BBC on a six-part series in 1988 about a roving paranormal investigation crew that climaxes in a live tour of a supposedly haunted house.

The BBC, however, wasn’t that enthused about devoting that much time to the idea. Instead, the pitch was condensed down to the last episode—a kind of “mockumentary” take on a paranormal occurrence that the channel could air as a Halloween special.

For Volk, it represented an opportunity to explore what he felt was the relative comfort of a television broadcast. Audiences went to horror films, he believed, knowing what to expect, consenting to being scared. But television was more intimate and less predictable. Viewers who tuned in anticipating a spoof or anticlimactic, tongue-in-cheek exploration would be in for a surprise—and not a pleasant one.

To add to the program’s credibility, Volk and director Lesley Manning structured it so two BBC presenters—Sarah Greene and Craig Charles—would be installed at the Early house, while highly regarded broadcaster Michael Parkinson would anchor from a studio. (Both Charles and Greene frequently popped up on BBC children’s programming, which would prove to be a lure when it came to an adolescent audience.)

Actors portrayed members of the Early family: single mother Pam and daughters Suzanne and Kim all reported instances of strange activity in their home, including rattling, mysterious cat noises, and smashed dishes. Suzanne would sport odd scratches on her face, which she claimed to be the work of Pipes, the ghost who refused to leave their home.

(In a testament to Volk’s commitment, he petitioned the BBC to allow him to try and insert a high-pitched warble on the soundtrack that would be audible to animals near televisions, hoping their bizarre behavior would unsettle viewers more. It proved to be technically impossible to do.)

Various ideas were batted around to reinforce the disclaimer, but few made it to the air. Mike Smith, Greene’s real-life husband and an on-air BBC correspondent who appeared on the special, once told the Radio Times that he suspected things might go south. “We had a meeting with the BBC days before transmission,” he said. “And we told them that this was going to cause a fuss. They told us not to worry because it was being billed as a drama in the Radio Times complete with a cast list. But we felt that wasn't enough."

 

By the time Ghostwatch premiered at 9:25 p.m. on October 31, 1992, the special had already been filmed, showing Parkinson reacting to segments and taking calls—all staged—that invited the audience to discuss their experiences with paranormal activity. In the interests of fairness, he also included an interview with a (fake) skeptic dismissing the Earlys’ claims.

Only highly observant viewers would have done the same. While the show began with a title card indicating it was written “by” Volk, the graphic was onscreen for only a split second; the presence of established and familiar faces to BBC viewers added to the verisimilitude. So did the program’s slow burn. At 90 minutes, it took its time, showing only fleeting glimpses into the Early family’s experiences that were left purposely ambiguous.

BFI Video

In the show’s second half, things took a turn. A viewer called in to tell them that someone had once committed suicide in the home; a mutilated dog corpse was said to be recently found nearby; the Early children were depicted as increasingly upset over the home’s disturbances. Around an hour in, Parkinson even advised viewers they’d be pre-empting scheduled programming to remain with Greene due to the "extraordinary" events taking place: Suzanne speaking in a baritone voice, and unseen cats mewling behind the walls.

Ultimately, Greene disappeared in the crawl space under the home’s stairs while a paranormal expert proclaimed that the television audience had unwittingly participated in a mass séance that had further emboldened Pipes. At the end of the show, Parkinson was seen being apparently possessed by the ghost’s spirit.

The finale laid it on a little thick, but not everyone made it that far in. By the time Ghostwatch signed off, a not-insignificant portion of the show’s 11 million viewers were either convinced ghosts were real, extremely upset at the BBC for traumatizing their children, or both.

 

The broadcaster had just five operators standing by its phones [PDF] once the show went off air, a number that was quickly overcome by the thousands of calls that flooded in. One woman reportedly went into labor due to the stress caused by watching the program; another reported her husband had soiled himself. Within hours, the BBC aired a brief segment that reminded viewers the show was fictional. It was a little too late.

Public discourse—including on the BBC’s own viewer feedback show, Bite Back—criticized the station for using its reputation to fool viewers into thinking harm had come to both the Earlys and to their hosts. Parapsychologist Susan Blackmore later said that “It treated the audience unfairly. It can be exciting to play on the edge of fantasy and reality, or stretch the accepted norms of television conventions, but this was neither true to its format nor fun. It was horrid to watch the distress of the girls, real or faked. I found it over-long and occasionally disgusting … The lack of adequate warnings was irresponsible.”

Michelle Wesson in Ghostwatch (1992).BFI Video

Greene quickly appeared on children’s shows to reassure younger viewers she had not been abducted or murdered by Pipes. Volk and Manning offered their own apologies, feeling that the BBC considered them pariahs. They had simply wanted to pay homage to Welles, never imagining the program could have the kind of effect it did.

In a report published in the British Medical Journal 18 months later, doctors in Coventry reported cases they classified as “post-traumatic stress disorder” from consumption of media—in this case, Ghostwatch. Two 10-year-old boys were suffering from panic attacks and sleep disturbances as a result of the broadcast. When the piece appeared, the Journal received correspondence from other doctors relating similar cases.

If not for his reported learning disabilities, 18-year-old Martin Denham might have been more psychologically equipped to deal with some transient nerves from the show. When he became distraught in the days following the broadcast, he began to grow concerned he might make contact with ghosts and committed suicide. His parents, Percy and April, blamed Ghostwatch, leading the Broadcasting Standards Council to rule that the show had been improperly labeled, with too few warnings that it was a fictitious premise.

Later, the handheld-camera, raw-footage approach would unnerve cinema audiences that flocked to films like The Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity series. While those films rarely resulted in any claims more serious than motion sickness, Ghostwatch successfully married the BBC’s credibility with an effective ghost story to create an experience that’s unlikely to ever be duplicated.

Not that the network wants to try. Since its original airing, the program has never again been broadcast in its entirety in the UK. (Though it is available to stream via Shudder.)

7 Ghost-Hunting Tools Recommended by Paranormal Investigators

Etekcity / Olympus / Amazon
Etekcity / Olympus / Amazon

My former apartment was haunted. The ghost, who seemed to be friendly, delighted in knocking container lids off the kitchen counter when no one was in the room. Sadly, I never documented the evidence because I didn’t have a night-vision camera handy.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Whether you're a full-fledged believer in the spiritual realm or a hardcore skeptic looking for some spooky fun, you can conduct your own paranormal investigations with just a few essential tools. “You don’t want to get lost in the gear,” says Jason Stroming, founder and lead investigator of the New York Paranormal Society. “Some people bring so much stuff to investigations that it looks like they’re about to launch the Space Shuttle.”

Here are seven expert-recommended devices to get you started.

1. Olympus Digital Voice Recorder; $32

Olympus/Amazon

On any ghost-hunting TV series—A Haunting, The Haunted, Most Haunted, Ghost Hunters, Ghost Asylum, or Ghost Adventures—the investigators will whip out a digital voice recorder to conduct an EVP session. That stands for “electronic voice phenomena,” but can encompass any mysterious sounds or voices from spirits in the vicinity. These handheld, battery-operated devices are an essential tool for any ghost enthusiast, Stroming says.

He recalls an EVP session at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden in Staten Island, New York: Just before midnight, during an otherwise uneventful investigation, Stroming and his crew heard the distinct creak of footsteps on the old wood floors. “We went to see if the security guard had come back in, but you can’t really get in to the front door without it making a lot of noise. We would have heard that,” he tells Mental Floss. At Snug Harbor a few months later, the crew had his digital recorder running when “the same thing happened—the footsteps. That to us was exciting, because it was the same time and the same activity,” Stroming says. “We all heard it.”

If you’re ready to capture your own EVPs, the Olympus VN-541PC recorder offers 4 gigabytes of storage and a one-touch record button.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Canon PowerShot; $249

Canon / Amazon

Stroming approaches the paranormal from a more skeptical point of view. “We try to debunk things first and look for rational explanations,” he says, so a digital camera with a night vision function is a must-have. They’re essential for capturing everything from unexplained light anomalies and shadow figures to mysterious creaks, thuds, and footsteps. The pocket-sized Canon PowerShot SX620 digital camera takes still photos and 1080p HD video in low light. Basic camcorders will record movement and sound (and not disrupt electromagnetic fields like a smartphone can). Those adapted for ghost hunting, like the Cleveland Paranormal Supply Co.’s model ($189 on Amazon), record in night vision and let you switch easily from infrared (also known as thermal imaging) mode to full spectrum mode.

“We try to take a lot of photos,” Stroming adds. “You just never know what’s going to show up.”

Buy it: Amazon

3. K-II ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELD (EMF) DETECTOR; $60

Electricians use inexpensive EMF meters to locate sources of electromagnetic radiation from homes and offices (common culprits are older appliances and cell phones). Ghosts are also thought to emit EM radiation or disturb the existing magnetic fields in a room. Stroming’s team uses EMF meters primarily to debunk spectral sources of EM radiation. “We’ve had cases where people are sleeping right next to an old alarm clock, or they don’t realize that their fuse box is right below them and could be giving off huge electromagnetic fields. That can cause hallucinations or the feeling of being watched,” Stroming says. “We say, ‘Move the alarm clock for a week, call us back and let us know.’ They always say it stops.”

On the other hand, an anomalous EM field in the middle of a room with no obvious source merits further investigation. While Stroming prefers the basic K-II EMF Meter, the ghost-hunting supplier GhostStop suggests its Rook EMF Meter. This fancier version can block man-made frequencies and indicate EMF disturbances with light and sound alerts, says paranormal investigator Graham Ober, GhostStop’s customer service tech.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Etekcity Lasergrip INFRARED THERMOMETER; $16

Etekcity/Amazon

A regular thermometer can measure the ambient temperature in a given environment. An infrared thermometer, commonly used by electricians and HVAC technicians, can take the temp of specific object with a laser. They’re handy for detecting cold spots in a potentially haunted area, which ghost investigators say can be signs of otherwise invisible entities.

Stroming uses an infrared thermometer to identify drafts around windows or air conditioning vents before an investigation begins, as well as for measuring thermal radiation during the session. When held about 14 inches in front of the object to be measured, the Etekcity Lasergrip 774 infrared thermometer can detect temps from a frigid -58°F to a broiling 716°F, although most paranormal entities seem to shift the room temp just a shade in either direction (3 degrees is the threshold for possible spectral activity, Ober tells Mental Floss).

Buy it: Amazon

5. Portable Home Security; $71

Any serious paranormal investigator will use motion sensors or vibration detectors to pick up movement in empty rooms. A basic portable home security system, with a couple of sensors and a receiver, is an inexpensive option. Just place the sensor on a table or shelf in an unoccupied room and carry the receiver with you. The receiver will emit an alarm or chime when motion is detected in the empty location, and you can then send in the unluckiest member of your ghost-hunting crew to check it out.

Vibration sensors (sometimes called geophones) work in a similar way. They can be set on the floor to detect phantom footsteps or other unexplained movement, and will light up when anomalies are sensed.

Buy it: Amazon

6. BINARY RESPONSE DEVICE

Binary response devices, or “yes/no boxes,” are another important tool. Investigators can ask suspected spirits simple questions and allegedly receive answers through the device—the theory being that spirits can harness the energy in the machine and use it to respond. Different replies are indicated with lights on either side of the gadget. GhostStop’s Flux Response Device features green and red lights to facilitate yes/no questions (green for yes, red for no) and to obtain answers to slightly more complex inquiries, such as “which corner of the room are you in?” (red for left, green for right). The steampunk-style Gyroscope Digital Talking Board from Paranologies has a yes/no/maybe function along with a full alphabet for longer words, much like a 21st-century Ouija Board ($17 on Amazon).

7. P-SB11 GHOST BOX; $130

NUATE / Amazon

A ghost box is a catch-all term for a device used to verbally communicate with spirits. Many of these gadgets continually scan radio frequencies, creating a din of white noise. “The idea is the spirit can use that white noise to communicate in some way, either verbally or through EVP sessions,” Ober says. Users can simply listen for disembodied voices, or yell questions into the void and hope for an answer from beyond.

There are numerous models on the market, from the popular P-SB7 Spirit Box (and the more advanced P-SB11) designed by Gary Galka of DAS to GhostStop’s Sbox, a similar device with added recording capability. “A lot of people are interested in recording the audio from the SB7,” Ober notes. “We’ve taken that technology a step forward, so you’re able to record that audio without having to have a second device present.”

One of Ghost Adventures’s fave devices is the Ovilus, designed by Bill Chappell of Digital Dowsing. Instead of scanning radio frequencies, the various Ovilus models generate words in response to environmental fluctuations or EMF anomalies, supposedly translating the spirit’s communications into English terms. Not everyone is sold on the device (“It’s like a high-tech Magic 8 Ball,” Stroming says), but Zak Bagans, lead investigator of the Ghost Adventures crew, is very fond of shouting rude questions at local spooks through it.

Buy it: Amazon

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11 of Our Favorite Horror Books

Penguin/Image Comics/Amazon
Penguin/Image Comics/Amazon

We’re firmly in that time of year when the air is colder, the nights are longer, and the books in our to-read pile are getting scarier. Cracking open a horror book in your comfiest chair is one of the best ways to embrace the Halloween season, and at Mental Floss, we’ve got plenty of suggestions for your next title. From genre classics that should be on everyone’s list to a few offbeat entries—including a must-read comic starring a spectacularly creepy ice cream man—here are our favorite horror books you should pick up.

1. The Penguin Book of Exorcisms // Joseph P. Laycock; $16-17

Penguin/Amazon

What better way to embrace spooky season than with this collection, which features real-life accounts of exorcisms from around the globe? When you're done, crack open The Penguin Book of Witches and The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories, which will also send shivers up your spine. —Erin McCarthy, Editor-in-Chief

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

2. The Witches // Stacy Schiff; $15-$17

Back Bay Books/Amazon

Few things are scarier than actual history, as Stacy Schiff's painstakingly researched and beautifully written account of the Salem Witch Trials—which began in 1692 and ended less than a year later, with 25 people dead—shows. —E.M.

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

3. The Haunting of Hill House // Shirley Jackson; $9-$15

Penguin/Amazon

Often described as one of the scariest books ever, Shirley Jackson's tale of four paranormal investigators who set up shop in a haunted house will fill you with creeping dread, making it the most perfect of reads for this time of year. At around 200 pages, it's a quick read—and when you're done, you can fire up one of the novel's TV and film adaptations to keep the creepiness going. —E.M.

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

4. Horrorstör // Grady Hendrix; $13-$14

Quirk Books/Amazon

If you’ve ever panicked while traversing the mazelike layout of your local IKEA, Horrorstör will be all too relatable. In this book, Orsk, a Swedish furniture store in Cleveland, Ohio, is the scene of some very paranormal activity, which spurs a handful of employees to brave an overnight shift to find out the origins of these malevolent spirits. It’s the perfect read for anyone who’s ever thought their 9-to-5 was quite literally out to get them. —Jay Serafino, Special Projects Editor

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

5. Blood Meridian // Cormac McCarthy; $10-$16

Vintage/Amazon

Awash in gruesome imagery and some of the most disturbing acts of violence ever put on the page, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian isn’t a horror tale of the jump-scare variety. Instead, it achieves pure terror by examining man’s hateful, vengeful nature under the guise of a Western. —J.S.

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

6. Ice Cream Man // W. Maxwell Prince, Martin Morazzo, Chris O'Halloran; $15-$17

Image Comics

The spirit of EC Comics and its lurid horror anthology titles lives on in Image’s Ice Cream Man. With his sharp white uniform and truck full of sweets, the titular ice cream peddler meddles in the lives of others, often with terrifying results. —Jake Rossen, Senior Staff Writer

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

7. The Ruins // Scott Smith; $14-$16

Vintage

Tourism takes a horrific turn in this unsettling potboiler about a group of American tourists who find that an ancient Mayan site isn’t too welcoming to visitors—and neither are the acidic vines that singe both skin and soul. —J.R.

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

8. Cujo // Stephen King; $15-$17

Gallery Books/Amazon

Published in 1981, this New York Times bestseller is not for the animal lovers out there. It starts in the town of Castle Rock, Maine, which becomes terrorized by a once-friendly Saint Bernard. While this is all happening, the Trenton family moves into the seemingly idyllic town only to realize it isn't as lovely as it appears. Parents Vic and Donna are having marriage issues, and their son Tad can't sleep due to the terrors coming from his closet. Little do they know that the real monster is waiting for them outside. —Elaine Selna, Commerce Writer

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

9. Ring // Koji Suzuki; Prices vary

Vertical/Amazon

Before the Japanese horror movie and the American remake, Ring was a bestselling novel. Published in Japan in 1991, the book turned the VCR into an instrument of terror at the height of its popularity. There are major differences between the original story and its screen adaptations, but the basic plot should be familiar to any horror fan: After watching a cursed video tape, the main character has seven days to solve the tape's mystery and escape death. —Michele Debczak, Senior Staff Writer

Buy it: Amazon

10. Let the Right One In // John Ajvide Lindqvist; $14-$18

St. Martin's Griffin/Amazon

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 Swedish novel chronicles the friendship of a young boy named Oskar and his enigmatic new friend, Eli, who happens to be a very old vampire. Let the Right One In has all the trappings of a grade-A horror story—bloodlust, mystery, plot twists, etc.—set against a backdrop of real-world issues, from bullying to alcoholism. The protagonists may be children, but the adult themes of this novel gear it towards older readers. —Ellen Gutoskey, Staff Writer

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

11. Carrie // Stephen King; $7-$14

Anchor/Amazon

King's debut novel from 1974 still ranks among his best. It revolves around a teenage outcast named Carrie White who gets bullied at school and has to deal with an abusive mother at home. Any hope she has of fitting in is soon dashed as she begins developing strange telekinetic abilities. —E.S.

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

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