‘MTV’s FEAR’ and Nostalgia

How about a little throwback fun?

Let’s wind the clocks back to the turn of the century, a time when MTV was POPPIN’.

The early 2000s, back when MTV actually played music videos. The pre-Jersey Shore era of MTV— before The Hills, Laguna Beach, and Teen Mom would eventually take over. An era of peace, if you will. As a culture, we survived the doomsday fears and techno paranoia of “Y2K,” only to find ourselves wracked by a different kind of technological fear on TV: the murky, pixelated horror of the video footage.

This was the crux of MTV’s FEAR, one of their earliest and most successful shows that was terribly short-lived. I wouldn’t blame you if you’ve never heard of FEAR. The rest of us millennials and Gen Xers who prided ourselves on being part of the MTV generation, we know this dark, low-resolution frame by heart.

Six contestants are sent to investigate a “haunted” locale through a series of escalating dares. No crew, cameras are pre-setup with contestant body cams as the main POV, and they had but a flashlight, a walkie-talkie, and a navigator to walk them through the dark.

The look of MTV’s FEAR is downright revolting. This was pre-HD, where early video cameras couldn’t shoot in the night for shit. But that limitation became an unexpected hook. We as viewers were in the dark too, and left the devil of our imaginations to run wild. The cardinal rule of horror: what you don’t see is always scarier. And this holds true even today; no high-res ghoul, demon, or goblin rendered in 4K, 120 FPS will ever hold a candle to the unrelenting darkness, black as pitch.

It might seem cheesy now, but this was the height of my fears at 10 years old— which the sheer terror of the 1999 Blair Witch Project had a hand in. Decry it as a gimmick or groan at the found-footage genre all you want. I will NEVER forget the clamor Blair Witch sparked in social spheres, sprung by a fiendishly clever internet marketing campaign – the first to do so successfully.

The film’s official website contained faux police reports and interviews, an in-depth dive into a frightening urban legend, along with dossiers of the missing characters in the movie. It looked real enough and that was the point. Blair Witch would go on to ruin me for the outdoors the same way Jaws made me terrified of the ocean.

FEAR uses gimmicks right out of the film’s playbook while incorporating some cheesy effects of its own. The urban legends are accessed via computer which then lays out all the rules, parameters, and dares for the contestants. Plus, the derelict buildings they’re sent into in the low-res dark all look similar to the one at the very terrifying end of Blair Witch. The premise feels like an extension or a pseudo-sequel in TV form. That this was on MTV made it even better like a forbidden, after-hours sibling next to Real World and Road Rules.

And the show worked because the rules were simple, laid out in the opening: “The people are real. The place is real. The fear is real.”

The best way to understand why this worked is by taking a look at the series’ best episode, “Mina Dos Estrellas Pt. 1.” It was the first and only episode where all of the contestants did NOT complete the challenges and ended up going home one by one, hence the “Pt. 1.” (All EPs are up on YouTube btw.)

The six are sent to a mine in Mexico said to be terrorized by the Nahual, a werewolf/shapeshifting creature. Each episode’s haunted legend enlists the help of locals, “experts,” and supposed psychics. This is where the cheap tricks of the show start to feel even flimsier, but mind you, this does not break the contract established in the opening tagline: “The place is real. The people are real…” The stories, clearly, are not.

But try telling that to the contestants. In “Mina Dos Estrellas,” team member GREEN is instructed to head to the chapel and knock down a cross. GREEN understandably hesitates, and his teammates in the safe house react accordingly. If you were a believer in any of this, then knocking down a cross is like knocking down your only defense.

Consider the scenario, he’s out there on his own with only a walkie-talkie to communicate. They just watched a fake documentary about a creature that haunts the place, and he’s plunged into total darkness right away where every creak of the roof and every snap of a branch may as well be the legend come true.

The effect is exposed sometimes literally when team members head to wherever instructed, and then the navigator relays additional urban legends while they’re standing there in the dark by themselves. The show does this repeatedly, and the trick always works as intended, where either the contestant gets frightened on the spot, or we do while sitting in the darkness of our own homes. Watching MTV’s FEAR at sleepovers WITHOUT changing the channel was like our own dare on the other side of the screen.

The next two contestants in “Mina Dos Estrellas” are outed in one go. WHITE is sent to the hospital with YELLOW on standby. Their challenge is to lure the Nahual, but before the team’s navigator can complete the instructions, WHITE backs down immediately followed by YELLOW. They both attest to the shared feeling that some thing was watching or stalking them, even if they won’t say that it’s the Nahual.

And that’s the fun of FEAR, seeing the contestants’ fear, and how that anxiety fuels them to carry on, or causes them to fold like a lawn chair.

In the very first episode of the series, one of the first contestants stops glaringly short of completing a dare. He’s asked to stand in the middle of an abandoned building with his flashlight off, but stops at the entrance then tells his teammates otherwise. He’s disqualified for lying, but I LOVE that moment because though the instructions are clear, it’s obvious he’s too scared shitless to attempt the dare.

The second episode, a team member – who had yet to be selected for a dare – ups and bails when she finds out a Ouija board was in the safe house with them this whole time. In a later episode, a contestant is NOT having it with the navigator who’s struggling to read what’s on the computer. Mind you, the contestant is out in the dark, alone, while the rest of her teammates are in the safe house, so she has every reason to be annoyed. But it’s fascinating to me how the fear of the dark can turn a simple annoyance into a team-shattering moment. That’s the essence of the show to me.

Fear isn’t just about running and screaming your lungs out. Fear amplifies us at our worst, or perhaps exposes how brave and confident we say we are but AREN’T.

FEAR is the perfect title here, even though the show could easily be called, “Dares in the Dark.” Some contestants are dared to sit in a (fake) electric chair that executed a mass murderer, or stay put in a creaky attic with a thermal camera to spot the “Pig Man,” or stand in the corner where a person supposedly killed themselves and then try to make contact by “channeling them” through pen and paper. The stories whether lame or clever or borrowed didn’t matter; it’s all atmosphere. The contestants themselves, paired with the enveloping darkness and the sheer unknown of a place they’ve never been to before did all the rest.

The place is real. The people are real. The fear is real. So all of the purported video or audio “evidence” the contestants supposedly caught (and the obvious puppeteering on MTV’s end) can eat shit because these murky-ass cameras caught the fear on their faces unequivocally.

That’s the lightning in a bottle that MTV captured with FEAR – a show that was ultimately capsized by its own ambition. It costs to scout for locations, to test and refine the challenges to be used in the episode, to work with local authorities and safety measures, to then fly in contestants. (And in the case of episodes like “Mina Dos Estrellas,” it cost more to fly in newer contestants.) The second season went international, which caused the budget to balloon exponentially.

Real World and Road Rules were MTV’s bread and butter because they were relatively inexpensive to produce. FEAR was anything but. And so it’s second season wound up being the last. But in those two seasons, FEAR left its ghost mark on television, spawning a wave of imitators that never came close: Scariest Places on Earth, Murder in Small Town X, and a string of “paranormal reality shows” on SyFy, A&E, and TLC.

It’s a time capsule, FOR SURE. (Time has not been kind to some of these contestants’ vernacular… or their hairstyles.) If MTV were to revive the show, I seriously doubt it would be as interesting or successful. But while the craze felt new and fresh and devilishly fun, MTV’s FEAR reigned supreme.


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