Alone in the Dark: An Oral History of MTV's Fear
By Jake Rossen
While shooting their 11th episode at the Mina Dos Estrellas mine in Michoacán, Mexico, in 2001, the production team behind the MTV reality series Fear encountered a very unusual situation. The show, which dropped five or six contestants into mysterious locations reputed to be haunted and dared them to spend time alone in the decrepit buildings, awarded a cash prize of $5000 to each person who successfully faced their anxieties without fleeing. Of the group, at least a handful would usually be left at the end of each show to collect their reward.
The mine was different. It was said to be patrolled by the spirits of miners who died while on duty, as well as the Nahual, a werewolf-esque creature. The sense of foreboding was too much to take. On the first night of shooting, all six contestants quit.
“Instead of being there two weeks to shoot, we were there a month,” Alissa Phillips, a production associate-turned-associate producer on the series, tells Mental Floss. “We had to fly an entirely new cast in to see if they could manage it.”
Fear, which ran for 16 episodes from 2000 to 2002, remains an anomaly in the reality genre. Unlike most docudramas, there was no camera crew in sight. The cast wore chest-mounted cameras and carried handheld recorders to provoke a feeling of real isolation. Nor did the production orchestrate artificial scares—apparitions, fleeting figures in the woods—like a modern haunted house. Instead, the contestants were largely left alone to get lost in their own heads, the weight of the violent, sometimes-murderous locations bearing down on them as they sat in pitch-black areas thought to have paranormal occupations, sometimes for hours. Some contestants successfully made it through to the end; others quit in their hotel room, before they had even arrived at the site.
For MTV, it was a departure from their typical reality fare like The Real World. For producers, it was an opportunity to craft a “real” horror movie, capturing the genuine reactions of hysterical, sobbing young adults who jumped at the sound of every wind gust and creaky floorboard. To get a sense of what it took to craft this real-life Paranormal Activity, Mental Floss spoke with members of the cast and crew. Here’s what they remember about the series, its challenges, and some truly terrifying moments they still can’t quite explain.
I: FEAR ITSELF
In 1999, MTV was riding a wave of inexpensive reality programming that brought disparate personalities together and forced them to either live together (The Real World) or compete against one another (Road Rules). Coupled with the music video countdown series Total Request Live, it remained a destination channel with a clear identity for young adults.
That brand was put to use by writing and producing partners Martin Kunert and Eric Manes, who conceived of a feature film pitch about an MTV-esque reality show that goes awry. Kunert and Manes began shopping the feature around town. While they eventually found interest, it wasn’t in quite the way they expected.
Martin Kunert (Co-Creator, Co-Executive Producer): We had just done a movie called Campfire Tales and decided doing a pseudo-documentary horror film would be our next idea. We basically thought of a movie called The Legend of Hell House and combined it with The Real World. It was called Dare.
Beau Flynn (Executive Producer): I was obsessed with In Search Of, the old Leonard Nimoy show, and I was thinking of rebooting it. I merged the two ideas to create Fear and took it to Dawn Olmstead, who was one of my best friends from college.
Dawn Olmstead (Executive Producer): He sent over the feature idea. Beau and I discussed what would happen if we basically did it for real.
Kunert: The pitch was about these kids that go to [the allegedly ghost-occupied swamp area] Honey Island in Louisiana. And it turns out the place really is haunted and sh*t happens for real.
Eric Manes (Co-Creator, Co-Executive Producer): Basically, they said, “Instead of making this movie, why not actually make the show within the movie?”
Alissa Phillips (Associate Producer): I was working for Beau as his assistant at the time. Dawn had recently joined the company and had worked at MTV. They ended up selling it there as a show.
Olmstead: MTV thought it was a cool idea, but I think there was suspicion over whether we could pull it off and be scary. I flew with an executive to a run-through for the pilot and he told me on the plane, “Listen, no one is going to die. What are we actually shooting?”
Craig A. Colton (Editor): I was cutting World’s Wildest Police Chases when [Fear supervising executive producer] Cris Abrego called me out of the blue and said, “I’m executive producing this show called Fear. I think you’d be perfect for it. It’s a pseudo-game show where young contestants have to spend 72 hours in a haunted location. If they do, they win $5000.” I was like, “Huh.”
Phillips: In those days, reality was really still defined as Road Rules and The Real World and that was it.
Jonas Larsen (Segment Producer): It was a crazy idea. How were we going to execute this? How were we going to create a sense of these people actually being alone?
Colton: For me, haunted location shows had never quite worked. It was for the same reason people generally don’t put magic in movies. Audiences think, "Oh, it’s manipulated." Same with ghost stories. How do we know the location is haunted?
Olmstead: My thinking was, remember how scared you get watching a horror movie and seeing someone going down into a basement? The scariest parts are watching people nervously going somewhere.
With the premise settled, producers set about creating an environment unique in television—isolating the cast from the production and allowing stationary mounted cameras in the location and on the cast's bodies to cover the action.
Kunert: The idea was to not have any interaction with the production. That was the way to get genuine fear. They felt completely isolated and alone.
Gordon Cassidy (Story Editor): With these ghost-hunting shows, one of the things that breaks the spell is the presence of a camera crew. How scared can you really be with a cameraman and soundman standing next to you?
Olmstead: The main problem was: it’s not going to be scary with producers around. We used every idea and innovation we could to make them feel like they were alone and abandoned.
Luis Barreto (Director): You can’t put the camera on the head. It moves too much. It had to be more of a shoulder or body mount.
Cassidy: They came up with the idea of people self-filming. It was a vest-worn camera on a gooseneck arm that extended out a little bit then pointed back to the face and shoulders for a medium close-up.
Phillips: Beau’s company produced Requiem for a Dream [in 2000], where the crew had built camera rigs that Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly wore for certain shots. We used the same basic rigs.
Flynn: We had a huge camera rig mounted on their chests for three or four shots. We did that, but with a lipstick cam.
Kunert: The vest cams didn't come from Requiem from a Dream. We designed and built originals in order to get close ups when people were alone.
Colton: We called it the Clam Cam. It was basically a harness that had arms with a camera mounted on the end. Their body was like the tripod. When they ran, you would get this incredible low-angle shot on their face. Because they were infrared, it didn’t matter how dark it was.
Cassidy: The effect on screen is disorienting and scary. The person is still but the background moves around them. It reinforces the fact they were in this space by themselves.
Colton: The Clam Cams were used for dramatic emphasis. When contestants freaked out, we went to the Clam Cam for that in-your-face Exorcist moment.
Cassidy: It changed the experience. We got real human behavior. It wasn’t mediated by the presence of a camera crew. The material was very compelling, spooky, and striking.
Colton: We also used it to build suspense. If someone is going down the stairs, we went to a close-up. Now the audience can’t see what they see.
Colton: We also used it as a red herring. Say someone was going down stairs: We’d go to the Clam Cam and the audience would go, “Oh, something scary is about to happen.” But then nothing happened. It gave the audience a false sense of security.
Flynn: The important part of the pitch [to MTV] was that fear lives in the eyes, and you have to be sure to capture that.
Colton: In a couple of cases the camera would get knocked off-kilter if someone ran into something. One time half of someone’s face was showing, and that was actually really cool.
Olmstead: It was a happy accident. If they started running and bumped into a wall, the camera would move and you’d see a shoulder and hear someone breathing. They were too scared to adjust the camera, nor did we have access to say, “We can’t see you.” But when we saw the footage, it was scarier than if we had seen their face.
Colton: As the viewer, your back is to what’s coming around the corner. That’s the basis of all great horror films. It’s what the filmmaker chooses not to show you that’s scary.
To populate Fear, MTV turned to a reality TV staple: a revolving door of young, attractive 20-somethings orbiting Los Angeles, New York, and select casting hotspots around the country.
Barreto: MTV had a whole casting department. Fear wasn’t as heavy-duty as a show like Road Rules that had six weeks of interviews. It was much more truncated. We talked to them, found out what they were about. Some people came in with some preconceived ideas. Some were skeptics.
Olmstead: We were going for a Breakfast Club mix. Six people trapped in a building. How would you cast it as a movie? There’s a prom queen, a nerd.
Flynn: Breakfast Club is exactly right. I grew up on John Hughes movies. How do we put together a grouping of people that will be interesting?
Kunert: We wanted people who had some type of big emotional issue in their life that was boiling to the surface. Some big decision they had to make.
Manes: People who are looking for something emotionally are open to things. Maybe things in their life aren’t going according to plan. Maybe they’re in a fight with their parents. That just gave us stuff to work with.
Phillips: We needed kids who were as tough as possible. If someone in an audition was saying, “I’m spiritual, I believe in the paranormal,” it was like, “Ohhhh, probably not.” We were looking for people who were cynical, who would look into the camera and say, “I want the money. You’re not going to scare me.” Because people would just quit the first night.
Steven Breier (Contestant, “West Virginia Penitentiary,” Episode One): They asked a bunch of weird questions. Are you afraid of spiders? Are you scared of the dark?
Jason Harbison (Contestant, “Mina Dos Estrellas,” Episode 12): They were interviewing people in Birmingham, Alabama, with one group of six people per table. Me and my brother both went. They asked questions. I remember being asked why we wanted to be on the show. One guy gave some bullsh*t answer like he wanted to study the science of ghosts. The interviewer got to me and I said, “I just want to be on TV and meet some hot chicks.”
Cassidy: They did a good job of putting together people who were contrasting types. One was athletic, one was skeptical of ghosts, another was a can-do guy. It was a pretty good cross-section of people.
Flynn: One thing we learned is that in extreme situations, when you’re feeling vulnerable and afraid, it’s very bonding. We drop all the presentational qualities that we have.
Barreto: We told them, “Be ready to go. Bring one bag. Don’t bring a phone. Tell your friends they won’t hear from you for five days.” They’d get taken somewhere, get blindfolded, go to a hotel room with no television, and left alone for 48 hours. We treated them like prisoners.
Harbison: I got to Mexico City and the driver was kinda hot. I guess that part doesn't matter. But she was kind of cold and callous toward me and wouldn’t make conversation. I eventually asked her about it and she said, "Well, they asked me to be like that."
Olmstead: Sometimes they’d be flown to one city but then driven to another. They had no communication with the outside world. We were trying to de-stimulate them.
Kunert: If they feel safe, they’re not going to react. We tenderized them in the hotel room. They’d go in front of the cameras and say, “This is not what I expected.”
Manes: They had a VCR in the hotel room or safe house, but they could only watch horror films.
Harbison: Poltergeist was one. The Shining was another.
Barreto: Friday night, someone shows up. They get blindfolded. No one tells them where they’re going. Once you get to the safe house, good luck.
Phillips: We put bags over their heads. That was not fake. They never knew where they were going. One girl vomited in her bag. I was like, “Is this dangerous?”
Olmstead: She wasn’t the only one who puked.
Phillips: We left one kid with a bag over his head for hours. We did some evil things.
Breier: Someone woke us up and put a pillowcase over my head and walked me out to a car. I could tell other people were in the car. We drove around for about an hour. When we got out, it was like 3:30 in the morning. They told us to put our hands on the shoulders of the person in front of us.
Flynn: We didn’t want them talking or planning beforehand. We wanted all of them to meet for the first time.
Manes: Sometimes people would get there and say, “It’s MTV, nothing is going to happen.” We made it clear that MTV is not there.
Breier: I thought, well, while this is scary, and maybe you might get hurt tripping in the dark, it’s not a situation that will create grave harm.
Manes: By the time participants actually ended up walking into the location, they were already so prepared to be frightened, so concerned about where they were, that even if they thought it was a gimmick when they auditioned, they were worked up by the time we finished with them in the prep stage.
Barreto: I’m an old-school reality producer. I believe there’s a process to getting people ready to be on set. It’s a holistic thing. The whole approach has to work. Participants have to come ready to play ... They were primed already. You just had to keep satisfying the expectations of what they’re about to go through.
Major Dodge (Contestant, “Mina Dos Estrellas,” Episode 12): They’d mess with your sleep. You’d be up all day and awake at night. I knew they were doing certain things to get us to break mentally a little bit.
Breier: One contestant ... had a little pagan altar set up and said she practiced witchcraft. Before we even started, she left.
Colton: It’s almost like horse racing. You put the horse in the starting gate and it’s their instinct to run but they can’t. When you ring the bell, the horse takes off. That’s what the contestants were.
Flynn: Because of my passion for In Search Of, I wanted to educate people about these places. All of that stuff was real. We’d research it and incorporate it into the episodes. It was a great way to tell the backstory, to merge it with what the modern college kids were experiencing.
Colton: We had a documentary on top of the show that explained why the location was haunted. It communicated the story to contestants. We saw it visually and they heard it verbally. It was also to sell the audience—like, OK, there could really be some paranormal activity in this location.
Cassidy: They’d be told of the haunted spots.
Breier: You got your head filled with stuff before you even got there.
Colton: We might exaggerate the story to build some suspense.
Manes: We also had an insurance waiver. Instead of saying something like, "Hey, we don’t take responsibility if something happens,” it would say, “In case you get dismembered or blinded here …” We built up the feeling of danger.
Even with a cast on edge, no one at MTV was entirely convinced a show about contestants grappling with their own internal anxieties could be effectively communicated on television.
Olmstead: I think there was some trepidation about, could we capture scariness on TV when we knew no one would die? Could we capture what it feels like to be scared out of your wits at a haunted place? Would it be too scary and people would quit in five minutes? We kept adjusting as we went along.
Manes: We started working on [the feature film idea for] Dare before The Blair Witch Project, but their [success] definitely helped us out.
Olmstead: I think Blair Witch influenced people who wrote about Fear, but it wasn’t like Blair Witch inspired it. What I do think happened is Blair Witch helped the network feel confident that they would find an audience for it.
Manes: I think part of what helped the show was that the network expected it to be a complete disaster. They left us alone. No one at MTV wanted to get blamed for it, and so they allowed us to get crazy.
II: SCREAM FACTORY
Before Fear went to series, the network ordered a pilot that took place in West Virginia State Penitentiary, a notoriously brutal facility located in Moundsville that had been open from 1876 to 1995 and was said to be inhabited by the spirits of the estimated 100 inmates who had met violent ends via execution. The objective was simple: Walk into the darkest recesses of the building and see if you had the nerve to stay put.
Phillips: Martin and Eric wanted to go to the prison first. They really honed in on it. It was included in the original pitch document.
Flynn: There was a lot of history there. When the prison was built, it was on an Indian burial ground. They flattened the land and put the prison on top of it. Ultimately, it was shut down. There was more death and murder per square foot there than anywhere. It was a lot of bad mojo.
Olmstead: It was a great story. The idea of putting young adults and dropping them off after midnight in a prison seemed really frightening. The reason we played with the idea of mental institutions and prisons was because we knew the idea that, if you believed in ghosts, and someone died while being incarcerated, you could be trapped there forever.
Larsen: Martin, [director] George [Verschoor], and I went to scout it and start the documentary process. We decided, “You know what, let’s see if we can get some local kids and see what their reaction is.” Have them come and hang out with us at the prison and test it out. There was a place in the basement where, during a riot, some inmates had killed some other inmates, decapitated them, and played soccer with their heads. I told the kid, “Here’s what you need to do. Go into the room with a video camera and spend 15 minutes by yourself.” I think we offered a couple hundred bucks.
What he didn’t know was that [we had someone] hiding in a hallway leading down to the room with a little metal chain. He jingled it and the kid freaked out and came screaming out of the room. I said, “Listen, we’ll give you $500 to go back into the room.” Then it was $1000. He wouldn’t. That’s when we looked at each other and knew we had a show. It’s all in your head. It doesn’t take much to tap into that fear.
Cassidy: Frankly, the space even in the footage was scary and intimidating. It was a real penitentiary and real violence occurred within its walls.
Phillips: It was terrifying for the crew. No one wanted to go to the bathroom alone. Actually, no one did in any location.
Cassidy: The narrative device imposed was that once they entered the penitentiary and were given a home base in the prison chapel, they could kind of relax and talk to one another. In the room, there was a computer with instructions on what they had to do next.
Phillips: On a pilot, you don’t really know what you’re doing. I was not sure it was going to work—kids with cameras in an enormous location. Luckily, we got incredible footage.
Kunert: The Sugar Shack was scary.
Cassidy: That was the inmate rec center. There was a lot of graffiti on the walls. It was a spooky place.
Breier: That was the worst for me. It’s a big, open room with nothing in it, just pillars. People could be hiding in there. I didn’t know if there were actors ready to jump out and scare us.
Manes: That was genuinely scary. I personally did not want to go in there. I felt an awful, evil presence. My body and soul were telling me to get the hell out.
Phillips: The crew did not want to rig the Sugar Shack alone. It was an intense room, freezing and dark.
Cassidy: For the documentary material, a production crew traveled there and interviewed inmates who spent years in Moundsville. People were telling me the most frightening moments of the show were getting interviews from some of those guys and hearing accounts of what had gone on in the old days. It was chilling.
Flynn: I saw water shooting up from the urinal. I know Dawn had a similar experience.
Olmstead: I went down a hallway there and there was no running water in the place. I get into a room and there is water and sludge dripping out of stones in the walls. I grabbed a piece of paper and drew a cross on it.
Phillips: I did a dry run with a walkie-talkie and headset and no flashlight to test the directions we would give them. It’s pitch-black and I’m being read the same instructions the kids would get the next day. So someone says, “Climb up the ladder in front of you.” I got to the top and couldn’t see anything. There is no light at all. Now I hear, “Walk three paces forward” in my ear. So I was standing there and heard someone say, “No,” but not in my ear. I vividly remember someone saying no. So I relayed back, "I’m not doing this.”
The next day, someone from the crew that was rigging said, “Thank god you didn’t do that.” It turns out there was an enormous trap door in that part of the prison, where they put hay down for horses. It was 10 or 15 feet wide. If I’d proceeded three feet, I’d have fallen to my death.
Cassidy: There was a young woman in the pilot who was very sensitive to psychic things. She was open to the experience and was having some intense experiences and ultimately decided it wasn’t healthy for her to continue putting herself in those places.
Flynn: Whether you believe in ghosts or spirits or not, one thing is undeniable and that’s the energy. Just like you can walk into someone’s house and feel good energy, there’s bad energy. Walking into that prison was terrifying. We shot for one night there. We didn’t even need two nights.
Olmstead: After shooting, we went to a diner ... A telephone pole cracked in half, this giant telephone pole, and almost killed all of us in the van. It made the local news. This was after the first night of filming.
Flynn: It came out of nowhere. The lights went out in the Denny’s and the pole just fell down.
Larsen: Eric and I were in one car and they were in the other, passing each other. There were fire trucks and people in hazmat suits. The guy directing traffic just left and we kept going. Police got really mad at us for driving through a detour.
Flynn: When I got back from Moundsville, my house had been infested with rats. That was odd and terrifying.
Despite the near-fatalities, the crew got what it needed. Of the six contestants recruited for the pilot, three remained. To finish the challenge, a contestant named Ryan successfully pulled off a tarp from the prison’s electric chair. Though it was just a cloth on top of a seat, his apprehension cemented Fear as a show where the simplest dares proved most effective.
Larsen: We used the actual electric chair from the exhibit at the prison.
Cassidy: The electric chair reaction was right on the edge of total fear, but also kind of very big. Like he enjoyed it but was also genuinely terrified.
Phillips: What we learned is that it was better to give them real goals than to just sit there and get terrified. It gave them a sense of purpose and stabilized them a little bit. Like, “Document this, find this.” Otherwise they would often just quit.
Kunert: MTV did a test screening and their method was, if someone in the audience says, “I’ve seen something like this before,” it would never get on the air. Or, “I could see this on another network,” that wouldn’t get on air, either. MTV wanted innovation.
They got it. Debuting September 21, 2000, Fear (sometimes styled as MTV's Fear) resonated with audiences in a post-Blair Witch culture, living vicariously through the frayed nerves of contestants. Producers were already scouting future locations.
Phillips: We had concepts for different experiences. We wanted an old hotel so we did [Poconos resort] Buck Hill Inn. That was like, where can we find The Shining? We wanted a former sanitarium, so we found Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts. We conceived of an experience and then sought to find it.
Olmstead: We did a lot of research for what the most haunted places in America were. We wanted it to be like a movie, a visual feast.
Kunert: It was the job of a producer or associate producer to go to a location and spend the night alone. If they weren’t scared, we weren’t going to send a whole crew.
Olmstead: We wanted to know if it felt haunted and if we could tell a story about it.
Phillips: Jonas Larsen scouted a location. He is the most level-headed, cool, no-nonsense guy, and he came back with a story that blew our minds.
Larsen: I went to this island in upstate New York to look at a castle that had been built in the 1800s by a guy for his wife who died before it was ever completed. A pastor lived there and did Sunday services. The caretaker took me there in his speedboat. I spent time touring. It was funny in a Scooby-Doo kind of way. Basically, there was a network of secret passageways in the house. There were even eyeholes cut out of paintings so you could spy on people. There was also a jail cell, in what was supposed to be a private residence, which made me curious.
The pastor invited me to spend the night instead of going all the way back to the hotel. At about 3 or 4 a.m., I felt a tug on my sheets. I had a feeling of not being able to move, like someone had taken the sheets and was holding them down. I laid like that, awake, like, “What the f*** is happening?” All of a sudden, I felt it let go. I turned on the light and there was nothing there. I did not go back to sleep.
Flynn: Jonas was a total non-believer.
Larsen: I travel quite a bit. Your sleep habits get messed up. It could’ve been a combination of being in an unfamiliar place and jet lag, or it could’ve been some paranormal thing. I have no idea.
Olmstead: He was sure he had a little PTSD. He felt he was attacked in his bedroom.
Flynn: He came back, sat with me and Dawn, and said, “I’m quitting the show.” He felt he had been abducted by a ghost.
Larsen: [Laughs] They’re embellishing. I produced the rest of the episodes.
It could be hard for viewers to grasp how intimidating some of the show’s locations could be. In addition to multiple prisons and mental institutions, Fear eventually made it to the purportedly haunted USS Hornet; the Duggan Brothers cement factory, which had seen numerous industrial accidents; and the Ki Sugar Mill, a shuttered Hawaiian location reportedly harboring a strange subterranean creature.
Colton: These places were huge. Hundreds of thousands of square feet. Just to go down into one of these places in the dark, it’s a headf*** right off the bat.
Phillips: The early rule was: If it has a soda machine, we’re not going.
Barreto: It had to have a history. It had to be old. That was an environment conducive to having that kind of experience.
Phillips: We didn’t want to go to places you had heard of. We weren’t going to the Winchester House.
Colton: These buildings had been empty for decades.
Phillips: We had [psychic] Carla Baron come in advance and decide where the paranormal readings were. They’d tell us, “Be in this room.” Carla was lovely and intense. We all believed in her abilities.
Carla Baron (Medium): Cris Abrego called me, or I called him. A friend of mine knew Bonnie Hammer at MTV and suggested me for the series. So we talked and I said, "You should change the name of the show from Fear to MTV’s Fear because the numerology would be much more successful for you." He said, “You’re freaking me out. The network just called and wants to change the name to MTV’s Fear.”
Manes: We did all the work before the contestants showed up. The whole crew worked like crazy to lay all the cable, set up the dares, and put the cameras in the right places.
Barreto: Someone told me we laid down 10,000 feet of cable in some places.
Flynn: We were maybe using more cable than the Super Bowl.
Phillips: This was long before the idea of remote cameras. We rigged cable for all of the cameras.
Kunert: We had to make sure the places were safe so no one hurt themselves.
Phillips: The leper colony in Canada is probably my most memorable location. It blew my mind. It was this huge, abandoned city, like everyone had just suddenly left.
Colton: The Boettger Brewery [a.k.a. Lemp Mansion in St. Louis, Missouri, where multiple people had committed suicide on the premises] stood out for me. There was tons of debris around. Old tables, desks, vats, junk. It looked like a deserted supernatural environment.
Phillips: The locations were terrifying even during the day. If they had electricity in the past 50 years, we were psyched.
Manes: Some of these places had been condemned. You couldn’t trust the floors.
Baron: I’d go through rooms and see what latent spiritual activity was there—if there was anything dangerous, anything unresolved, if there were spirits that needed to move on.
Phillips: We usually renamed the places for security reasons. Sometimes we had to beg for permission and had to promise [site representatives] they wouldn’t end up with people descending on them.
Olmstead: For Fairfield State Hospital, we were on the phone with the mayor, then the governor’s office. It was an old, abandoned mental institution where horrible things happened and they didn’t want it to look bad for the state. So we wound up changing the name to St. Agnes, after Agnes of God.
Oddly, many of the truly unsettling experiences surrounding Fear happened off-camera, when the production team was getting situated in their haunts.
Barreto: St. Agnes, that place was not good. There were weird cold spots in the rooms. Half the room would be cold, half wouldn’t be. There were nasty smells all over the place. I actually got sick.
Flynn: There were these incredible cold patches in places where we knew bad things had happened, but there was no window or breeze of any kind underground. There was no explanation for it.
Olmstead: I felt a lot of weird things. Sometimes you’d be in one room that was identical to another and just feel like your soul dropped out. The next day, a grip would refuse to go in the same room to lay cable. The psychic would come in and start crying, saying many people had been murdered in the room.
Manes: One instance I won’t forget. It was maybe in a hospital. One contestant was walking down a hallway underground from one building to another. She was talking to the others back at the safe house. Everything is fine until she walks near this room numbered 572, which was in the documentary. She said, “Oh, wow, I feel this weird cold air right there.” All of a sudden, her cameras went dead, the light in the hallway went dead, the flashlight went dead. These were all on independent battery sources. All three went dead at the same time.
Phillips: We were at the Buck Hill Inn, and Luis was the director on that one. I looked over and as he was talking, blood started running out of his nose. It was some kind of asbestos issue. We were all getting sick.
Barreto: That’s true. That did happen. However, I did get nosebleeds from time to time before I worked on the series so I’m not certain the location had anything to do with the bleeding.
Flynn: I’m not sure where we were, but there was a time when a crew member always felt like he had a hand on his back. One time he took a digital picture and in the center of the frame was something that looked like a tear. It was like a rip in the space-time continuum.
Baron: A crew member got pushed down the stairs at the penitentiary by something. He was by himself. He fell all the way down. He was so frightened he almost quit the show.
Phillips: At the leper colony, we went to the bathroom in groups. Three of us were working there late at night. There was a house near where we were shooting, which was exciting, since we used Porta-Potties a lot. So I walked up the steps with Jenn, the accountant, next to me along with another girl. I went to touch the door and the door handle just turned and opened itself. The door swung open. We all just ran and screamed. No one would touch the house after that. It became this legendary story.
Baron: I went back to my hotel when we were doing Eastern State Penitentiary and something followed me back there. I got a call asking if this was Carla. It was someone with an Indian accent. I called production right away and asked if they had sent anyone over. They said no one had called me. We signed agreements where we can’t tell anyone where we were going. Nobody knew I was there. I called the front desk. There were no calls that night. I talked to someone for five minutes who knew my name.
At midnight, there’s a knock on the door so loud it could wake the dead. I said, “Who’s there?” Someone said, “housekeeping.” I swung the door open. There are 50 rooms to either side of me. No one was there.
Phillips: Eric and I went to the Ki sugar plantation in Hawaii a week early to get a feel for things. There was this two-person subterranean elevator that took you down, then you’d get into a boat in some water tunnels. It was like a mile underground. We saw this huge, white, prehistoric creature illuminated by a flashlight—this biological creature.
Manes: I don’t remember the details but I definitely remember going down in that nasty old elevator with Alissa, in the dark, and getting really freaked out to the point that we turned right around and got the hell out of there. I don’t even remember making it out of the elevator. I think we saw something nasty stuck to the wall with our flashlights and said, “Screw this,” and high-tailed it out of there as fast as possible.
Phillips: It was this bone white crab thing crawling in this place with no light. It was unbelievable. We started rowing back. No one else ever saw it. We prayed the cast would.
With the environment of each episode carefully laid out, producers largely sat back and allowed the foreboding atmosphere to influence the contestants’ behavior.
Colton: In a zero-visibility environment, your mind becomes a vehicle for some intense hallucinations. You think you’re seeing things and you’re not. Their minds were their own worst enemies.
Phillips: We had to run multiple kids through the same dare sometimes to get one clean enough to use. They’re screaming and dropping the camera.
Baron: I said, "Look, someone needs to talk to the kids before they go into these locations. They have no idea what they’re dealing with."
Olmstead: If a dare didn’t further the story, or if it didn’t play out on camera, we’d cut it. Sometimes we wanted to release tension or wanted something to be funny, like a good horror movie.
Harbison: They didn’t show my dare for some reason. I had a dare where I went into a cave that was boarded up where they supposedly trapped one of these Nahuals. I was supposed to tear it down with a pickaxe and stand there with my back to the entrance in complete silence. I did it, but they didn’t show it.
Cassidy: They’d split up into teams and use walkie-talkies to communicate. The radios would crackle and break up and people would get scared.
Colton: They would psych themselves up to the point where any little sound would set them off.
Manes: They would freak the f*** out.
Kunert: I remember the first time we had a séance, the network said, “No more séances.”
Larsen: That was a kid performing a séance in the basement of the Fairfield asylum. He started speaking in tongues and acting weird. It was like he was communicating with the dead. Watching it live, I was like, “What the hell is going on?” It freaked him out and freaked us out, like, “Wow, maybe we better not mess with a Ouija board.” It was the last time we used that.
Baron: One kid had marks on her leg that no one could have made. She was in a room all by herself.
Phillips: MTV was supportive except for the Civil War episode. We did a branding on a person. It never made it on-screen. We rigged it with dry ice so it wasn’t an actual branding—it wouldn’t harm you. But it looked like the person was getting branded. We even ran a little card onscreen saying, “No one was harmed.” But he thought he was being burned, yeah.
Larsen: We didn’t want to psychologically damage anyone. It was supposed to be fun.
Colton: The contestants were never fake. They would have to be a great actor to do some of the shit they did, bouncing off the walls and going apesh*t.
Phillips: We wanted to do a werewolf episode and thought we could expand to the middle ground of a mythical monster. That was the big episode [“Mina Dos Estrellas”] where everyone quit. There was one guy in the two-parter who was the last one by himself on the first night. Everyone else had quit. He’s sitting there by himself just looking up at the ceiling and my heart went out to him. He was scared but he didn’t want to quit. We really wanted him to go on.
Dodge: I didn’t care if six people had quit. In my mind, nothing was going to happen to me at all. If it did, I’d be rich.
Kunert: That episode had a guy climbing down into a pit and crying for his mother.
Dodge: I did ask for my mom. “I want my mom.” I was playing into it.
Harbison: I do remember thinking he was a little too hysterical for what was going on, but I also looked at it like, I wasn’t down there with him. I don’t know what he’s going through. I’m focused on my sh*t.
Dodge: I was down there for a while. There were real bats flying down in the pit and that was freaky.
Olmstead: I was there watching footage live and more than once I felt like, “Should we pull the plug on this?” It seemed like he was about to break.
Dodge: So many people gave me sh*t for that, friends I wrestled with in college. I was like, “Dude, I’m trying to get camera time.” I never felt afraid in any way or worried.
While some contestants expressed little concern over the potential for paranormal contact, others claimed to have had a first-hand experience.
Barreto: We were at a military academy that had been open in the 1890s. The dare was for a woman to go down into a subterranean room and stand in a cross position, waiting for some spirit to reach out to her. We’re monitoring it and hearing what sounds like someone having sex. Like, whoa, this is weird. She comes back to the safe house and explains that she was molested by a ghost.
Baron: When people quit, they did it with real tears. They’d be shaking. It was psychological terror.
Barreto: Two years ago, I was sitting in a cafe in Los Angeles. A woman walks in and says, “Hey, aren’t you Luis Barreto?” It was the same woman. She introduced herself as the woman who had been molested by a ghost. I thought she had gone crazy. She said, “No, no, I got back home and was fine.”
Phillips: Some kids were rocks. Watch the Danvers episode. This one guy had been there for hours by himself. Some kids blew us away with their fortitude.
III: FEAR ITSELF
As Fear continued airing on MTV in 2001 and into 2002, audiences were sometimes left wondering if some sequences had been enhanced by the production. Today, the question remains: Were the slamming doors and howling winds created for effect, or did they have an organic—and potentially paranormal—origin?
Kunert: The thing we found out from the beginning was if you do gimmick stuff, people will yelp, but it’s better to let their imaginations go and have their own fears play out. That’s how you come up with unique reactions. That’s why it’s called Fear.
Manes: The two of us resisted any manipulation. It would ruin the show.
Flynn: We never had to do anything to augment people being scared. A lot of reality shows do what they have to do, but there was nothing we did to accentuate it. It was very organic. There were no special effects or boogeymen to scare people.
Cassidy: You didn’t have to come up with fake scares. The places themselves were frightening. You wanted to keep that feeling of it being authentic.
Breier: I remember hearing wind or other noises, but the prison was so big and vacant with so many openings, the elements could have played a factor. I don’t think they were staging anything.
Olmstead: We wanted the viewer to go, “Oh, no, don’t get the Ouija board out!” That’s where the manipulation came. If you were in an 1800s prison and learned it was on top of an old Indian burial ground, where is the last place you’d want to be alone? We’d send the contestant to that place and the viewer would have the information why it would be so scary to go there by yourself.
Phillips: I can say with absolute impunity we worked so hard to deliver a truthful show with integrity. Reality TV was not like it is now. We wanted to achieve as much of a paranormal experience for the cast as possible.
Olmstead: Most of the noises were explainable to the place. A draft may have closed a door. I would say there were times we manipulated the time frame of the reaction and the sound.
Larsen: There might be some well-placed sounds or something mechanical, where you’d brush your leg against something. Sometimes we’d use things like that, but for the most part, it was their own imagination.
Colton: We never said that we would show you ghosts. What we said was, “We told the contestants there are ghosts. Now watch them freak out.”
Cassidy: Even with The Real World, there were early discussions of, “What happens if it’s boring? If people are just sitting there?” But anything contrived reads as contrived. Anything you do where viewers can point and say, “That’s a piece of fishing line tied to a chair,” once you do it once, you break your contract with the audience. Nothing was ever arranged to move. In a dark, scary place, the mind provides you with enough.
Olmstead: We knew if they caught us doing something, they would be snapped out of the experience. And in very large places, like an abandoned cement factory, you’re gonna hear stuff.
Dodge: Some moments I was like, “MTV has set this sh*t up well.” They asked me to put some goat blood down in the pit, then the wind starts swirling. And then I hear some evil growling like right outside. There’s no one down there but me. Like an evil sound, “Ehhhhhhh.” That’s a really good sound effect, or there is something really evil out here.
The other question: Could a reality series really be filmed with virtually no intervention from the production?
Manes: We had one person who was on location in case they had technical difficulties, if their camera batteries died or the camera wasn’t working. You couldn’t go days without a working camera. What they didn’t know is that the [tech] person was an off-duty police office and paramedic.
Barreto: There were people they could speak to, but not daily. It’s not like, “Hey, guys, come here.” Once they were inserted, like on the USS Hornet in the bowels of the ship, they’re committed to having the experience.
Colton: You have to remember, we had people walking in the dark. We had to have certain safety measures in place to make sure they didn’t get injured. People were placed in the location to make sure they were OK and then we had the control room to monitor shots.
Manes: Having a dropped radio signal was a nightmare. We wanted them talking with each other. The problem was going underground into cellars with thick walls. A lot of these structures were old and built solid.
As the series progressed, producers had more ambitious plans. But by the standards of the reality genre, Fear was quickly becoming an expensive proposition for a budget-conscious MTV.
Kunert: We wanted to do the catacombs in Europe.
Olmstead: We wanted to go abroad and take it to the next level.
Flynn: We had a huge list of locations we wanted to explore. We had big plans to go to castles in Europe with these thousand-year histories. We were thinking of doing celebrity Fear.
Barreto: You’d work during the day, then be up all night for three days, then travel someplace else to do it all over again. We’d be on the road for seven or eight weeks at a time. It was cumbersome. You can’t move all that equipment and all that cable by air.
Manes: One of the problems we had with MTV which seems comical now is that the technology at the time was so incredibly expensive. Just the [file] storage alone. Now I have as much storage at home as we were using then. But the space for the footage from all the cameras running all the time was a huge thing.
Kunert: They wanted us to cut the documentary we showed to participants. Well, if you don’t feed their imagination, you won’t have the same result.
Barreto: They cut the budget on the second season. They wanted us to spend less money and have the same show.
Despite the solid ratings, Fear was canceled in early 2002.
Colton: It was a big hit. We were shocked when it got canceled.
Phillips: I remember being sad about it but I had also been traveling literally for two years. There was a phase of my life where I vividly recall being at the airport and having no clue where I was or what plane I was supposed to catch. I didn’t know what state I was in. It was amazing and exhausting.
Kunert: There was a rumor someone got killed on the show, but that wasn’t true.
Larsen: There was a regime change. John Miller, the executive who greenlit the show, left. That might’ve had something to do with it.
Manes: The ratings were fantastic. That wasn’t the issue. It was relatively expensive compared to other things MTV was doing at the time. Kids [on other shows] are just hanging out. Our was many times more expensive.
Colton: It doesn’t matter how expensive something is. Nothing is cheaper than a hit, and MTV was not spending a lot of money on the episodes. They were only giving out a prize of five grand! People were sh*tting their pants on camera for $5000!
Olmstead: MTV came to Beau and I and asked us to halve the budget. We were unwilling to do it. We knew what it took to make the show. We loved the show and didn’t want to make a lesser version of it. We thought they might come back and say, “OK, do it,” but that didn’t happen.
Cassidy: Most reality shows don’t travel every week. It took real money and real manpower and effort to do it right.
Kunert: Even today, it probably cost twice as much as an average reality show does in 2018.
Phillips: Reality became very cheap to produce. Get one cameraman instead of 70 unmanned cameras.
Colton: What I heard is that because of 9/11, the idea of people running around in the dark and screaming was too close to home after the Towers had come down. People were in rubble. MTV said, “We’re not sure the public really wants to watch this anymore.”
Manes: After 9/11, they did express concern people would be flipping through channels and hit someone running down a dark hallway screaming for their life. We were never told it was the reason, but we felt it was a combination of that [and money].
Colton: They might have cloaked it in a budget situation but look what happened after 9/11. You had a lot of feel-good, touchy-feely comedies.
Flynn: I think something happened at MTV where they didn’t want a show with people in isolated spaces.
Cassidy: All the networks reevaluated their content in light of 9/11. They might have wondered if it seemed exploitative.
Barreto: I think MTV choked. It could’ve been a perennial series like Real World. But they rolled up the carpet on it.
Although it’s not commercially available and rarely seen in reruns, Fear fans have kept word of the series alive by uploading episodes on YouTube. More than 16 years after the last episode aired, it continues to be an inspiration to other paranormal-themed projects both on television and in film.
Baron: MTV was pioneering with this. I met the [cast of the Syfy docuseries] Ghost Hunters, Jason [Hawes] and Grant [Wilson], and they thanked me. They said, “Carla, if Fear hadn’t happened, our show wouldn’t exist.” We were the first show of its kind.
Colton: [The 2007 found-footage movie] Paranormal Activity was just a higher-budget Fear. People looking into cameras and talking.
Cassidy: If you look at Paranormal Activity, I think the visual tropes of the show—that grainy, dark video that conveyed authenticity—lived on.
Breier: It was a time when reality TV was a new concept. It wasn’t established as the successful thing it became.
Colton: I think if you brought back Fear today it would have to be more high-tech. I think the tastes of the audience have changed.
Cassidy: Like with a lot of reality stuff, the bar has been raised. At the time, there wasn’t a huge plethora of supernatural ghost hunting shows. But human behavior is always fascinating. It could work. Visually, we have more tools to cover the experience.
Colton: The show came together in a way you hadn’t seen before and that’s why it sticks with people. If I run into a younger person and we’re talking horror movies and I ask if they’ve seen Fear, they say, “No, but I’ve heard so much about it.”
Manes: It wasn’t a game show. People weren’t competing against each other. They all got rewarded if someone finished and made it all the way through. It was designed so they would love each other and try to support one another. It gave the show a different feeling from what reality shows later became, which was nasty.
Dodge: I’m still friends with Jason and [contestant] Adesina on social media. There’s definitely a bond there.
Breier: At a young age, it opened up my mind to seeing how a group of human beings from different walks of life can quickly become dependent on someone to help you through a situation.
Olmstead: In a moment of fear, they could reveal something about themselves. Maybe it was that they were gay and coming out, or maybe it was issues with their father. The fear could break and rebuild you in the same episode.
Flynn: It was an opportunity for people to not be afraid anymore. Maybe they were embracing sexuality they had kept to themselves. They felt a real sense of accomplishment.
Manes: If people realize I was involved in Fear, they usually ask, “Did you believe it? Did you believe the places were haunted?” I come from a skeptical state of mind, but crew members had experiences that were unexplainable. It opened my mind to maybe there’s something more than I believe there was. These places were genuinely scary.
Flynn: I learned a lot from Fear that I took into making movies, like [2005's] The Exorcism of Emily Rose. There’s a theory and a concept about opening yourself up to these things. If you allow yourself to see the devil, the devil can see you.