The spooky death – and future resurrection – of paranormal TV

Why serious shows about ghosts and UFOs were ditched by the big broadcasters – and why they could be back on screen soon

(Getty, Netflix, Youtube, TL)

Just before 11pm on October 31st 1992, live in front of an audience of 11 million, Michael Parkinson was possessed by a spirit. The TV host staggered slowly closer to the unmanned camera in the deserted Ghostwatch studio, his low murmurs drowned out by a crescendo of feral howling.

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Parkinson’s co-host Gillian Bevan was missing, the connection to panicked roaming reporter Craig Charles was lost.

This national séance had gone badly wrong.

At least that’s what happened according to the 30,000 panicked people who rang up the BBC switchboard that night. Although Ghostwatch was a pre-recorded paranormal mockumentary written by horror screenwriter Stephen Volk, these callers genuinely believed that the show’s poltergeist Pipes had been set loose in their homes. They said their pedal bin had moved across the room or their dog had gone mad. One man even rang up claiming his wife had gone into labour because she was so spooked.

How could just one show result in such national hysteria? In reality, it wasn’t that clear cut: the Ghostwatch panic was years in the making, a scare built on the expectations set by the very spooky and very awkward paranormal programming of past.

Starting with the likes of supernatural docudrama Leap in the Dark and Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World in the 1980s, mainstream audiences were left to question if ghosts, witchcraft, precognition and extra-terrestrials actually existed. These shows weren’t tucked away in the schedules, either – instead of sitting down to watch Bake Off in the Tuesday primetime slot, viewers tuned into Arthur C. Clarke asking whether it was more plausible that Bigfoot or the Yeti was real.

And the Ghostwatch uproar didn’t exorcise this trend. Through the nineties commissioners continued to summon some pretty serious supernatural investigations to the box. Revered newsreader Michael Aspel indulged in supernatural musings on ITV’s Strange but True? and Carol Vorderman explored unexplained sightings in the BBC’s Out of this World. At the turn of the millennia, two film crews a week were filming at the supposedly haunted Hampton Court as so many shows on ghosts were greenlit.

The beast of paranormal programming even burst into the 21st century, with the genre roping in the biggest stars on TV. Most notably, in 2005, This Morning presenter Phillip Schofield hosted Have I Been Here Before? in which celebrities supposedly explored their past life with the help of regression therapist Andrea Foulkes.

Although largely forgotten now, this gem of a show gifted us the sight of David Seaman claiming he was Richard the Lionheart incarnate, and John Barrowman screaming out “why can’t I make them laugh!?” while recalling his past life as a 19th-century circus clown.

The supernatural buzz fully possessed TV, with the genre taking form in the most unlikely places. Blue Peter presenter Yvette Fielding would become ‘the First Lady of paranormal’ with hit ghost hunting extravaganza Most Haunted. Tom Baker would host the hypnotic Ghost Detectives. And to rival coverage of the 2006 football World Cup, Channel 5 even broadcast The Baby Mind Reader, a show which, rather than centre on a telepathic baby, followed psychic Derek Ogilvie’s mission to communicate with toddlers.

But then something truly spooky happened. Without a hint from the spirit world, almost the entire genre suddenly vanished from our screens. And for the last decade, no major UK network has commissioned a long-lasting paranormal show.

You can still catch the occasional sighting – Most Haunted lives on within the shadows of the schedules – but the paranormal furore that once swept the major broadcasters has long since departed.

The explanation? The truth is out there, but it’s probably not the one you’re expecting. It is, however, one that leads to yet more questions about paranormal TV, the occult in general  –and whether this genre could flourish again in the future.

Did paranormal TV die out because we all became cynics?

In other words, did we all suddenly become more rational in the face of the irrational – less trusting in supernatural TV? Did we lose faith in the genre after a string of high-profile mediums were exposed as fakes?

Take perhaps the biggest name involved in these scandals: Derek Acorah, the medium last seen covered in gunge on Big Brother recalling how he used psychic powers to solve the OJ Simpson murder case.

While working on Most Haunted in 2005, Acorah found a note containing information about “Kreed Kafer”, who – the show’s resident skeptic Dr Ciaran O’Keeffe told him – was a nasty South African jailer who happened to have died in the show’s next haunted house. He didn’t. Actually, he never existed all – “Kreed Kafer”, an anagram of Derek Faker, was a fictional character that O’Keeffe had invented to test Acorah’s credibility.

And it was a test Acorah failed quite spectacularly: when the cameras started rolling he was soon apparently possessed by Kafer, screaming out his name. Acorah even fell for another of O’Keeffe’s tricks in the next episode, claiming to communicate with imaginary highway “Rick Eedles”, an anagram of Derek Lies.

Acorah left the show – and his successors didn’t fare much better. “We found mediums in the toilet on the internet. We found them talking to friends getting information for them. They didn’t remember that they had a mic on and we could hear everything!” presenter Yvette Fielding tells RadioTimes.com.

Fielding dropped mediums from Most Haunted in 2015. “I was annoyed as I wanted to believe them, but I couldn’t after seeing that. That was really upsetting for me.

“You’ve got to be very careful of people like that. Until they’re proven I’ll remain sceptical!”

Cases like Acorah’s still haunt the hardiest of believers – medium magazine Psychic News has started up a “Truth campaign” to “rid spiritualism of charlatans”, and psychics themselves are quick to point to fraudsters in their ranks. While speaking to us for this feature, Baby Mind Reader psychic Derek Ogilvie broached the topic without prompting, saying: “I’ve learnt a great deal about my genre and learnt a great deal about the bullshit out there – the so-called psychics who claim to be good at what they do.” Everyone, at least in part, seems to be a cynic.

But here’s the thing: despite all the scandals and the words of caution from paranormal proponents themselves, nothing has changed. We’re still a nation of supernaturalists.

We stopped talking about the paranormal, but we never stopped believing

It’s strange but true: an estimated 1 in 3 people in the UK believe in ghosts. And this stat isn’t just from one survey. A 2014 YouGov poll cited 34% of people that believe in ghosts, with a 2016 YouGov survey putting it at 32%. A BMG research survey from this year’s poll has belief even higher, at 36%.

And here’s a figure that will put that in perspective: according to the above, more people believe in ghosts than they do in God (according to YouGov, only an estimated 23% of us do). Granted, our belief in the supernatural isn’t as high as the US (where 4 in 10 people believe in ghosts), but these rates are incredibly high. And they’ve been this high for years.

As you can see from the graph below, we never stopped believing in ghosts. In 1989, 32% of people believed in them, roughly the same level as in 2006 (36%) and 2016 (32%).

paranormal-graph

“The audience is always there for these sort of things – the interest will never go away. It’s always around a third of the population that believe in ghosts, UFOs or various elements of the occult. And it’s basically the same constant percentage of people that say they don’t believe in it too,” explains paranormal expert Richard Wiseman, Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology, magician and the on-screen sceptic on shows such as Strange But True?.

“It’s the ultimate rubber duck where no matter how much we push it down, it comes straight back up!”

And pushed the duck down we have. Specifically, Ofcom limited the stretch of paranormal shows in 2008, introducing rules that such programmes must label themselves as “made for entertainment”. Yet, as much as the presenters may hate it (“for me, it’s not entertainment – it’s real!” says Fielding) it didn’t stop people believing at all.

Why? “I think the public just sit and watch telly,” says Wiseman. “They’re not going to really reflect on those small disclaimers. It’s like wrestling in a way – you’re there for the sport. Although fans are told it isn’t real, to them it feels like it.

“Ultimately, it’s because we’re not a nation of science-driven sceptics”

So, why do people believe in the paranormal?

Why is it that Winston Churchill claimed to see an apparition of former US president Abraham Lincoln in the White House? Can we explain how Patrick Stewart once saw a ghost while performing on stage? Or why the likes of Alan Turing believed in telepathy?

Firstly, there’s the obvious explanation: it all actually exists and ghosts/UFOs/psychics/Big Foot are all real. However, if, like Wiseman, this doesn’t quite convince you then there is another answer: the third of people who believe in the paranormal have experienced one of the natural slip-ups in-built within our biology.

“It comes from how our brains work,” says Wiseman. “They don’t change over a 30-year period and some of our presumptions are hard-wired within us – we’re predisposed to look for meaning in what we can’t initially understand.”

One example of these ingrained mental failings is our tendency to see faces in random images, a phenomenon called pareidolia. And this occurs because humans are programmed to process faces – evolution has meant we need to be quick at working out if an animal is friend or foe. But our brains are so adept at processing faces that we see them when they’re not there, such as a man’s face in the moon, Jesus in toast or a ghost in the darkness. In fact, one study that put subjects under an MRI scanner showed that the better this face detection process works in your brain, the more likely it is you believe in the paranormal.

Even stranger, if you’re a paranormal believer then your brain may make any spooky thought hard to shake. This theory comes from a University of Helsinki study where both believers and sceptics were asked what they thought about a series of shapes moving on a screen. The movement was random, but believers were more likely to find patterns – that some shapes were playing “tag”, for instance – than sceptics, and were shown to have greater brain activity in the area that evaluates other motives.

Plus, MRI scans of such subjects have found that believers tend to have a weaker cognitive “inhibition” than sceptics – meaning they are less able to crush unwanted thoughts. The researchers suggested that although everyone might be spooked by coincidences or figures in the dark, sceptics have brains that easily brush aside such thoughts.

And it’s not just one type of person that can experience such a mental slip – it’s everyone. You can see how malleable your visual system is by staring at yourself in a mirror in a dimly lit room. Do it for 10 minutes – go on, we’ll wait – and it’s likely you’ll see some spooky happenings.

In one study every single person who tried this saw some over-editing from their mind: 10% of people saw a dead person staring back at them, 28% of people saw a stranger staring back and 66% of people started to see huge deformations in their own face. That last category is where this writer fitted into when giving the test a go (for a few horrifying seconds I watched as my eyes appeared to seep down my face).

And that’s all before mentioning the Barnum effect (the psychological phenomenon where you process information to reflect your circumstances – think horoscopes), sleep paralysis (30%-40% will suffer from the condition, of which 5% will have a hallucination) and the uncertainty factor (feeling like you don’t have control of a situation leaves you more likely to conjure up illusions).

In other words, we’re all natural-born super-naturalists. We have a brain that’s predisposed to believe in the paranormal.

Yet, despite this – and the opinion polls shown above – TV shows aren’t being made to cater to this audience. Which leads us to the big question…

Why do broadcasters hate paranormal TV?

It makes no sense, right? If there is a huge audience that’s geared towards asking questions of the supernatural then why not indulge them? Could it be that the people at the top of TV – whether commissioners or advertisers – have become more cynical about the unexplainable? Are they the real bogeymen of paranormal TV?

Put yourself in their position: let’s say that you’ve just got yourself a well-paid TV commissioner role – congrats! It’s now your job to bring in an audience that appeals to your station’s advertisers/remit. Yes, you’ve got to attract a large viewership, but you can’t just broadcast cute cat videos all day – you’ve got to make sure the shows are targeting the right viewers or fulfilling the purpose of your brand. So, if you’re working at ITV or the BBC, would airing a paranormal TV show in a primetime slot fit your brief of bringing in the right sort of shows?

Probably not. Although the show would be popular, there’s something that seems a bit, well, low-rent about supernatural programming, right? And, being the savvy commissioner you are, you’d probably be worried that such a show would either turn away desired advertisers or get viewers complaining about the license fee.

But why do we have this impression of paranormal television? The possible answer: although the genre was once associated with respectable documentaries fronted by Michael Aspel, it has now been jettisoned into the realm of reality TV. And that could be because of one show.

I can remember hearing about Most Haunted for the first time and thinking ‘it’s all over, isn’t it?’” recalls Wiseman. “I don’t dislike the show, but it took the paranormal into the reality genre. And because Most Haunted was successful, commissioners wanted to buy into that.

“Show after show appeared. And after that nobody was going to touch it – it wasn’t a serious topic anymore. The supernatural wasn’t seen as a subject you do a documentary about. It was just seen as running around with infrared cameras and low-quality green footage.”

Yvette Fielding in an early Most Haunted episode (Youtube, TL)
Yvette Fielding in an early Most Haunted episode (Youtube, TL)

Haunted Homes, Ghost Hunters, Ghost Hunters Academy, Ghostly Encounters, The Scariest Places on Earth and Ghost Lab: all these night-vision camera hunts were greenlit (literally) after Most Haunted aired in 2002. Haunted had caused a tidal wave – a wave that would soon leave the series stranded by broadcasters.

“Commissioners were suddenly saying ‘we’ve been there and done that’,” says Yvette Fielding. “Since then we’ve emailed the mainstream channels and each said they’re not interested in the paranormal anymore. We can’t get a sniff or nothing!”

And remember Derek Ogilvie? The Baby Mind Reader? He now works on Dutch TV after UK channels left him without a platform. “The feedback received from them was that UK broadcasters seem to be very wary of commissioning anything around this genre at the moment,” he says.

“Generally, the paranormal genre is now seen as second-tier – commissioners don’t want to know. They’re bombarded with so many pitches and they only give certain shows their attention based on what direction they want to move the channel.”

So, although we can’t be exactly sure why TV commissioners aren’t fond of the paranormal (none of the professionals we reached out to replied to our interview requests), it seems the downturn is connected to how the genre has been packaged in recent years. The subject itself isn’t the problem.

Is there a future in paranormal TV?

Reality TV plunged a huge stake deep into paranormal programming, but is the genre really beyond resurrection? Could shows that ask serious questions about the supernatural really break free of their graveyard TV slots?

Yes, says Professor Wiseman. “Belief in the paranormal is fairly constant, but interest comes in waves – I really believe that,” he explains. “At the moment there’s a big interest in science on TV and the paranormal doesn’t fit with that. But give it another five or 10 years when we’ve heard Brian Cox tell those space stories a million times, maybe, just maybe, a medium or filmmaker will create a concept that’ll get on our screens.”

The history books are with Wiseman here. Periods of scientific thinking and rationalism e.g. the Enlightenment, are soon rolled over by a wave in the other direction e.g. the rise of spiritualism, a ninetieth-century movement that gave us mediums as we know today.

These waves can spur the most rational of people into the supernatural: Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle was swept up into spiritualism, joining the British Society for Psychical Research, a paranormal enthusiast group run by future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour.

Paranormal believer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1925 (Getty, TL)
Paranormal believer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1925 (Getty, TL)

In other words, weirder things have happened than serious ghost investigations returning to TV. In fact, the main ingredient for a bubbling supernatural market is already in the cauldron: the phenomenal rise in paranormal fiction. From the haunted houses of the ratings hit American Horror Story, to the global phenomenon of Stranger Things – a show with a telekinetic child at its core – it’s everywhere.

Stranger Things
(Netflix, TL)

Sure, these shows aren’t presenting their stories as facts, but fiction can alter people’s beliefs. There’s no evidence to say that TV causes more belief in the paranormal, but it can change how people think about it. A new show can provide a new frame of reference when the brain misfires – if you’ve been watching a show about aliens and you see a mysterious figure in the dark then aren’t you more likely to think it’s an extraterrestrial than a ghost? Figures indicate yes: UFOs sighting in the UK rose when the X-Files was on TV, leading to the opening of the (now-closed) Ministry of Defence’s UFO Desk.

And the more we see these frames of references, the more socially acceptable it is to ask questions about them. For instance, after seeing Eleven’s psychic examinations in Stranger Things, doesn’t it seem less stupid to look into the CIA mind control programme those sequences were based on, Project MKUltra?

Wasn’t it easier for Harvard psychiatrist John Mack to write a hit book about alien abductions because the X-Files were so popular? (Spookily Mack concluded to the BBC: “I would never say there are aliens taking people away… but I would say there is a compelling, powerful phenomenon here that I can’t account for in any other way.”)

There’s every sign that the flood banks of supernatural fiction will burst, with horror proving to be extremely bankable in the light of Stranger Things and Stephen King’s It – the story of a demonic clown entity earned $500 million at the box office worldwide. With more horror blockbusters on the way – most significantly, the X-Men spin-off The New Mutants – we could stray into overtly paranormal territory.

We’ll leave the prophecies to the psychics, but imagine if the following unfolds: the horror market continues to expand and that provides reference points for serious questions. After the success of Stephen King’s It – which first burst onto screens in a 1990 series, just before the last paranormal boom – and other similar offerings, commissioners start to see supernatural stories as marketable again.

We suddenly revisit more paranormal subjects on screen, and people start to ask serious questions about the Suffolk forest alien rumours, the Patterson Bigfoot footage (see below) or The Black Eyed Child of Cannock Chase – stories a new generation of viewers haven’t heard before.

Believers would have a stable platform on which to pitch a paranormal investigation show, perhaps to an experimental broadcaster like Netflix. And, just like Making a Murderer and Serial did for True Crime, this new show could reinvigorate the supernatural.

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Trick or treat, we might just be one good idea from another golden age of paranormal TV.