Halloween night, 1992.
People across the United Kingdom sat down at 9 p.m. with their tellies tuned to BBC1 expecting some quaint Halloween japes, the kind that viewers were used to seeing from a channel famous for transmitting The Two Ronnies and Only Fools and Horses. But what transpired that fateful night would not only shock, appall, and terrify people across the nation, it would also lead to more disturbing and unfortunately fatal circumstances. Such was the power of Ghostwatch.
I was 14. By then, I had already been exposed to a whole bunch of films that I shouldn’t have, be it The Evil Dead and The Exorcist (both still banned at that point in the UK) or Robocop. The night I sat down with a friend and my parents and watched Paul Verhoeven’s masterpiece went down in legend, not least for the amount of “fucks” that we heard during that viewing. Horror movies didn’t bother me hugely; when they did it was monsters, notably those of the Rick Baker kind. Seeing The Incredible Melting Man at an early age, followed by the transformation of An American Werewolf in London and his remarkable suit for the 1976 King Kong remake resulted in some terrifying experiences. So Ghostwatch wasn’t to be taken for granted, but its secret was that it blurred the lines between fiction and reality, and not only that, but our child reality. Regan may have been a terrifying levitating demon, but she wasn’t on our TV every night interviewing Mick Jagger or Muhammad Ali.
To try and explain it to a wider geographical audience (i.e. the USA): imagine watching ABC or NBC on Halloween. You’re witnessing a special hosted by Dan Rather all about paranormal investigations. In the studio with Dan is Regis Philbin, out on the streets is comedian Mike Myers, and checking out the spooky goings-on in an actual supposed haunted house is Kathie Lee Gifford. And the shit hits the ghostly fan. In reality (or at least some version of it), Ghostwatch was hosted by legendary UK talk show host Michael Parkinson, with Mike Smith alongside him in the studio. On the streets was comedian Craig Charles (of Red Dwarf fame), while investigating the house was Smith’s real-life wife Sarah Greene.
So what we all saw were crazy goings-on in the studio and outside. We were introduced to the apparently malevolent poltergeist “Pipes,” who was terrorising the house Greene was in, and from there on we were confounded by fake experts, skeptics, and increasingly weird stuff happening. Scratches started appearing on the children in the Pipes house, there were some particularly disturbing events in the house involving cats, and eventually Pipes trapped poor Greene before possessing Parkinson, with it turning out that everyone watching the show had turned it into a nationwide seance.