With Most Haunted returning to our screens tonight, Mr Moth examines the curious appeal of Britain’s most popular ghost-hunting show.
Ghosts are camera-shy. That’s almost their defining characteristic since the invention of the camera. The number of good photographs of ghosts number in the single digits and the number of convincing ghost photographs is zero. They don’t come out on command and they never, ever hang around long enough to be snapped. All of which makes it fairly surprising that there is an entire genre of television devoted to capturing spirits on camera. The market leader, in the UK at least, was Most Haunted. This ran for an incredible sixteen series, some of which were admittedly online-only, and had numerous live specials broadcast over several days on Living TV. There are more episodes of Most Haunted than there are of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
This is odd, really, because it was pretty terrible telly by any reasonable standard. Starting back in 2002 with former Blue Peter presenter Yvette Fielding as host and charismatic charlatan Derek Acorah as psychic-in-residence, it promised little. Shuffling from room to room in “haunted” houses, the only obvious entertainment came from Derek talking to the dead through his spirit guide Sam. For a while, Sam and Derek formed a Sooty/Matthew Corbett double act – “What’s that Sam? … He says there’s a man here called William” – but as the show went on Derek started to bypass Sam entirely and simply take the spirit into his body.
Unwilling, perhaps, to be upstaged by Acorah’s increasingly bizarre possessions – imagine a man wearing a well-cut if somewhat spivvy overcoat snarling “THIS BELONGS TO ME!” in an imperious tone and you’ve got 80-90% of Derek’s possessions down – Yvette grew in confidence to take the lead in investigations, amping up her credulousness and seeming to buy more and more wholeheartedly into the premise. By season four she was beginning to show open hostility to Derek, though it may be that she was irritated by his end-of-the-pier antics undermining what she saw as serious paranormal investigations rather than because he was the focus of fan attention. Maybe.
By series five, it was pretty much war and we all knew it. Yvette practically rolled her eyes whenever Derek’s eyes rolled back and Derek became positively aggressive, with the spirits frequently singling Yvette out as a “bitch” or a “sow”, for some reason. This all came to a head in series six, when false information was planted with the crew and Derek ended up contacting spirits whose names were anagrams of “Derek Faker” and “Derek Lies” which is pretty much as damning as it gets. Finally able to sack him, Yvette booted Degsy in favour of more compliant mediums. This is a textbook example of Jumping the Shark, and the show never recovered.
But I come to praise Most Haunted, not bury it. The central personality clash may have been what propelled the series to its heights but the joy of it was usually in the incidentals, the side players, the crazy, empty format itself.
The ramshackle nature of Most Haunted was actually one of its strengths. The crew was stuffed with Fielding friends and family members and because there was no fourth wall they eventually, inevitably, became the cast too.
First and foremost there is producer Karl Beattie, Yvette’s considerably more charming husband and – according to him – the only living samurai in the West. Some achievement, considering the samurai class hasn’t existed since the mid 1800s. Either Karl is older than he looks or he might be a bit of a fibber, but who cares when he is so bold in the face of malign spirits bent on attacking… oh, he’s gone. Yes, Karl shows some grit in the earlier series but as soon as he showed some weakness to indicate that maybe this ghost was more fearsome than the rest he entered a downward spiral. Ghosts, somehow, just kept one-upping themselves and so Karl was obliged to be more scared each week to the point that he was simply a quivering mound of jelly before they even switched the lights off.
More openly terrified was Stuart Torevell: rigger, cameraman and professional cowardy custard. Yvette’s cousin is the most distinctive member of the crew thanks to his having lost all his hair to alopecia, which is not something we should mock, although we should mock his claim that it came on due to the terror of a paranormal attack. Stuart and Karl took their brand on to a little-seen show called Whines and Spirits in which they “investigated” Britain’s most haunted bars in their capacity as Britain’s most pissed-up paranormal investigators.
When Richard Felix, the Derby ghost walk guide who tagged along as resident historian, became a liability (perhaps he was too earnest, too much of a believer, or maybe he only knew about Derby), he ended up replaced by the primly swaggering Lesley Smith. Like Richard, Lesley was a ghost hunt guide – unlike Richard, she ran the events while in character as Mary, Queen of Scots. Lesley is more in-keeping with Yvette’s vision for Most Haunted, I feel. She approaches the subject of ghosts and hauntings with a dramatic seriousness that tips over into the ridiculous at times, but she never undermines the show itself. Also, and I’ll be honest here, both Lesley and Yvette now look like the kind of ageing goths who turn up at Whitby every year to drink cider and buy ankh pendants.
I could spend a paragraph on each of the peripheral cast. Take Cath, Yvette’s mum’s hairdresser with responsibility for hair and makeup on set. Mainly, though, she had responsibility for screaming along with Yvette to add a bit of panic to the situation. Replaced now by a younger, prettier makeup artist – some things never change. Or how about Dr Ciaran O’Keeffe; parapsychologist, mastermind of Derek’s demise and respected badger impersonator. While his scepticism lasted he was a decent balance to the ridiculously overblown claims of the rest of the crew, but ultimately he had to buy in to the premise and not long after he was gone. I’ve no idea who their in-house sceptic is now. Les Dennis?
It’s not so far-fetched. One of the offshoot projects of Most Haunted was Ghost Hunting With…, a sort of celebrity version of the show wherein the finest stars ITV had contracts with were invited to spend the night in a haunted house, without even the promise of an inheritance from an eccentric uncle to keep them going. The novelty clearly hasn’t worn off for the team, and several celebrity guests will be appearing in the new series.
Oh, yes, the new series. It starts tonight on Really (a genuine, not-made-up television channel), and here’s a few things to look out for:
- Orbs: though these are less popular nowadays (because they’re just fucking dust), if nothing else has happened during an investigation, an orb flitting past the camera will do.
- Psychokineis: stuff getting thrown. Stones, keys, spoons, that sort of business. Completely un-fakeable, of course. Poltergeist activity.
- Noises off: sure, creaks and bumps will feature heavily but keep a particular ear out for whispers in the dark.
- Séances: a particular favourite of the show, and unchanged since the golden age of spiritualism in the 19th century. Often the crew will simply sit around a large table, join hands and ask for a spirit to show up. Obligingly, they would often do so, especially during Derek’s tenure. Alternatives include table tipping (which is in no way caused by knees, how dare you?) and the ever-reliable Ouija Board, a child’s toy given almost unbelievable credence in certain quarters. Mostly this will involve hastily-scribbled letters and an upturned glass. As the series progressed the movement of the glass became more violent, and during an investigation into the Pendle witch trials* it finally whizzed off the table and smashed. After that, the glass had no choice but to repeat this trick show after show until it, too, left the series to pursue other interests.
- Vigils: this is a fancy term for “standing around in the dark hoping something happens”. Ever sat in a room in the dark and just listened? Especially in an old house, the night is always anything but silent and still. Floorboards creak and settle, rodents scrabble behind the wainscoting, pipes gurgle and plink. You see the darkness swirl, but it’s not about ghosts, it’s about darkness. It’s about the shapes your mind creates when it’s looking at nothing. It’s about sounds you hear when it’s silent. It’s got nothing to do with the dead. It’s got nothing to do with the outside world. It’s all in your head.
And that could be said to be true of everything about Most Haunted. It’s built on nothing; the shadows on the wall, the wind in the chimney, the sparks raised by clashing egos. None of it amounts to anything. If the participants believe it to be fake, if it’s all just entertainment, its earnest failure to convince marks it as nothing more than low camp, a magic show in a clapped-out theatre. If its creators believe the spirit world to be real, it has done nothing but prove over and over again that they are wrong and will never be right. You have to decide if you’re laughing with them or at them, if you want them to succeed in their failure or fail in their success, and it’s all fun and games as long as you bear in mind that the living are the ones in the green glow of the night vision cameras and the ghosts will skirt that limelight.
*Yvette has a particular interest in the Pendle witches, who are the closest the series come to an antagonist. Her shouts of “Come on then, you bitches!” at the spirits of some poor, wrongly-hanged Jacobean peasants are baffling to say the least.