How the TV broadcast of the horror classic caused religious hysteria and fears of demonic possession.
When you think of sensational, shocking moments of television that terrified and traumatised Britain, you inevitably think of Ghostwatch, Stephen Volk’s docudrama that was hyped (at least for people who didn’t read the Radio Times and pay attention to things like writer credits and cast lists) as a live ghost hunt for Halloween, one that went bad very quickly. Ghostwatch worked because it was full of familiar light entertainment figures – Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene – who viewers in 1992 might well have expected to pop up on a Saturday evening bit of lightweight nonsense and because it presented itself as a real, rather cheesy live broadcast. This was before Found Footage and staged documentaries were really a thing in the horror genre, and in any case, the entire show was designed to pull in an audience who were not horror fans with its cast of well-known celebrities.
The show started out blandly, like any regular TV show might do and then built up the creepiness (something sadly diminished with modern screenings where images that would have been rendered as shadowy ‘did we see that or not’ background figures thanks to broadcasting formats of the day now look all too obvious on modern TVs) before going all out for possession terror at the end. For the viewers who had been slowly drawn in to believe all this was real, the lurch into demonic possession would have been less a jump into the fantastic and more a terrifying moment that shattered their sense of normality. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a large number of people took it literally, even though the Radio Times had made it clear that this was a drama, not a documentary. The BBC switchboards were flooded with calls from viewers who were either scared to death or furious – or, in many cases, both. One viewer, a young man with learning disabilities, allegedly killed himself after watching the show. Things had spiralled rather out of control in an Orson Welles War of the Worlds manner, and the BBC had to make a grovelling apology. While Ghostwatch is now available on a special edition Blu-ray and plays festivals from time to time, it has never been broadcast again and for many years was something of a guilty secret and embarrassment for the BBC.
Yet there was a precedent for this sort of mass hysteria, and in this case, it wasn’t even related to a faux documentary. On September 1st 1981, the ITV network in Britain – then still a collective of independent local broadcasters like Thames and Granada – showed The Omen. This was the TV premiere of the film, at a time when TV premieres of major movies were still a big deal and would attract millions of viewers; in 1981, it was still a minority of households that had VCRs. Funnily enough, our family was in that minority, and The Omen had been the first film that we’d ever rented, just a few months earlier. The TV broadcast was an auspicious enough moment for my family to invest in a four-hour blank VHS tape (which at that time didn’t give you much change from a tenner) to record it; the other half of the tape would be filled with the TV screening of Jaws, that premiered shortly afterwards.
Now, The Omen is a film that splits horror fans. For me, it’s an almost perfectly constructed movie, but for others, it is mainstream tat. There’s no pleasing everyone. But whatever you think of it, the film is clearly a work of fiction, with big-name stars, a clear narrative, Jerry Goldsmith’s extraordinary score and spectacular set-pieces – not to mention a cultural history from the 1976 theatrical release. No one is going to watch The Omen and believe themselves to be watching a documentary or anything other than a work of fiction. Yet when the film was shown in 1981, there was absolute hysteria. This was before both the Video Nasties panic and the creation of OFCOM rules that encouraged the easily offended to make official complaints against anything that they objected to. In fact, in 1981, there was no official body to oversee what was broadcast on TV in the UK. But perhaps giving a hint of what was to come, the broadcast of this film was seen by many as unleashing evil – actual Satanic evil – into the living rooms of Britain.
The Blackburn-based Wesley Hall Methodist Church was, fortunately, on hand to help. They set up a telephone helpline before the broadcast for viewers affected by the film. As prayer group leader Peter Clapham explained, “people watching a film like this can be influenced by the Devil” – a rather dubious claim with little evidence to back it up. Well, ‘build it and they will come’ as the saying goes, and with the helpline in place, the calls flooded in – 130 of them in just three hours. They included, according to the Daily Star report, a 62-year-old man who was too terrified to leave the room after watching the film, a bachelor – I’m not sure why that point was important, but never mind – who turned the film off and then was terrified to see his furniture begin to move, and “the father of a fourteen-year-old girl who was screaming uncontrollably” – the sloppy writing here leaving us forever unsure of whether it was the girl or the father who was screaming; probably both by the end of it. Mr Clapham assured readers that his group would be making house calls on the most badly affected during the day after the screening. Let’s hope that both the screaming and the dancing furniture had settled down by that time.
Of course, we might suspect that some of the people calling the helpline (which had presumably been advertised somewhere) were having a chuckle at the church’s expense. But the mere fact that the helpline was set up to begin with, and at least some people seem to have called it in genuine fear for their souls, is pretty extraordinary. It does, at least, hint at how the ludicrous Satanic Panic was allowed to spread so widely in later years, and why we still have lunatic fringes preaching about how Halloween parties and Harry Potter novels will lead to demonic possession. It certainly puts the Ghostwatch hysteria into context and set the scene for a decade of moral panic over horror films that was about to explode.
Like what we do? Support us and help us do more!