Fear made good use of its settings. MTV chose places that were ripe for “hauntings,” like prisons that tortured inmates or sanatoriums for the mentally ill. The places already have a creepy feel, and combined with their paranormal history and “documented” hauntings (you can look up most on the Internet; some names were changed to prevent becoming tourist attractions), they’re chilling to even think about, let alone to spend two nights alone inside. Each episode opens with some facts about the location: detailed explanations, newspaper clippings about accidents and deaths, and first-person accounts of paranormal activity they’ve seen. Throughout the episode, historians and criminologists share stories and facts about the place. (Also scary: MTV chose Godsmack’s awful “Voodoo” song for the theme.)
Many of the scares in Fear come from anticipation as the contestants take their time exploring their new location, hesitant to walk too far into a room or to keep their back to the door for too long. The producers know that the fear of the unknown (and horror movie clichés) is what really terrifies: one contestant is dared to sit in a bathroom for five minutes but is forbidden to check behind the shower curtain; another has to kneel, for 30 minutes, in the same spot where a woman was murdered, but looking behind her (to check for ghosts, naturally) results in immediate disqualification. Of course, it’s rumored that MTV manufactured plenty of scares, like slamming a door shut or putting “blood” on the walls and that’s almost definitely true — but even knowing that doesn’t take away from the show.
It doesn’t matter if a mysterious door slamming shut is “real” or not in Fear. What matters is the contestants’ very real reactions. One of the most innovative aspects of Fear was the terrifying solitude. There was no reality-show camera crew following around their every move; instead, there were hidden cameras throughout the locations, and each contestant had cameras mounted to their bodies that recorded close-up reactions of their faces: the screaming, crying, panic attacks, and real terror they faced — all shot entirely in night vision, which gave it a look somewhere in between The Blair Witch Project and a reality snuff film.
Fear only produced 16 episodes before it was canceled in 2002. There were rumors that the cancellation was due to a contestant’s death, which only added to the show’s inherent creepiness, but the truth is that the ratings just weren’t high enough to justify the high production costs. Still, in just those two seasons, MTV’s Fear pioneered a new reality show genre with a series that actually lived up to its title.