54 years after the Welles incident, the BBC was responsible for a similar furore. 20 years ago this past Halloween, the broadcaster aired horror mockumentary Ghostwatch and, like Welles before it, unwittingly terrified an entire nation.
Ghostwatch: Originally broadcast on October 31, 1992
In case you don't remember - or are doing your best to forget - Ghostwatch focused on the Early family - a mother and two daughters - who were being plagued by a spirit, the malevolent 'Pipes' (played by actor Keith Ferrari, honest).
This 90-minute special's masterstroke is that everything is played for real - the programme takes the form of a documentary investigation into an apparently legitimate haunting, fronted by familiar figures. There's cuddly TV host Michael Parkinson, Blue Peter's Sarah Greene, even cheeky Craig Charles - surely such a loveable bunch couldn't be taking the viewer for a ride?
Each of the stars do a great job in maintaining the documentary conceit - of course, Greene and Charles had some prior acting experience, but even Parky acquits himself quite well - the occasional fluff and mumble seem in-character and just make Ghostwatch feel all the more real.
The supporting cast also impress; there's particularly strong work from Gillian Bevan - probably best known now for her role in Channel 4's Teachers - as no-nonsense parapsychologist Dr Pascoe and from Brid Brennan as the Early clan's shaken matriarch. Particularly worthy of note are the show's younger stars, who are never anything less than convincing, despite the high demands being placed on them as performers.
With its spooky household footage and mockumentary-style, Ghostwatch is essentially Paranormal Activity two decades early. In a time before The Blair Witch Project had arrived on the scene, spawning a host of imitators, found footage / mockumentary horror was not a worn-out gimmick. So it's easy to understand why many spooked viewers fell hook, line and sinker for the programme's conceit.
Indeed, much of Ghostwatch's 90-minute runtime is genuinely unsettling. The slow, creeping sense of dread builds as we first glimpse Pipes's ghostly form lingering in old video footage, followed by a few bumps in the night at the Early home and finally the possession of Suzy (Michelle Wesson)...
These events are made all the more sinister by having the aforementioned familiar figures caught in the middle of the terror - the fact that all of this spookery is initially intercut with the kind of bland studio-based banter and time-filling tactics we'd expect from a real programme of this sort again only serves to enhance the atmosphere.
Despite Dr Pascoe's protestations that most spirits likely mean us no harm, it quickly becomes clear that Pipes - who's ultimately revealed as a horribly mangled spirit of a deceased child molester - intends to do rather a lot of damage. His reign of terror culminates in a chilling climax, with poor Sarah Greene lured to her apparent death and national treasure Parky falling under the spectre's influence.
On original transmission, Ghostwatch received a substantial audience and even the closing credits - which made it clear that actors were featured throughout - could not calm the storm the programme had whipped up.
The BBC had voiced concerns about the effect the broadcast could have on the public prior to transmission and it turns out its fears were not unfounded - the corporation received an estimated 30,000 calls to its switchboard in a single hour and the tabloid response to Ghostwatch was... less than positive. Grown men and women who watched the show as children have even shown symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ghostwatch was a special event - a true one-off - and to this day has never been repeated in the UK. Given the controversy that still surrounds his first appearance, it's doubtful that Pipes will ever resurface. We're safe... for now.
Were you sucked in by Ghostwatch? Share your memories of the spookfest below!