The “Ghostwatch” War of the Worlds Broadcast

In 1992 television cameras descended on a reportedly haunted house and began filming what they considered to be some of the most disturbing live captures of paranormal evidence of all time.  But as the lights went dim and viewers watched in horror, they found what many had suspected all along – the program had been pure fiction.  But unlike some of the other paranormal shows claiming to portray evidence of ghosts, this one had a very dramatic effect on some of the viewers including the first case of media induced post-traumatic stress disorder.

The name of the program since became synonymous with controversy, horror, and a gritty – and paradoxically cheesy – feel from the cast and staged “callers” to the show.  It was so notorious that even today, years after its single UK direct-to-television broadcast it has gained a cult following.  But not all who saw it were thrilled by its premise, or its faux reality television style.  

The controversy that arose from the broadcast of the 1982 “Ghostwatch” was in many ways similar to the broadcasting of the “War of the Worlds” program by Orson Welles just 44 years prior.  While it has been called everything from a mischievous hoax, to a social experiment, some say the way the audience reacted could provide insight into how people may respond when faced with the paranormal in the real world.  And it also inspired such creative ventures as The Blair Witch Project, and some would say Paranormal Activity, with the latter using a single scene from the film as the basis for their own exploration into the supernatural.

Ghostwatch was in some ways ahead of its time.  Televised shows have for years attempted to capture the intrigue of a brush with ghostly goings on without causing the same level of panic.  Several programs that promote an exploration of the paranormal have even been accused of likewise faking paranormal occurrences just to boost ratings.  Ghost Hunters has subsequently come under fire with accusations of fakery and staging, but this doesn’t repel long-time fans of the franchise.  Why?  The answer may lead back all the way to the 1800’s.

In the declining years of the Spiritualist Movement, when many spiritualist leaders were becoming increasingly syncretic, some of the famed mediums moved from their old venues to the stage magic of mentalism.  But some stayed with their old art, producing ectoplasmic apparitions, unexplained knocks, and messages from beyond the grave.  Even to this day some argue that while the popular art of the seance was lost, those who stuck with it even in its decline did so because they knew they were engaging in something a bit more genuine – if not occasionally spruced up by stage magic.  Will paranormal television shows mimic the spiritualist movement in this way?  And just how far ahead of its time was this late night magic show that caused so much controversy?