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 Spooky Halloween Traditions and Their Origins

EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images
EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images

Trick-or-treating, Jack-O'-Lanterns, and creepy costumes are some of the best traditions of Halloween. Share these sweet facts with friends as you sort through your candy haul.

1. Carving Halloween Jack-O'-Lanterns

Jack-o-lantern
kieferpix/iStock via Getty Images

Jack-O'-Lanterns, which originated in Ireland using turnips instead of pumpkins, are supposedly based on a legend about a man name Stingy Jack who repeatedly trapped the Devil and only let him go on the condition that Jack would never go to Hell. When he died, however, Jack learned that Heaven didn’t really want his soul either, so he was condemned to wander the Earth as a ghost for all eternity. The Devil gave Jack a lump of burning coal in a carved-out turnip to light his way. Eventually, locals began carving frightening faces into their own gourds to scare off evil spirits.

2. Seeing Ghosts

Celtic people believed that during the festival Samhain, which marked the transition to the new year at the end of the harvest and beginning of the winter, spirits walked the Earth. Later, the introduction of All Souls Day on November 2 by Christian missionaries perpetuated the idea of a mingling between the living and the dead around the same time of year.

3. Wearing Scary Costumes

With all these ghosts wandering around the Earth during Samhain, the Celts had to get creative to avoid being terrorized by evil spirits. To fake out the ghosts, people would don disguises so they would be mistaken for spirits themselves and left alone.

4. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Pagan Way

Trick-or-treaters
ChristinLola/iStock via Getty Images

There is a lot of debate around the origins of trick-or-treating. One theory proposes that during Samhain, Celtic people would leave out food to placate the souls and ghosts and spirits traveling the Earth that night. Eventually, people began dressing up as these otherworldly beings in exchange for similar offerings of food and drink.

5. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Scottish Way

Other researchers speculate that the candy bonanza stems from the Scottish practice of guising, itself a secular version of souling. In the Middle Ages, soulers, usually children and poor adults, would go to local homes and collect food or money in return for prayers said for the dead on All Souls’ Day. Guisers ditched the prayers in favor of non-religious performances like jokes, songs, or other “tricks.”

6. Going Trick-or-Treating, the American Way

Some sources argue that our modern trick-or-treating stems from belsnickling, a tradition in German-American communities where children would dress in costume and then call on their neighbors to see if the adults could guess the identities of the disguised guests. In one version of the practice, the children were rewarded with food or other treats if no one could identify them.

7. Getting Spooked by Black Cats

Black cat in autumn leaves
FromtheWintergarden/iStock via Getty Images

The association of black cats and spookiness actually dates all the way back to the Middle Ages, when these dark kitties were considered a symbol of the Devil. It didn’t help the felines’ reputations when, centuries later, accused witches were often found to have cats, especially black ones, as companions. People started believing that the cats were a witch’s “familiar”—animals that gave them an assist with their dark magic—and the two have been linked ever since.

8. Bobbing for Apples

This game traces its origins to a courting ritual that was part of a Roman festival honoring Pomona, the goddess of agriculture and abundance. Multiple variations existed, but the gist was that young men and women would be able to foretell their future relationships based on the game. When the Romans conquered the British Isles, the Pomona festival was blended with the similarly timed Samhain, a precursor to Halloween.

9. Decorating with Black and Orange

The classic Halloween colors can also trace their origins back to the Celtic festival Samhain. Black represented the “death” of summer while orange is emblematic of the autumn harvest season.

10. Playing Pranks

As a phenomenon that often varies by region, the pre-Halloween tradition, also known as “Devil’s Night”, is credited with a different origin depending on whom you ask. Some sources say that pranks were originally part of May Day celebrations. But Samhain, and eventually All Souls Day, seem to have included good-natured mischief. When Scottish and Irish immigrants came to America, they brought along the tradition of celebrating Mischief Night as part of Halloween, which was great for candy-fueled pranksters.

11. Lighting Candles and Bonfires

Campfire in the woods
James Mahan/iStock via Getty Images

These days, candles are more likely than towering traditional bonfires, but for much of the early history of Halloween, open flames were integral in lighting the way for souls seeking the afterlife.

12. Eating Candy Apples

People have been coating fruit in sugar syrups as a means of preservation for centuries. Since the development of the Roman festival of Pomona, the goddess often represented by and associated with apples, the fruit has had a place in harvest celebrations. But the first mention of candy apples being given out at Halloween didn’t occur until the 1950s.

13. Spotting Bats

It’s likely that bats were present at the earliest celebrations of proto-Halloween, not just symbolically but literally. As part of Samhain, the Celts lit large bonfires, which attracted insects. The insects, in turn, attracted bats, which soon became associated with the festival. Medieval folklore expanded upon the spooky connotation of bats with a number of superstitions built around the idea that bats were the harbingers of death.

14. Gorging on Candy

Halloween candy and brownies
VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images

The act of going door-to-door for handouts has long been a part of Halloween celebrations. But until the middle of the 20th century, the “treats” kids received were not necessarily candy. Toys, coins, fruit, and nuts were just as likely to be given out. The rise in the popularity of trick-or-treating in the 1950s inspired candy companies to make a marketing push with small, individually wrapped confections. People obliged out of convenience, but candy didn’t dominate at the exclusion of all other treats until parents started fearing anything unwrapped in the 1970s.

15. Munching on Candy Corn

According to some stories, a candymaker at the Wunderlee Candy Company in Philadelphia invented the revolutionary tri-color candy in the 1880s. The treats didn’t become a widespread phenomenon until another company brought the candy to the masses in 1898. At the time, candy corn was called Chicken Feed and sold in boxes with the slogan "Something worth crowing for." Originally just autumnal candy because of corn’s association with harvest time, candy corn became Halloween-specific when trick-or-treating rose to prominence in the U.S. in the 1950s.

25 Awesome Pet Halloween Costumes You Can Buy Right Now

Frisco
Frisco

As much fun as it is to dress up in a Halloween costume, it’s even more satisfying to throw one on your favorite four-legged companion. For one glorious day, you can turn your dog or cat into a vampire, a superhero, a Jedi, or even a taco, and it’s seen as completely normal. But picking out the right dog or cat costume can be difficult, especially with all of the choices available. Here, we’ve got 25 awesome cat and dog Halloween costumes you can get at Petco, Chewy, Target, and Walmart.

1. Wonder Woman Dog Costume

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Wonder Woman Dog Costume.
DC Comics

Turn your pooch into an Amazonian warrior with this ensemble that carries the colors and familiar tiara of Wonder Woman. Steve Trevor sold separately.

Buy it: Petco

2. Superman Illusion Dog Suit

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Superman Dog Costume.
DC Comics

Superpups won’t need a phone booth to dash into with this illusion suit that mimics that iconic transformation of Clark (Bark) Kent into Superman. (Note: Glasses do not have corrective lenses.)

Buy it: Petco 

3. Batman Dog T-Shirt

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Batman Dog Costume.
DC Comics

If your pet is low on patience when it comes to elaborate costumes, consider this minimalist approach. A Bat-symbol emblazoned on the back shows off support for vigilante justice.

Buy it: Petco 

4. DC's Batman Illusion Dog Suit

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Batman Dog Costume.
DC Comics

Your doggo probably never got to know their parents, which is at least one thing they have in common with Bruce Wayne. Avenge Gotham with this padded costume that gives your pet better abs than yours.

Buy it: Petco 

5. Batman Dog Bandana

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Batman Dog Costume.
DC Comics

The Bat-logo stands out against a yellow background in this pup-friendly kerchief for dogs that prefer sleeveless attire.

Buy it: Petco

6. Superman Dog Bandana

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Superman Dog Costume.
DC Comics

Is your heroic hound ready to cast off his glasses, quit his job as a newspaper reporter, and share his true identity with the world? This bandana is the classiest way to do it.

Buy it: Petco

7. Spider-Man Hoodie

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Spider-Man Dog Costume.
Marvel

While the debate over which Spider-Man did it best—Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield, or Tobey Maguire—rages on, the clear winner is about to be your dog wearing this costume.

Buy it: Petco

8. Jack-o'-Lantern Dog Hoodie

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Pumpkin Jack o Lantern Costume.
Bootique

Because carving jack-o'-lanterns is hard, turn your pup into a “pupkin” instead with this easy pullover Halloween hoodie.

Buy it: Petco

9. Cookie Monster

Best Pet Halloween Costumes. Cookie Monster Dog Costume.
Pet Krewe

The perfect outfit for the pooch who won’t take their eyes off your cookie even though they definitely can’t have chocolate.

Buy it: Petco

10. Toast of the Town

Best Halloween Costumes for Dogs.
Bootique

This oh-so-extra outfit is ideal for trendy millennial pets who know that the secret to happiness lies between two thick slices of avocado toast. The “Flaming Dawg Hot Sauce” headband is just icing on the cake … er, hot sauce on the toast.

Buy it: Petco

11. King Purrington

Get the best cat halloween costumes of 2019.
Bootique

Your cat doesn't need to dress like royalty to know they’re in charge, so let this king costume serve as a reminder to everyone else in the house. Just don't be surprised if your cat starts acting haughtier than usual after sporting a cape and crown for a few hours.

Buy it:vPetco

12. Lion Mane

Lion mane cat costume.
Pet Krewe

Halloween is a chance for your pet to look as ferocious as they feel all year long. But be warned: This lion mane costume will probably illicit more "awws" than screams.

Buy it: Petco

13. "Witch, Please!" Dog Hat

Witch hat dog Halloween costume.
Bootique

Spookiness, sassiness: This witch hat for dogs—complete with a lime-green wig and the words "Witch, please!" emblazoned on the band—has it all.

Buy it: Petco

14. Teddy Bear Dog Costume

Teddy bear dog costume for Halloween 2019.
Bootique

Your dog can become a bit more squeezable when you dress it up like a plush teddy bear—complete with little arms, legs, and ears.

Buy it: Petco

15. Dog & Cat Sombrero

Cat and dog sombreros for Halloween 2019.
Frisco

The best part about this sombrero for your cat or dog is that there’s no reason why you can’t strap it on their head even after Halloween is over. They may hate you for it, but the look on their face will make a great photo op (see above).

Buy it: Chewy

16. Cat Devil Costume

Cat devil costume for Halloween 2019.
Frisco

Every cat has a touch of evil in them, so indulge them this Halloween with the set of horns they've earned throughout the year.

Buy it: Chewy

17. Cat & Dog Vampire Cape

A dog dressed in a vampire Halloween costume.
Frisco

Simple but effective—turn your pet into an elegant count this Halloween with this red-lined black cape.

Buy it: Chewy

18. Taco Dog & Cat Costume

Taco dog Halloween costume for 2019.
Frisco

Your favorite pet dressed as your favorite food. Best of all, the entire taco costume comes in one piece, so you don’t have to worry about assembly being a hassle.

Buy it: Chewy

19. Dog or Cat Business Suit

Business suit dog costume.
Rubie's Costume Company

Chances are your pet will never have a high-powered office job, but that doesn’t mean they can’t dress the part. And don’t worry, the tie is attached to the costume, so your pup won't have to learn the Half-Windsor.

Buy it: Chewy

20. Skeleton Hoodie

Skeleton hoodie Halloween costume for dogs.
Hyde & EEK! Boutique

You really can’t go wrong with a classic like this skeleton hoodie. And with the ear holes in the hood, your pup will be comfy all Halloween long.

Buy it: Target

21. Ewok Dog Costume

Star Wars Halloween costumes for pets.
Rubie's Costume Company

Even the most jaded of Star Wars fans won’t be able to resist this simple costume that turns your dog into a fierce and fuzzy protector of Endor.

Buy it: Target

22. Jedi Robe

Star Wars Jedi Halloween costume for dogs.
Rubie's Costume Company.

A costume for a more civilized age, this Jedi pet robe is easy to slip on and adds a graceful elegance to any dog’s life. Just keep an eye on their paws—you don’t want to fall for that mind trick nonsense.

Buy it: Target

23. Jurassic World T. rex

Dinosaur Halloween Costume for Dogs.
Rubie's Costume Company

Cue the John Williams, because this T. rex costume is perfect for any dino-lovin’ Halloween freak out there. The kicker? The tiny arms, of course.

Buy it: Walmart

24. Yoda

Yoda Halloween costume for pets.
Rubie's Costume Company

You already know your pet is wise beyond its years, so slapping a Yoda costume on it is only natural. If you can’t fathom getting your cat or dog into the robe, you can opt for just the Yoda ears, too.

Buy it: Walmart

25. Blue Monster

Best dog and cat Halloween costumes.
Rubie's Costume Company

This Halloween, turn your pet into a furry beast—more so than usual. And if you don’t like the shock of bright blue hair, you can go for the pink version. It’s your money; embarrass your pup as you please.

Buy it: Walmart

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

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