The spooky TV movie that caused post-traumatic stress disorder

On Halloween 1992, years before The Blair Witch Project, the BBC aired Ghostwatch, which claimed to be a live on-air investigation of a real haunted house. In actuality, the movie was fiction, but it had a real, lasting effect: some children were diagnosed with PTSD after watching the film.

"The program you are about to watch is a unique live investigation of the supernatural," announces the host at the beginning of Ghostwatch. "It contains material which some viewers might find disturbing." And disturbed they were. After Ghostwatch aired, the BBC was flooded with calls from panicked viewers who thought the program was real, and the news media criticized the BBC for its disturbing choice of programming.

But, according to a paper published in the British Medical Journal, for some children, Ghostwatch was more than just scary; it was genuinely traumatic. The paper was written by two doctors from Coventry who claimed to have treated two children for post-traumatic stress disorder that was caused by watching Ghostwatch:

Case 1

This boy had been frightened by Ghostwatch and had refused to watch the ending. He subsequently expressed fear of ghosts, witches, and the dark, constantly talking about them and seeking reassurance. He suffered panic attacks, refused to go upstairs alone, and slept with the bedroom light on. He had nightmares and daytime flashbacks and banged his head to remove thoughts of ghosts. He became increasingly clingy and was reluctant to go to school or to allow his mother to go out without him.

If you think it's ridiculous that kids who watched something scary on TV were diagnosed with PTSD, you're not alone. While plenty of other physicians reported similar cases of Ghostwatch-born trauma, these cases led to a larger discussion about the way the DSM-IV defines certain ailments. Currently, DSM definition of PTSD allows the diagnosis in people who have been "confronted with" traumatic events, which could include a television program. A proposed revision for the DSM-5 would explicitly exclude "exposure through electronic media, television, movies, or pictures, unless this exposure is work related." Either way, when the man on the television set says that viewers might find the events on television disturbing, it's probably time to usher the little ones out of the room.

Even if you're not familiar with the film, you may recall it from the Doctor Who episode "Army of Ghosts." In the Whoniverse, Ghostwatch is, naturally, a factual television program.

You can watch the entire movie right here, if you dare.

How Ghostwatch haunted psychiatry [Mind Hacks]