Generally, reality shows don’t lend themselves to the horror genre. The horror in reality programming often lies within the notion that people are actually willing to participate in them or the realization that we are actually willing to watch 30 (30!) seasons of The Real World. But true, chilling horror isn’t often explored, except in silly series like Celebrity Paranormal Project. That’s what made MTV’s Fear such a great watch: It was new and innovate in 2000 and, at times, it was legitimately scary.
Fear, which ran for two seasons from 2000 to 2002, was focused on the paranormal. Each episode finds at least five contestants blindfolded and led to a “haunted” location — prisons, hospitals, forts where historic military battles took place, etc. — where they are abandoned by their guides and left alone, together. The goal is to determine whether or not the location is actually haunted. If they make it through the nights, they win $5,000. Upon arriving, they stay in a “safe house” (basically a room within the location that is definitely not haunted) during the day, but, once night comes, have to explore the rest of the location and participate in dares set up by the network. If they get too scared, they are allowed to leave — and many contestants do.
Most of the dares find the contestants singled out, often told to spend a certain number of hours in a pitch-black room (or jail cell, or body box, or torture chair) in total radio silence. (The contestants all communicate by radio, with someone in the safe house directing them to where they must go.) Some of the dares go to the extreme. In one episode set at a former penitentiary, a contestant has to be strapped into a “tranquility chair” that was used to torture former inmates and remain there in radio silence until someone is told to rescue her. In another, a contestant has to reenact a suicide by pushing over a cinder block that seems like it is attached to a noose around his neck — one contestant quits, and another is disqualified for not having the noose secured. On a haunted Naval ship, a contestant puts on the uniform of a dead sailor to try and invoke his spirit.
Some dares are of the Fear Factor variety: hold a tarantula, put a leech on your arm. Others are a little silly, like using a Ouija board to contact ghosts (one contestant quits not because she’s scared but because it goes against her religion) or holding a séance. But even those junior-high slumber-party games become scarier here. The contestants aren’t in the comfort of a bedroom with giggling friends but instead are secluded in darkness and silence in an unknown location, unable to stop thinking about all the stories of ghosts and possessions that were told to them just hours before.
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.