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A quarter of a century ago, a horrifying TV special caused havoc in the UK and subsequently became a cult classic at Halloween movie marathons everywhere. Now the show is about to terrify a whole new audience.
Originally airing on Halloween night in 1992, Ghostwatch terrified the nation, attracting tens of thousands of complaints in one night. This controversy meant the show was never shown on UK TV again, and it has since only been available since on VHS/DVD and in the BBC Store.
The cover of the BFI DVD release of Ghostwatch. Credit: BBC
Now the US horror streaming service Shudder has acquired the rights to the show - allowing a new generation of horror fans to see what exactly all the fuss was about.
"None of us thought we were creating something that would be one of TV's most remembered programs," said BBC news presenter Michael Parkinson, who starred in the TV special.
"It was a simple ghost story based on a fairly ordinary premise that there's a show on television and things start to go wrong. It was only when I saw it back that I realised it had a certain kind of power."
Ghostwatch was a horror mockumentary presented in the style of a live news report, featuring well-known news presenters such as Parkinson to make it more believable.
The show portrayed a fake investigation into supernatural activity in a family home, showing viewers terrifying 'home footage' of a family being terrorised by a ghost.
A scene from Ghostwatch. Credit: BBC
While we can now see Ghostwatch as a precursor to 'found footage' horror films such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, viewers at the time were genuinely spooked.
Some were so convinced that what they were watching was real that the BBC switchboard received around 30,000 calls in just one hour. That number was topped up by parents ringing in to complain that the show had scared their children.
Over the course of the 90-minute special, the poltergeist 'Pipes' - named after what the mum of the family thought was causing the house's strange noises - gained power as BBC presenters watched on.
By the end of Ghostwatch, the spirit somehow reached the BBC studio, dragging one poor host to an unknown fate and even possessing Parkinson to take control of the channel.
It provoked such a reaction that it was blamed for giving children post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and even for the death of a young man.
18-year-old Martin Denham, a factory worker with learning difficulties, tragically killed himself five days after the show aired, having become convinced there were ghosts in his own home.
Denham's parents argued that the show caused their son's death and made a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Commission.
The BSC eventually ruled that Ghostwatch was excessively distressing and graphic, and not enough had been done to make clear that it was fiction and unsuitable for children to watch.
A 1994 report in the British Medical Journal detailed two cases of children suffering from temporary post-traumatic stress in the wake of the show.
Words: Chris Ogden
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