Thursday 22 December 2011, 11:33

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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Here is a ghost story for Christmas - it is a brief history of the appearance of ghosts and poltergeists and other spirits on television. Not fictional ghosts - but real ones, or the reports of their appearances, that you find in various news and documentary programmes.

But as so often when one looks at material in the archives, it turns out that it tells you less about the subjects of the programmes - the ghosts - than about the strange medium that possesses modern society - television.

In 1992 the BBC transmitted a drama that was based on a number of the factual reports I am going to show. The underlying aim of the makers of the drama was not just to frighten, but to demonstrate in a vivid way what had happened to the very idea of reality in television.

It was called Ghostwatch, and it caused a national sensation because thousands of viewers believed it was real. And, at the time, the BBC promised never to show it again.

I want to tell the story of the rise of the suburban poltergeist in factual TV from the 1970s onwards, how those reports inspired Ghostwatch, and how the extraordinary reaction on the night Ghostwatch was transmitted in 1992 showed clearly where the real ghosts of our society had now gone to live. They are inside television itself - a strange nether world of PR-driven half truths, synthetic personalities, and waves of apocalyptic fear.

In the 1950s and early 1960s the reporting of ghosts on television followed the classical rules. The hauntings were in old houses, stately homes, or ancient ruins. Here is a perfect example. It is from the Tonight programme in 1963. The reporter also follows an accepted format - he is indulgently sceptical, but brings with him a religious "expert" who is going to exorcise the presence.

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But then, in the early 1970s, there was a peculiar change. The ghosts moved. They gave up haunting old castles and ruins and moved into the most ordinary suburban houses.

The battle between good and evil was now relocated into the suburban kitchens, bedrooms and even the stairs of modern Britain. Throughout, the ghosts also showed perfect taste in wallpaper.

Here is an extract from one of the earliest. It is the haunting of a council house in Swindon in 1973.

At this stage the film-makers are still following the classical editorial model. The local vicar brings in a religious "expert" to expel the poltergeist. The vicar smokes a fantastic pipe - and there is a wonderful shot of the Mr and Mrs Pellymounter watching the exorcism.

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As the suburban hauntings multiplied in the mid 1970s, the approach of the programme-makers changed. The idea of exorcism disappeared and the TV reporters decided to turn to science. They would use special recording equipment to discover whether the hauntings were real, and the stories were turned into a battle between superstition and reason.

Here is part of a film made by the BBC Northeast regional magazine programme in 1975. It's about a 1960s block of maisonettes that have been built over an old disused coal mine just outside Newcastle.

The reporter and the crew decide to stay all night in an empty flat - and set up their special cameras and audio recording equipment.

There also a wonderful long-held shot in which one of the haunted occupants shows the reporter what the spirit did with his golf clubs.

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The poltergeists kept spreading.

In January 1977 one turned up at 16 Ruskin Road, Dartford in Kent. Ann and Barry Robertson who lived there were terrified and are fleeing the house as the film starts.

There is a change in this film. The suburban couple at the heart of the story are no longer secondary figures in the story. They turn it into an emotional melodrama where they become the focus - Ann especially who has an epic turn of phrase:

"I can't even face taking the furniture with me because this thing - whatever it is - has interfered with my home. It's touched my things. And I'm so frightened that I won't even take the things with me now. So we're back to square one where we started. With nothing"

Suddenly suburbia becomes not boring - but sinister, mysterious and epic.

The film also interviews the man from Dartford Council who Ann and Barry are demanding rehouse them. He is sympathetic but then comes out with a great quote - "I'm afraid the Dartford Council Transfer Points Scheme doesn't recognise ghosts - and therefore they can't be pointed".

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And then - ten months later in November 1977 - the Nationwide programme made a film which brought all the elements of the modern haunted house together into a perfect form. And it also introduced a powerful new character into the melodrama - the psychic investigator who was determined to prove that the haunting was real.

A poltergeist had apparently turned up in a house in the north London suburb of Ponders End in the borough of Enfield. The Nationwide film was going to make this house famous.

And along with the house, the film would also make a star out of this man - he was Maurice Grosse who was an investigator for the Society for Psychical Research. Maurice Grosse would come to dominate the TV-ghostworld interface.

The film is beautifully made. It is possibly the best evocation of the mood that is at the heart of all these film reports - a transformation of the dull interior of an ordinary suburban house into an intense psycho-drama where even the most mundane of objects, in this case a Lego-block, becomes possessed by an inner destructive force.

And the poltergeist has by now gone beyond wallpaper. It has chosen the most wonderful bedroom to live in. The walls are covered with Bay City Rollers and David Soul posters. And the shot of an elderly psychic investigator sitting among the images of late 70s teen dreams while listening to the recordings of himself communicating with the poltergeist is just brilliant.

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The fascination with the Enfield haunting didn't stop there. Two years later BBC Scotland made another film inside the house.

This time they concentrated on the two daughters - Margaret and Janet Hodgson. The crew filmed the two girls as the poltergeist seems to speak through Janet, the strange voice coming and going in front of the camera.

It is weird and a bit frightening - but you also think that she may be faking it. And it is fascinating to watch the long held shots of the two daughters, studying their faces to try and work out what they are up to. And it introduces a new element into these haunting stories - that children are not innocent, but potentially malicious and a bit dangerous (like in The Innocents). A modern fear that was going to grow much bigger in the 1990s - especially again on TV.

The girls have since said that they faked some of the incidents in the house. But they insist that they were only doing this to test and tease Mr Grosse - and that much of it was real.

The Scottish crew had also got their own mini-scoop. They persuaded the police who had seen the chair levitate inside the house in 1977 to describe it. It is a fantastic two-shot.

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The Enfield haunting became famous, and so did the psychic investigator, Maurice Grosse. He was completely convinced by the two Hodgson girls from Ponders End and it launched him on a thirty-year odyssey to try and fight against the rise of what he saw as a narrow-minded sceptical rationalism in Britain.

Grosse was a wonderful person. He died in 2006 aged 87. He had been trained as an engineer - and back in the 1940s he had become an inventor. His most famous invention was called "The Cost-Effective Poster Machine". It is better known as the rotating poster display which you can still see today at thousands of bus stops.

In 1976 Maurice Grosse's 22 year old daughter died in a traffic accident. It devastated both him and his wife. But then Maurice came to believe that his daughter was trying to make contact with him from beyond the grave. This led him to join the Society for Psychical Research - and that took him into the Enfield house just a year later.

Maurice Grosse was well aware that his quest to contact the supernatural was driven by the intense feelings of loss he had experienced through his daughter's death. This made him intensely sympathetic to the people he encountered in his investigations.

In 1996 Grosse made a Video Diary with the BBC. He went around with a Hi-8 camera, operating it himself. He then had full editorial control - and used it to put together a beautiful and moving film.

It is structured around various of his visits to hauntings - both past and present - but he uses that structure to also tell the story of his life - both factual and emotional. He describes his daughter's death and the feelings that raised in him, and the odyssey it led him into, in a very moving way.

One of the most touching moments is when he sits in an ordinary living room and talks to a couple who believe their dead son appears to them on their television. Grosse himself then becomes overtaken by emotion and has to leave the room

As you watch the film it becomes clear that Grosse believes that it is these intense feelings that give people, and the places they live in, the power to summon up poltergeists. The feelings give people something special - the power to pierce through the disappointing reality of their suburban lives and enter into something new and special. Another, and possibly better, world of high drama and raised emotion.

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In 1988 a TV dramatist called Stephen Volk had an idea for a six-part drama based on all these suburban hauntings - the story would focus on how television had reported them. Volk's original idea was to have a TV reporter team up with a psychical researcher to investigate the haunting of a contemporary London council house. It was going to culminate in the final episode with a live broadcast from the house - and all hell was going to break loose.

Then Volk's producer, Ruth Baumgarten, suggested that instead they make a one-off play based on the sixth episode. Volk agreed. And he immediately realised that he could use the structure of a live outside broadcast to make a powerful drama that demonstrated dramatically what was happening to television as a medium - how the line between reality and fiction was getting blurred.

Out of that came Ghostwatch.

A few years ago Stephen Volk wrote a fantastic essay about the making of Ghostwatch. It was published by the Fortean Times. And you can find the whole thing here.

In it Volk describes his underlying aim - to make people look at what was happening to reality on television:

Ghostwatch was, of course, also about television.

It's quite difficult now to think back to the televisual landscape of 1992. Formats that dissolve the boundaries between factual and fictional TV have since become the staple diet of the schedules, and it's difficult to imagine a world where they were new or unusual. But this was the time of the first successful hybrids: docu-dramas and drama-docs. Drama series like NYPD Blue increasingly employed a hand-held camera style derived from documentary realism, and documentaries like Crimewatch and 999 were full of reconstructions using actors mix-and-matched to real footage of real people.

Ruth, the producer, and I discussed how we both felt we could no longer trust what we were seeing, what we were being shown or told by TV. The lines between the once distinct languages of factual and fictional TV were becoming dangerously blurred. Even the CNN Gulf War reports on Newsnight (with the infrared camerawork we duplicated in Ghostwatch) felt suspect, somehow unreliable. What was drama and what was not?

But then Volk added a line that I think goes to the heart of what has happened to TV ever since. The strange paradox that, at the very time that the audience is becoming more and more aware that not everything on TV is real, that same audience feel that if an event appears on TV - that is a guide to whether it is real or not.

Yet, paradoxically, television had also become the arbiter of reality, as John Waite exemplified on hearing of the release of his hostage cousin Terry in November 1991: "I won't believe it until I see it on TV."

Ghostwatch was transmitted on Halloween 1992. It was quite obvious from both the introduction and the titles that it was a work of fiction. But the reaction was astonishing - thousands of people rang in - either terrified or angry or to report that they were experiencing paranormal activity in their house at that very moment.

The next day there was a media storm - and the BBC reacted in its normal courageous way by burying the programme and disowning it. The Radio Times was apparently told never to mention it ever again. And Volk has described how it was like being airbrushed out of a photograph in Stalinist Russia.

But the extraordinary reaction rather proved the central aim of the drama.

It demonstrated the truth about modern television - that we all know that increasingly the line between fiction and non-fiction is blurred on TV. But far from making us distrust television this actually makes it more powerful. It possesses our imagination more powerfully precisely because we don't know what is real and what is not.

I think the reason is that, from the early 1990s onwards, the big confident stories of our time started to collapse, and people were faced instead with an everyday reality composed only of small and mostly mundane fragments. In the face of that, factual television has increasingly become a two-dimensional version of our world where everything is amplified and distorted.

News reporting and factual television are populated today by a strange nether world of PR-driven half truths, synthetic personalities and waves of apocalyptic fear. It is a world that is like ours but is exaggerated - weird, wonderful and frightening.

It is just like living in a haunted suburban house on the fringes of North London - except that it is now the whole world. All the mundane and banal aspects of reality are taken and infused with an hysterical intensity - that we are both fascinated by and terrified of - whether it be food or Al Qaida. Yet we know in our hearts that much of this is either distorted or just untrue.

It is the true spirit world of our time

It is made even weirder because, at the same time, audiences are shown harsh and terrifying moments of reality, but they are also insubstantial 2D images flickering on a box in the living room. They don't feel real, they look like a ghost world. Here is an example.

The tiny white figures you see that look like ghosts are actually still alive. But probably not for very long.

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And here are some extracts from Ghostwatch - which show how much it was rooted in the suburban poltergeist reports of the 1970s. But also how it used them to brilliantly evoke the mood at the heart of today's television - where so much is half-fiction and half-real.

It is also very frightening - and a brilliant piece of TV drama. Just remember it's not real.

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    Comment number 1.

    Thanks Adam. Spent a whole month going through all your previous blogs. You're a great storyteller. Trying to use some of your work and the theories you have bought up for an upcoming documentary of mine. Would love to have some input from you if you ever have a few spare minutes. Omar.

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    Comment number 2.

    Great piece, Adam! We were wondering if you might want to join us on our radio show "Spooky Southcoast" sometime in the new year to discuss this further. Our website is and you can reach me at Thank you for your work!

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    Comment number 3.

    This looks fantastic, can't wait to watch all the vids when I get in.

    People who like this might like one of Adam's doc from the Living Dead series. It makes a point at the end of one episode about the mediating of the experience of the (first) Gulf War, which this post reminded me off - particularly the thermal imaging bit. I think it's On The Desperate Edge Of Now.

    Also, I don't know if it's relevant, but it occured to me. When Stephen King was asked about Kubrick's version of The Shining he said he didn't like it, partly because the film emphasised Jack's innate psychopathy, as opposed to the evil environment of the Overlook. That just occured to me, it seems relevant.

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    Comment number 4.

    Brilliant stuff Adam - and you've scared the crip out of me yet again. It seems to me, when all said and done, a frightened human being is the most frightening thing imaginable. What we can do and how we think when we think we are threatened is scary. And how the powerful others manipulate this phenomena every day through the media is the most frightening thing of all. Great stuff. But very scary.

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    Comment number 5.

    Great blog... Giving the viewer more of what he wants and less of what he needs.

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    Comment number 6.

    Apologies, earlier the program I'm referring to is actually You Have Used Me As A Fish Long enough.

    Watch 'em both anyway, treat yourself. It's Christmas after all.

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    Comment number 7.

    Well done and unexpected to quote myself "this makes one think the Matrix was a documentary." A one two punch first reifing, then recouping. Tunneling the arm then the chest kite to the viewer's heart(martial arts jargon seems appropriate.) This is something only the still guys got right: McCallum, Smith and Capa. Even Coutard and Wexler's equipment got in the way. Thank you for showing how it's done; dragging the project off into a dark dark alley. Thank you.
    and letting the zombies (or suits) have their way with the idea.

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    Comment number 8.

    Fascinating as always, Adam - though I'm biased on this one, as this kind of material is my life's blood: my PhD was actually a specialisation in study of historical reports of poltergeist activity in the 15th - 18th centuries (I kid you not) and I have lectured to the Society for Psychical Research and the Ghost Club on it (in fact, I'm not 100% sure that Guy Lyon Playfair, who investigated in Enfield, didn't sit in on my lecture!). I know this footage surprisingly well, but it's always very exciting to see it again. Incidentally, I was always convinced that, while the first reports of something akin to poltergeists are truly ancient, there is a massive new prevalence accorded this type of haunting in accounts from the late 16th onwards. My conviction was that, in an increasingly Protestantised (and/or Counter Reformational) environment there was less and less conviction being accorded to reports of ghosts that actually held intentions (i.e. things like requesting their percipients help generate dispensation from Purgatory for them) and more and more accorded to apparent 'intercessions' that came with no obvious rhyme and reason, and did not manifest in a corporeal form. So, in my opinion, the modern obsession with the poltergeist in fact has its origins in the Reformation. Just a thought!!

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    Comment number 9.

    Clever touch to get Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene involved in the Ghostwatch drama. Their participation lent "credibility" to the project. Makes you wonder how much viewers rely on the presence of a celebrity to judge the authenticity of a TV project. If, say, actors like David Duchovny or Patrick Stewart had done the commentator roles, would Ghostwatch have received the kind of attention it did?

    One is reminded of stories about Orson Welles's 1938 radio adaptation of H G Wells's The War of the Worlds which reportedly caused panic among listeners in the US. The radio drama was presented as a series of news bulletins. Welles may have got the idea from Ronald Knox who in 1926 presented "Broadcasting from the Barricades", a hoax report of London being stormed by revolutionaries on the BBC: the hoax included apparent live reports of buildings being blown up and a government minister being "roasted alive" in Trafalgar Square.

    Format is important and the more realistic something sounds, especially with all the right effects and an "expert", the more people are likely to fall for the hoax.

    Incidentally I was reminded of some other mockumentary-type films I've seen: "The Blair Witch Project" which itself was inspired by Ghostwatch and Ruggero Deodato's "Cannibal Holocaust", another mockumentary; Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman's "Catfish", about a man seeking a child artist and her mother online through Facebook; and Remy Belvaux, Benoit Poelvoorde and Andre Bonzel's "Man Bites Dog" in which a film crew follows a serial killer around his home town: that one is such a classic.

    And can't forget Daniel Minahan's "Series 7: The Contenders" about contestants in a reality TV series who have to kill each other with the last person standing going into the next series and which has that hilarious scene where the reigning champ gives birth and the woman about to do her in happens to be a nurse and has to deliver the baby. Kinji Fukasaku's "Battle Royale" also springs to mind.

    I have seen "You have used me as a Fish long enough" and though it was quite good in parts, it should have referred to the entire MK ULTRA program as Ewen Cameron's work was part of that project and also PROJECT ARTICHOKE and a fair few others that continued up to the 1970s. A much better program in this regard is Scott Noble's "Human Resources" whose second half is entirely devoted to investigating the CIA's brainwashing programs and briefly touches on TV as the ultimate mind control instrument in which flickering moving images encourage a passive and suggestible state of mind.

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    Comment number 10.

    @ theartteacher2: Noted your comment about "The Living Dead" series. Think I'll pass up seeing Episode 3 "The Attic". I've just seen the trailer for "The Iron Lady" and it was quite horrific. I went to see Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" at the cinema yesterday and had to sit through the trailer. Creepy and monstrous. After that, anything was welcome comic relief and "Melancholia", for all its Lars von Trier mannerisms and concerns (the universe as malevolent and hostile to humankind, science and faith as useless in the face of doom, depression as escape and freedom from marriage, family and home life which are portrayed as empty), didn't disappoint at all - it was very blackly humorous!

    But Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher making herself into the eponymous Frankensteinian monster - that takes some beating. Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism" doesn't even begin to compare - it's print after all and you can always put it down if it gets too much!

    Then I read the letters page in The Sydney Morning Herald and noted one male letter-writer saying that seeing the trailer reminded him too much of what he lived through in the 1980s and he was reduced to crying!

    "The Iron Lady" opens in Sydney cinemas on Boxing Day and I imagine everyone I know will be clamouring to see it. I don't know if I want to see it. Probably will, if only to know what the water-cooler conversation will turn on at work. Naturally I have little idea of what it'll be about but the trailer suggests the woman in the process of making over her image from dowdy housewife politician who doesn't stand out in the crowd to a steely and immaculate superbitch. (What I wouldn't give for some of that superbitch stuff in my own way next time I talk to my pal from these comments forums who dive-bombed my email address with his own version of shock treatment.) Already the talk is on about Streep walking off with the Best Actress Oscar at next year's Academy Awards presentation hoopla.

    Actually, come to think of it, it probably would be good to see "The Iron Lady" if only to see how much public relations came to bear on Thatcher's post-1979 style and presentation in a pop-culture format and how much of an impact she made on British politics and the economy, especially after 1986 when the finance industry was deregulated. Will just have to find a specially made Kevlar vest that deflects the worst radiation and wear special glasses so I get what I need.

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    Comment number 11.

    Thank you Adam. Another excellent read. What I enjoy about your blogs is that I can savour them over a few hours or a day and take it all in. Three things of note;

    1. The devastation delivered from above in the bombing clip is truly awful. Did you set it to the music yourself? If so what is the music used? Sounds similar to the current hauntology style of music emerging from the UK. I'm also interested to know more details about that film as a whole, what sought of gun-ship was it? I guess it really disturbed me and I want some back story to help contextualise what I saw?(Which kind of fits in neatly to the general message of the blog).

    2. Didn't realise Catfish was a hoax! Stunned I was taken in by it. What a good hoax.

    3. I must've been at the youth club in 92 and missed Ghostwatch but can't believe how anyone could be taken in by Sarah Greene's pretending? Truly dreadful acting but to be fair she was simply a children's presenter. As a child I really didn't like her and found her very patronizing, I was probably misunderstanding my true feelings, that of teenage lust. Sarah Greene... Where are you now?

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    Comment number 12.

    I also forgot to mention to anyone interested that there is a good documentary on the Enfield Poltergiest available on youtube.

    Once again thanks Adam

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    Comment number 13.

    The more I am thinking about this post the more interesting it becomes. I think the central point is a neat reversal (i.e. that as the tales of fiction perhaps masquerading as fact become ever more prevalent on television so, too, does it become harder to distinguish the fact from fiction - very Baudrillard!), and there is an interesting hint about the vacuity of modern celebrity being rooted in the banal being promoted to the status of the epic, though both of these claims are, as usual with Adam, at least a little tangentially inferred from the original material! But it's certainly great original material!

    An earlier poster mentioned David Duchovny (and how his presence in a capacity as a host of a 'Ghostwatch' like piece might well have rendered it less, rather than more, conviction) - interestingly, 'The X-Files' began broadcasting in the US in the same year that 'Ghostwatch' aired, and the very first episode was presented in the style of a typical US TV movie, with a disclaimer to the effect that all elements in the programme were based on recorded events. Another interesting blurring of the televisual line between fact and fiction, with the programme going on to revisit many of these peculiar 'boundary' issues throughout its run. I remember strongly how, in the early years of the show at least, there was a drive to attempt to give the fictional underpinnings a veneer of 'honesty' by elaborating stories on the basis of recorded material so that, even though one was never in any doubt here that what was being watched was a fiction, there was always the lurking suspicion that the story had truth at its core. That Mulder's character was an assiduous believer in everything and Scully a consistently rational sceptic actually served to give the show more versimilitude than it might otherwise have had. And all of this was part of the 'true to life' tradition that the 'X Files' followed in: the Betty and Barney Hill UFO abduction case, one of the most foundational of modern ufology in the sense that it gave the world an awareness of the existence of alien 'Greys' and their tendencies to wish to experiment medically upon human beings, first came to prominent attention in the US in the 70's...when a TV Movie was made about it.

    I was also fascinated by Adam's take on the poltergeist tale somehow imbuing the banal with the force of the numinous: this is actually quite close to the argument I used to make about it when I was studying it - it is a peculiarly domesticated form of haunting. Interestingly, in his otherwise quite literary essay, it is preci

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    Comment number 14.

    precisely this contrast - a disjunction between the quotidian everyday and the apperance of a force of inexplicable efficacy - that defines the sense of the 'uncanny' (or 'unheimlich') in Freud's formulation - which the psychologist saw as being the basis of all nightmare. As I said in the last post, having studied it, I don't think there is anything especially new about the treatment accorded the poltergeist: I can point you to cases from the 17th and 18th centuries which are peculiarly reminiscent of everything that seems to stem from these cases of late 1970's vintage (!), but Adam recognises that the power of television to transmit these stories seems to give them an even greater 'uncanny' power than they possessed in any time prior. A great observation!

    Finally, if one is talking about the origination of the blurring of the line between fiction and fact on screen - at least, as long as we take the big, rather than small, screen into account - one cannot fail to recall Orson Welle's 'F For Fake' (1974) containing no supernatural, let alone 'ghostly' elements, but consistently blurring the line between the fact that it constitutes a documentary based on hoaxers, may contain some reconstructions of their lives that are falsified, seems to contain references to hoaxes that never actually happened, and has often combined footage together in the edit suite that constitutes faked dialogues that never actually occurred.

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    Comment number 15.

    @ 77mathews: "Catfish" did involve a hoax but it was the film-makers who were being duped by the mother of the "artist". The "artist" supposedly had a sister who fell in love with the brother of one of the film-makers and he with her. Something prompted them to suspect all was not well with the sister so they had to investigate. They went to Ishpeming and discovered the "sister" didn't exist and the 8-year-old "artist" was not an artist.

    @ Leeravitz: Never saw The X-Files series but I understand there were several story arcs? Several episodes in a season shared similar themes and the themes changed from season to season. With each revisit of a theme the mythology associated with it became deeper and more complex. I believe current seasons of Doctor Who (Matt Smith) are attempting something similar; I lost interest in Doctor Who shortly after Smith started and haven't seen any of the recent episodes.

    Don't forget also that with cult TV series like The X-Files that fans often produce their own "episodes" and "versions" that take up particular themes and plot strands and run with them. Are these any less "legitimate" than the official episodes?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    @ Nausika: The 'X - Files' eventually crafted for itself a single major story arc (principally concerned with the notion of an international conspiracy hiding the existence of extraterrestrial intervention on Earth), although this was quite a gradual process: while the very first episode was already concerned with the issue of dealing with the claims of UFO abductees, it is evident that the writers did not set out initially to craft a coherent arc story (indeed, back in the early 90's, the basic notion that a television programme would have an internally consistent central plotline that would deepen as the season wore on, was still really in its infancy). They came to the conclusion, after two or three seasons, that the need to develop a solid arc was required and attempted (with, IMO, patchy success) to justify the notion that this had been what they had intended all along in the latter stages of the programme's run.

    By the end of its run, 'X-Files' had, I think it's safe to say, 'jumped the shark', and lost contact with what had made it an interesting piece in the first instance (and which the development of an arc story increasingly concerned with deepening in-series mythology did little to forestall). In essence, this is the feature I was alluding to (perhaps too obscurely) in the last post: the fact that the 'X-Files' initially had verisimilitude (or the appearance of verisimilitude, at least) on its side. For the first couple of seasons, considerable service was paid to the idea that, at the root of the typically escapist and adventure oriented episodes, lay a basis of fact (or, at least, real world reportage). The first episode made a claim to the effect that all material was based on 'recorded instances' - although this was disingenuous, it is certainly true that all of the strange results attributed to UFO's and abductions in this pilot are as reported in the given literature on the subject. Later episodes derived material from allusions to the real-life testing of the Aurora project, unusual biological entities (such as 'brain eating' amoebas and extremophile bacterias), research into rare medical conditions and scientific disciplines (progeria, cryogenics) etc. The very final episode of the first season took hold of a (then) very topical story - about a woman who had supposedly been operated on in a US Emergency Room and whose body had seemed to give off toxic fumes that felled the surgeons (this case has, in the years since, become increasingly well referenced in US medical literature - no firm solution has ever been given, but the theory is t

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    Comment number 17.

    is that an anomalous chemical reaction with a dimethyl sulfoxide home remedy had occurred). The 'X-Files' ran with this, developing a whole tall tale concerning human-alien hybrids, and ultimately making great play of the fact that an 'oily sheen' had been claimed to have been seen covering the victim's body. I find this tendency in 'X-Files' history to be extremely interesting because (like 'Ghostwatch') it represents a determined blurring between fact and fiction.

    Later in its broadcast history, the 'X -Files' became increasingly fictitious in content, and increasingly self - referential (which does not stop Season 3's 'Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space' - a satire on 'Strange but True' Investigation programmes - from being a minor masterpiece). At this point, I grew rather less interested in it as a programme, however. Still, even as late as the late 90's, it was occasionally making the odd topical allusion, and developing further stories rooted in reference to contemporary topics – for example, there was a later episode devoted to discussing the possibility of life on Mars being transferred to Earth in the wake of the discovery of a (real world) Martian rock fragment, said to have contained apparent traces of long dead bacteria. In the early 21st century, J.J. Abram’s series ‘Fringe’ has, to all intents and purposes, resurrected the ‘X-Files’ formula with conspicuous success for a new generation – but it has always prided itself on storytelling over and above verisimilitude and I don’t hold the same interest in it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    @ Everyone: Try this for a laugh - you've all heard of the Illuminati, right? The famous underground global conspiracy network that supposedly controls governments, banks and corporations? Now try spelling the name backwards; you will get "itanimulli" which sounds like something straight out of the Mayan or Quechuan languages. Now type next time you're doing a search and see what you get.

    It's hilarious! Someone out there has a black sense of humour!

    @ Leeravitz: The history of The X-Files episodes sounds like the script-writers initially had the balance of verisimilitude and fiction about right but possibly came under pressure from the studio or the public or whoever to write wackier stories to maintain ratings as the show continued and had to compete with upcoming competition in the same evening time slots. I think once a TV show becomes self-referential in a shallow way or starts making references to phenomena outside the show that only its die-hard followers know, it's showing signs of smugness and insularity that would be a turn-off for casual viewers or people who follow the show faithfully(that is, they never miss an episode) but otherwise don't obsessively lap up every detail about the show, its plots and what the plots miss out or lead to.

    I'm not familiar with how script-writers were employed by Hollywood in those days. Did shows like The X-Files rely on a revolving set of script-writers who also worked for other TV shows or was it assigned one or two script-writers who had to nut out the scripts for an entire season? Traditionally a TV show was assigned a small number of writers (or maybe even just the one) who wrote all the stories for the season or several seasons and usually after midway through the second or third season the scripts would get very tired and repetitive. But by the late 1980s (I think), Hollywood was using several writers for the one show.

    A cult show like The X-Files needs to have several good writers who can source lots of intriguing yet realistically grounded ideas from unlikely contexts and this is an area where film studios could invite fans, aspiring writers, students of creative writing and even readers of media like The Fortean Times to contribute scripts or ideas for scripts.

    If you look at the Doctor Who episodes listed here, you will find they were the work of several writers including Robert Holmes (alone or in collaboration), Douglas Adams, Terry Nation, Chris Boucher who invented the character of Leela, Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat and Paul Cornell. Many of these writers have worked on other TV shows (Terry Nation did work for several British and American TV shows with a spy theme, often a spy theme shot through with science fiction and occult ideas: some old 1960s shows like The Avengers, The Champions and Department S, which he contributed to, come to mind and The Avengers still gets a work-out in Australia on Channel 9 in the wee hours of the morning) and in other media (Paul Cornell now does work for DC Comics, the home of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Black Canary, Aquaman and others).

    Part of the reason that I no longer watch Doctor Who is that there's something superficial and one-dimensional about the direction that the show's going in. There used to be a sub-text in the episodes of the late 1970s that hinted at exploring the psychological history of British colonialism and its effects, usually unfavourable, on both coloniser and colonised alike. There were stories where the Time Lords would toss the Doctor into situations he had to fix because in the distant past the Time Lords had intervened and messed up big-time and the context subsequently changed such that an emergency presented itself or the natives were being oppressed by an alien force. I guess though that in the post-9/11 age such stories can no longer be told.

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    Comment number 19.

    @Nausika: The history of the writing of 'The X -Files' is quite complicated. It was definitely the brain child of a single creator, Chris Carter (who was to it what e.g. Gene Rodenberry was to Star Trek) and Carter always had a primary motivating influence over the direction the series took (plus taking writing duties on many of the key 'story arc' episodes). However, he was initially rather vague about how much of an 'in show mythology' he wished to build up, and appeared to rather like apeing the style of older, 70's style US shows which had emphasised the week-by-week format of storytelling (a particular influence was 'Kolchak, The Nightstalker', readily acknowledged). Other than essentially coming up with the idea that UFO lore was (relatively) unconventional material to draw upon in the early 90's (as opposed to tried and trusted material relating to e.g. ghosts or werewolves etc.), and positing a basic notion that a government sponsored cover-up of extraterrestrial existence was in play, there was no real story arc as such defined by Carter for the first season.

    As time wore on, the fans began to pick more holes in plot contradictions, and it appears that pressure was placed upon Carter by his writing team to deepen the 'story arc' work in order to make the series more sustainable and more coherent. Certain individual writers, like Frank Spotnitz (apt name!) were drafted in as script doctors at this point, and arc stories grew deeper. However, there was always a revolving roster of writers working on 'X - Files' under Carter's guiding hand, and it is widely recognised by fans that often his work was less effective than that of writers, such as the much feted Derren Morgan, who actually eschewed the arc plotting in favour of their own postmodern takes on the central material! It's possible some pressure was felt from the networks to make the show more easy to follow, deepen a romantic relationship between the leads (which Carter was always dead against, as he wanted the partnership to be strictly business led) and so on, but pressure was also being felt from the writers themselves, I believe (not to mention the fans).

    In my personal opinion, the main reason that the verisimilitude went off the boil is because there were only so many variations on Fortean type stories that could be told season by season. Once you have told a 'nuts and bolts' vampire story, ghost story, abduction story, feral human story, cryptozoological story etc. - the next time you do one, you have to come up with more random elements to keep the story fresh, and the%2

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    more you do this, the more and more it becomes fully fictionalised and departs from a grounding in 'real world' reference. I think that most of the writers were actually avid Forteans and were employed in large part because they were so well versed in this kind of material. But they gradually needed to ring changes on the same old scenarios. I suspect they composed on a typical writers' room basis with Carter overseeing the major meetings, and individual writers being pitched plotlines that they were then left free to develop. This seems very different to what I understand the methodology on 'classic' Doctor Who to have been - where I believe many of the scripts were submitted first (on the basis of a rough idea) and then edited to fit specifications.

    I say this because I am also a great Doctor Who fan, and know a tremendous amount about what they have now taken to calling 'the classic series', so I suspect you are preaching to the converted in my case. I, too, have little time for the modern version of the series. My take is, in fact, that the story editor's imprint has been allowed to colour the entire mythology that is propagated to an extent unprecedented in earlier decades, and Russell Davies and Steven Moffatt have both followed very much their own agendas in redefining the parameters of the programme. But I also suspect that going into this too deeply on Adam's blog is going way off topic!


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This is a website expressing my personal views – through a selection of opinionated observations and arguments. I’ll be including stories I like, ideas I find fascinating, work in progress and a selection of material from the BBC archives.

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