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OPERATION YEWTREE COMES FOR PIPES: The Unexplored Prescience Of GHOSTWATCH

By Siân Pearce, APRIL 6, 2024

Siân Pearce asks whether the true horror of GHOSTWATCH lies not in the spooks, but in what it said about our relationship with television personalities.

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In 1992 a television documentary was shown, telling the story of Pamela Early, a single mother who lives with her two daughters, Suzanne, a teenager and Kim who is a little younger – probably pre-teen. Cameras are given access to almost every area of their home, with a live feed to the studio where a parapsychologist and the show’s host, a sturdy middleaged male patrician figure, consider the events of the night. We are told that they live in one of the most haunted houses in Britain.

Leading the outside broadcast is a well-known chirpy female presenter. She takes us on a tour of the house, with her camera and sound men. Without knocking she enters the girl’s bedrooms as they are getting ready for bed. Unperturbed Pam simply finishes pulling down Kim’s nighty as Kim tries to maintain some dignity by removing her jeans under her nighty, turning away from the camera as she does so.

Later in the programme we are shown clips of both Kim and Suzanne in an apparently clinical setting with the psychologist, Dr Lin Pascoe. These are marked as ‘university research’ as well as from a film recently produced by Dr Pascoe regarding the haunting (Dr Pascoe has apparently also published a book). Their mother is not present (presumably for
scientific reasons) as tests are undertaken. As the drama of the night unfolds, and it appears that Suzanne has been responsible for the ‘haunting’ all along. Though in some distress, she is upbraided for her unacceptable behaviour over the protestations of her mother, by the elder statesman presenter – who appears to be the voice of common sense and authority in the situation. Suzanne looks into the camera and tells the audience “this is what you wanted”…

This documentary, as will be obvious from the title of this article if nothing else, was GHOSTWATCH. A drama which scared the pants off the British public (including the me, as an extremely credulous 12 year old who was sent to bed part way through) in 1992, and has been the subject of controversy, analysis and adoration ever since. Now, I would like to
clearly state that I adore GHOSTWATCH and the following should not be taken as criticism, but an attempt to look at one of the less discussed areas of satire in the piece – the treatment of the girls, who are central to the plot but seemingly invisible in terms of their needs. I would even go as far as to suggest that if anyone wants to know how the various abusers of popular culture in the 70s and 80s got away with it, watching GHOSTWATCH would be a good place to start.


According to the following weeks POINTS OF VIEW programme, on the night GHOSTWATCH aired there were 835 calls to the BBC switchboard, 382 of which were complaining that the show was ‘an insult to their intelligence’, 275 on the grounds of ‘poor taste’, 62 ‘just had a general moan’, and 116 rang to say how much they had enjoyed it. 1 

The viewer complaints picked to be read out on air were spilt between those who had fallen for the cunning ruse and those who had not. Other estimates suggest that the call numbers were much higher – with producer Ruth Baumgarten suggesting over a million calls were received. 2 Baumgarten and fellow producer Richard Broke were then pulled onto the watchdog show BITEBACK to explain themselves. That is to explain the fright they had caused, particularly among children enjoying a Halloween treat of watching post-watershed TV. There is no indication of anyone calling with concerns for a preteen being shown getting undressed in front of not only strange men but the entire nation - even from those who state that they had believed the show to have been real until the end. It is notable that even in the states of distress none of the characters raise concerns for the well-being of the children (well, not until they get sucked into a hell dimension), which even the curmudgeonly Carmichael Haig manages in the more recent take on TV-gone-wrong LATE NIGHT WITH THE DEVIL.

The unsettling power of children in horror is well known – it has even been suggested that no horror trope carries as much affect as that of the spooky child. 3 However, at the start of the drama the children are not obviously supernatural, a lot of work goes into creating the opposite effect – from the ‘not too rich, not too poor, not too messy, not too clean’ house, the slightly wonky outside broadcast and the jovial to the point of irritating additional host Craig Charles. This cosy familiarity is where writer Stephen Volk turns the horror thumbscrews expertly as things descend into chaos – in the house and then in the safety of BBC Television Centre itself. In later interviews he would state that he used the trusted status of the BBC as part of the drama. 4

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Now, I would like to clearly state that I adore GHOSTWATCH and the following should not be taken as criticism, but an attempt to look at one of the less discussed areas of satire in the piece – the treatment of the girls, who are central to the plot but seemingly invisible in terms of their needs. I would even go as far as to suggest that if anyone wants to know how the various abusers of popular culture in the 70s and 80s got away with it, watching GHOSTWATCH would be a good place to start.

The subversive nature of the programme was hinted at by director Leslie Manning who in a (much) later interview talked being inspired by her disgust at the way triumphant music had been played over footage of British troops entering Iraq,5 

producer Baumgarten would mention similar qualms. Richard Broke had already courted controversy, having produced
TUMBLEDOWN, a film about the Falklands War which had proved insufficiently patriotic for the Conservative Government’s sensibilities.

 

With hindsight it seems obvious that this creative ensemble would be primed not to take the conventions of 90s television at face value. This was a creative team with a track history of questioning the ‘good guys’. Sadly, horror, as with other genre film and television is often overlooked in terms of how it deals with ‘serious’ subjects. This is probably why the enduring discourse regarding GHOSTWATCH is how scary it was, what a good hoax, and how it influenced the next wave of found footage horror such as THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT which continued to blur the lines between fact and fiction, and the previously mentioned LATE NIGHT WITH THE DEVIL, which didn’t really try. The ’hoax’ aspect of the piece spawned a mini-moral panic, with investigations into whether genuine harm having been caused to children who had watched it and subsequently
exhibited signs of trauma published in the British Medical Journal. 7

The death of Martin Denham of course remains a tragedy, that should not be minimised.

However, when The Express columnist Peter Tory criticised how GHOSTWATCH misused the “formidable power” of television, 8 he was perhaps missing the point. GHOSTWATCH was trying to showcase the misuse of that power, which as we know know was being abused in far worse ways than a too spooky Halloween special. Between the jumpscares GHOSTWATCH showed the power given to trusted figures to ride roughshod over the needs of vulnerable children in the name of entertainment. Rita Schmitz suggests that the “attack” in “GHOSTWATCH” is not the ghosts but media violence. She suggests that the message is that to watch violence on television is to invite it into one’s own home. 9 I would respectfully
suggest that this view is slightly off the mark, and that the dangers being warned of were not confined to made up violence.

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In 2022, GHOSTWATCH turned 30, and went on tour. I attended a Cardiff screening, and with the benefit of age, a legal career, and academic research in children’s studies, not to mention post-Yewtree sensibilities, I was shocked at the treatment of Kim and Suzanne. In a
question (graciously received) by Stephen Volk I referred to the show as depicting as a ‘child protection nightmare’. His answer was that the intention had been to show television as it was, including the sinister aspects that did not involve without actual violence or supernatural intervention. He pointed to the line mentioned above, where Suzanne, tells us “we were just noises to you…it was what you wanted”. When I speak to fellow horror fans about Ghostwatch few remember the undressing scenes or the level of intimacy with which the children are displayed for the camera. It is true that Sarah Greene is seen to ultimately sacrifice herself for Suzanne, having to appear on Blue Peter the week after to show she was in fact unharmed. But by that point the harm (to Kim and Suzanne) is done, they were just noises.

The treatment of Kim and Suzanne mirrors that of the girls involved in the famous Enfieldand Battersea hauntings. The photos referenced by Dr Pascoe at the start of Ghostwatch are familiar to anyone familiar with the Enfield haunting. All of those hauntings focus almost voyeuristically on adolescent girls. The sexualisation of Shirley Hitchens and her relationship with the poltergeist ‘Donald’ in Battersea has been discussed by Danny Robins, 10 who has become known not only for his work uncovering spooky happenings but, perhaps unusually, for his respectful approach to those who experience them. A respect which was markedly lacking in the treatment of Suzanne and the rest of the Hitchens and Hodgson children,
GHOSTWATCH merely mirrors that in how it entirely deliberately, treats Kim and Suzanne Early.


For me that is the true horror of GHOSTWATCH. Don’t get me wrong, when I watched it last Halloween in memory of Parky (did I mention I really like GHOSTWATCH?). I absolutely found myself looking twice at the shadows from the kitchen. But every time I watch Kim turn from the cameras as she takes of her jeans a much deeper shiver runs down my spine. Volk,
Manning, Baumgarten, and Broke put it right in front of our eyes – the absolute and misplaced trust we had given to the media – and Aunty Beeb in particular. And we missed it because we were chasing ghosts.

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1 https://youtu.be/mCqVOw5CDGg?si=hnGcx7I9qJ9dH0Sh

2 Calum Marsh, ‘A Ghoulish Legacy; The Unbelievable True Story Of Ghostwatch, The Greatest Horror Hoax In Television History’, National Post, 1 November 2017, 1958569306, ProQuest Central; ProQuest One Business,
https://uoelibrary.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/ghoulish-legacy- 
unbelievable-true-story/docview/1958569306/se-2?accountid=10792.
3 T.S Kord, Little Horrors: How Cinema’s Evil Children Play on Our Guilt, Kindle (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc, 2016).
4 Kate Mossman, ‘How the BBC Terrified a Generation: The Story of Ghostwatch--the Halloween Hoax That Changed the Language of Television’, New Statesman, 20 October 2017, Gale Literature Resource Center.
5 Mossman.
6 ‘Richard Broke: Television Producer Who Found Himself Attacked by The’, The Independent, 25 April 2014, sec. News, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/richard-broke-television- producer-who-found-himself-attacked-by-the-tories-for-tumbledown-and-the-monocled-mutinee-

7 D. Simons and W. R. Silveira, ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder In Children After Television Programmes’, BMJ: British Medical Journal 308, no. 6925 (1994): 389–90.
8 Mossman, ‘How the BBC Terrified a Generation: The Story of Ghostwatch--the Halloween Hoax That Changed the Language of Television’.
9 Rahel Sixta Schmitz, ‘Ghostwatch and the Advent of the Network Society’, in The Supernatural Media Virus (transcript Verlag, 2021), 83–114, https://doi.org/10.1515/9783839455593-005.

10 ‘The Battersea Poltergeist: Interview: Danny Robins’, Sci-Fi Bulletin: Exploring the Universes of SF, Fantasy, Horror and Spy-Fi! (blog), 21 January 2021, https://scifibulletin.com/books/audiobooks/the-

References
Kord, T.S. Little Horrors: How Cinema’s Evil Children Play on Our Guilt. Kindle. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc, 2016.
Marsh, Calum. ‘A Ghoulish Legacy; The Unbelievable True Story Of Ghostwatch, The Greatest Horror Hoax In Television History’. National Post, 1 November 2017. 1958569306. ProQuest Central; ProQuest One Business.
Mossman, Kate. ‘How the BBC Terrified a Generation: The Story of Ghostwatch--the Halloween Hoax That Changed the Language of Television’. New Statesman, 20 October 2017. Gale Literature Resource Center.
Schmitz, Rahel Sixta. ‘Ghostwatch and the Advent of the Network Society’. In The Supernatural Media Virus, 83–114. transcript Verlag, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783839455593-005.Sci-Fi Bulletin: Exploring the Universes of SF, Fantasy, Horror and Spy-fi! ‘The Battersea Poltergeist: Interview: Danny Robins’, 21 January 2021. https://scifibulletin.com/books/audiobooks/the-battersea-poltergeist-interview-danny-
robins/.
Simons, D., and W. R. Silveira. ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder In Children After Television Programmes’. BMJ: British Medical Journal 308, no. 6925 (1994): 389–90. The Independent. ‘Richard Broke: Television Producer Who Found Himself Attacked by The Tories’. 25 April 2014, sec. News.
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/richard-broke-television-producer-who-found-himself-attacked-by-the-tories-for-tumbledown-and-the-monocled-mutinee-9278695.html.

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Siân Pearce (she/they) is an activist lawyer and early career researcher regarding children in the asylum system.

They are also an avid horror and celebrates all things geekdom!

Catch up with Siân on X! 

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