Creepy Things That Seem Real But Aren’t: Ghostwatch

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Creepy Things That Seem Real But Aren’t is a series that explores modern urban legends, bringing you a new tale each week.

Ghost Hunters, Most Haunted, Paranormal State, Ghost Adventures… These days, television is full of paranormal programming that purports to track ghostly phenomena, and each and every one of them swears up, down, left, and right that they’re the real deal. But in 1992, these types of shows were far from the norm. So when the BBC decided to air a 90-minute special on Halloween that claimed to be a live, on-air investigation of ongoing poltergeist activity at a house in Northolt, a neighborhood in west London, the public’s reaction was a great deal less jaded than our own would have been—especially given how the tragic events of the night unfolded. The program was called GHOSTWATCH, and it would go down in history as one of the BBC’s biggest mistakes.

Hosted by well-known British broadcaster and journalist Michael Parkinson, the program begins in Studio One at the BBC’s home base in Shepherd’s Bush. Parkinson introduces the house that is to be investigated that night, playing a video clip recorded by the researchers who first began the investigation. In it, the family’s two daughters are getting ready for bed in their shared bedroom. But no sleep is to happen that night; as the sisters turn out the light, a heavy banging emanating from the walls shakes the room, and objects hurtled towards the girls. The banging is too loud and insistent to be anything other than someone or something using great physical force. The girls shriek for their mother. The clip ends.

Parkinson informs us that tonight, he and the BBC will be taking us inside the house on Foxhill Drive where this is all happening. We may see things; we may not; but there’s no time quite like Halloween to explore the possibility of the unknown. Furthermore, viewers are invited to call in to the studio during the program to share their own tales of ghouls, ghosts, and the otherwise unexplained; perhaps they will be able to tell their stories live on air as the night goes on. Anchoring things down in the studio are Parkinson, television and radio presenter Mike Smith, who will be manning the phone lines, and Dr. Lin Pascoe, an expert in the paranormal who has been studying the case of the house on Foxhill Drive. At the house itself, BBC personalities Sarah Greene of the children’s show Blue Peter and space Brit-com Red Dwarf star Craig Charles present the goings-on at the house. This includes walking the audience through the techniques and technology the ghost-hunting team will employ in their investigation, many of would now be recognized as ghost-hunting standards: The house is equipped with motion detectors, temperature sensors, and hidden cameras, and a thermographic camera, which allows its users to catch warm spots, is made much of. Greene—who, it should be noted, is married to Mike Smith—introduces us to single mother Pam Earley, the owner of the house, and her daughters, Suzanne and Kim—the girls from the clip played at the start of the program. Pam, it is revealed, has been attempting to sell the house for almost a year, but has been unable to do so due to the ghostly occurrences and unexplained banging noises plaguing the property.

In spite of the Earley’s obvious distress, though, there is a jovial feel to the proceedings: The kind of gleeful “Nothing’s REALLY going to happen… is it?” that usually characterizes stories told around a campfire. At least, that is the way it appears at the house. It is not intended to be unkind—on the contrary—but it is no doubt Greene’s effervescent personality and instincts as a children’s television presenter that contributes to this atmosphere. In the studio, however, Dr. Pascoe’s demeanor is significantly more serious. When asked by Parkinson whether she thinks they will see anything tonight, she answers that she is not entirely sure; while she has been on the case, sometimes, she says, they went weeks without seeing a thing, whereas other times, happenings occurred in rapid succession. Dr. Pascoe revealed footage from her investigations, including an unsettling instance in which a voice utterly unlike her own speaks through Suzanne’s mouth. There is, Dr. Pascoe says, no way that Suzanne could replicate that voice on her own.

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