CLOSE
GhostwatchBTC via YouTube
GhostwatchBTC via YouTube

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.)

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Lists
25 Polite Compliments You Can Pay a Coworker
iStock
iStock

January 24 is National Compliment Day, and a great way to celebrate is by making a concerted effort to praise the people you work with. Be sure to consider when an appropriate time and place for a compliment would be (for instance, shy people would rather be commended on their stellar presentation in private rather than in front of a crowd), but know that whether a coworker is a longtime friend or more of an acquaintance, lauding their work performance and letting them know you appreciate their skills could really make their day.

1. "YOU HAVE A GREAT SENSE OF HUMOR."

Women laughing in office.
iStock

Every office has one person who knows how to ease tensions at work by cracking a quick joke or sharing a funny link. If this person's sense of humor makes your job a little more enjoyable, make sure to let them know.

2. "NICE JOB ON THAT PRESENTATION."

Women giving presentation at work.
iStock

Public speaking is intimidating, especially to someone who's new to their job and not used to giving presentations. Notice your coworker is nervous before a big meeting? Seek them out afterwards. Letting them know you enjoyed and learned from what they said will hopefully make them feel more confident next time.

3. "YOU ALWAYS KNOW WHEN TO LEND A HAND."

Men working at table.
iStock

You probably know someone who's always willing to help out with a project when you need it most, and odds are they rarely receive the recognition they deserve. Next time a coworker offers some relief when you're feeling overwhelmed, don't let it go unnoticed. Set aside time to tell them you see the great work they're doing and you appreciate it.

4. "YOU'RE A SAVVY PROBLEM-SOLVER."

Working with post-it notes.
iStock

Being able to see problems differently is a valuable skill in the workplace. It can open up a team to new ideas and save precious time and resources. Sometimes you may be the person to spot the way out of a problem, and other times it's a coworker who points out the solution that was right in front of your face. If you're grateful for their point of view, they deserve to hear it.

5. "YOU'RE A GREAT COMMUNICATOR."

Doctor talking to colleagues.
iStock

Without communication, collaborating with the people in your workplace would be impossible. A great communicator knows how to understand other people's perspectives, explain their own, and make sure they're never keeping anyone in the dark. They're also not above receiving a compliment every now and then.

6. "I LOVE YOUR ENTHUSIASM."

Man talking at table with other people.
iStock

For some people, getting up and going to work each day is easy: They're personally invested in the company they work for and enjoy helping it succeed. Maybe you're not there yet, but you might see this level of passion and enthusiasm in at least one person you work with. Don't let that inspiring attitude go unrecognized.

7. "I APPRECIATE YOUR TRUST."

Two men in suits shake hands.
iStock

Effective management is just as much about offering guidance and support as knowing when to back off. Sometimes leaving employees room to breathe is the best thing managers can do to encourage growth and creativity. It's also a thankless move that often goes unrewarded. Expressing your appreciation to your manager can make a big difference in their day.

8. "WHAT A FUN PARTY (LUNCH/HAPPY HOUR/ETC.)."

Celebrating a birthday at the office.
iStock

People take certain work events for granted without stopping to consider the employees who make them possible. Birthday cakes don't magically appear and after-work happy hours don't plan themselves. Behind every fun break you get from your day-to-day duties, there's a coworker who took the initiative to make it happen, and they would like to hear that you enjoyed the fruits of their labor.

9. "YOU'VE GOT A KILLER WORK ETHIC."

Woman at a computer in an office.
iStock

We all wish we could be the employee who blows through projects without breaking a sweat. If you're not that person, the least you can do is pay the tireless person in your workplace a compliment—especially after a big project that had them tackling most of the work.

10. "YOUR POSITIVE ATTITUDE IS INFECTIOUS."

High-fiving at work.
iStock

Just like one pessimistic employee can bring down the whole office, a positive person can have the opposite effect. It's hard to feel grumpy about starting a new week when the colleague sitting next to you does everything with a smile on their face.

11. "YOU ASK GREAT QUESTIONS."

Woman raising her hand at work.
iStock

Asking about something you're not familiar with at work can be intimidating, whether it's about a new policy or procedure or perhaps about the ins and outs of a department you don't usually work with. But asking for help or clarification is also the only way to learn and grow. Complimenting a coworker who asks a lot of questions lets them know that not only is that OK, it's valued.

12. "I LOVE YOUR IDEAS."

Hand writing in a notebook.
iStock

When someone introduces a great idea at work, people often respond in one of two ways: They get upset that they didn't think of it themselves, or they admire the person for their brilliance. If you want to strengthen work relationships and feel better in the long run, we suggest expressing the latter.

13. "YOU'RE GREAT AT TAKING INITIATIVE."

People talking in an office.
iStock

Employees who take initiative help businesses run smoothly. Managers don't have to worry about babysitting them, and their coworkers never end up picking up their slack. Next time you go into work, find the person you know who always takes initiative and compliment them for their efforts.

14. "YOU'RE VERY CREATIVE."

Meeting at work.
iStock

Even if your job isn't particularly inspiring, you may have coworkers who find everyday opportunities to be creative. Their creativity might shine through in the form of a sharply designed flyer, a well-written memo, or an innovative solution to the problem at hand. Sometimes people who don't work in a traditionally artistic field are rarely complimented for their creativity—you can change that.

15. "I APPRECIATE YOU TAKING RESPONSIBILITY."

Two people cleaning up cups in a cafe.
iStock

Do you know someone at work who's taken responsibility—whether for a botched performance, a failed pitch, or a missed deadline—even when they could have gotten away with keeping quiet? That's not easy to do. Recognize their actions, and they may be inclined to do it more often.

16. "YOU'RE SO FLEXIBLE."

Office worker with bike on laptop.
iStock

Sure, you can promise your coworker this is the absolute last time you'll ask them to push a meeting back a couple of days or move up a deadline by a week. Or, you can compliment them on being so flexible and thank them for working around the changes so efficiently.

17. "I LOVE YOUR CONFIDENCE."

Woman walking down the street with coffee.
iStock

Confidence in the workplace is hard to ignore. It radiates from everything a person does, and when you're working on a project with such a person, it can make you feel more confident as well. Let this employee know that you appreciate their poise and self-assuredness.

18. "I APPRECIATE HOW TECH-SAVVY YOU ARE."

Woman pointing to a computer where a man is working.
iStock

Who do you turn to when your screen freezes, or when the long email you spent the last 15 minutes crafting suddenly disappears? Likely, instead of running to I.T. every time, you ask a nearby coworker who always seems to have the answers. Even if they don't share their know-how for the praise, they deserve a compliment and gratitude.

19. "YOU'RE A GREAT BAKER."

Workplace with cookies on a plate.
iStock

People who bake for their coworkers are a special breed. By sharing what they made with the office, it means that they not only took the time to cook with you in mind, but also that they're sharing a bit of their personal likes or hobbies with you. What better time to compliment the chef than when they bring platter of fresh cookies to the morning meeting?

20. "I ADMIRE YOUR LEADERSHIP."

Woman in hard hat with papers.
iStock

A good leader is many things, including fair, compassionate, and hard-working. But whatever qualities your manager exhibits that make you appreciate working for him or her, find a chance to let them know you commend their leadership, and that you're a better employee because of it.

21. "YOU HAVE A MIND FOR DETAIL."

People working at a table.
iStock

Details make a big difference at work, whether you're writing a big report or a thank you email. Sometimes the details that make the biggest impact on a project are hard to notice on their own. See if you can spot the smart, subtle details the next time you're evaluating your coworker's work, and tell them if you're impressed by what you find.

22. "YOU'RE ON MY WAVELENGTH."

Women talking at work.
iStock

It may not always top lists of most valuable skills to take into the workplace, but empathy can do wonders for office culture. When team members practice empathy and really make an effort to understand the people they work with, they make everyone's job easier. This is one skill that definitely deserves recognition.

23. "THANKS FOR BEING SO RELIABLE."

Two men shaking hands.
iStock

No matter what you do for work, it's impossible to do your job entirely on your own. Reliable coworkers you can depend on for support, guidance, and inspiration are a priceless resource. If they make the effort to show up and work hard consistently, the least you can do is show them you appreciate it.

24. "YOU'RE A REAL TEAM PLAYER."

Team working together in the office.
iStock

In order to succeed as a team, your colleagues need to have the right attitude. Maybe there's one person on your team who sets a good example for the rest of you: They know exactly when to step back and listen to other people's ideas and when to come forward with their own. Sometimes being a good team player means swallowing your pride to do what's best for the group, and that's behavior worth celebrating.

25. "YOU GIVE GREAT ADVICE."

Women talking to her colleagues at work.
iStock

At some point in your career, you've likely relied on a more experienced coworker for advice. Without mentors, many of the world's most successful people wouldn't be where they are today. Never be ashamed to ask for guidance, and once you receive it, make sure to show your gratitude.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
AFP, Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER