Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of War of the Worlds was so long ago (October 30, 1938, to be exact) that I’m betting many of you, even if you’ve heard of it, might not know exactly what it entailed. Basically, the famous filmmaker was using the relatively new medium of radio early in his career when he decided to broadcast a fictional account of an alien invasion of Earth…but he kind of forgot to tell people it wasn’t real.
At the time, accounts of the ensuing panic and mayhem were rampant, though likely overblown (possibly even by some newspapers on purpose, as publishers were nervous about the existence of radio). So while there were rumors of people leaping from windows in terror and suffering nervous breakdowns after fearing the planet was being invaded, the truth is probably somewhat less exciting (and definitely less widespread).
When screenwriter Stephen Volk pitched a six-part horror series to the BBC in 1988, though, the end result might have actually created the hysteria that Welles’ broadcast was only accused of fifty years earlier.
For their part, the BBC wasn’t that excited about the idea at first. Six episodes was a lot of time, and in the end they chose to air only the finale. It would be framed as a “mockumentary” of a paranormal investigation crew as they toured a supposedly-haunted house. They set it to air on Halloween and the station let Volk run with his idea.
Volk liked the idea of working with the horror genre in television as opposed to film – when audiences pay to see a scary movie, they know what they’re in for, but with television, he had more of the element of surprise on his side. When viewers invited him into their homes on Halloween, they wouldn’t be getting the tongue-in-cheek exploration they expected…and many of them would be more than a little angry about that in the aftermath.
To complete his bait-and-switch, Volk and director Lesley Manning used credible BBC personalities – Sarah Greene and Craig Charles – to head the investigation into the “haunted” house of the Early family while regular and highly-regarded anchor Michael Parkinson hosted from a studio.
Basically, people would tune in and think “these are faces I know and they deliver the news into my home. This must be really happening.”
And that’s exactly what happened when it aired on October 31, 1992.
What the audience didn’t know until later was that trained actors portrayed single mom Pam Early and her daughters Suzanne and Kim, all of whom spoke about strange activity, rattling, cat noises, smashed dishes, scratches, etc., in their home. They attributed the disturbances to a ghost named Pipes, an evil entity who refused to leave the house.
The show, titled Ghostwatch, took its time ramping up during the first 90 minutes. It had been filmed ahead of time, and it showed Parkinson in the studio reacting to pieces of footage and taking (staged) calls that invited the audience to call in and share their own paranormal experiences. There was also a (staged) call with a (fake) skeptic who dismissed the Early family’s claims as a hoax.
In the show’s second half, however, things began to take a turn toward the frightening. One of the fake viewers reported that someone had committed suicide in the Early’s home, while another reported finding the mutilated corpse of a dog near the house. Around the one-hour mark, Parkinson interrupted to advise viewers they’d be pre-empting scheduled programming (a lie, the show had been taped so they knew how long it would run) in order to stay with Sarah Greene and the “extraordinary” events happening at the Early home.
Suzanne spoke in a man’s voice. Invisible cats howled in the walls. She disappeared into a crawl space under the stairs while another paranormal expert worried that the television audience had been unwilling participants in a massive seance that had only made Pipes stronger. At the end of the two-hour event, Parkinson had apparently been possessed by Pipes.
By the time they signed off, a fairly large portion of the 11 million viewers were either convinced what they had seen was real, furious at the BBC for traumatizing their kids (and let’s face it, them too), or both.
There were clues that the entire thing was a scripted drama, though to be fair, they were small and purposely made easy to miss. The “by Stephen Volk” graphic only stayed onscreen for a brief second, no actors were listed until the end of the program, and the use of regular BBC anchors, familiar faces, some of which even broadcasted regularly on childrens’ programs, were all things done to trick the audience for as long as possible. At one point, Volk even wanted to try and insert a high-pitched sound audible only to animals into the soundtrack, thinking that if people’s pets went crazy and ran from the room, it could only reinforce his ruse.
They turned him down, and Mike Smith (Greene’s real-life husband and a BBC correspondent who appeared in the special), told Radio Times that they worried the whole thing could turn rotten…
“We had a meeting with the BBC days before transmission. And we told them 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.”
He was right.
Thousands of calls from angry viewers overwhelmed operators. One woman claimed that the stress of watching the program caused her to go into labor while another said it caused her husband to soil himself. The BBC quickly aired a brief segment reminding viewers the whole thing was fiction, and Greene appeared not long after on children’s shows to reassure them she was alive (and unpossessed), but it all had the air of too little, too late.
Parapsychologist Susan Blackmore later had this to say about the way the station used its reputation to fool viewers into worrying that real harm had come to the people in the program:
“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…The lack of adequate warnings was irresponsible.”
Eighteen months later, the British Medical Journal published a report that included cases of post-traumatic stress disorder that resulted from viewing Ghostwatch – two 10-year-old boys experienced panic attacks and sleep disturbances after watching the program. The journal received notes and calls from other people who claimed to be experiencing the same thing after the report was published.
An 18-year-old boy named Martin Denham suffered from learning and other mental disabilities that left him ill-equipped to deal with the anxiety and others stresses resulting from Ghostwatch. He became distraught in the days following the broadcast, sure that he would eventually make contact with the ghosts himself. His parents blamed Ghostwatch for their son’s sad decision to take his own life.
Even though others, like the Blair Witch and the Paranormal Activity movies, have tried their hand at the “found footage” genre, no one has successfully pulled off an experience like Ghostwatch since its original airing. Which, by the way, has never been re-aired in Great Britain.
For reasons, I feel, that are obvious.
h/t: Mental Floss