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Ghostwatch & the decline of public trust in media

Ghostwatch & the decline of public trust in media

How a BBC Halloween special signaled a major shift in media.

On October 31, 1992, the BBC aired a 90-minute ghost story called Ghostwatch to an audience of 11 million. During & after its controversial airing, the network received tens of thousands of phone calls. The backlash was such that not only was the program never again shown on British television, there was a 10 year span where--after the network apologized to its viewers--it refused to even acknowledge the program's existence.

Mike Smith, Sarah Greene, & Sir Michael Parkinson, hosts of Ghostwatch.

The ghost story itself wasn't terribly unique, it was essentially an adaptation of the Enfield Poltergeist tale. But what made it so controversial was that it had been shot like a regular news program in the style of BBC's Crimewatch, Hospital Watch, or Badger Watch. It was recorded to tape, rather than film, played out in real-time, & the cast was made of regular BBC personalities. Sir Michael Parkinson, a famous BBC presenter & talk show host, portrayed himself hosting a tv special investigating paranormal phenomena. The show centered around a home in a fictional neighborhood in Northolt, Middlesex, a mother named Pamela Early & her two daughters, Suzanne & Kim. Sarah Greene, the host of a Saturday morning children's show called Going Live, played herself as the on-site reporter, engaging with the family & their alleged poltergeist. Her real-life husband, Mike Smith, another regular BBC presenter, oversaw the phone lines back at the studio. And Craig Charles, an actor from the sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf, interviewed the Earlys' neighbors outside the home. Even the onscreen camera & sound guys were plucked from BBC staff.

The phone calls aired on the show were pre-recorded, but they were interviews with real people discussing genuine, first-hand experiences. So while the telephone number shown on the screen did not dial into the phone bank pictured on the show, it did dial into a switchboard operated by five parapsychologists from the Society of Psychical Research. These operators were intended to counsel callers about their paranormal experiences, but they ended up on the receiving end of a national panic instead.


Unless viewers paid attention to the show's brief introduction, which refers to Ghostwatch as "a unique & sometimes disturbing film" where "the line between fact & fiction" may be unclear, they could easily mistake the show for a live broadcast. And indeed, many did. For most of the film, the presenters remain skeptical about the legitimacy of the family's supernatural claims, at times joking about the prospects of a true haunting. But by the end of 90 minutes, the claims are substantiated by a series of harrowing events, ultimately upending the BBC studio from whence they're broadcasting. The network's switchboard was completely overwhelmed, providing a disconcerting busy signal to the vast majority of callers, further suggesting that something had gone wrong. And some viewers were so upset they even phoned Scotland Yard.

In the wake of the airing, a mentally handicapped teenager took is own life related to the content of the show. A faulty central heating system in his home created a knocking sound that he associated with the poltergeist from Ghostwatch, & the suicide note he left for his parents stated, "if there are ghosts I will be ... with you always as a ghost." In response, a Broadcasting Standards Commission issued a scathing report: "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." Several other children--caught off guard by the shocking turn of events--were later diagnosed with short term post-traumatic stress syndrome. But the show is largely remembered not for the acute responses but for the broader panic.

The reaction was so strong that Parkinson returned to the airwaves just an hour later to perform some damage control.

"It is, of course, Halloween, & if you were with us for our Ghostwatch earlier, may I reassure you that it was just a story & all is well here at [BBC] Television Center." - Sir Michael Parkinson

Once it was clear to the public that the film was a dramatization, some portion of viewers responded with outrage. A viewer on the show Bite Back suggested that the show's creators had "betrayed the trust that the audience has within the BBC," & newspaper columnist Peter Troy suggested that the show "proves once again that [the BBC] is out of control." And while there was some hysteria involved in the national reaction, the show really did prove the dangers inherent to blurring this line between fact & fiction.

A critical column by Peter Troy published in The Express.
"We were watching the news about the Gulf War & there was music on it & I was appalled because there was a subtext to the news, which seems to me a totally alien concept, really. You shouldn't be swayed with news, news should be fact."
- Lesley Manning, director

In some ways, the show was a commentary in the direction in which televised non-fiction was already headed. Director Lesley Manning would later remark that she was inspired by dramatic news coverage of the Gulf War, responding to war footage set to dramatic music. News coverage of war has always influenced horror movies. Tom Savini's practical effects work in Dawn of the Dead & Friday the 13th were famously inspired by his time as a photographer in the Vietnam War & the on-the-ground coverage of the Invasion of Iraq is often credited for more intense "torture porn" horror of the aughts. But Ghostwatch, in its time, keyed into the the aspect of dramatization slowly creeping into news production.

Ghostwatch, of course, was not the first program to ever deceive its audience. Professional wrestling relied on a concept called "kayfabe" for many decades, requiring performers to always maintain the illusion that the drama & athletic competition of wrestling was "real." Good Guys couldn't be seen leaving the auditorium with Bad Guys. And the secrets of how the shows were scripted & executed were closely guarded. This was forever broken, however, by WWE owner Vince McMahon in 1989 when he testified in court that professional wrestling is just ''entertainment" and that participants are trained to avoid serious injuries. This was done in an effort to avoid New Jersey state regulations that applied to contact sports like boxing. Nevertheless, millions of fans continue to attend wrestling events, willfully suspending belief, & the wrestlers set out each night to turn that suspended belief into sincere belief by the end of the show. And if they are successful in fooling the audience in this way, that is the best possible outcome.

This isn't always the case, however. Andy Kaufman both built & destroyed a comedy career on the tension between belief & disbelief. Melanie Chartoff, who appeared alongside Mary Edith Burrell & Michael Richards in the infamous fight with Kaufman on a live broadcast of Fridays in 1981, would later write that he was "[addicted] to negative attention & the element of surprise." And he would expend ever increasing amounts of effort to prove this true as his career went on. On that particular episode of Fridays, the show's producer & the actors involved knew that Andy was planning to refuse to finish the skit. In character, Michael Richards famously grabs the cue cards & drops them on the table in front of Kaufman. Their improvisations were so convincing that the crew--oblivious to the staging of the events--descended upon the stage to fight Andy as the show faded to black.

For Andy, the riled nerves & chaos were the best of all possible outcomes. But there's a difference between making an audience feel delighted & making them feel foolish. And the consequences of making an audience feel foolish can be dire. So while Ghostwatch has achieved a cult following based on low quality, home-taped VHS recordings or later anniversary DVD releases, made up of those who were delighted by the film's daring format, the immediate backlash consisted of those who were simply unaware that they were watching a dramatization, who were made to feel like fools. The network made clear in the brief introduction & in what little marketing they did that the film was fictional. But the filmmakers went to great lengths to obscure that fact. And the they end up having to defend themselves in the days following the broadcast against viewers who felt they had been pranked.

Orson Welles performing War of the Worlds in the CBS studio.

This had previously happened in 1938 when a dramatic performance of H.G. Welles' War of the Worlds was broadcast on CBS radio as part of Orson Welles's Mercury Theater on the Air series (no relation). It, too, was a special Halloween program. It, too, was formatted to simulate a live news program. It, too, was introduced as a dramatization at the top of its airing. And yet it, too, convinced a large portion of its audience that the improbable was happening: Martians were really invading New Jersey.

“I had conceived the idea of doing a radio broadcast in such a manner that a crisis would actually seem to be happening and would be broadcast in such a dramatized form as to appear to be a real event taking place at that time, rather than a mere radio play.” -Orson Welles

Following the broadcast, the studio in which the play was performed was stormed by police & press. The NY Times ran "ORSON WELLES CAUSES PANIC" on the lighted bulletin encircling its downtown Manhattan office. And newspapers across the country ran with the story of a panicked populace, terrified by an alien invasion. The media coverage of the panic was overblown, it turns out, but not altogether fictional. Princeton professor Hadley Cantril would later calculate that around 1.2 million of the show's 6 million listeners were duped by its premise.

News coverage from the morning after.

The panic seems silly nearly 100 years later, but in the early years of radio there was no precedent for this type of content. Were there, hypothetically, an alien invasion on the shores of the U.S., we would learn through radio news bulletins, the type portrayed in Welles's play.

But it's not simply about fear. Of aliens or ghosts or otherwise. Ghostwatch screenwriter Stephen Volk would later reflect on the backlash, "It was partly that it scared people, but the complaints were actually more that the BBC had made them feel like mugs. People felt the BBC was something they could trust, and the programme had destroyed that trust."


The same might be said for the reaction to War of the Worlds, at least according to the newspapers who published 12,500 articles about the panic in the 3 weeks following the play's airing. Radio had grown in popularity throughout the 1930s, penetrating around half of all U.S. homes by the time Welles's infamous show was broadcast. This meant it was competing with newspapers as a source of news, & consequently for the same ad dollars. So the newspapers seized the opportunity to paint radio as an unreliable source of news, the type that would broadcast a hoax invasion to an unsuspecting public. Congress threatened to pass laws prohibiting this type of presentation in the future (the city manager of Trenton, NJ, the invasion location named in the play, wrote to the FCC to complain that the city was inundated with calls during the event, grinding city functions to a halt), but a prompt apology by Orson Welles himself brought the FCC investigation to a close.

For the next 50 years, no incidents of large scale panic took place. But the role & responsibilities of media began to evolve by the 1990s.

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The Blair Witch Project
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The cast of the mTV's Real World Season 1.
“This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house & have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite & start getting real." -the intro to mTV's the Real World

mTV's Real World debuted on May 21, 1992 before "reality tv" had entered the public lexicon & five months before Ghostwatch's Halloween broadcast. It started out true to its thesis, as a social experiment. What happens when you put a 19 year preacher's daughter from Alabama in a NY City loft with black people & gay people & musicians & intellectuals? How does everyone respond to one another? It makes for compelling television. There's conflict & resolution. Personal growth & drama. And interesting expressions of points of view. But how do you make that same thing interesting for 32 seasons?

The answer is that you don't because you can't. The concept can only be repeated so many times before it gets stale. So you adopt the methods of Ghostwatch. The producers introduce subtle contrivances to the show: They all start having to work at the same job. They have to take trips together. They're put in physical competitions against one another. And these forced situations give producers ways to manufacture drama. Eventually this evolves into what is now known as scripted reality & into celebrities being known not for portraying a character in an Oscar winning films, but for portraying some exaggerated or disingenuous version of themself in ostensibly reality-based situations.

Decades later, these "reality" shows ruled the airwaves. In 2015, prime time cable was airing roughly 750 reality programs against 400 scripted shows. But four in five Americans believe that these reality shows were mostly scripted. The trust in media, which precipitated the Ghostwatch blowback, has all but disappeared thanks to a deluge of Kaufman-esque staged conflicts & formulaic drama. And yet these shows rarely elicited FCC complaints. This could be because the stakes were so unbelievably low. Reality shows tended to revolve around banal topics like dating or just being independently wealthy, rather than the spiritual, metaphysical subjects of Ghostwatch, & so there was little to get truly upset by. In crafting this scripted reality, producers authored a sort of hyperreality that was both more dramatic than real life & far more dull than the scripted drama that came before it. But it was entertainment.

This erosion of trust in media throughout the '90s set the stage for surprise success of the Blair Witch Project in 1999. This was the first viral film marketed primarily through the internet, & the marketing team used faux police reports, newsreel-style clips, & even "missing" flyers to suggest that the found footage was retrieved from true events. Blair Witch was the first widely distributed film shot almost entirely by the "missing" characters themselves, through the lens of a handheld camcorder as three student filmmakers explore the Burkittsville, Maryland forests in search of the mythical Blair Witch. It followed Ghostwatch's strategy to the letter, but became a word-of-mouth smash instead of a national controversy, grossing over $250m on an initial budget of just $60,000. The question of whether or not the footage was real had been hotly debated at the time of the film's release, but there was no sense by this time that the film had an obligation to the audience to be true.


MTV would codify the premise of the Blair Witch Project into what we now know as paranormal reality television with the launch of Fear in 2000. Five contestants would be locked in an allegedly haunted location over two nights to record their experiences, completing staged dares in an effort to win $5,000. The show would inspire an entire genre of paranormal investigation tv.

Wikipedia lists nearly 200 paranormal tv shows created during this era, & at one point the Travel Channel aired paranormal content exclusively.

These shows, like Ghost Adventure & Ghost Hunters, dressed as scientific investigations & often aired on ostensibly educational channels like the History or Discover Channels, were everything that Ghostwatch's harshest critics accused it of being. But these shows weren't banned from broadcast, they became nightly fixtures on cable tv. Ghost Adventures, for instance, lasted for 26 full seasons.

The television viewing audience, it seems, was a frog that had been fully boiled.

The number of cable tv channels exploded in the 1990s from eighty to hundreds when networks realized how quickly & cheaply reality tv could be produced. A huge number of low-cost shows can justify more channels, which can justify increased cable package subscription prices, & the requirements for maintaining ratings drops accordingly. This race toward quantity over quality & entertainment over substance had wide ranging effects, even on the more serious channels. And the dramatic music behind Gulf War coverage that inspired Ghostwatch would pale in comparison to the eventual dramatization of cable news.

David Foster Wallace once noted that the insidious thing about entertainment is that it's "so goddamn entertaining," which makes it tough to compete against. Even if serious channels wanted to fight back against the the entertainment phenomenon, they'd paradoxically have to make their message more entertaining to be heard, in which case they'd be captured by the very thing they sought to fight. And once you're captured, this is nearly impossible to reverse.

So eventually, 24-hour cable news--for the sake of entertainment--devolved into a parody of itself, devoting hours of screen time to absurdist fiction like a supposed War on Christmas or the Russian Pee Tape hoax. Before long, the individual news networks had cultivated their own branded versions of the truth, which needed not be compatible with one another. Is Donald Trump a fascist threat to American democracy or the defender of a platonic ideal of an America that has since peaked? Is San Francisco an example of the failure of leftism or the shining engine of our economy? The answer to both questions is neither.

Daily Show host Jon Stewart realized the condition of cable news before he appeared on CNN's Hardball in October of 2004. The premise of the show (which first debuted in 1982) was to debate the liberal & conservative sides of any issue, but Stewart came on the show to confront the hosts (Paul Begala & Tucker Carlson) over the performativity of the debates.

"You're doing theater when you should be doing debate. What you do is not honest, [it is] partisan hackery." -Jon Stewart

Carlson's insistence on equating the civic responsibilities of his show--a political debate show--with those of Stewart's political comedy show suggests the degree to which the program was reaching for entertainment value.

Just three months after Jon Stewart's appearance, CNN announced the show's cancellation. This move didn't significantly change the network's overall skid toward entertainment, but it suggest that viewers weren't comfortable with it being acknowledged out in the open.

There was a point in time when television was a form of escapism, when it was a temporary unburdening of oneself from the realities of life. But with entertainment now merged with reality & news, this actually has the opposite effect. It doesn't escape us from our burdens, it tends to amplify them. We tend to compare ourselves to wealthy influencers or fret about an alleged wave of criminal immigrants caravanning toward the nation's border. And this toxic cocktail of reality & entertainment bleeds onto the internet where we might be sucked into a crypto scam or enlisted into an online cult like Flat Earth or Qanon. Over thirty years on, the Ghostwatch audience seems downright logical to have protested the blending of fiction into what is formatted as a news program. We should be protesting today. But, instead, programs like the Daily Show are actually protesting us, the audience.

Ghostwatch didn't cause the decline of public trust in media. But it was perhaps an inadvertent airhorn that signaled the start of a race to the bottom. That makes it both a relic from a time when we expected more integrity from media than we're given today & also a brilliantly crafted, ingenious ghost story that stretches the boundaries of storytelling convention. Its rehabilitation in these intervening years, therefore, is both well-deserved & also a study of contrasts. The truth is that a cultural panic like the one caused by Ghostwatch may never happen at the same scale ever again, but it's also now constantly happening at smaller scales in reaction to "infotainment" reporting on transgender issues, race issues, & other topics meant to engage with viewers' emotions rather than their intellect. And in this context, Ghostwatch has become a quaint Halloween experience, rather than the lightning rod as which it originally presented.

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