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.)

15 Parenting Tips From History’s Greatest Fathers

istock
istock

From William Shakespeare to Benjamin Franklin, these famous fathers may span generations and nationalities, but they seem to agree on a few basic parenting principles: educate your children, love them, be a role model, and continue to expand your thinking as your children do the same. In honor of Father’s Day, here are 15 parenting tips from the ages.

1. Lock Up Your Liquor Cabinet // Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) 

In Montaigne’s 1575 Essays, the French Renaissance philosopher expresses his opinions regarding child rearing (and a multitude of other subjects). Among them was that parents should live modestly so they can give their children the majority of their resources, that a father should be honest with his children about his feelings, and that he shouldn’t try to be a frightening figure. Montaigne also wrote, “I think it more decent and wholesome for children to drink no wine till after 16 or 18 years of age.” Of course, modern parents will want to keep their children away from the liquor cabinet for even longer, since the legal drinking age today is 21. 

2. It Gets Better // Miguel de Cervantes (c. 1547-1616) 

When Cervantes wrote “time ripens all things; no man is born wise,” in part two of Don Quixote, he wasn’t talking specifically about fatherhood, but it certainly applies. You don’t know what it’s like to be a parent until you’re thrown into that situation, and from there, you spend the rest of your life learning. 

3.  Be Able to Pick Your Child Out of a Lineup // William Shakespeare (1564-1616) 

During Act Two, Scene Two of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Launcelot says to his blind father, Gobbo, “It is a wise father that knows his own child,” before revealing himself as said son. Shakespeare himself had three children with his wife Anne Hathaway. 

4. Encourage Intellectual and Physical Growth // Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

Franklin was self-taught after the age of 10 and eventually earned honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and St. Andrews in Scotland. But Franklin wasn’t just book smart: Sometime during the course of his learning, he picked up a darn good parenting philosophy. Franklin, who had three children with his wife Deborah Read, once said,  “A house is not a home unless it contains food and fire for the mind as well as the body.”

5. Give Them Liberty // John Adams (1735-1826)

The second president of the United States and father of six children believed his brood should uphold the same patriotic values he fought for. “Children should be educated and instructed in the principles of freedom,” he once said.

6.  Parent for the Kids You Want // Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)

Goethe’s professional philosophizing wound its way into his personal life as well. The German playwright, poet, and father of seven children said on the topic, “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”

7. A Symbolic Father Can Be Just as Loving // Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) 

Father of four and influential German playwright and philosopher Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller said, “It is not flesh and blood but the heart which makes us fathers and sons.” 

8. Instill a Love of Reading // Horace Mann (1796-1859)

Since he was an education reformer, proponent of public schools, and the “father of the common school,” it’s no surprise that Mann urged fathers to instill a love of knowledge in their children from an early age. He said, “A house without books is like a room without windows. No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them.”

9. Don’t Ignore Your Friends Just Because You Have Kids Now // Victor Hugo (1802-1885) 

While Victor Hugo’s works (most notably Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) favor themes of despair and alienation, the author and father of five was generous and inclusive when it came to love. Hugo said, “Son, brother, father, lover, friend. There is room in the heart for all the affections, as there is room in heaven for all the stars.” 

10. Be the Fun Dad and the Serious Dad // Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

As the leader of the Transcendentalist movement, Emerson advocated self-reliance, individuality, and the goodness of people and nature. When it came to parenting his four children, he advised, “Be silly. Be honest. Be kind.”

11.  Set a Good Example // John S.C. Abbott (1805-1877) 

American historian and minister John Stevens Cabot Abbott’s books (The Child at Home, Or, The Principles Of Filial Duty and The Mother at Home, Or the Principles of Maternal Duty) are full of moral and religious teachings. He wrote, “We must be what we wish our children to be. They will form their characters from ours.”

12.  Provide for Your Kids // John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) 

John Stuart Mill was a British moral and political theorist, philosopher, economist, and politician. In On Liberty, he wrote ,“It still remains unrecognized, that to bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society.” Mill also argued that if the government enables self-sustainability and personal freedom, individuals as well as the society as a whole will be better off. 

13. Get it Right the First Time // Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) 

Douglass spent his early years as a slave in Maryland before escaping at the age of 20, going on to become an active abolitionist and human rights advocate. The cruelty of his childhood no doubt influenced his views toward parenting. (He had five children.) “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” he wrote.

14.  Go Outside // John Muir (1838-1914) 

Muir was a naturalist, conservationist, and a father of two. In Muir’s book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, he wrote, “Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights.” 

15. Keep Them Smiling // Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) 

Wilde said, “The best way to make children good is to make them happy.” During the early years of his marriage to Constance Lloyd, the couple collaborated on publishing children’s books and had two sons of their own.

The 10 Most Dog-Friendly Workplaces in America

iStock/Lisa5201
iStock/Lisa5201

Bringing your dog to work might seem like it could be yet another job to handle, but the benefits of having your pupper by your side while you get through the daily grind—for both you and your co-workers—are numerous. Which helps explain why Take Your Dog to Work Day, which will be celebrated on June 21, has been a beloved holiday for office workers for more than 20 years.

According to a survey conducted by the dog lovers at Wellness Natural Pet Food, 65 percent of pet parents believe that having a dog in the workplace is a great way to boost company morale, while a whopping 75 percent of respondents said that pets can help to defuse stressful situations at work. In fact, nearly half of all dog moms and dads surveyed take their four-legged friends' wellbeing so seriously that "pet perks" are one of the factors they deem important when considering a new job offer.

So, in honor of Take Your Dog to Work Day, Wellness crunched the numbers in order to determine the 10 most pet-friendly companies in America. Did your employer make the cut?

1. Amazon // Seattle

On a daily basis, there could be as many as 6000 pups working out of Amazon's Seattle headquarters. Fortunately, the company makes them all feel at home with several on-campus dog parks, a doggie deck, and treats at the reception desk in every building. Because they're all good boys.

2. Harpoon Brewery // Boston

Boston's Harpoon Brewery loves welcoming four-legged friends into the fold. In addition to allowing dogs in the office throughout the week (which is located close enough to the Boston Seaport for a leisurely stroll), they host an annual "Dogtoberfest," where dogs and their humans tour the brewery for a beer-tasting (for the humans only, of course).

3. Trupanion // Seattle

Pet medical insurance company Trupanion takes pet perks to a whole different level with its in-house team of dog walkers and an onsite emergency team who are always standing by to ensure your dog’s health and safety throughout the workday. In addition, they allow a three-day paid bereavement period for employees dealing with the loss of a pet.

4. Ben & Jerry’s // Burlington, Vermont

Two of the world's greatest things—dogs and ice cream—come together in one magical place at Ben & Jerry's, where the 35 to 40 pups who hang out in the office on a daily basis are treated to yummy snacks and playtime. The company also regularly brings in veterinarians to help educate pet parents on everything from normal dog behaviors to training tips.

5. Contently // New York city

Dogs are content at Contently, a content marketing firm where good boys and girls are regularly found roaming the halls or taking naps in conference rooms. Contently employees even have access to a Slack channel for all pet-loving employees to share advice, tips, and adorable pics.

6. Procore // Carpinteria, California

Parties? More like “Pawties” with Procore’s dog-friendly happy hour. Dogs are able to play around outside while chowing down on treats and water when needed. In addition, pet insurance is one unique employee benefit you won't find in many other places.

7. Ticketmaster // Los Angeles

Dogs get a ticket to join their parents at Ticketmaster's Los Angeles office—another company where pet insurance is a great perk.

8. PetSafe // Knoxville, Tennessee

Celebrated pet brand PetSafe makes having dogs in the office a win-win for both employees and employers. As the company makes high-quality toys, treats, and more, they've got a never-ending supply of product testers right there to make sure they're headed in the right direction.

9. TripAdvisor // Needham, Massachusetts

Why leave Fluffy or Fido at home with only a pet cam to keep them company when they can just spend their day dozing off right next to your desk. TripAdvisor's extremely dog-friendly atmosphere means that you'll regularly see dozens of pooches frolicking around the office together.

10. Purely Elizabeth // Boulder, Colorado

It would make sense that natural pet food brand Purely Elizabeth would encourage their dog-loving employees to spend more time with their pets by bringing their tail-waggers to work. You probably won't hear Rover complain, as testing out new treats is regularly part of the deal.

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