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The BBC Halloween Hoax That Traumatized Viewers

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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.)

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8 Famous Séances
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For centuries, séances have provided entertainment for skeptics as well as solace for people hoping to catch a glimpse of their deceased loved ones. Here are a few notable times mediums have tried to contact the dead.

1. THE ANNUAL HOUDINI SÉANCE

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Before magician and famous skeptic Harry Houdini died in 1926, he said that he would send word of the afterlife, if there was one, once he was gone. He and his wife, Bess, even devised a code word that only they knew. Though Bess held séances on the anniversary of his death for 10 years, hoping to hear their secret word, nothing ever happened. Still, a variety of magicians, Houdini enthusiasts, and spiritualists have continued the tradition ever since.

2. JANE PIERCE’S WHITE HOUSE SÉANCES

Even if you don’t believe séances can produce spirits, you can’t blame First Lady Jane Pierce for trying. She had already lost two young sons before her husband, Franklin Pierce, was elected president in 1852, so she was particularly protective of Bennie, the only surviving child. Unfortunately, it didn’t do her much good—two months before Franklin Pierce was inaugurated, the family was involved in a train derailment that took 11-year-old Bennie’s life.

She wrote her deceased son a letter not long afterward, asking him to appear to her so she could apologize for failing him. To help him find his way, she hired the Fox sisters, famous mediums who did much to popularize séances. There’s no record as to what happened at the White House séance, but we do know Jane reported that Bennie had appeared to her in her dreams shortly thereafter.

3. LEVITATION SÉANCES

Starting in the 1880s, Daniel Dunglas Home convinced some people of his supernatural ability by levitating during séances. Though the stunts certainly generated publicity, Home's "abilities" were called into question when insiders said he simply stood between closely placed balconies or stood outside on wide windowsills. Home counted many celebrities among his fans, including Queen Sophia of the Netherlands, Napoleon III, and poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but he didn't impress everyone. Houdini wasn't fooled, calling Home “the forerunner of the mediums whose forte is fleecing by presuming on the credulity of the public.”

4. THE SÉANCE THAT “RAISED” A JUDGE

Judge John W. Edmonds died on April 5, 1874. A month later, he allegedly gave a speech in London, thanks to medium Cora L.V. Tappan, a young woman who had been giving spiritualist performances since the age of 15. The eloquent speech helped bolster the medium's successful career; she became the pastor of a spiritualist church the following year, and helped found the National Spiritualist Association.

5. THE MARY TODD LINCOLN SÉANCES

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Like Jane Pierce, Mary Todd Lincoln’s interest in talking to the dead is pretty understandable. And, also like Pierce, Lincoln employed the Fox sisters to help her reach a loved one taken too soon—specifically, her assassinated husband. There are no reports as to whether she was satisfied with the result, but the Fox sisters later admitted that their method of communicating with the dead—rapping on tables and other objects—was created by cracking their joints and making noises with their feet.

In addition to Abe, Mary also tried to contact her sons via séance, using a variety of mediums—and was quite happy with how those turned out. “Willie lives,” she once reported. “He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of the bed with the same sweet adorable smile he always has had. He does not always come alone. Little Eddie is sometimes with him.”

6. MUSEUM-WORTHY SÉANCES

Georgiana Houghton was an artist who became interested in spiritualism in the early 1860s after the death of her younger sister. It didn't take long for Houghton to combine her two interests, channeling creative spirits during séances to create watercolors and other works of art. Though she originally said that dead family members helped guide her hand, Houghton later claimed to have contacted Renaissance artists Titian and Correggio. Whether or not her works were the result of the afterlife, they're still relevant today—her art was exhibited at a prestigious London gallery just earlier this year.

7. THE BLACK HAWK SÉANCES

In 1913, Mother Leafy Anderson founded the Eternal Life Christian Spiritualist Association in Chicago, an organization partly founded on the messages she brought from her spirit guide, Black Hawk, a leader of the Sauk tribe, during religious séances. Anderson never knew Black Hawk—he died in 1838, nearly 50 years before she was born. Anderson herself died in 1927, but the word she brought from Black Hawk stuck—some faiths still channel Black Hawk to this day.

8. THE PAY-PER-VIEW SÉANCE

Lest you think that séances are ancient history—a silly diversion for people unenlightened by technology—consider Spirit of Diana, a 2003 pay-per-view event in which British mediums Craig and Jane Hamilton-Parker claimed to have contacted Princess Diana. The things Diana "revealed" weren’t exactly shocking or personal: The mediums claimed she said she was “having fun” in the afterlife, chilling with Mother Teresa. She had planned on marrying Dodi Fayed, and was still watching over her sons.

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A Brief History of the Crystal Ball
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When you think of fortune telling, a few classic pop culture props come to mind: candles, tarot cards, sartorial mainstays like a turban, silks, or bangles, elaborate tapestries, and of course, the crystal ball. If you’re not a divination expert, you might not know that what one does with a crystal ball is known as scrying—a world derived from descry, which means to perceive. While the fortune-telling act is based primarily on staring into reflective surfaces like mirrors, stones, and pools of liquid, you can technically scry into pretty much anything. The practice has been around for thousands of years, making appearances in the mystical and religious traditions of numerous ancient civilizations (perhaps most notably the Druids)—as has the sparkling glass ball we've come to associate with it.

Druids were a class of educated, highly respected citizens who lived in the British Isles and France during the Iron Age; they practiced a wide range of disciplines including poetry, lawmaking, medicine, and religious rites. While the Druids were largely wiped out with the spread of Christianity in the following centuries, witness accounts by notable Romans such as Julius Caesar and Pliny the Elder gave us some account of their religious practices. Pliny in particular devoted one chapter of The Natural History to “The Druids of the Gallic Provinces.” And in the very next chapter, he describes (and dismisses) various forms of magic, although not necessarily of Druids. These include “with water” and “with balls,” which might be early accounts of scrying.

As Christianity continued to dominate Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages, scrying became a divisive practice. Some devout Christians saw it as vehicle for divine intervention, and claimed to have caught glimpses of angels in their gazing, while others saw the practice as blasphemous at best, and a portal for demonic spirits at worst. In his fifth-century book The City of God, St. Augustine denounced scrying, claiming all such mystic practices as “entangled in the deceptive rites of demons who masquerade under the names of angels.” The practice, however, would soon find an unlikely defender in the scholars and academics of the Renaissance.

As Mark Pendergrast explains in Mirror Mirror: A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection, the Renaissance brought with it an increasing popularity of translated Arabic writings. Along with many important scientific ideas, these translations yielded the works of Picatrix (a name given to both the translation and purported author), who saw mysticism as a branch of science. In elevating the practice of scrying to something noble and rational, these beliefs offered a welcome alternative to the gloom and guilt of Christianity, and scrying grew in popularity and regard among the educated elite, soon establishing itself as a scientific—or at least quasi-scientific—staple among burgeoning academics. According to the Museum of the History of Science, which boasts a 17th century crystal ball in its collection: “The literature of magic itself recalls a time when natural and supernatural knowledge shared a common language. Sixteenth-century records of séances at which spirits were conjured typically went under the title of ‘Books of Experiments.’"

The crystal ball continued to be stigmatized by the church, but remained in relatively good standing in the scientific world, eventually finding its way into the royal English court. Its introduction was thanks to John Dee, an alchemist and mathematician with a deep interest in the mystical. Dee was a close advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, and she relied on his counsel in the scheduling of important events and matters of astrology, among other things. Along with his partner Edward Kelley (who was reportedly a much more successful medium, though some believe he was duping Dee all along), Dee would hold regular scrying sessions that involved he and Kelley staring into an obsidian mirror in the hopes of communicating with angels to gain otherworldly wisdom.

The Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse, 1902 // Public Domain

Dee wasn’t the only crystal-gazer to dabble in the political world; a few centuries later, Jeane Dixon garnered fame for her political predictions, which she made throughout the '40s, '50s, and '60s with the help of her trusty crystal ball. Dixon is best known for predicting the assassination of John F. Kennedy, though the legitimacy of her predictions is doubted by many. Her numerous skeptics coined the term “The Jeane Dixon effect” to describe the phenomenon of psychics being remembered favorably despite a scant number of accurate predictions, and a slew of inaccuracies. Dixon certainly had her share of inaccurate predictions: that Russia would be the first country to put a man on the moon (nope), and that George H.W. Bush would easily triumph over Bill Clinton (sorry, George).

Even her famously accurate prediction of JFK’s death seems less-than-legit when you consider the vagueness of the actual “vision.” The item that ran in the Sunday newspaper supplement Parade, on May 13, 1956, read: “As for the 1960 election Mrs. Dixon thinks it will be dominated by labor and won by a Democrat. But he will be assassinated or die in office 'though not necessarily in his first term.’” On top of that, Dixon also predicted that Kennedy would lose the 1960 election.

The popular image of the crystal ball reader—turban-clad and hunched over the ball—made its way into the mainstream partially thanks to the Roma or Romani people (often referred to as “gypsies” in the English-speaking world), who practiced various divination techniques and would sometimes set up fortune-telling booths at stops along their travels. Still, their clairvoyant displays were less about showcasing exceptional psychic talent and more about practicality: the booths were portable and easy enough to tote around as the community escaped persecution.

As for the turban itself, its origins almost certainly lie directly in the persona of one performer: Claude Alexander Conlin, who went by the stage name Alexander, The Man Who Knows. Alexander was a stage mentalist who, with the help of a crystal ball, would make incredible predictions about his audience members. Though he was extremely popular, Alexander was also a master marketer who made millions selling his own merchandise, including crystal balls. It’s likely this commitment to marketing we have to thank for the turbaned, bejeweled image of the male fortune teller, as you can guess from his striking (and well-circulated) posters.

Since then, the Alexander-esque image has become a widely popular way to depict fortune tellers in movies, from Big’s (1988) Zoltar to Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz (1939). As a result, while most people in the modern world rarely (if ever) encounter the object itself, the icon is in many ways as prevalent as ever. After all, there's even an emoji of it.

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