I’m ashamed to say it took me almost a week to catch up with CONJURING 2 — hey, life happens — but once I emerged from the darkened theater (smiling, because it was an excellent film), I immediately headed home to dig out my DVD copy of a notorious early ‘90s UK Halloween TV special entitled GHOSTWATCH. Then I got down to hashing out the column you’re reading right now.
Why GHOSTWATCH, you ask? Well, sit tight… because I’m about to blow your mind.
Remember during the epilogue of CONJURING 2, when a title card states that the events which inspired the film — a case commonly referred to by paranormal enthusiasts as “The Enfield Poltergeist” — have been documented or retold in many different forms since they were first reported in 1977?
Well, GHOSTWATCH was arguably the first such project to reach a wide mainstream audience… and most of those who saw it will never forget spending two harrowing hours riveted to their TV sets on Halloween Night, 1992.
According to most accounts of that fateful date, what began as a spooky but often light-hearted live special on BBC1, co-hosted by several well-known talk-show and news personalities, slowly devolved into something totally unexpected… and much more horrifying.
By the time that single airing ended, thousands of stunned viewers had already overloaded the BBC telephone switchboards, believing the events transpiring onscreen were real — a sociological effect unheard of since another infamous Halloween broadcast: Orson Welles’ WAR OF THE WORLDS radio play, which shocked thousands of US listeners on October 31, 1938.
I’ll get back to the whole nationwide-panic thing in a moment… but first, here’s an overview of what went down during that 1992 special — which the BBC subsequently barred from future airings (the UK broadcast ban still holds today).
The theme of the special was the first-ever live TV investigation into poltergeist activity reported at a small row house in a suburban London neighborhood — which, unknown to the majority of viewers at the time, was based on the same 1977 Enfield case that inspired THE CONJURING 2.
Michael Parkinson, best known to UK viewers as the host of his own long-running TV talk show (you might also remember him playing himself in the 2003 film LOVE ACTUALLY), hosted the bulk of the show from BBC’s Elstree Studios, joined by multiple guests claiming to be experts in forensics and paranormal phenomena.
On location, accompanied by camera crews and a mobile studio with a satellite uplink, were other well-known TV personalities — including popular TV host Sarah Greene and comedian Craig Charles from the hit series RED DWARF.
In the studio, Parkinson and guests discuss the mysterious history of the allegedly haunted residence and examine the evidence in the case, while Greene and the location crew spend the majority of the evening in the house with the current occupants.
All the while, paranormal investigators are running the full gamut of tests — including EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) recordings, closed-circuit video and thermographic monitoring.
Over the next two hours, what began as a supposed in-depth investigation of poltergeist activity slips into the realm of nightmares — as the family, the location crew, and eventually even the studio hosts begin to experience strange and frightening phenomena, all of which is captured by TV cameras and broadcast in real time… or is it?
The answer to that last question turns out to be a huge “no.”
As it turns out, GHOSTWATCH was not a live broadcast at all, but a pre-recorded and completely scripted mockumentary, created by talented screenwriter Stephen Volk (who also wrote Ken Russell’s GOTHIC) as the special “Halloween edition” of BBC1’s ongoing TV movie series SCREEN ONE. Volk’s teleplay adapted the story of the Enfield case, changing the names and locations but otherwise adhering to the details as recounted in 1977 to Ed and Lorraine Warren.
The story revolves around a traumatized single mother and her two young daughters — the youngest of whom claims to be in contact with a mysterious figure she nicknames “Pipes,” after his tendency to bang on plumbing within the house’s walls.
We never see “Pipes” in person at first (unless you’re paying very close attention… more on that in a moment), but we do begin to witness the younger daughter’s strange behavior as the intruder’s spirit seems to be exerting some kind of supernatural influence over her.
Greene and her crew relay this information to Parkinson and his guests in the studio, where they try to combine their various skills to discover the real culprit behind the increasingly violent poltergeist activity being documented at the house.
Throughout the telecast, viewers were invited to call into a live hotline and relay any paranormal phenomena they’ve experienced in their lifetimes. (The number shown onscreen was actually BBC’s viewer call-in line, on which a recording assured callers that the show was fictional.) Selected viewer calls are then played in the studio, and the tone turns much more disturbing when callers start reporting strange activity and sensations which have begun affecting them… while watching GHOSTWATCH.
While these particular calls were carefully staged — along with every interview conducted with the supposed subjects, paranormal expert guests and various other “witnesses” — they worked together to create the idea of an “accidental séance,” which somehow allows the evil presence to manifest itself over the airwaves, essentially haunting every television set tuned to the program.
It’s this cumulative effect that managed to traumatize several thousand viewers on Halloween night in 1992, and led to so much criticism and outrage that the BBC issued a ban on any future broadcasts of the show. (It was eventually released on VHS and DVD a decade later.)
One of the most chilling tricks pulled off by the GHOSTWATCH creators was the clever placement of “Pipes” (played by actor Keith Ferrari in a vintage woman’s dress and gruesome makeup) at strategic moments throughout the show. Most of these “cameos” are barely visible to the naked eye unless you know where to look… that is, until the final minutes, where he makes a very brief but terrifying appearance.
Since that Halloween broadcast, several true stories of post-traumatic stress (and even some new urban legends) emerged. One of the most chilling accounts is also apparently quite genuine: Martin Denham, a young man with learning disabilities, became convinced after watching the program that “Pipes” had infiltrated his own house, and this ultimately may have contributed to his suicide five days after GHOSTWATCH aired.
Many of these shocking details and more are covered in the 2013 documentary GHOSTWATCH: BEHIND THE CURTAINS, which also delves deeper into the inspirations for Volk’s concept. This includes the Enfield Poltergeist case, of course, but also involves the legends surrounding Amelia Dyer — an infamous real-life serial killer suspected of murdering hundreds of children left in her care.