The BBC Halloween Hoax That Traumatized Viewers

GhostwatchBTC via YouTube
GhostwatchBTC via YouTube

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.

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.

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.”

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.)

Write a Letter to Shakespeare’s Juliet for a Chance to Spend Valentine’s Day in Her Romantic Verona Home

Airbnb
Airbnb

Shakespeare didn’t specify which luxurious Italian estate was home to Juliet and her family in Romeo and Juliet, but hopeless romantics have linked a certain 13th-century house in Verona to the Capulets for many years. A balcony was even added during the 20th century to mirror the famous scene from Shakespeare’s play.

Now, Airbnb is offering one pair of star-crossed lovers the opportunity to stay in the house for Valentine’s Day. To apply, you have to write a letter to Juliet explaining why you and your sweetheart would be the ideal guests for the one-night getaway. The winner will be chosen by the Juliet Club, an organization responsible for answering the 50,000 letters addressed to Juliet each year.

juliet's house in verona, italy
Airbnb

If you’re chosen, you won’t just get to spend the evening reenacting the few happy parts of Romeo and Juliet—you’ll also be treated to a candlelight dinner with a cooking demonstration by Michelin-starred Italian chef Giancarlo Perbellini, access to a personal butler for the duration of your stay, tours of both the house and the city of Verona, and the chance to read and answer some letters sent to Juliet. Even the bed you’ll sleep in is especially romantic—it’s the one used in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.

juliet's house in verona, italy
Airbnb

juliet's house in verona, italy
Airbnb

And, of course, you’ll be giving yourself the ultimate Valentine’s Day gift: Freedom from the pressure to plan a perfect Valentine’s Day. The contest is open now through February 2, 2020, and you can apply here.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

7 Facts About Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd at the March On Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd at the March On Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963.
CNP/Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, under a sweltering sun, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to participate in an event formally known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. From start to finish, it was a passionate plea for civil rights reform, and one speech in particular captured the ethos of the moment. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 17-minute “I Have a Dream” address—which was broadcast in real time by TV networks and radio stations—was an oratorical masterpiece. Here are some facts about the inspired remarks that changed King's life, his movement, and the nation at large.

1. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the tenth orator to take the podium that day.

Organizers hoped the March would draw a crowd of about 100,000 people; more than twice as many showed up. There at the Lincoln Memorial, 10 civil rights activists were scheduled to give speeches—to be punctuated by hymns, prayers, pledges, benedictions, and choir performances.

King was the lineup’s tenth and final speaker. The list of orators also included labor icon A. Philip Randolph and 23-year-old John Lewis, who was then the national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. (He’s now a U.S. congressman representing Georgia’s fifth district.)

2. Nelson Rockefeller inspired part of the "I Have A Dream" speech.

For years, Clarence B. Jones was Dr. King’s personal attorney, a trusted advisor, and one of his speechwriters. He also became a frequent intermediary between King and Stanley Levison, a progressive white lawyer who had drawn FBI scrutiny. In mid-August 1963, King asked Jones and Levison to prepare a draft of his upcoming March on Washington address.

“A conversation that I’d had [four months earlier] with then-New York governor Nelson Rockefeller inspired an opening analogy: African Americans marching to Washington to redeem a promissory note or a check for justice,” Jones recalled in 2011. “From there, a proposed draft took shape.”

3. The phrase “I have a dream” wasn’t in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s prepared speech.

Rev. Martin Luther King attends a prayer pilgrimage for freedom May 17, 1957 in Washington
Martin Luther King, Jr. attends a prayer pilgrimage for freedom May 17, 1957 in Washington.
National Archive/Newsmakers/Getty Images

On the eve of his big speech, King solicited last-minute input from union organizers, religious leaders, and other activists in the lobby of Washington, D.C.’s Willard Hotel. But when he finally faced the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial, the reverend went off-book. At first King more or less stuck to his notes, reciting the final written version of his address.

Then a voice rang out behind him. Seated nearby was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who yelled, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!” Earlier in his career, King had spoken at length about his “dreams” of racial harmony. By mid-1963, he’d used the phrase “I have a dream” so often that confidants worried it was making him sound repetitive.

Jackson clearly didn't agree. At her urging, King put down his notes and delivered the words that solidified his legacy:

“I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream ... I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

King's friends were stunned. None of these lines had made it into the printed statement King brought to the podium. “In front of all those people, cameras, and microphones, Martin winged it,” Jones would later say. “But then, no one I’ve ever met could improvise better.”

4. Sidney Poitier heard the "I Have A Dream" speech in person.

American actor Sidney Poitier, circa 1970
Graham Stark/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sidney Poitier, who was born in the Bahamas on February 20, 1927, broke Hollywood's glass ceiling at the 1964 Academy Awards when he became the first African American to win the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Lilies of the Field (and the only one until Denzel Washington won for Training Day nearly 40 years later). Poitier, a firm believer in civil rights, attended the ’63 March on Washington along with such other movie stars as Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, and Paul Newman.

5. The "I Have A Dream" speech caught the FBI’s attention.

The FBI had had been wary of King since the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was perturbed by the reverend’s association with Stanley Levison, who’d been a financial manager for the Communist party in America. King's “I Have a Dream” speech only worsened the FBI’s outlook on the civil rights leader.

In a memo written just two days after the speech, domestic intelligence chief William Sullivan said, “We must mark [King] now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.” Before the year was out, attorney general Robert F. Kennedy gave the FBI permission to wiretap King’s telephone conversations.

6. In 1999, scholars named "I Have a Dream" the best American speech of the 20th century.

All these years later, “I Have a Dream” remains an international rallying cry for peace. (Signs bearing that timeless message appeared at the Tiananmen Square protests). When communications professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M used input from 137 scholars to create a list of the 100 greatest American speeches given in the 20th century, King’s magnum opus claimed the number one spot—beating out the first inaugural addresses of John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt, among others.

7. A basketball Hall of Famer owns the original copy of the "I Have a Dream" speech.

George Raveling, an African-American athlete and D.C. native, played college hoops for the Villanova Wildcats from 1956 through 1960. Three years after his graduation, he attended the March on Washington. He and a friend volunteered to join the event’s security detail, which is how Raveling ended up standing just a few yards away from Martin Luther King Jr. during his “I Have a Dream” address. Once the speech ended, Raveling approached the podium and noticed that the three-page script was in the Reverend’s hand. “Dr. King, can I have that copy?,” he asked. Raveling's request was granted.

Raveling went on to coach the Washington State Cougars, Iowa Hawkeyes, and University of Southern California Trojans. In 2015, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Although a collector once offered him $3 million for Dr. King’s famous document, Raveling’s refused to part with it.

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