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Ghostwatch: The horror mockumentary that traumatised a nation

Here's how Ghostwatch, an elaborate social experiment from the BBC in 1992 convinced the entirety of Britain that ghosts truly did exist

Mike Smith, Michael Parkinson, and Sarah Greene in Ghostwatch

If you were to ask the Great British public to name the scariest experience of their life, I would wager anyone old enough to have been subjected to Ghostwatch back in 1992 would have put this unique horror movie pretty damn close to the top of their list.

In what was ultimately an elaborate social experiment from the BBC, those tuning in to the beloved television channel on Halloween night at 9pm were met with the welcoming face of Michael Parkinson. The chat show legend would play host to a genuinely shocking event in the history of British television, with Ghostwatch earning the reputation of being one of the most controversial ghost movies of all time.

Many who witnessed Ghostwatch unfold in real time are still, very literally, traumatised to this day. The ‘90s movie was the first film or TV series to be cited in the British Medical Journal as having caused Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in children. It even reportedly caused one man to take his own life. As a result, Ghostwatch has been banned from broadcast for 30 years, but as Halloween night approaches once more, the film is set to be made readily available again. So, we decided to investigate this most bizarre piece of British culture.

The BBC staged live coverage as they attempted to provide irrefutable proof that ghosts exist. With Parkinson in the studio alongside a team of call handlers and the supernatural expert Doctor Lin Pascoe, and Sarah Greene guiding the narrative at a property dubbed the most haunted house in Britain, viewers were led to believe they were watching paranormal activity sweeping the nation.

It was a more naive time, of course. Before the internet exploded and gave us the opportunity to fact-check anything at a moment’s notice and allowed us to become desensitised to the horrors of the world, Ghostwatch tricked the population of Britain and left its mark on popular culture forever.

The footage shown was all pre-recorded, methodically planned out to elicit fear across the country on the spookiest night of the year. Over at Foxhill Avenue, the hoax was brought to life by a cast of actors, most notably the Early family, the supposed victims of increasingly disturbing supernatural activity.

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Ghostwatch was basically a movie based on the true story of the Enfield hauntings, the same paranormal incident that inspired The Conjuring franchise. The production enlisted the help of various experts who argued both for and against the legitimacy of the footage being shown, and special technology was introduced to bamboozle audiences into thinking they were witnessing the real deal.

In the house, mother Pamela Early and her two daughters, Suzanne and Kim, recount the terrifying presence that has been causing them so much distress. The boogeyman in question, known only as ‘Pipes’, is developed with sinister patience as the show goes on; from a child’s drawing to brief reflections in glass doors. Pipes becomes a lingering spectre that we hear so much about but never fully see.

While the Early family do their best to convince us all that their ordeal is genuine, Parkinson remains cynical in the studio, doubting the family’s stories and laughing at the far-fetched tales from the live calls coming through on the night. These calls – many of which were actually complaints – were all in on the act too, with callers told that the events they were seeing on screen were all part of the hoax, before going on the air and providing further evidence of supernatural activity in their own homes.

Michael Parkinson and Gillian Bevan in Ghostwatch

The introduction of Doctor Emilio Sylvestri, an American paranormal sceptic, further condemns the notion of ghosts to that of the deranged and the world of make-believe. It’s a clever technique employed by the filmmakers, tempting us all to deny the very thing they want us to fear, luring us into a false sense of security.

This is all underlined by the revelation that the banging we hear in the house during the broadcast has been orchestrated by young Suzanne, who so desperately wanted everyone to believe her family’s story and help them. With the hoax seemingly uncovered, the legitimacy of the experiment should be dead and buried, but Pipes isn’t finished with us just yet.

Just as Parkinson prepares to call it a day, the situation at Foxhill Avenue escalates, as the bone-chilling voice of Pipes begins to make itself heard, Suzanne’s face becomes inexplicably mutilated, and frantic camera work in the house generates an unsettling atmosphere as doubt makes way for dread.

Michelle Wesson as Suzanne Early in Ghostwatch

The nature of the calls coming into the team intensifies too, as grim stories of spirits smearing excrement on walls and spitting at people and graphic descriptions of haunted playgrounds and dead dogs cause Parkinson to announce that normal scheduling of your favourite ‘90s TV shows has been interrupted, as they stick with the developing situation in the Early household.

The broadcast culminates in the revelation that a man fitting the description of the malevolent presence in the home was once subletting a room there years earlier. The man was convicted of molestation and child abduction, and after being released from a psychiatric ward, he killed himself under the stairs at Foxhill Avenue and was subsequently eaten by his cats.

None of this was true, of course, but it’s no wonder the entire nation was fooled and, indeed scared utterly shitless by what was going on. Ghostwatch is a genuinely horrifying experience which has stood the test of time against all odds, and while the final moments are a little hokey and over-the-top, you simply have to commend the fact the BBC were so committed to the bit.

Michael Parkinson in Ghostwatch

It was a problematic and incredibly risky move from a studio which is historically such a safe bet. No one expected the BBC to conjure up such a harrowing practical joke. No one ever imagined that Michael Parkinson would betray the nation’s trust, and, I’m sure, no one slept soundly that Halloween night in 1992.

Ghostwatch is being released on special limited edition Blu-ray for the first time and will be available in the UK on October 31 2022 as a celebration of the film’s 30th anniversary. If you love spooky stuff, check out our guides to watching the Halloween movies in order and the best horror series of all time.