Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
19 October 2017

Ghostwatch: the Halloween hoax that changed the language of television

Twenty-five years ago a one-off show, inspired by the first flickers of fake news, terrified a generation. The BBC quickly disowned it. Now, its cast and creators tell their side of the story.

By Kate Mossman

Adults tend to forget what really scares children. At Halloween, they crack out the monsters and witches, but they’re missing the point because children are scared by odd things – by things that look normal but aren’t right somehow.

The horror writer Stephen Volk decided to write a TV drama to frighten his 12-year-old self. As a boy, he’d been fascinated by a 1972 BBC Two television play called The Stone Tape, in which a group of scientists investigate whether the bricks of a Victorian building have recorded its past events. Haunted architecture, in other words.

On Saturday 31 October 1992, between 9.25pm and 11pm, BBC One played the biggest trick on the public since Panorama told it, in 1957, that spaghetti grows on trees. That night, after Noel’s House Party, The Generation Game and Casualty, 11 million people watched a one-off show called Ghostwatch, which appeared to be broadcast live from a house in Northolt, troubled by a malevolent presence that manifested itself by banging on the water pipes.

In the studio was the trusted greybeard and sceptic Michael Parkinson, talking to an expert on the paranormal. In the house, engaging with a mother and two young girls, was the Children’s BBC darling Sarah Greene. Greene’s husband, Mike Smith, manned a bank of phones in a Crimewatch-style set up, with a number flashing at the bottom of the screen. If you called the number, as thousands of people did, you got through to a bank of real parapsychologists.

Craig Charles, then at the height of his fame with Red Dwarf, was the reporter on the ground, mocking the entire enterprise next to an outside-broadcasting unit, interviewing cold bystanders and saying how much he hated Halloween. The first 45 minutes of the programme were rather sedate. Then things started to go wrong.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Many of the 11 million who saw Ghostwatch were children. Sarah Greene went on Blue Peter the following week to reassure young viewers that she was unharmed. Five days after the programme’s transmission, an 18-year-old boy with learning difficulties, Martin Denham, hanged himself, having fallen into what his stepfather described as a trance. He had become obsessed with Ghostwatch and was convinced that there were ghosts in the water pipes of his Nottingham home.

In November 1993, a year after the programme’s one-off airing, two doctors from a child psychiatry unit in Coventry, Dawn Simons and Walter Silveira, submitted an article to the British Medical Journal (BMJ) recording the first cases of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by a television programme. Two ten-year-old boys had been referred to them. One was admitted to an inpatients unit for eight weeks; he would bang his head in an attempt to free himself from thoughts of Ghostwatch and its evil spirit, “Pipes”.

Consultants from Edinburgh came forward with four more children with similar symptoms. Martin Denham’s parents launched an inquiry into their son’s death. In 2002, his mother condemned the BFI’s DVD release of Ghostwatch, saying the programme had killed her son.

Drawings sent to Ghostwatch director Lesley Manning showing Parkinson in the haunted studio and a child’s impression of “Pipes”

The show’s producers, Ruth Baumgarten and Richard Broke, were hauled on to BBC One’s consumer watchdog show Biteback to defend themselves. The aim had not been to mislead the British public, they said: there had been plenty of clues along the way that the programme was fake. In the summer, newspapers had carried the story that Michael Parkinson was to make his acting debut. The Radio Times had included a “cast list” and the show was announced as part of the BBC’s Screen One drama series. And the children? They shouldn’t have been up – it was broadcast after the 9pm watershed. But that didn’t mean anything, if your parents let you watch it.

About half the people I know of my age saw Ghostwatch and no one who did forgot it. It lingers in the communal memory like an urban legend, along with playground rumours of a suicide, which we didn’t think could be true. The frightening moments were different for everyone, and they were not always the obvious ones. I remember the sparky Sarah Greene telling a buoyed-up story, during one of the show’s many “boring” parts, about waking one night to the sound of harpsichord music and seeing an Indian woman standing by her bed, her eyes rolling back in her head.

The New Statesman’s deputy editor, Helen Lewis, saw the programme on DVD when she was 19 and slept with the light on. She recalls the momentary sightings of the ghost over the shoulder of the presenters, who seemed to be oblivious to it – they’d reel back footage, on the request of anxious pretend callers, and insist there was nothing there.

“Pipes” was not an adult’s idea of a ghost. He was stranger: a bald man in a long black dress buttoned up to the neck. Almost with affection, the little girl (played by a child actor) pulled Greene to the cupboard under the stairs to show her where he “lived”. Gradually, the fake phone-ins started to flesh out the story of the house: one caller revealed that a child molester had lodged there in the 1960s; he had hanged himself under the stairs and his face had been eaten by cats. As the “public” began to contribute, the presenters began to flounder. All the time, there were real members of the public trying to get through.

“It seemed chaotic,” my school friend recalls, “because the presenters didn’t know what was going on, and that’s why it frightened me so much. I remember the moment when the feed went black and white. Then I was sent to bed before a happy resolution.”

At the end of Ghostwatch, technology fails as presenters realise they have unwittingly invoked a kind of “national seance”.  Parkinson is left muttering to himself in the dark. Then the credits, and silence.

There were three people involved in the conception of the programme, which has never been shown since by the BBC.


Stephen Volk waits on the platform at Bradford-on-Avon Station – tall, in a long, dark overcoat and pork pie hat. He asks about my journey on the little request-stop train. Travelling makes him anxious – he pats his mac, pretending to look for imaginary tickets. In Volk’s sandstone house, among sculptures and posters of the films he has written, are clues about his darker passions: a naive portrait of a young man with his arms chopped off at the elbows, flesh and bone sticking out of the stumps like a butcher’s joint.

“Horror is not created by violent people,” he says, passing me a cup of tea. “It is created by neurotics. We see the world as a scary place. Stephen King put it this way: we don’t exorcise our fears by writing – we exercise them.”

The final script for Ghostwatch, which Volk submitted to the BBC in June 1992, began with a line from Terry Waite’s cousin John, in response to news of the hostage’s release: I’ll only believe it when I see it on TV.

“The irony of that,” Volk says. “TV being the font of truth, and trusted implicitly,  particularly the BBC…”

Volk conceived Ghostwatch as a six-part drama – a mockumentary, an exercise in pretending. “What is the biggest philosophical question of human beings?” he says. “It is: is there life after death? Do we go on, or do we just turn to dust? And what would a TV company do with that existential question? They’d turn it into a show with stupid phone-ins, stupid experts, and stuff to fill in the boring bits.

“I wanted the whole nation to be terrified,” he continues. “And yet they would be creating the very thing they’re terrified of. What if they wanted to see a ghost to the extent that they actually created it? What if they supernaturally held hands in the dark, millions of people all wanting the same thing to happen at the same time?”

Lesley Manning, who directed Ghostwatch, sits in the café at the Curzon Soho in central London. She is slight and softly spoken. The cinema is holding a 20th-anniversary screening of Chris Morris’s Brass Eye – another controversial fake news show from the 1990s that has never been repeated.

In 1992, the language of TV was changing. Manning was intrigued by a confusing crossover between drama and documentary apparent in the new early-evening rescue show 999, presented by Michael Buerk, which first aired in June that year. Dramatic reconstructions of bloody accidents – people falling down ravines, being hit by speedboats – were set against sober commentary. “Here’s the patrician, sane voice of television, but with horror going on at the same time.” Crimewatch was similar, with Nick Ross’s mawkish imperative, “Don’t have nightmares.” Ross was approached to present Ghostwatch but the BBC wouldn’t release him. Volk’s early scripts list David Dimbleby and Selina Scott as possible cast. 

But as with Stephen Volk, it was events in the Middle East that interested Manning most, specifically footage of the Gulf War that she’d seen on the BBC the previous year, in which triumphant music was played over scenes of British troops. “I was appalled at it,” she says. “It was so emotive.

“We never used the word ‘hoax’,” she adds. “We were unpicking the language of television.” But Ghostwatch was, in many ways, a hoax – a project hidden in plain sight at the BBC.

The former producer Ruth Baumgarten works as a criminal lawyer in Ealing these days. She’s the one you get when you’re arrested – I’m not saying anything till I’ve talked to my lawyer. It’s the same as being a producer, she says, in her quick German accent. “It’s about resolving a crisis. And those first minutes matter so much.”

A drawing of the haunted bedroom in Northolt, and a letter from a child who was not allowed to stay up and watch the show

After Ghostwatch, Baumgarten received hate mail saying that 200 years earlier, she would have been burned as a witch. She was six months pregnant when she made the show. On Biteback, alongside her wheelchair-bound executive producer, Richard Broke, she looks young and uncomfortable (“I’d gone out to buy the mumsiest, most harmless outfit I could find”). She tells the presenter Sue Lawley, “The reaction was far greater than we imagined and we were naive in that respect.” She adds that they couldn’t have made it more obvious that it was a drama, short of sticking arrows on the screen.

Baumgarten hated Crimewatch. “I’m too German,” she says. “Surveillance, denunciation, Nazis – I was politically opposed. It’s helpful for aspiring directors but horribly gratuitous.” Volk’s script presented the juiciest intellectual challenge she’d had. “Horror, if you don’t get it right, is just funny.”

Baumgarten, too, had been affected by coverage of the first Iraq War. “I was troubled by the element of spectacle to the reporting,” she says. “There was something extraordinary about watching those burning oil wells and troops in the deserts. I thought, how real is this? How much does what we want to see manufacture what is made? The denouement of Ghostwatch is: ‘There is a collective wish to see this.’”

Baumgarten told Volk to crunch his six-parter down to one, to get it through commissioning. She recalls the moment they were sitting in her office, on the fifth floor of BBC Television Centre, when he suggested that they put the show out as a “live” broadcast. “It was like having electricity going through me,” she says. “I fully expected I might never work again.”

She took the idea to Broke, “who had a very mischievous streak”. Broke was accustomed to controversy. His production of Alan Bleasdale’s The Monacled Mutineer, about the First World War deserter Percy Toplis, was attacked by Norman Tebbit for its perceived political bias (the Daily Mail called it a “tissue of lies”). His Falklands drama Tumbledown got a similar Tory backlash.

Every week, Broke, who died in 2014, took the project to meetings but later said that whether people paid any attention to it was debatable: producers are only ever concerned with their own babies. As for Baumgarten, “It still is the case that young women don’t get listened to,” she says. “I could ‘warn’ as much as I liked. If you’re a breathless, enthusiastic young female, you can hide in plain sight.” To head off curiosity in the canteen, Manning, Volk and Baumgarten invented a fake project they were working on: a film about extras called Noddies.

The budget for Ghostwatch was huge. The team was given about £900,000 and gave a third of it back. It would be shot on video, to make it look like news. They hired Winston  Ryder, the sound designer for David Lean’s Great Expectations, who created the sound of screaming cats by rubbing balloons.

It’s the technology in Ghostwatch that stands out today – technology so new that it had only appeared on the news before, such as the pixelation used for Craig Charles’s vox pops. The infrared cameras, which are relied on when chaos breaks out, had just come into use for the BBC’s Gulf War coverage.

Baumgarten and Manning would walk round the Television Centre “donut” trying to sharpen an edit that was already “like mathematics”. They had worked together on My Sister Wife, Meera Syal’s film about a second-generation Asian woman in Britain. Ghostwatch was, Baumgarten says, “one of the few times in my life when two or three different brains really came together, and that was an incredible high”.

They were so absorbed in making the conceit work that they hadn’t considered that people believing it would signal anything other than success. Baumgarten fought hard against a “drama” label and a cast list in the Radio Times. “I was very glad that I lost that fight, because with the credits, we had a line of defence,” she says.

“The maverick producer was in its element at that time,” Manning explains. “We weren’t watched so avidly. There wasn’t a massive chain of command. Nobody was over my shoulder. Nobody was worried.”

That, of course, was the problem.


The week after Ghostwatch, Sarah Greene received hundreds of letters from children who had watched her walk voluntarily into the cupboard under the stairs to meet the ghost of a child molester. Many sent pictures, though their glimpses of him had been momentary – reflections in windows, or shapes in the dark.

“It’s like the Grimm fairy tales,” she tells me. “Pipes was that figure of fear, crossed with a kind of pantomime dame – the strangeness of a man being dressed a woman. The things that are most scary to children are things that are slightly skewed.

“The bottom line is they shouldn’t have been up,” she says. “But they were. Because it was Halloween and because I was in it. They associated me with Saturday mornings, and there I was on Saturday night.”

Filming in the haunted house took place in July 1992. It was a hot summer and the building was wrapped in black felt to give the appearance of night. “And in that time,” Greene says, “it’s easy to forget how potentially terrifying it was.”

Close to transmission, she and her husband, Mike Smith, attended a meeting at the BBC to propose a way the programme could head off a possible “shit storm”: a live discussion show, to go out straight afterwards, a kind of Big Brother’s Little Brother a decade early. It would have been good telly, she says: “And they could have taken the flak then.” The idea was not picked up. The continuity announcer followed Ghostwatch with a sober “And now, Match of the Day…” as though nothing had happened.

“In typical BBC style,” says Greene, “the upper echelons said, ‘People will know it’s a play, because it says Screen One at the beginning.’ And I thought, what about those who’ve tuned in late and think it’s live? In fact, isn’t that what you rather disingenuously want them to do?

“I think there was a somewhat arrogant feeling that everybody would understand the vernacular of scheduling,” she says. “And there was a slight feeling of mischief about it. Perhaps they didn’t realise what a good product they’d got on their hands.”

“What if millions of people wanted to see a ghost to the extent that they actually created it?”

Today, it’s the actors who date Ghostwatch and the presenters who help it retain its strange power. Craig Charles was the “knobhead”, he tells me: his insensitivity reassured, then unsettled, the audience: “The people I was vox-popping looked at me like I’d just pissed in their handbag.”

But above all, the success of the trick was down to Parkinson, who hit a mind-bending register unfamiliar to a television audience. Here was a well-known journalist presenting complete falsehood as fact – with a scepticism that reassured you that the whole thing was probably nonsense – which it then apparently proved not to be.

At one point, the eldest child appears to be faking the ghost: she is caught banging a radiator with a mallet in her hand. With patrician scorn straining his newsreader register, Parkinson sneers, “We set out to catch a ghost and what we have captured instead is the remarkable instance of a hoax.” The phone-in format enhances the banal realism of his reactions: looking absently at the surveillance screens, he touches a finger to an earpiece to listen to a time-wasting caller. As chaos begins to break, there’s the same absent look, then a pause – tiny changes of pace that signal the loss of control.

Parkinson spreads Vegemite on his toast at 9.30am – you can hear the scraping down the line. “What about this bloody Ghostwatch, then, terrible show, wasn’t it?” the 82-year-old japes. Like Greene, he had dreams of acting as a youth – he once played a dashing cavalry officer opposite a buxom barmaid. “I can’t learn lines, you know – well, I can, but I can’t be bothered,” he says. Quite a few presenters would have made good actors: “Like Alan Whicker. I always saw him as a psychopathic killer.”

You get a better sense of what Parkinson did by talking to his director. His modus operandi, Lesley Manning says, was auto­cue, or natural interview, in which he knew the points he wanted to make and just chatted. So they tapped into the latter. “The actors had scripts but he just free-formed. It’s his dryness that makes it.”

At the show’s end, Parkinson wanders across a darkened studio, struggling to explain what had happened. “I was genuinely wrong-footed,” he says. The finale was so dramatic, it reassured a lot of viewers that the programme wasn’t real. But not those children who’d already been sent to bed.


In the next morning’s News of the World, on Sunday 1 November – alongside a topless picture of the “Middlesex cracker” Sarah Jaffer and a story about a brothel in Hove – a headline signalled the start of the predicted shit storm: “Parky panned for Halloween fright”. Hundreds of viewers had rung the paper to condemn the “sick spoof”, they claimed. Valerie McVey of Maidstone said, “It’s wrong to show this as if it were true in documentary style.”

The backlash against Ghostwatch, Mike Smith later said, was staged by the tabloid press – just another scene in the long-running battle of the red tops to pick at, weaken and dismantle the BBC. In the Sun, Gary Bushell wrote: “If you fell for it, you’re either still writing in crayon, or you must have been overdoing spirits of a very different kind.” The same month, he proposed streamlining the Stalinist state bureaucracy of the BBC – and an end to multicultural programmes. The general feeling was of a colossal misjudgement: as Manning puts it, “We had broken the contract between Auntie and the public.”

In a Daily Mirror article (“Parky blasts back in trick or cheat fury”), Parkinson was quoted: “Anyone who didn’t realise it was a drama must have been living under a stone for the past few weeks.” The Express columnist Peter Tory answered, in a piece headlined “Parkinson’s fearful liberty”,

How astonishing that the smug Parkinson should dismiss it all with such arrogance. Television, with its formidable power, should be very careful when combining apparent reality with alarming fiction. The BBC proves once again that it is out of control.

While Parkinson and Greene found themselves on the front line and Craig Charles went to Corfu (“It’s fight or flight”), the creative team behind Ghostwatch was miffed that no one would speak to them about the show that had attracted 11 million viewers. Executives looked for someone to blame. Parkinson later said their reaction “showed the BBC at its corporate worst”.

Baumgarten and Broke were put on Biteback “to apologise to the nation”. Years later – in the documentary Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains, made by Rich Lawden, who had seen Ghostwatch as a child – Broke revealed that he had directed everything he said on Biteback at the sixth floor of the BBC, which had been warned about the project. An inquiry was ordered by the BBC’s then managing director, Will Wyatt, and a report was commissioned. Broke had his dossier, though no one seems to know where it is now. You imagine a Ghostwatch file locked away somewhere, like at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I called the BBC archives, which told me there wasn’t one.

Jonathan Powell, Alan Yentob’s predecessor, was the controller of BBC One at the time. “Have you tried to get hold of him?” asks Lesley Manning. “I don’t think he speaks about Ghostwatch at all.”

Powell, now 70, is the head of media arts at Royal Holloway, University of London. As a producer, he was responsible for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People starring Alec Guinness. As the BBC’s head of drama in the 1980s, he had tried to cancel Doctor Who to tabloid outcry. He also commissioned Eldorado. Powell believed in popular programmes. Ratings were suffering as a result of strong ITV drama.

“Quite how much I knew about Ghostwatch in production, I don’t actually remember,” he tells me. “Quite how explicit Richard Broke was about the nature of the programme, I’m not entirely sure.”

But it was Powell who insisted that the drama tag and the credits be applied to Ghostwatch just two days before transmission. “Richard and Ruth thought that if we did that, people would miss out on the joke they were playing,” he says. “I vividly remember saying, ‘You can’t do this.’ Richard was pushing the line, if not overstepping it completely, to try and get the thing past.” He also styled the continuity announcement to make the fictional element clear: “A Screen One presentation, a film…”

“But it has the hallmarks to me of a bit of a compromise,” he says. “I don’t remember being concerned about using Sarah Greene. Maybe I should have been. But she was brilliant.”

Powell left the BBC a year after Ghostwatch. The corporation had got into trouble over drama-documentaries so many times: there were committees set up for such things, he explains, which had dealt with Richard Broke’s war dramas. (“The Daily Mail accused the BBC of being a hotbed of ghastly anti-war lefties.”)

“The problem with Ghostwatch,” he says, “is that it’s so brilliantly done. It has such an acute sense of the genres it’s working in. It doesn’t go: this is real. It goes: is this real? You ask the same question about the programme that you ask about the paranormal. It just makes you doubt yourself.”

“There was a feeling the BBC should shove this one in the vaults and lock it away”

On Biteback, grim-faced parents in tweed jackets and large glasses voice their outrage. One father, who – it’s hard to believe now – was completely taken in, put it down to Parkinson being a “well-known and fatherly figure”. You can hear disembodied cries of “Exploiting children! Lying to the public!”

“Adults don’t like being made into fools in front of their children because it undermines their parental position,” Powell says. “In those days, the parent was the gatekeeper of television and it was your job as a parent to protect your offspring. It undermined their authority in their home.”

In 1992, the language of television may have been changing but TV was still the other person in the room, intrusive and charismatic. There was, in the psyche, a strange sense that unlike with the radio, if you didn’t like what you heard, you couldn’t turn it off. In Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie Poltergeist, television ate up children whole. Two years later, Margaret Thatcher’s government passed the Video Recordings Act targeting “video nasties”, fuelled by a Daily Mail campaign with stories of children being transfixed by what they had seen. The horror film series Child’s Play was cited as an inspiration for the murders of Suzanne Capper in December 1992 and James Bulger in February 1993. It was against this background of moral panic that Walter Silveira and Dawn Simons filed their BMJ report.

Case 1: This boy had been frightened by Ghostwatch and had refused to watch the ending… He suffered panic attacks, refused to go upstairs alone, and slept with the bedroom light on. He had nightmares and daytime flashbacks and banged his head to remove thoughts of ghosts… He was admitted to the hospital’s child and family unit as his mother could no longer cope with his behaviour at home… His mother was helped to regain control in their relationship; and both were discouraged from discussing ghosts and his fears.

I called Dawn Simons, now working in learning disabilities in Birmingham, for her memories of the two boys she treated. “We were struck by the levels of anxiety and the fact that it couldn’t be managed by the parents,” she says. “Some of the thoughts had become quite obsessional – having too much discussion perpetuates that. You have to put a limit on obsessional thinking. But because Ghostwatch was only shown once, parents couldn’t rewind it and prove to children that it wasn’t real.”

In the other cases reported in the BMJ, a common theme was the children’s inability to sleep in their own bedrooms. “Pipes” had first manifested against the children’s curtains – the most simple of childhood fears. An 11-year-old boy suffered a year of panic attacks after Ghostwatch. All of the children were of a nervous disposition; all had parents who struggled to quell their fears. The doctors at Edinburgh concluded, “The realistic quality of [Ghostwatch] may have prevented the parents from adequately containing their children’s anxieties.”

Martin Denham died on Thursday 5 November 1992 after hanging himself from a tree in Bestwood Park, Nottingham. The young factory worker was 18, with a mental age of 13 and a sensitive disposition. His girlfriend told the Sun that the programme had “petrified” him; his stepfather said he had been “hypnotised”. In a suicide note found in his pocket, he had written: “Mother, do not be upset. If there is ghosts I will now be one and I will always be with you as one.”

April and Percy Denham have always blamed the BBC for their son’s death. The Broadcasting Standards Commission eventually conceded:

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.

This month, a planned Ghostwatch item on The One Show, to be hosted by Sarah Greene, was dropped when the editorial policy department vetoed it.

“The BBC were really embarrassed by it,” says Jonathan Powell. “Anything like that would put the kibosh on it being celebrated. There was a feeling that they should shove this one in the vaults and lock it away.”

Ruth Baumgarten remembers the “worst hours of her life”, when she thought she might have been responsible for frightening a child to death. Richard Broke said that the coroner’s report mentioned nothing about the programme. “But it wouldn’t, would it?” Volk says. “If you could turn the clock back, you would.”

Lesley Manning entered into correspondence with children. One letter, from a girl who hadn’t been allowed to watch the show, suggests the hold that the programme had taken in the popular imagination: “If it comes back on, I will try to watch it. My mum will probably say no, so I will ask my dad. If he says no I will scream.”

These children are the ones who saw the BFI’s DVD release as adults, formed the online fan groups, organised the anniversary screenings, as the community of people who half-remembered the dark dream was able to live it all over again.

Volk has “plodded on”. He and Manning are working on a film about Soviet experiments in ESP: “Every time the regime changed in Russia, I’d do a new draft of the script.” Ghostwatch couldn’t be made now, he says, because of editorial policy: “Policing is a strong word, but policy is policing.”

The bottom line is that no one would fall for it. It couldn’t withstand the exposure of social media. The ritual of TV watching has changed, as has the nature of outrage. You’re unlikely to get parents up in arms because Auntie failed to protect their children, when children can watch Isis beheadings on their phones. Children’s exposure to violence is too large and too diffuse a subject for a Daily Mail campaign.

“There’s no place for fictional horror,” Michael Parkinson tells me. “It suffices that you see children falling into the sea and drowning. We’re inured to physical violence. That genre of Ghostwatch, what was hideous and frightening 20 years ago, is nothing now. It’s a nursery rhyme.”

After Ghostwatch, found footage, infrared camerawork and surveillance became staples of the horror genre: the makers of the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project claim it as an inspiration. The banal reality TV that the show was aping – the CCTV-style footage of sleeping bodies and household tasks – became the fashionable language eight years later with Big Brother. The sense of involvement in voting someone off I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! is, Volk says, no different to an audience willing themselves to see a ghost. “You feel a real kind of intimacy at the time, but once you switch off, it means absolutely nothing to you.”

But the real reason Ghostwatch wouldn’t frighten people now is there in the line about Terry Waite, which appeared in the original script. In late 1992, the ITV drama-documentary Hostages came under attack from Waite, John McCarthy, Brian Keenan and Terry Anderson for containing scenes that were “entirely fictional”. Ghostwatch was the original fake news: it came at the start of a shift in awareness, from the sense that what you were being shown might be manipulating you to the acceptance, now, that you can’t believe anything you see.

When I rewatched Ghostwatch and caught the momentary glimpses of the ghost that the “authority figures” in the studio failed to see, my mind made a strange leap to a very different piece of footage: CNN’s coverage of the 9/11 attacks, now on YouTube. The first plane has hit the tower, and a presenter and an on-the-spot reporter try to fill time, speculating and floundering. All eyes are trained on the scene.

Then, from the right, as clear as anything, a second plane glides in and hits the South Tower – and no one in the studio notices. At that second, millions of people across America must have been thinking: was it just me who saw that? It was, of course, the moment when real life started looking like a blockbuster action film, and perhaps ghost stories were a thing of the past.

“Ghostwatch” is showing at the Genesis Cinema, London E1, on 31 October

Listen to the show being discussed by Kate Mossman and Tom Gatti on the New Statesman‘s culture podcast, the Back Half. Find it on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action

Topics in this article :

This article appears in the 18 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions