Saturday, August 04, 2012


I've not only been behind on blogging in recent weeks, I've also been behind on reading the blogs in my feed reader. I finally took an afternoon to catch up, and came across this article on the Mental Floss blog, about a BBC Halloween television special that caused PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in viewers. It also prompted a proposed change in the definition of PTSD, but that is another matter.

Naturally I am intrigued by such things, especially when I found out the program was called "Ghostwatch", ostensibly a reality show before reality TV, where the BBC sends reporters to investigate a haunted house, live on air, on Halloween. I managed to find this program on YouTube, and watched it the other night. A friend of mine in the UK said she recalled something about this show, and the backlash it received for dubbing itself a reality show. In fact, the whole thing was NOT real, not live on air, but it caused a panic much like that generated here in good ol' New Jersey when Orson Welles did his radio broadcast about the Martians landing. My friend said that she didn't think the show was worthy of the panic it caused, or at least didn't seem as scary when reviewed another time.

There are people who believe in the "paranormal", and those that do not, and there is a spectrum of belief/skepticism that is not simply black and white. While there are those who accept none of these things as true, and those who accept everything as true, it's likely that the majority of people fall somewhere in between, even if it's not fashionable to admit it. After all, as I've said before, the true scientist does not automatically discount everything, but does view such phenomena with a healthy amount of skepticism, and should always seek more rational answers first.

I watched this show knowing it was fiction, but I tried to imagine what it would have been like if I didn't know it was supposed to be fiction. And, even as someone who has seen phenomena and believes in the possibility of ghostly phenomena of all types, it would not have taken me long to figure out that this program was faked.

It starts off well enough, rather believable. You have a serious-looking host, a parapsychologist familiar with the case to answer questions, a panel of staff for phoning in questions and comments, and reporters and technicians in the field, some who take it seriously, others who see it as a joke. I should add that this was filmed in 1992, so those of us used to Ghost Hunters-style reality TV would find this a bit amateurish. Still, it wasn't too bad technologically--they had infrared cameras, temperature controls, cameras in all active rooms of the house. The woman who plays the parapsychologist is quite convincing, even when she debates a member of PSICOP about his overtly-materialistic viewpoint on such phenomena, which he naturally thinks is entirely faked, or could be and therefore unconvincing.

The show did address a problem faced by parapsychology researchers--fakery in a genuine case. At one point, one of the girls in the haunted house, Suzanne, is caught making banging noises with a piece of metal, and the host of the show is willing to write off the whole thing as a hoax perpetrated by her. However, media pressure does sometimes cause this to happen in real cases, especially when dealing with teenage girls. They are now on display, forced to show that something will happen, and usually such phenomena do not appear on schedule. If nothing appears, they look foolish. That doesn't mean nothing happened, just that nothing happened that night. But, when the media is there, they have to make it seem like something is happening; their social credibility depends on it, and ironically they end up destroying it. And it's bad for research, because now the case is cast in a suspicious light. What if the researchers were duped? People are more likely to believe that than any amount of evidence.

As the show went on, I tried to suspend disbelief, but the bullshit detectors really went up after awhile. I don't want to create spoilers for those who want to go back and watch it, but you basically have 2 possessions (a ghost possessed by another ghost) , 2 possible poltergeist centers, 2 girls exhibiting possession symptoms at the same time, and voice phenomena that was quite unconvincing, given how it usually manifests. I have heard of poltergeist cases where 2 teenage females in the house may amplify the activity to an extreme, but the additional ghost story just made it too much. It was as if someone said, "hey, let's take every possible element of a scary story and put it into one haunted house!" While there were no demons, there is an element of evil that makes it quasi-demonic, just to cover most bases. All they were missing was a fairy sighting.

It got worse when the parapsychologist suggested that a huge seance was being created via television cameras, and the hysterical phone calls about glass tables exploding in viewers' houses, and such, and the "stopped clocks" everywhere. While that's a neat idea in fiction, it in no way mirrors any genuine cases that I'm aware of. The ending is nothing short of silly, and the fact that all power is out, except that "one" camera that still seems to be running somewhere, just drops the show with a "clunk". Only in fiction do spirits possess TV sets, or move through telecommunication lines. And the likelihood that you will have a murderous ghost possessing a schizophrenic suicidal ghost, which in turn possesses 2 girls at the same time is...well, "jumping the shark."

Finally, whatever ghosts may or may not be (we don't really know), I have never heard of them manifesting enough energy to wreak havoc on an entire country. Unless, of course, you're talking fiction. It's a nice try, but the more I watched, the less I was buying it.

Of course, I suppose if you have a viewing audience that is caught up in the suspense, and thinks this is a real broadcast, it might cause some panic and fear. I did find it somewhat disturbing, even though I knew it was not real and a bit over the top.

Still, I wouldn't deem it worthy of PTSD. I think I'm more likely to get PTSD from the piece of fuzz I picked up this morning from the living room floor that happened to be attached to a huge, living spider. I don't think the cat was aware that I could scream that loud.


Stephen Volk said...

Hi Brigid! As you cannot go back in a time machine to 1992, it is impossible to say that "it would not have taken you long to realise it was fake". The world and television are both very different now, and, notably, you knew the reputation and content of the programme before watching! I find this hardly a scientific statement. Of course you are entitled to your opinion about whether or not it is convincing NOW. However I remain bouyed by the fact that many of my peers tell me they think my drama is amongst the best and most scary the BBC has ever produced. Thanks for discussing it in your blog 20 years later! Best wishes, Stephen Volk (writer of Ghostwatch)

Brigid N. Burke said...

Hello, Stephen--thanks for your comments. I'm flattered that you would read my blog and take the time. What you say is true, and honestly, I wish you'd done this show in October 1993 instead, as I would have actually been at university in the UK, and would have seen it. Then I would know for sure. :)

That said--I would also not be your typical viewer, not even in 1993. I have studied literally THOUSANDS of ghost/poltergeist/possession cases. Whenever a case fits too many profiles, I get suspicious that it's not real. That was what tipped me off here. It might not tip off the average viewer.

All that said, it was a wonderful and suspenseful piece of fiction, and I am envious that you would actually prompt a revision of the definition of PTSD. I could only wish I would write fiction that would also do so one day. :)

Best, Brigid

Mark Donahue said...

This post, and the surprise comment from Stephen Volk, was fantastic. I agree with your critique of the show.

It's too pat. It's entertaining, and may be harrowing to many, but I think your assessment is correct.

It's a wonderful and suspenseful work of fiction.

Nice post, Brigid. :-)

Brigid N. Burke said...

Thanks, Mark! (As you can see, I'm STILL remiss in blogging. :)) I think you are right, I think if I'd seen it at the time, I would have had the same reaction. It just becomes too many things at one point, and you find yourself going, "wait, what?" It's clear that Volk did a fair amount of research to make this a(n) (almost) believable story, and it is quite spooky.