Despite having been recorded weeks in advance, the narrative was presented as live television. During and following its first and only UK television broadcast, the show attracted a considerable furore, resulting in an estimated 30,000 calls to the BBC switchboard in a single hour.
There have been two UK home video releases. In 2002, the British Film Institute released a 10th Anniversary edition on VHS and DVD, and in 2011, 101 Films issued a DVD release. In 2016, BBC Store made the film available as part of the Frightmares collection, marking Halloween.
The 90-minute film was a horror story shot in a documentary style and appeared as part of BBC Drama's Screen One series. It involved BBC reporters performing a live, on-air investigation of a house in Northolt, Greater London, at which poltergeist activity was believed to be taking place. Through revealing footage and interviews with neighbours and the family living there, they discover the existence of a malevolent ghost nicknamed Pipes (the children in the house had asked their mother about noises heard, and she said it was the pipes, hence the name). As the programme proceeds, viewers learn that Pipes is the spirit of a psychologically disturbed man called Raymond Tunstall, himself believed to have been troubled by the spirit of Mother Seddons – a "baby farmer" turned child killer from the 19th century (probably inspired by Amelia Dyer). In the course of the programme Pipes makes various manifestations which become more bold and terrifying, until, at the end, the frightened reporters realise that the programme itself has been acting as a sort of "national séance" through which Pipes was gaining horrific power. Finally, the spirit unleashes its power to the fullest extent, dragging host Sarah Greene out of sight behind a door and then escaping to express poltergeist activity throughout the country. He takes control of the BBC studios and transmitter network, using the Ghostwatch studio as a focal point and possessing Michael Parkinson in the process.
The story, based on the tale of the Enfield Poltergeist, was put into production months before and was complete fiction. The presentation contained realistic elements which suggested to a casual viewer that it was an actual documentary. The studio scenes were recorded in Studio D, BBC Elstree Studios, Clarendon Road. The scenes at the house and the street were all shot on location around 5–6 weeks before the recording of the studio scenes. The recorded scenes in the house and street were then played into the studio, where Michael Parkinson, Mike Smith, and "Doctor Pascoe" had to interact with them. A phone number was shown on the screen so that viewers could "call in" and discuss ghostly phenomena. The number was the standard BBC call-in number at the time, 081 811 8181 (also used on programmes such as Going Live!), and callers who got through were connected first to a message telling them that the show was fictional, before being given the chance to share their own ghost stories. However, the phone number was besieged by callers during the showing and many people who telephoned simply got an engaged tone. This commonly happened when phoning BBC "call in" shows and inadvertently added to the realism instead of reassuring viewers that it was fiction. The set and filming methods, including shaky hand-held video cameras, lent a documentary feel. Most convincing of all was the use of actual BBC personalities playing themselves. Sarah Greene and Craig Charles were the reporters on the scene at the house, while Mike Smith (Greene's real-life husband) and Michael Parkinson linked from the studio.
Ghostwatch was originally conceived by writer Stephen Volk as a six-part drama (similar to Edge of Darkness) in which a fictional paranormal investigator and a TV reporter investigate poltergeist activity at a North London housing estate, gradually discovering more elements of the mystery each week. This would have culminated in the final episode in a live TV broadcast from the property, in the vein of Nigel Kneale's The Quatermass Experiment and Quatermass and the Pit, in both of which "all hell breaks loose". However, when producer Ruth Baumgarten doubted the viability of an entire mini-series and recommended instead a 90-minute TV special, Volk suggested that they "do the whole thing like Episode Six", portraying it as an actual "live" broadcast fronted by well-known TV personalities.
The BBC, however, became concerned about the effect the broadcast would have on the public and very nearly pulled the show shortly before broadcast. Ultimately they insisted on adding opening credits including the writer's name, in addition to a Screen One title sequence.
The film's fictional, villainous spectre, referred to by the children as "Pipes" and credited simply as "Ghost", is depicted as a merging of negative, spiritual energies, which parapsychologist Dr. Pascoe theorises have been accumulating for years, possibly back to prehistory. Its physical appearance mostly resembles that of deceased child molester Raymond Tunstall, a fictional character who, it is revealed by a phone-in caller, committed suicide at the haunted property some time in the 1960s after himself being possessed by the entity.
It is suggested that the character of Suzanne Early may become the next "layer" in the ghost's spiritual make-up, and in the final moments of the film the entity possesses television host Michael Parkinson.
In May 2010, at a public screening of the film at The Invisible Dot in Camden, director Lesley Manning revealed that she provided the voice of Pipes the ghost after the professional voice artist hired for the production could not accurately replicate the style of voice she had intended.
Many methods familiar to modern ghost-hunting shows such as Most Haunted are demonstrated in the show, some of which were either genuine state-of-the-art technology at the time or simulated to give the idea they were real. The house was allegedly equipped with motion detectors, temperature sensors, and covert cameras. The temperature sensors were referred to as being able to check for dramatic changes in temperature that ghost hunters link to real-life ghost sightings. One major feature of the show was a genuine thermographic camera, which, although it did not pick up any ghosts, came in very handy when all the lights failed at the end of the show.
The programme makers used many examples of allegedly paranormal phenomena.
The Ghost, described by characters in the programme as a disfigured, androgynous person wearing a buttoned-up robe or dress appears several times during the course of the film. These are often fleeting, almost subliminal appearances, and can be found by skipping ahead to the following points. As of 2016, the list remains incomplete, with additional appearances (said to potentially total as many as "13") still yet to be conclusively pinpointed.Behind the Early Family (0:06:00) – In this most recently confirmed sighting, a faint outline of the Ghost can be found in the patio windows, whilst Craig speaks to Pam, Kim and Suzanne, concerning their initial supernatural experiences. The confirmation of the sighting in late 2016, marked the first since June 2001.
During playback of haunted bedroom footage (0:21:00) – In the studio, the presenters examine video footage of a bedroom scene in which a shadowy figure can be seen behind the curtains in the bedroom of Suzanne and Kim Early. Three versions of the apparition are shown intermittently to confuse the viewer – one with the figure, one where it is slightly faded out, and one where it is not seen at all.
In the studio (0:30:30) – Behind Dr Pascoe as she plays the "possessed voice" tape for Michael Parkinson. This appearance is more easily visible if the brightness of the screen is increased.
Amongst the crowds (0:47:25) – Outside the house in Foxhill Drive, as Craig Charles calls for Arthur Lacey to join him, the ghost can be seen standing among the crowd of onlookers, apparently unnoticed. He is standing behind a woman in a blue parka.
In the kitchen (0:54:59) – Reflected in the glass of the kitchen door, moments after Sarah discovers the children's drawings on the floor and is startled by a cat outside.
Haunted bedroom (1:11:56) – In front of the curtains in the girls' bedroom as the house is evacuated. The ghost is briefly visible as the cameraman turns, but is gone again when he whips the camera back round for a second look.
Under the stairs (1:17:12) – Inside the cupboard under the stairs, a fraction of a second before the mirror leaps off the wall and knocks soundman, Mike Aiton unconscious.
Close-up in static (1:27:41) – In a burst of static just as the cupboard door slams shut – sealing both Suzanne and Sarah inside the Gloryhole. This appearance only lasts for three frames, but provides a partial close-up look at the ghost's mauled face.
On the gantry (1:27:42) – On a gantry in the TV studio as the lights start to explode.
In 2008, a potential new sighting (at 1:16:18) was uploaded via the Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains YouTube page. The video features a digitally enhanced close-up of what appears to be a reflection of the ghost in the hallway mirror shortly before it crashes onto soundman, Mike Aiton. According to the info box on the same page, the director of Ghostwatch, Lesley Manning has since debunked this sighting as a false positive.
During the course of the programme there are many references to characters being allegedly possessed by a ghost who, whilst doing so, maniacally recites nursery rhymes. This happens in a tape recording of the eldest daughter Suzanne, later in a 'live' section to the same character and eventually Michael Parkinson himself is seen to be possessed.
The show references temperature changes being linked to ghosts and claims to be monitoring the temperature in each room of the house to check for this. Mutilated household objects are shown which were purportedly analysed by the Army and found to have been subjected to rapid temperature change.
In both alleged recordings and live segments of the show we see objects moving of their own accord – which, it is claimed, is a result of poltergeist activity – also, a perfectly round patch of water appears on the living room carpet, and animal scratch marks appear on Suzanne's face. Banging noises are intermittently heard during the climax of the show. At one point the producers play on this by exposing Suzanne as the one causing the banging noises, creating a hoax within a hoax. However, this later occurs when both girls are accounted for. Near the end of the programme, when a wind whips through the studio, the cups and plates brought in by Dr Pascoe as evidence of the poltergeist activity in the house begin to move on their own, and one cup falls onto the studio floor and smashes into pieces.
Although the ghost of the story is only heard to speak through the voices of others we hear the disembodied sounds of cats whenever phenomena are taking place.
Although Ghostwatch was aired under Screen One drama banner, its documentary style led many viewers to believe the events were real, causing much controversy after the show's airing. The BBC was besieged with phone calls from irate and frightened viewers, and British tabloids and other newspapers criticised the BBC the next day for the disturbing nature of some scenes, such as Greene's final scene where she is locked in an under-stairs cupboard with the howling ghost, and Parkinson's eerie possession scene.
A long-running rumour that Sarah Greene had advertised the programme on her Saturday morning children's show Going Live, including a visit to the location of the "haunting", which gave the impression that she was taking part in a "reality show" was debunked via the Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtain blog (which gathered information for a documentary about the show). After acquiring the three most likely episodes of Going Live (the week before, the day Ghostwatch was shown, and the week after) the blog's editors found no reference to the show. Greene did however appear on the following Monday's Children's BBC strand to reassure younger viewers the show was not real.
The reaction to the programme led the BBC to place a decade-long ban on the programme being repeated after its initial broadcast. The British Film Institute released it on VHS and Region 2 DVD in November 2002.
A number of psychological effects were reported in Ghostwatch's wake:
Eighteen-year-old factory worker Martin Denham, who suffered from learning difficulties and had a mental age of 13, committed suicide five days after the programme aired. The family home had suffered with a faulty central heating system which had caused the pipes to knock; Denham linked this to the activity in the show causing great worry. He left a suicide note reading "if there are ghosts I will be ... with you always as a ghost". His mother and stepfather, April and Percy Denham, blamed the BBC. They claimed that Martin was "hypnotised and obsessed" by the programme. The Broadcasting Standards Commission refused their complaint, along with 34 others, as being outside their remit, but the High Court granted the Denhams permission for a judicial review requiring the BSC to hear their complaint.
In its ruling, the BSC stated that "The BBC had a duty to do more than simply hint at the deception it was practising on the audience. In Ghostwatch there was a deliberate attempt to cultivate a sense of menace." They ruled that the programme was excessively distressing and graphic – referring to the scratches on the children and the reference to mutilated animals – and that it had aired too soon after the 9pm watershed. They further stated that "the presence in the programme of presenters familiar from children's programmes ... took some parents off-guard in deciding whether their children could continue to view."
The film's producers argued that Ghostwatch had aired during a drama slot, that it was recognisable as fiction to a vast majority, and that running disclaimers or other announcements during the programme would have ruined its effectiveness. They also stated that, had they anticipated the audience reaction, they would have made its fictional nature clearer. However, after the BSC ruling they issued an apology.
Simons and Silveira published a report in the British Medical Journal in February 1994, describing two cases of Ghostwatch-induced post-traumatic stress disorder in children, both ten-year-old boys. They stated that these were the first reported cases of PTSD caused by a television programme. Responses to the article described a further four cases in children aged between 11 and 14, as well as one case in an 8-year-old that stemmed from watching the pre-watershed hospital soap Casualty. The respondents also noted the potential for similar reactions in elderly people. However, the conclusion of the article states "The rapid resolution of the children's symptoms suggests that the children suffered a brief anxiety reaction to the television programme; although they may have exhibited some of the features of post-traumatic stress disorder, this diagnosis in their cases is inappropriate."
Ghostwatch has also been credited for being amongst the direct inspirations for several other successful, contemporary works.
A comment left by writer Stephen Volk on the official Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains homepage claims that British illusionist Derren Brown once told him that the film had at least partially inspired his similarly controversial "TV hoax" Séance. This was later confirmed by Brown himself whilst being interviewed for the BBC Four documentary Ghosts in the Machine.
The makers of The Blair Witch Project were reported to have seen the film before going on to make their own movie.
In the Doctor Who episode "Army of Ghosts" (2006), "ghosts" were regularly appearing all over the planet, and a programme called Ghostwatch was presented by Alistair Appleton. The BBC also created a tie-in website for the show.
As featured in his collection Dark Corners, screenwriter Stephen Volk wrote a short story entitled 31/10, which is effectively a sequel to Ghostwatch. The piece was later selected for "The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2007: Twentieth Annual Collection", and nominated for the Horror Writers' Association (HWA) Bram Stoker Award, and British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story 2006.
The story itself centres on Volk taking part in a fictitious, 10th anniversary edition of Ghostwatch in 2002. Venturing into the previously sealed-off BBC studio space where the original show took place, he is accompanied by a small team of individuals whose lives were somehow affected by the broadcast, ten years previously.
A free PDF file of '31/10' can be found on writer Stephen Volk's official website.
Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains is a retrospective documentary, completed in 2012 and released on DVD in 2013, chronicling the making of and reaction to Ghostwatch.
The Behind the Curtains subtitle is derived from where fictitious poltergeist, Pipes, 'hides' in the shared bedroom of characters, Kim and Suzanne Early. It is also one of the chapter headings on the British Film Institute Ghostwatch DVD release.
On 21 February 2008, the GhostwatchBtC channel was launched on YouTube. All that was initially revealed regarding the project was a notice asking fans of the original film to contribute any Ghostwatch-related stories or recollections via the comments boxes provided.
On 31 October 2008 (exactly sixteen years after the original film was originally broadcast), a production blog was launched.
The first article to be published was written by the documentary's creator, Rich Lawden, in which he revealed the idea to make a retrospective first originated at a Cineformation screening held at the Watershed (Bristol).
Subsequent articles have included a special Hallowe'en message from Stephen Volk, and a link to a new Ghostwatch article written by lead actor, Sir Michael Parkinson. Between December 2008 and February 2009, a web forum, and Twitter, MySpace and Facebook pages were also added.
On 31 October 2011, the first official production still was uploaded to mark both Hallowe'en Night and the conclusion of National Séance 2011. The image features cast members, Sarah Greene and Mike Smith sitting with an interviewer, and two additional crew members, in an aircraft hangar. A quote beneath the picture reads, "Stay tuned for 2012, Ghostwatchers".
On 24 October 2012, one week before the show's 20th Anniversary, a teaser trailer for the project was announced on SFX.co.uk. A DVD of the completed film was released by the producers on eBay in March 2013, and within hours, had to be re-listed directly on the Lawman Productions website after quickly selling out. In October 2013, a companion book, written by Lawden, was released on Lulu containing a Foreword by writer Stephen Volk, the sequel story 31/10, new interviews, and an extensive production diary for the documentary itself.
In October 2016, it was announced that online platform, BBC Store was to offer both Ghostwatch and the retrospective Behind the Curtains documentary as part of the new Frightmares collection, in time for Halloween. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that the documentary had ranked among the best performing titles in the collection, also making the top ten best sellers for the first two weeks, after launch.
To mark the show's 18th anniversary, a "live" event took place in lieu of a full repeat screening on British television. Dubbed National Séance, fans were asked to simultaneously play their personal recordings of the show at precisely 9.25pm (just as Ghostwatch was originally broadcast) and tweet about the screening as it happened on the social networking site Twitter. The event has subsequently become a yearly tradition. The event is known for celebrating the original Drama by the unveiling of special artwork, or occasionally unseen or unheard material relating to its production, and often directly contributes to the hashtag #ghostwatch trending on the national leader-boards.
The film was met with a positive response from both fans and critics alike. Notably, leading film and TV magazines SFX and Starburst awarded 4/5 and 8/10 ratings respectively.
The film was subsequently selected for inclusion in the BFI Mediatheque, for the upcoming Haunted collection, from December 2013-onwards.