Long before Most Haunted, or even the original Ghost Hunters from which the TAPS series took it’s name (yes, believe it or not, Ghost Hunters is a kinda/sorta remake), there was a show on the BBC called Ghostwatch.
Airing on Halloween of 1992, Ghostwatch was, without a doubt, the start of the modern obsession with paranormal themed reality television. It was shot in a handheld style, featured a team of people hunting poltergeists, and took a documentary approach to it’s presentation.
A curious thing happened that evening in ’92. Despite the BBC flat out announcing to everyone that the show was a scripted drama, British television viewers freaked out, believed the whole thing, and flooded the BBC with calls about paranormal activity in their own homes. It prompted the television company to shit-can the show and promise never to air it again. In fact, they completely disowned it.
Yet here we are, in the age of Haunted Collector, Paranormal State, and other shows that blend myth and reality into a must-watch web of entertaining half-truths.. and don’t bother to separate them for us any longer. How did it get to this point?
Adam Curtis, the acclaimed documentarian behind films like The Century of Self and The Power of Nightmares tackles that very question in his latest BBC blog post “The Ghost In the Living Room”. It’s a fantastic look at the evolution of paranormal themed reality TV, following the path that the spooks and spectres took on their way from the ancient castles to the suburban home. It’s also a look at paranormal investigation that very much speaks to the old adage that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Here’s an excerpt:
Ghostwatch was transmitted on Halloween 1992. It was quite obvious from both the introduction and the titles that it was a work of fiction. But the reaction was astonishing – thousands of people rang in – either terrified or angry or to report that they were experiencing paranormal activity in their house at that very moment.
The next day there was a media storm – and the BBC reacted in its normal courageous way by burying the programme and disowning it. The Radio Times was apparently told never to mention it ever again. And Volk has described how it was like being airbrushed out of a photograph in Stalinist Russia.
But the extraordinary reaction rather proved the central aim of the drama.
It demonstrated the truth about modern television – that we all know that increasingly the line between fiction and non-fiction is blurred on TV. But far from making us distrust television this actually makes it more powerful. It possesses our imagination more powerfully precisely because we don’t know what is real and what is not.
I think the reason is that, from the early 1990s onwards, the big confident stories of our time started to collapse, and people were faced instead with an everyday reality composed only of small and mostly mundane fragments. In the face of that, factual television has increasingly become a two-dimensional version of our world where everything is amplified and distorted.
Go check out the whole thing, complete with video snippets of the different shows in question. If you have any interest in the current landscape of paranormal television, it’s very much worth the read.