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Fear: MTV's Terrifying Show From The 2000s No One Remembers

From cooking shows to "Survivor"-style elimination competitions, reality TV has mostly become a set of formulas that get applied to different concepts. There was a time in the not-too-distant past, however, where reality TV was the new frontier of entertainment, and people were trying all sorts of new ways to keep audiences engaged.

In 2000, MTV released "Fear" — a show that defied formula and genre classifications and went on to be one of the network's most-watched series of the time. "Fear" is what happens when "The Real World" meets "The Blair Witch Project." Each week a cast of six regular people are taken to a haunted location — be it an abandoned penitentiary, an asylum, or an empty mine shaft. The cast spends two nights, utterly alone, completing different scary dares like sitting in the dark or using a voice recorder to try and seek out ghostly activity. Anyone who gets too scared can leave, and anyone who makes it to the end, gets a $5,000 prize.

"Fear" portrayed genuine terror on TV and helped give rise to a legion of ghost-hunting series that are now some of the most popular reality shows on television. The unorthodox approach that the producers took to getting reactions out of their cast created some truly memorable moments. "Fear" didn't have a long lifespan — it got canceled midway through a second season — and it may be mostly forgotten now, but there's never been any TV just like it before or since.

It helped pioneer paranormal TV shows and found footage movies

Today there's no shortage of ghostly reality TV shows. Between traditional cable networks and streaming platforms, there's a plethora of paranormal investigations and real-life horror stories for viewers to dive into. That wasn't the case back in 2000, when even reality TV itself was a relatively new phenomenon.

Modern day shows like "Ghost Adventures" are part of a lineage that just slightly pre-dates MTV's "Fear." In July 1999, "The Blair Witch Project" made its debut and enthralled horror fans with its low budget and deeply personal take on the genre. The characters in "Blair Witch" are creating their own ghost story documentary, and the film is composed of shaky camcorder shots and scenes of the actors speaking directly to the camera.

The immense success of the film basically created the found footage genre overnight, and anyone who's seen an episode of "Fear" knows that the show wears its "Blair Witch" influences on its sleeve. "Fear" brought the aesthetics of found footage to television but paired the up-close-and-personal camera moves with explorations of real-life haunted locations. The show became a hit right out of the gate, and ever since people have been looking for more "real" ghost stories on TV.

The show was almost a movie

"The Blair Witch Project" helped inspire "Fear," but before MTV's look at real-world horror became a TV series, it was on the track to becoming a movie itself. The producers who created "Fear" told Mental Floss that when they began working on the show, they were envisioning it as a movie called "Dare." Co-creator Martin Kunert said, "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.'"

Had it ever been made, "Dare" would have been about a group of young adults trying to film their own kind of reality show and stumbling into a paranormal horror fest they were utterly unprepared for. Kunert and his partner Eric Manes talked about the idea with some of the producers at MTV, who quickly pointed out that the two had stumbled on a goldmine, just not the one they were imagining. Manes explained, "Basically, they said, 'Instead of making this movie, why not actually make the show within the movie?'" Considering the rising popularity of reality TV, Kunert and Manes loved the idea and began working on "Fear" immediately.

Requiem for a Dream inspired the show's cinematography

"Fear" looked to successful feature films to find not just ideas for its premise, but also methods of capturing the footage the producers most wanted. When it came to their models, the producers behind "Fear" cast a wide net and didn't just limit themselves to the horror genre.

"We were going for a 'Breakfast Club' mix," executive producer Dawn Olmstead told Mental Floss. They wanted to capture the right group dynamics with each episode's cast to keep their audience watching for more than just the scariest moments. If the audience could get invested in the personalities of the cast, seeing them get freaked out would be that much more engaging.

Executive producer Beau Flynn said, "The important part of the pitch was that fear lives in the eyes, and you have to be sure to capture that." Getting footage of cast members' faces posed a significant challenge for the production team because they wanted to minimize the crew required for each episode as much as possible to make sure the cast felt isolated. They found their solution in the Darren Aronofsky film "Requiem for a Dream" from the year 2000. Flynn's company had worked on the film, which required special camera rigs to be built to capture shots of the actors' faces. The "Fear" crew built a similar rig, which was worn like a backpack and held a camera at the end of a long arm extended in front of whoever wore it.

The producers did some extreme prep work

Even by today's standards, putting together an episode of "Fear" required a significant amount of work outside of just filming and editing. Various haunted locations had to be researched and explored by the production team. Someone had to cast a "Breakfast Club"-style group for every episode, and then that group needed to be flown to their destination and housed there for the better part of a week. All that work was expensive and difficult for MTV to sustain, but on top of those mundane logistical tasks, the "Fear" producers put a huge amount of effort into psychologically preparing each episode's cast to get scared.

The show's producers told Mental Floss that cast members got very little information about what they were getting into. They knew they were going on a five-day trip, but the producers didn't tell the cast their destination, and the first few days of the experience were spent in a hotel room. "We tenderized them in the hotel room," said creator Martin Kunert. Cast members couldn't leave, couldn't phone their family, and couldn't watch anything other than horror movies while they waited. Eventually they would be blindfolded and driven around, sometimes for hours, before being taken to their destination. By the time anyone got dropped off, they were already feeling incredibly tense and isolated. From there, it didn't take much to get a great reaction out of them during the dares.

Audiences loved it

For 2000, "Fear" was an experimental show and no one could guarantee it would be successful. A contemporary reviewer for the Post-Gazette declared that the show's mixture of influences and styles made it "probably a scary good time for the participants — but for viewers, it's not all that frightening." Despite not being scared by "Fear," the reviewer was fascinated by the show's complete reliance on cast members for capturing footage. Steve Breier, one of the show's participants, told the Post-Gazette that even though he felt fairly confident MTV wouldn't let anything bad happen to him or the rest of the cast, "There were still times I was thinking about cutting out."

The popularity of "Fear" continued to skyrocket, largely because at that time there was truly nothing else like it on TV. "Fear" appealed to such a wide range of audiences that almost everyone who saw it found themselves engaged on one level or another. Some at MTV might have had doubts about the show's staying power when work on it first began, but after "Fear" went to air it became the second highest-rated series on the network. Enthusiasm for the show kept up well into its second series. At almost no point in its short lifespan did "Fear" hurt for viewers.

Contestants started quitting in the first episode

While it can take some shows multiple seasons to warm up, "Fear" hit the ground running. The first episode of the series is also one of its most unnerving. The episode is set at West Virginia State Penitentiary, a long abandoned and apparently haunted complex of hallways, dark rooms, and empty cells. At the beginning of the episode, the cast feels pretty confident that they'll all make it through their stay in the penitentiary and take home their prize money, but things don't exactly pan out for everyone.

Walking through the halls to complete their various dares starts freaking everyone out, but a woman named Christina really loses it when the light on her camera malfunctions and she's plunged into total darkness. The next morning, she becomes the first participant in the show to leave. The next night, when another group member named Ariana describes feeling a horrible, ghostly presence during one of her dares, the story alone is enough to make another woman call it quits and head for home.

The final four cast members are sent to the prison's electric chair while all of them discuss whether or not they believe the prison is actually haunted. They decide that it probably isn't while admitting there are some feelings about the place they still can't explain. Ultimately all four finish out the episode, but "Fear" proved that putting other people through pseudo-paranormal experiences can be plenty entertaining.

One time everyone quit

A $5,000 prize awaited anyone who could get through all their days and last until the very end of the episode. Completing all the various challenges without getting scared enough to bail might seem easy to anyone watching the show or reading about it in the comfort of their own home, but for the people actually spending their nights in abandoned penitentiaries or asylums, it quickly became a difficult proposition. MTV obviously wanted some of the contestants to quit — the network couldn't afford to pay everyone every time — but sometimes the cast's lack of follow through took everyone by surprise.

The first episode of "Fear" Season 2 took place at Mina Dos Estrellas. The abandoned mine resides outside of Michoacán, Mexico, and it saw more than its fair share of deaths and tragic accidents when it was operational. The cast members were warned of the mine's ghostly potential, but in this instance the producers might have done their prep work a little too well. For the first time in the show's history, the entire cast quit before filming could even properly begin. The producers had to scramble to get together an entirely new cast, and the episode became the show's only two-parter.

There's an urban legend about why it got canceled

Being one of the most-watched shows on MTV didn't save "Fear" from cancellation at the end of a truncated second season. No one likes seeing their favorite show get axed, and there's usually some degree of wild speculation whenever an apparently successful show gets cut short by a network. The nature of "Fear" led some fans to imagine that there must be a much darker reason behind the show's conclusion than run-of-the-mill network problems.

Back in 2013, Entertainment Legends Revealed did a deep dive on the myth surrounding "Fear." Because the show was so popular and so terrifying, the story was that MTV must have only canceled it because a cast member died while filming an episode. There were any number of ways someone could have died: a fear-induced heart attack, possession by an evil ghost, or simply a tragic accident at a poorly maintained abandoned site.

The rumors were tantalizing, but they also weren't true. No one, cast or crew, died while filming "Fear." The mundane truth was that "Fear" cost MTV too much money to make. Between scouting locations, flying cast members out to the haunts, and paying out the prize money, it didn't matter that "Fear" had high ratings. The show cost more than it earned, so canceling it was a simple business decision by MTV.

The show has some doubters

"Fear" worked very differently from other reality TV shows of the time. Being set in real, potentially haunted locations and having the cast members do all the work and filming by themselves gave the show its distinct feeling of creepy isolation. Lengthy horrific backstories for the sets and close-ups of terrified faces were a staple of "Fear," and audiences largely loved how real the show appeared to be.

Not everyone bought into the story, though. The show had serious doubters who complained that every part of the experience felt fake. Even though the cast of each episode was mostly on their own, the show's detractors felt like a true sense of eeriness and danger never came through because MTV still maintained control of what was going on and obviously wouldn't let anything bad happen to the participants. On the other hand, another complaint was that certain spooky moments in the show felt as though they had been pre-planned or otherwise manufactured.

To this day, the people who worked on the show at MTV maintain that everything in the show was completely real. They could have faked certain moments or gone out of their way to build in an extra scare for the cast, but this was not the case. "Once you do it once, you break your contract with the audience," story editor Gordon Cassidy told Mental Floss. It might not have landed for every viewer, but everyone working on the show tried to provide their audience with genuine fear.

MTV produced a documentary about it

Anyone who's been a fan of "Fear" since it first aired on MTV knows that getting to relive the experience of watching the show can be a challenge. In the years before video sites like YouTube really took off, it was almost impossible to go back and enjoy "Fear" because MTV never released the show for home viewing. Oddly enough, the network did produce a documentary about the short-lived reality series and, for some reason, it's been available to purchase for years.

MTV released "Inside Fear" in 2001. The documentary came between the two seasons of the show and helped build hype for what the network likely hoped would be a profitable second go-around. While the film clocks in at under an hour, it offers fans an interesting look at how one of the most unique shows of the day got made and gave them selections of never-before-seen footage that they could replay for their friends whenever they wanted. It's the closest thing to an official home release of "Fear" that MTV ever made and is ever likely to ever make.

It hasn't been entirely forgotten

These days if you asked most people to name their favorite horror TV shows, "Fear" would never make the list. Due to a combination of its short run, lack of any DVD release, and general niche appeal, "Fear" has more or less been lost to the ages, but the people who first fell in love with it back in the strange world of the year 2000 haven't ever completely let the show go.

Fans have tried connecting with participants from the show on Reddit, looking to ask questions about just how real all the scares in "Fear" were. Others have lobbed questions out into the void of the internet to make sure that they didn't fever-dream the experience of watching "Fear" 20 years ago. The consensus is that "Fear" was a great experience for the handful of people who kept up with the show, and more than a few people would love to see it return.

For now, it doesn't seem likely that there will ever be an official "Fear" revival. Luckily, internet fans are a dedicated bunch, and they aren't going to let a lack of sanctioned releases stop them from going back to one of their favorite shows. There are more than a few YouTube playlists that collect all the episodes of "Fear" for anyone who wants to dive back in. "Fear" may be gone, but it won't be completely forgotten any time soon.