I recall vividly two Hallowe'ens from my youth.
On one occasion, my mother refused to open the front door to some children - actually surly teenagers dressed in bin bags and demanding confectionary with menaces - who clearly knew the house was occupied, since we’d opened the door moments before and dispensed a selection of boiled sweets (probably rescued from down the side of the settee), to the previous group of poorly-attired chancers.
Standing firm against the calls of “trick or treat” – hollered goonily through our letterbox – we waited until it all went quiet. Two minutes later, doing clumsy SAS-style rolls across the hallway, myself and my elder brother proceeded to the front door and edged it open, only to find our front garden cut with reams of toilet paper.
Running back into the house to inform my mum of this cruellest of tricks perpetrated against us, she sighed heavily and headed to the front garden. As my brother and I quickly set about wrenching the bog roll from the petunias, Mum mysteriously advised us to “be careful”.
Taking notice of this warning, we turned cautiously back to her and observed that she had begun to, very carefully, gather in the paper and roll it into a loose ball. Suddenly aware of the palpable looks of confusion on our faces, she paused, mid-spin. “What?” she said. “We should keep this! It’s good quality paper!”
I don’t recall what year that was, but I can be a lot more specific about my other memorable Hallowe'en experience – which took place on 31st October, 1992. BBC1 aired the excellent Ghostwatch.
For those of you unaware of the phenomenon that is Ghostwatch, I shall try and explain.
Airing on BBC1 post-dinner-time, the show purported to be a scientific look at the paranormal – and, accordingly, used a format familiar to its audience.
There was a studio section, interspersing interviews and live viewer telephone calls, cut with “location” shooting and some investigative journalism. The television personalities were familiar too - there was a range of talent, including Michael Parkinson, Mike “Smitty” Smith, Sarah Greene and Craig Charles. Anyone living in nineties Britain would naturally look at so impressive a line-up and fancy that they were in safe hands. Not so…
After an introduction of Michael Parkinson blandly intoning that haunted houses no longer have ‘creaking gates, Gothic towers or shutter windows’, we cut to an outside broadcast. Sarah and Craig have been summarily despatched to the Northolt home of Pamela Early and her two young girls, Kim and Suzanne. The house is unusual insofar as it is also occupied by a poltergeist.
Sarah wastes no time in getting to the crux of the matter, and ponders messy rooms and other such hard evidence of poltergeist activity. She also flicks through one of the girl’s school copybooks, which contains etchings of the ghost (on which someone in the prop team has drawn a willy on. You guys!).
Outside, Craig (foam-tipped microphone in hand and puffed up like an owl in his NFL-branded finery), pounds the streets talking to a collection of middle-aged women in shell-suits about their own ghostly experiences.
Back in the studio, Parkinson now sits imposingly in his big chair, apparently coordinating these efforts – and recommending that viewers phone in on the telephone number provided if they witness anything spooky – giving the lucky audience the chance to wax spiritual with Mike Smith, who is heading up the call centre.
It’s a quality set-up. However, not all is what it seems. For, whilst Parky talks to Sarah and Craig via - an apparently live – video link, the outside scenes had, in fact, been recorded six weeks before.
It’s a credit to the scriptwriter, however, that he’s managed to perfectly replicate all the boring shite and poor-quality adlibbing that one would expect from a live TV show going slightly askew. For the first forty-five minutes, almost nothing happens at all, adding a greater sense of tedious reality to proceedings. After all, why would anyone pre-record footage of Sarah Greene and Craig Charles titting about talking rubbish?
Suddenly things change, Parky interviews Dr Lin Pascoe, a parapsychologist, who has made an in-depth study of the Earlys’ predicament and believes that there is definitely a supernatural explanation. Parkinson listens to her spiel with a vague look of hostility…
It cuts to Smitty, who has a ‘live one’ on the phones – a woman from Slough is demanding to speak with Dr Pascoe about one of the pictures of the girls’ bedrooms we saw earlier in the programme. (Hmm, that did seem extraneous at the time!) The caller is adamant that, in the photograph, there is a figure standing in the room. Despite Dr Pascoe’s protestations, we see the picture again – and there is, clearly a ghostly figure standing by the curtains. It cuts again to Dr Pascoe as she examines it on a monitor and then cuts back to the picture again – this time there’s no one there… (Did we all imagine it? No. They’re messing with our minds!)
Now things really begin to cook. A damp patch is discovered in the Earlys' front room, requiring a load of experts to rush in and do experty things, such as prod it and take away samples to a lab. Sarah runs to a French window, apparently freaked out by the sound of some cats fighting. Craig turns up his capering by a good sixty per cent – and leaps out of a closet! It’s edge of the seat stuff!
A terrible banging starts upstairs in the house. As Sarah freaks out, Ms. Early shrugs it off – this is, apparently, an everyday occurrence. It sounds quite a lot like central heating problems, which is exactly what has led the family to nickname the ghost “Mr. Pipes”.
According to the girls in the house, Mr. Pipes sometimes watches them when they’re in bed, but spends most of his time lurking about in the cupboard under the stairs, which has been mysteriously tagged “the glory hole” and been subsequently boarded up. (I dread to think what Pipes is doing under there…)
Since this is a thorough and scientific study of supernatural activity – which should be clear from the fact that Mike Smith is on board – in an attempt to get final, clinching proof of the supernatural there are video cameras mounted in every room of the house. But, just when we think Mr. Pipes is unwilling to play ball, the sound of banging suddenly intensifies – and it’s coming from the landing outside the girls’ bedroom. Spooling back the relevant video tape hoping to see Mr. Pipes, we are in fact shown footage of nothing more than Suzanne Early smacking a metal bar off the boiler.
Parkinson needs to see no more! Instantly disparaging, he lays into Dr Pascoe for her rubbish views on the supernatural (in fairness, he’s been building up to it for a while). He concludes that she has been the victim of a hoax perpetrated by the girls. Pascoe splutters on, explaining that this is perfectly normal. Since, poltergeists often target adolescents, their subjects often try and prove they aren’t making it up by faking it. (Clearly, that is a rubbish system.)
Cutting back to the house for Sarah Greene to say her last goodbyes to the studio audience, it would appear more has gone on. No longer is she boring members of the production crew by pointing out they look like Mike Gatting (cheers, then!), instead she’s dodging flying furniture and listening to Suzanne Early spout nursery rhymes in a demonic male voice, whilst cowering behind a chair.
But, ever the professional, Sarah moves the story on, heading out to what she believes to be the source of the troubles – the glory hole!
As assorted furnishings and ornaments crash down around her, Sarah edges towards the hallway, when, suddenly, the picture cuts out…
Back in the studio, the monitors have all gone blank. The telephone connections are dead. Even the clocks have stopped. Parkinson is unruffled. (That’s twenty years in the business for you.) But, Dr Pascoe’s looking shaky. Not as shaky as Smitty though, who is probably wondering how such a simple task as heading up a telephone call centre could have possibly gone so badly.
After some minutes’ anxiety and confusion, suddenly the monitors blink back on again and, though they have no sound, it seems that life has returned to normal in the house. Indeed, everyone seems to be happily ensconced in a game of cards and chatting with members of the TV crew.
Even Smitty can breathe a sigh of relief, as the telephones have started working again. He even relaxes enough to put another call through. This time it’s a retired social worker, who claims to have visited the Earlys' house several years ago to see a lodger that used to live there – a man named Raymond Tunstall. Whilst staying in the house, Tunstall apparently went mad and developed paranoid delusions that he was being taken over by an old woman - who was forcing him to wear dresses and hurt people. In order to escape from his tormentor, he hanged himself in the cupboard under the stairs.
Parkinson chuckles at this tall story (the arrogance!), turning to the camera, he starts a Crimewatch-style “please don’t have nightmares, this is very rare” wrap-up line – only to be interrupted by Dr Pascoe, who has noticed something odd about the video feed from the house. One of pictures that flew off the living room wall earlier in the evening seems to be back in place.
This can only mean one thing – the images they are seeing are not live! So what is happening at the house?
Cutting back, the unconscious bodies of various members of the production team are now being carted out the front-door on stretchers. Despite this, another cameraman is despatched to find Sarah, carefully deploying his infrared lens that we were shown at length earlier in the programme. (Hmm, that did seem extraneous at the time). Heading back indoors, through a swirling kaleidoscope of night-vision (accompanied with much Silence of the Lambs-style heavy breathing), he manages to locate – a now hysterical – Sarah, who immediately pulls away the pieces of wood that had been covering the door to the glory hole.
As the door swings open, the camera captures a split-second vision of Pipes in his dress – before swinging shut again – taking Sarah with it. As her screams ring out, the camera signal breaks up…
Back in the studio, Parkinson is so shocked by the events in the house he has literally sat forward in his chair. The lights suddenly dim, and for a minute the studio is left in shadow. It’s enough to cause instant panic with the production crew (they’re as superstitious as sailors down at Television Centre) and, especially, Mike Smith who just apparently watched his wife die on prime-time television.
Suddenly, Dr Pascoe realises what is going on – by bringing all those cameras into the house they have started a nationwide séance! (Of course, it’s obvious now!) Faced with the awful truth, and fully realising her own part in it, she runs from the building – leaving Parkinson to carry on on his own.
After a moment’s gibbering, Parkinson stands up and wanders aimlessly around the studio floor. (Since the cameras are unmanned, the lucky viewer is treated to three minutes of Parky’s navy trouser crotch move in and out of focus.) Suddenly the auto-cue turns on again and, almost automatically, he begins to read. But what is he reading? Only Pipes’ favourite nursery rhyme! Finally, it’s clear: the ghost is in the machine.
According to the Wikipedia article on Ghostwatch, in the weeks running up to the BBC airing the show, the corporation was worried about what effect it would have on the British public – and very nearly cancelled the screening.
This seems unlikely, considering you can clearly see Michael Parkinson’s face adorning the front page of that week’s edition of the Radio Times. This would suggest that they were clamouring to get the programme exposure rather than tentatively moving forward with the project.
Whatever the case may be, the show certainly did have an effect. So many people called the telephone hotline that the majority spent hours listening to the engaged tone – thus failing to hear a message pointing out that it wasn’t real.
A lot of suggestible viewers (or possibly mad or attention-seeking viewers) actually claimed to experience “supernatural” activity as a result of seeing Ghostwatch. Much of this involved what would otherwise seem to be rather common-place phenomenon, such as clocks stopping and movement in curtains, but one inventive viewer actually attacked his wife and then blamed that on the show.
Clearly, in the days before The Jeremy Kyle Show, a certain strata of the British public were struggling to find proper outlets.
Still, for those of us interested in the supernatural from a young age (I was a boyish 14 years old in 1992 – and already had loads of books about ghosts and shit) it must be said that Ghostwatch delivered.
Sadly, these days “the kids” have nothing save for repeats of Yvette Fielding and Derek Acorah scrutinising the bits of dust floating around the corridors of stately homes and calling them “orbs”…
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