Many TV shows have cause nightmares, but BBC mockumentary “Ghostwatch” sparked several cases of post-traumatic stress and reportedly led one viewer to commit suicide.
The 90-minute drama originally aired under the guise of a real-life investigation and featured well-known TV personalities including Michael Parkinson (above, middle).
The predecessor to horror hits such as “Blair Witch Project” supposedly investigated a haunted house as the TV crew aimed to prove that the supernatural existed. It real aired in a time-slot on the BBC usually reserved for scripted programming — and while many viewers realized it was fake, a lot didn’t.
“One woman wrote in to the producer at the BBC, and she demanded money from the BBC, because her husband, who I think was a paratrooper, had actually soiled his trousers he was so scared,” writer Stephen Volk said in a subsequent documentary about the fallout.
The BBC received 30,000 complaints via phone within the first hour, with many parents saying it caused post-traumatic stress among their children, and one family claiming it led to their son’s suicide.
Martin Denham, an 18-year-old factory worker with learning difficulties, committed suicide five days after “Ghostwatch” had aired, News.com.au, reported. His parents said Martin was “hypnotized and obsessed” with the show, which convinced him there were ghosts in the own family home.
Denham left a note saying: “If there are ghosts I will be … with you always as a ghost.”
A 1994 report in the British Medical Journal detailed several cases of children suffering from post-traumatic stress in the wake of the show, and the Broadcasting Standards Commission ruled that “the BBC had a duty to do more than simply hint at the deception it was practising on the audience. In ‘Ghostwatch’ there was a deliberate attempt to cultivate a sense of menace.”
“None of us thought we were creating something that would be one of TV’s most remembered programs,” Parkinson told the Radio Times in an October 2011 interview.
“It was a simple ghost story based on a fairly ordinary premise that there’s a show on television and things start to go wrong. It was only when I saw it back that I realized it had a certain kind of power.”
By the end of the show, the ghostly entity dubbed “Pipes” — because the strange noises had been repeatedly blamed on old pipes — had jumped from the haunted house to the BBC studio, dragging one host to a presumably grisly end and then possessing Parkinson himself to take control of the TV channel.
“The disconcerting thing for me was that nobody would tell me how it ended,” Parkinson said.
“They kept me in the studio once everyone else had left and these bloody cameras started moving towards me and this red light appeared at the top of the gantry. It was quite chilling to see what looked like large Daleks closing in.”
The BBC permanently banned “Ghostwatch” but now horror junkies can watch in all its terrifying glory on Shudder, the premium streaming service operated by AMC. Shudder was careful to call it a “documentary” in quotes, warning viewers.
A TV reporter investigates a haunted house in this classic British “documentary”, which was originally broadcast in the UK on Halloween in 1992. As experts in the BBC studio discuss supernatural phenomena, reporter Sarah Greene waits patiently for proof of a poltergeist named Pipes, whose bad behavior grows bolder throughout the evening. “Ghostwatch” freaked out gullible viewers across the UK (no warning indicated the special was scripted), leading to controversy, lawsuits and a devoted cult following who continue to search the doc for hidden glimpses of the ghoul.
Watch a clip below.