BBC’s most controversial show returns to the joy of horror movie fans

Halloween night, 1992. BBC airs a horror mockumentary, “Ghostwatch,” to celebrate the day of terror. Screams and sobs fill the air. Moonlit tears streak children’s faces. They have seen horror. They have felt true fear. These children are traumatized by this film that will forever stain BBC’s name and haunt the dreams of many.

“Ghostwatch,” both one of BBC’s greatest successes and most terrible controversies, resulted in two cases of misdiagnosed PTSD and around 30,000 complaints within its the first hour of airing. The show has since been banned in the UK, but its overseas audience in America has recently increased drastically. 

What made it so controversial?

The show, designed as both satire and horror, never intended to create lasting harm. It was your run-of-the-mill R-rated horror, filled with violence, psychological trauma and action. It wasn’t made for kids and embraced the freedom found in entertaining an adult audience. However, this left many child viewers with nightmares for decades to come. 

“None of us thought we were creating something that would be one of TV’s most remembered programs,” host Michael Parkinson said in a RadioTimes interview.

The scripted show was filmed as though it were a live broadcast portraying true and disturbing events. The plot follows a family haunted by a mysterious ghost who goes by the name “Pipes.” The reporting duo investigating the family encouraged audiences to provide their own paranormal encounters, which were later seen to be connected to the show’s plot itself. As the audience’s stories grew more violent, so did the events of the show. Pipes was soon revealed to be the spirit of a mentally unstable man who was haunted by the ghost of a child murderer. Pipes’s spirit grows more and more unstable and malevolent, as the film ends with Pipes possessing one of the family members. The nightmarish gore and horror would forever be remembered by young viewers.

Upon release, the film quickly sparked controversy. Later articles criticised “Ghostwatch” for its disturbing scenes and for portraying fictional events in an all-too-realistic manner. Audiences truly believed the film was real, and this greatly troubled viewers. Additionally, parents were misled into believing that “Ghostwatch” was appropriate for children, as host Sarah Greene was known for presenting kids’ show “Going Live!” As a result, parents paid no heed to the well thought out R-rating.

“Ghostwatch,” predecessor to films like “The Blair Witch Project,” was the first piece of media that left a lasting impression on viewers, albeit a negative one. 

“One woman wrote in to the producer at the BBC, and she demanded money from the BBC because her husband, who I think was a paratrooper, had actually soiled his trousers — he was so scared,” Stephen Volk, writer for the show, recalled. 

For many of the child viewers, the show was traumatizing. Two doctors who claimed to have treated two children for PTSD relayed their findings, writing, “This boy had been frightened by ‘Ghostwatch’ and had refused to watch the ending. He subsequently expressed fear of ghosts, witches, and the dark, constantly talking about them and seeking reassurance. He suffered panic attacks, refused to go upstairs alone, and slept with the bedroom light on. He had nightmares and daytime flashbacks and banged his head to remove thoughts of ghosts. He became increasingly clingy and was reluctant to go to school or to allow his mother to go out without him.”

Doctors were shocked to see children display symptoms of PTSD after merely watching a film. PTSD diagnoses were radically altered after to this finding. Previously, the criteria was that “the person has experienced an event that is outside the usual range of human experience and that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone.” New criteria proposed that television didn’t trigger PTSD, but could rather lead to bizarre consequences. Trauma no longer had to be lived through. One could view something disturbing and still suffer lasting psychological harm.

“Ghostwatch”’s backlash, controversy and trauma — ultimately all point to its being an incredibly well-produced horror film with a lasting impact on the horror genre. Inspiring the cult classic “Blair Witch Project,” the “Ghostwatch” set the stage for many movies to come. Portraying fiction as reality to create greater fear and using special effects and set production became common in most horror films following the movie. Despite controversies, “Ghostwatch” was a huge success for BBC and the horror genre, and left a lasting impression on viewers and critics.