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Read This: The night the BBC’s Halloween stunt went terribly wrong

Screenshot: Ghostwatch
Screenshot: Ghostwatch

In 1988, screenwriter Stephen Volk had an idea for a show that would give viewers a good scare while satirizing the television industry at the same time. He proposed to the BBC a fictional series about “a roving paranormal investigation crew that climaxes in a live tour of a supposedly haunted house.” The wary BBC gave the go-ahead for a single, 90-minute broadcast, and the result finally aired on Halloween night in 1992 as Ghostwatch. As Jake Rossen reveals in a grimly fascinating article for Mental Floss, the program was far more effective on the audience than anyone involved could have guessed. Children lost sleep. A woman went into labor from stress. One man soiled himself. And a traumatized 18-year-old was allegedly driven to suicide. Nearly three years later, England’s Broadcasting Standards Council ruled that the BBC had acted irresponsibly in airing the program while not making it clear enough to viewers that the proceedings were fictional.

Taking some inspiration from Orson Welles and his infamous War Of The Worlds broadcast of 1938, the makers of Ghostwatch admit that their show aimed for authenticity. This was years before The Blair Witch Project, so the vérité “shaky cam” approach to horror was not yet familiar to the show’s 11 million viewers. Ghostwatch centered around the Earlys, a North London clan being plagued by a malevolent ghost called Pipes. It was later revealed that Pipes had taken possession of the airwaves. To lend credence to this outrageous story, Ghostwatch recruited several real, recognizable BBC personalities, including figures known from news and children’s shows. In the aftermath of the show, this was found to be an important factor in terrifying viewers, especially younger ones. Kids may not have the best grasp of what’s real and what’s fictional, and Ghostwatch simply blurred the line too much. Volk’s stunt had worked, but ultimately it was far too effective for anyone’s good.

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