Black-eyed ghost children are the new grey aliens

‘Daily Star’ front-page stars are just the latest iteration of media mumbo jumbo

‘Plague of black-eyed ghost children’: the final instalment of the ‘Daily Star’ trilogy.

‘Plague of black-eyed ghost children’: the final instalment of the ‘Daily Star’ trilogy.

 

Not for the first time there has been a spate of front pages in the UK tabloid market that has many people asking – or screaming it, in this instance – one big question: why?

Last week, the Daily Star (British edition) led three times on a threat to civilisation as we vaguely know it: a plague of black-eyed ghost children.

It’s that “black-eyed” adjective that gives this descent into paranormal delusion its special poetry. The trilogy kicked off with “Screaming black-eyed ghost terror”, before getting specific with “The pub cursed by black-eyed child ghost” (tip: just don’t go into that pub) and finishing up the week with “Plague of black-eyed ghost children”.

Real-world concern about the spread of the Ebola virus just didn’t cut it.

That last headline is arguably accurate, though, as after the newspaper planted the idea that black-eyed ghost children are something to keep an eye out for, neighbourhood-watch style, “frightened Daily Star readers” reportedly called in to say they had spotted the creatures in Liverpool, Scotland and the southwest of England. Not that the tabloid was taking all the credit: “There’s a sharp rise in sightings, with the US being known as a major breeding ground.”

The “spook invasion” is now so serious that a boyband competing on The X Factor has allegedly “begged for an exorcist to purge their posh mansion as they are being menaced by poltergeists”. Poltergeists! How very 1980s.

There is much to amuse in the text of this shameless fiction. The pub landlady is quoted as saying that when “ghouls wearing beige trenchcoats” walked into her establishment, she “got a bad vibe off them” from the start. The haunting children “have been heard singing nursery rhymes” – it’s never Beyoncé – and are said to have a penchant for “tatty” clothes that resemble hoodies.

But why is the newspaper channelling this supernatural nonsense now? Clearly, the first of its ghostly front pages must have flown off the shelves, possibly with the aid of telekinesis, at such a volume that it decided it needed more of a demonically lucrative thing.

Owned by Northern & Shell proprietor Richard Desmond, the Daily Star has a circulation of 467,000, which means it sells half as many copies as the Daily Mirror and only a quarter as many as the Sun.

These days it is even outsold by the Daily Express, which is also owned by Desmond and has long claimed for its brand stories featuring angry weather gods and the ghost of Diana.

In the past, whenever Desmond’s papers produced a string of “wait... what?” front pages, some form of native advertising for future programming on Channel 5 was suspected. But Desmond no longer owns the channel, having sold it to Viacom in May for £450 million.

It is more likely the case that in a crowded, declining red-top market the paper is looking for a theme to differentiate itself from the rest. Other news outlets may have covered this terrifying onset of black-eyed ghost children, but only the Daily Star thought them perfect cover stars.

The even simpler answer to the question of why the media is happy to go the full mumbo jumbo is that it’s something it has always done, periodically, throughout history.

As recently as the 1990s, conspiracy theorists of the UFO-hunting variety thrived as media outlets raced to get a cut of the popularity of The X Files. Newspapers produced sketchy drawings of alien visitors inspired by the science fiction series and Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. Respected broadcaster Larry King hosted a special called UFO Cover-Up? that gave oxygen to “ufologists” and concluded the US government was probably hiding something. It was a golden age for the credibility of would-be Mulders.

The fixation went on, until the success of Twilight and an apocalypse of walking- dead movies in the last decade provided new inspiration for “news” media, popularising vampires and zombies at the expense of tiny, grey extraterrestrials. It was time now for editors to commission fresh travel features on Transylvania.

In Ireland, meanwhile, we maintained a fondness for the “angels” genre of codswallop, with believers invited on to television to promote their books in producers’ apparent conviction that sceptical sounds from the interviewer constituted “balance”.

Whole libraries could, and probably have, been filled with theories on how different types of phantoms reflect and exploit the particular fears of the ages. Cannily, the Daily Star doesn’t look like it’s going to hitch its wagon to the ghost kind. Keeping its options open, it notes that the “spooks” sighted by its sources may in fact be “aliens or vampires”.

Or maybe, just maybe, they’re the invention of people who have recently wandered out of a nearby pub.

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