BOOTLEG FILES 157: “MTV’s Fear” (2000-2002 reality TV show mixing paranormal activity with pretty young people).
LAST SEEN: During its initial broadcast on MTV.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only a “best of” DVD; the entire series was never released in the home entertainment channels.
REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: Not among MTV’s most popular programs.
CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: A ghost of a chance.
In concept, “MTV’s Fear” seemed like a great idea: why not borrow (or steal, if you will) the plot of “The Blair Witch Project” and fashion it into a reality TV format? Then hire an ethnically diverse bunch of plastic pretty young people as contestants and have them compete for a somewhat paltry prize ($5,000 per episode)?
In concept, it was a killer idea. In reality, however, “MTV’s Fear” was one of the least successful reality programs to find its way onto the small screen. As with any ripoff, it clearly did not measure up to its original source – and, truth be told, “The Blair Witch Project” wasn’t such a great project to begin with. But “The Blair Witch Project” worked as a one-shot fluke simply because it was weird, different and offered an unsettling ending that gave the appropriate warning for silly youngsters who dared to play with spooky spirits.
Obviously, MTV wasn’t going to turn its program into a weekly snuff film. So from the start, the genuine sense of danger was absent because it was obvious no one was going to meet with serious harm. Thus, “MTV’s Fear” became a 21st century equivalent of a Three Stooges haunted house comedy – a lot of screaming and running around, but no one gets seriously injured.
Each week “MTV’s Fear” sent a squad of five or six contestants to a location of alleged paranormal activity. The contestants were bused in the late evening to this site wearing hoods (in one episodes, they also wore manacles). At the location, they were deposited in a “safe house” that had a computer, cots and proper illumination (they also supposedly had food, water and toilet facilities, but this wasn’t shown on screen). The contestants were given video cameras to film each other (although surveillance cameras were set up in the safe house in the event the amateur videographers goofed up).
The computer would provide a guide to the adventure at hand. For the course of two nights, the contestants were to investigate the location for evidence of hauntings and supernatural shenanigans (the contestants were expected to sleep during the day). In the course of their investigations, they would be required to undergo outlandish dares designed to test their stamina and will.
Some dares were just mind games, such as sitting in silence in a dark room and waiting for ghosts to show up. Others took on a rather kinky angle, such as one handcuffed guy being put in a jail cell with an iron gag fastened in his mouth or another guy being immobilized in a straight jacket and left in an isolated room. While the connection between bondage and paranormal investigations isn’t immediately obvious, these types of dares certainly gave a rise to the kinkier members of the viewing audience.
Of course, there was one itty-bitty catch: anyone who failed to complete their dare was immediately disqualified and forced to leave the episode, thus forfeiting their prize money. In one episode, all of the contestants quit, leaving the $5,000 to sit until a new crew of contestants was brought in to do the adventure anew.
Why would anyone quit? Apparently, the locations in question were supposedly hotbeds of tortured ghosts roaming about in ectoplasmic agony – and they weren’t keen on silly young people flatfooting through their domains. Since all of the shows took place in the middle of the night, the locations were in total darkness. The contestants had to wander through pitch-black hallways, staircases and open fields with the flimsiest of lights attached to video cameras that were, in turn, attached to special vests worn by the contestants. Since there was no camera crew with the contestants (outside of hidden infrared surveillance cameras), the contestants were filming themselves and their surroundings. Not surprisingly, the cameras were at off-center close-ups before the contestant’s faces, thus allowing for footage that looked too much like Heather Donohue’s infamous video goodbye in “The Blair Witch Project.” Also, much of what was filmed was so poorly lit that many episodes had long stretches of black screens.
So what’s so scary about walking around in empty dark buildings or campgrounds? Actually, there is no reason to be afraid. Hence, MTV decided to oomph up the scares by spinning wild tales of the supernatural secrets at each location. Most of these tales were florid embellishments and many were baseless lies. In fact, some locations were given phony names (MTV later claimed this was done to prevent viewers from trespassing on the properties). Thus, the contestants went into their challenges filled with nutty tales of murdered convicts, anguished lobotomy patients, devil worshipping military school instructors, and even a Mexican shape-shifting demon.
To add to the chills, MTV went further by turning the up the scares on the audio and visual elements of each site. The network’s set dressers painted walls, installed electric chairs and even planted rats (albeit harmless pet store rodents) on the sites. Off-camera production people sneaked about banging on walls and piping in unsettling sounds to spook up the contestants. The lights on the contestants’ camera packs were also rigged to go off via remote control, usually in areas designated as having abnormally high paranormal activity. And for the few contestants who weren’t rattled by this nonsense, the production crew would sneak in to do nasty mischief designed to evoke freak out reactions, including locking one guy in a jail cell and trapping another in a dormant industrial oven. The program implied these abrupt imprisonments via previously unlocked doors were the result of the supernatural and not the assistant to the producer.
And there’s the main rub with “MTV’s Fear” – the show was so blatantly phony that it was impossible to be genuinely absorbed with the events unfolding on-screen. None of the shows ever produced any concrete evidence of ghosts, despite the insistence of the contestants that they heard things or felt something (one girl claimed a male ghost tried to make out with her!). Each show was indistinguishable from the other: a bunch of squealing young people looking frightened in dark spaces.
At least a couple of contestants were in on the joke: one blonde chick, billed as a “model from Eastern Europe,” emerged from a dare of being tied up in a bondage chair by asking if her hair was okay and if the camera was on her. Another blonde cutie, who called herself “Holly from Hollywood,” paused in the midst of a crying jag to comically wonder if her “waterproof eyeliner is running.”
“MTV’s Fear” debuted in 2000 and it seemed off to a strong start. Reviews were uncommonly positive and two locations featured in the first season (Eastern State Penitentiary outside of Philadelphia and West Virginia State Penitentiary) enjoyed considerable spikes in tourism following the episodes using their facilities. It even caught the eye of comics Andy Dick, who parodied it on his TV program, and Kathy Griffin, who used it as a joke in her stand-up routine.
But almost immediately, the show’s popularity plummeted when it became obvious that each episode was pretty much a rehash of the others. Internet boards also buzzed with strong doubts on whether the shows were faked. The show limped through a 10-episode season, and somehow got renewed in 2001 for another six episodes. By the second season, audience interest evaporated and MTV cancelled the program.
Despite the aggressive pleas of some core fans, MTV declined to bring the show back (VH-1 would dust off the show in 2006 for “Celebrity Paranormal Project,” using the same set-up but substituting C-list actors as the contestants). In 2001, a “best of” DVD called “MTV’s Inside Fear” went on sale. That included highlights from the first season. However, the entire episode line-up was not made available for DVD release.
Bootleg DVDs of the entire “MTV’s Fear” series have been circulating for the past few years and they’re quite easy to locate – I recently purchased my set (covering seven discs, including bonus material) via Craig’s List. Viewed anew, “MTV’s Fear” is a curious misfire that seems to confirm one of the most common warnings of the human experience: don’t play with the dead.
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