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.)

10 Saccharine Facts About Sweetest Day

Peter Purdy, BIPs/Getty Images
Peter Purdy, BIPs/Getty Images

Unless you live in certain parts of the United States, there's a good chance you've never heard of Sweetest Day. For others, however, it's a century-old celebration. Here's what you need to know about the semi-obscure holiday.

1. THERE'S A REASON IT'S THE THIRD SATURDAY IN OCTOBER.

This image of newsboy Emil Frick was first published in The Cleveland Press on October 8, 1921.
This image of newsboy Emil Frick was first published in The Cleveland Press on October 8, 1921.
Digital scan courtesy of The Cleveland Public Library Microform Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When the holiday was founded in 1916, trick-or-treating hadn't become popular yet, so though Halloween existed, there was no autumn boost to the candy industry like there is now. That's why the National Confectioners Association invented a mid-season marketing gimmick to help increase sales before Christmas. Naturally, they tried to spin it otherwise, writing that the spirit of the day should be "interpreted as a spirit of good will, appreciation, and good fellowship."

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY KNOWN AS "CANDY DAY."

A Sweetest Day advertisement first published in The Cleveland Press on October 6, 1921.
A Sweetest Day advertisement first published in The Cleveland Press on October 6, 1921.
Digital scan courtesy of The Cleveland Public Library Microform Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though the National Confectioners Association wanted the celebration to appear as if it was about more than just candy sales, the name they gave the holiday belied their efforts. It didn't become the slightly more subtle "Sweetest Day" until the 1920s.

3. HERBERT HOOVER WAS NOT PLEASED ABOUT IT.

In 1918, Herbert Hoover was the director of the United States Food Administration, and was closely associated with relief efforts Europe. Here, he is standing with his wife and daughter by a poster giving thanks to America for its help in providing food.
In 1918, Herbert Hoover was the director of the United States Food Administration, and was closely associated with relief efforts Europe. Here, he is standing with his wife and daughter by a poster giving thanks to America for its help in providing food.
A. R. Coster, Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Of course the year the holiday was founded, 1916, was smack in the middle of World War I. By the time the second annual day rolled around, Herbert Hoover, who was then the director of the U.S. Food Administration, reminded the National Confectioners Association that their consumerism creation wasn't exactly in the best interests of America's wartime efforts to conserve sugar.

In 1917, an industry bulletin called The International Confectioner noted, "As Mr. Hoover had requested everyone, everywhere, to cut down as much as possible on their usings of sugar, he considered that Candy Day was an effort on the part of our industry in the very opposite direction."

4. CELEBRITIES AND CAUSE MARKETING FINALLY DID THE TRICK.

Actress Theda Bara giving candy to orphans in 1921.
Actress Theda Bara giving candy to orphans in 1921.
Digital scan courtesy of The Cleveland Public Library Microform Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once it was safe to increase sugar production again, marketing efforts kicked back into high gear. In 1921, Cleveland Candy Day organizers got the bright idea to tie the promotion into charity, giving sweets to orphanages and the elderly. Actresses Theda Bara and Ann Pennington went to Cleveland to help distribute thousands of boxes of candy, which helped further popularize the celebration.

5. THERE'S ANOTHER TALE ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF THE HOLIDAY.

A 1922 ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
A 1922 ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

According to Hallmark, Sweetest Day came about because a candy company employee named Herbert Kingston simply wanted to spread joy to others and "bring happiness to the lives of those who often were forgotten." But The Atlantic calls this happy little story a complete fabrication, so take it with a grain of salt.

6. HALLMARK WAS LATE TO THE PARTY.

A man mailing a letter in 1960s New York.
Keystone, Getty Images

Though it's often referred to as a "Hallmark Holiday," Hallmark didn't actually get in on those sweet Sweetest Day profits until the 1960s—nearly 50 years after it was founded.

7. MOST SWEETEST DAY CARDS ARE ROMANTICALLY INCLINED.

This front-page Sweetest Day cartoon was published in The Cleveland Plain Dealer on October 8, 1921.
This front-page Sweetest Day cartoon was published in The Cleveland Plain Dealer on October 8, 1921.
Digital scan courtesy of The Cleveland Public Library Microform Center, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Despite the fact that Sweetest Day started as a way to hawk candy to the downtrodden, it's now just another Valentine's Day for many people. Hallmark makes more than 70 Sweetest Day cards—and 80 percent of them are romantic.

8. FOR SOME, IT'S MORE POPULAR THAN MOTHER'S DAY.

A little boy gives his mother some flowers
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

According to Retail Confectioners International, some retailers say their sales for Sweetest Day are better than their sales for Mother's Day. (Sorry, mom.)

9. THESE DAYS, SWEETEST DAY ISN'T JUST ABOUT THE CANDY.

Two women laughing together.
Fox Photos, Getty Images

Though those commemorating the holiday can certainly buy candy, that's just one of the ways people can express their appreciation for anyone who might not otherwise have a special day (a favorite aunt, a next-door neighbor, the pet sitter). Various ways to celebrate Sweetest Day include flowers, cards, gifts, or simply just doing good deeds for others.

10. NEVER HEARD OF SWEETEST DAY? YOU'RE NOT ALONE.

An ice cream vendor in New York hands a young girl an ice cream in the 1920s.
Elizabeth R. Hibbs, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sweetest Day never gained as much ground nationally as it did in the Great Lakes region. The main states that celebrate sweetness on the third Saturday of October are Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, though it has also spread to areas of New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, and California. The biggest Sweetest Day cities are Detroit, Buffalo, and of course, Cleveland.

This story first ran in 2016.

Today is National Necktie Day in Croatia—Birthplace of the Necktie

Srdjan Stevanovic, Getty Images
Srdjan Stevanovic, Getty Images

If you're wearing a necktie to work today, you can thank (or blame) the Croatians for this stylish invention. The necktie's predecessor, a short knotted garment called the cravat, is a source of pride in this Western Balkan nation—so much so that they celebrate Cravat Day each year on October 18.

It's unclear when exactly the necktie was invented, but Croatian soldiers wore red cravats as part of their uniform during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). According to The Atlantic, Croatian mercenaries carried it to Western Europe that same century, and the French borrowed the idea and dubbed it the cravate. It became even more stylish when Louis XIV of France started wearing a lace cravat in 1646 at the tender age of 7, according to The Dubrovnik Times. The English eventually helped spread the accessory around the world, and it morphed into the elongated form we're most familiar with today.

In 1997, a nonprofit organization called the Academia Cravatica was founded to promote the cravat as a symbol of Croatian ingenuity. "By spreading the truth about the cravat, we improve Croatia's image in the international public," the organization states. "The fact that Croats invented the Cravat makes us proud to be Croats." (According to Time Out, Croatia also invented the first MP3 player, the zeppelin, the parachute, and fingerprint identification.)

The cravat is also tied up with national identity. The words Croat and cravat are etymologically linked, and were once different spellings of the same word. One sample sentence by David Hume in 1752 reads, "The troops are filled with Cravates and Tartars, Hussars, and Cossacs."

The holiday isn't normally a big to-do, but the county's capital city, Zagreb, occasionally gets pretty festive. In 2003, when the holiday first debuted in Croatia, the Academia Cravatica wrapped an oversized red necktie around Pula Arena, a Roman amphitheater. It took two years to prepare and five days to install—and at 2650 feet long, it ended up being the largest necktie in the world, as recognized by Guinness World Records.

Cravat Day was formally declared a holiday by Croatian Parliament in 2008, and it's been a hallmark of Croatian culture ever since. A few events were planned in Zagreb today, including a march featuring the "city's famous Cravat Regiment." So if you happen to be in the Croatian capital, now you know why more than 50 historic statues are looking dapper in their red cravats.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER