Pity the contestants on 13 Fear is Real. First, they must travel to the Louisiana Bayou—a place, intones the Mastermind, their narrator and host, that is “notorious for its ghosts and voodoo,” not to mention its mud and insects. Second, they must show fear (or its equally telegenic flipside, cockiness) in ways that, for the duration of series, must seem at least vaguely “real.” Third, and apparently most painfully, they must distinguish themselves as individual contestants, despite the fact that they are as generic and familiar as can be, all evidently plucked from Reality TV Central Casting.
The series begins with a journey. The Mastermind—whose voice-disguising software makes him sound a lot like Tobin Bell in the Saws—tries mightily to ook up the situation, noting that the kids have no idea what’s about to happen (except, of course, if they’ve watched a reality game show during their couple of decades on the planet) and that “the fear they’ll be experiencing is real.” They make their way the swamp via a school bus painted matte black, something like a prison bus in 1970s movies, but a little too freshly coated to pass as menacing or even very old. Still, the players are determined to be scared. Or look that way.
As they ride, the contestants chat up one another and appear in brief introductory one-shots, thumbnailing their reasons for being here (aside from the $66,666 in prize money), with skritchy-lettered titles jiggling beneath them. Leah, a bartender, says, “I hate the dark. When I go to sleep at night, I take a running start and jump from the hallway to my bed. I can’t handle scary things.” She means to come to terms with her fears, she explains, and she means to win the game. Lauren, a very blond and buxom model, doesn’t exactly smile when she says, “In horror movies, the ditzy blond is always the one to die first. I do get scared, but I am a very competitive person I will do anything to win this money.” Grrr.
A colorfully coiffed young man named Cody (described as a “ghosthunter”) lays out his credentials: a lifetime of watching Freddy Kreuger and Halloween movies. As a child, he asserts, “I spent many a night in an abandoned mental institution and haunted houses. I’m here to find something to scare me.” Double grrr. Steffini is more philosophical as she describes herself. “I grew up in Laos,” she announces. (She’s described as an “assistant” on the show’s website, whatever that job description may mean.) “My parents made us aware that there are spirits… Fear is more psychological to me and this whole experience is going to be mind over matter.”
This is not a bad place to start, however clichéd. The show is, in various ways, just such a trick, not quite convincing viewers that its shtick is authentic, but granting that those viewers get the joke (and will forgive, and even enjoy, the cheesy results). Recalling MTV’s Fear, with its use of lurching fear-cams, night-vision lens, and pretty young things in skimpy t-shirts and cut-off sweats for shorts, the awkwardly titled 13 Fear is Real is executive produced by Sam Raimi, who has been using all these same low-budget effects since at least the first Evil Dead.
The premise is easy: the 13 players endure challenges, talk about how afraid they are, and dread the dreaded “Death Box,” a literal box you can carry in your hand, marked with witchy xes and laid out by the Mastermind as a sort of ur-awful emblem of what will happen to losers. That is, losers of challenges are assigned to “die,” after they make videotapes saying goodbye to their newfound friends whom they love infinitely after knowing them for a few hours. Teary remembrances of the lost one follow the viewing of these tapes, along with calculations—who’s betraying whom and who can be trusted? And how many weeks can this go on?
The mind over matter business does not get off to a good start when the contestants arrive at the -in-the-woods where they must sleep on the first night, covered in bug-netting. “Scary things always happen in cabins,” observes one sage contestant. “Eww,” says another, looking at the dusty floor, “It’s so heebie skeebie right now! I really can’t believe that this is what’s going down right now.” Okay, you grant, it is pretty unbelievable, even if you’ve seen it a million times before.
Likewise, you’ve seen the sort of flesh this series likes to display: girls putting on their pants, in showers, girls in bikinis, girls in the dark screaming. Kelly, an event planner, is especially helpful in these moments: “It was really disgusting,” she says of the cabin. “Blood everywhere, writing on the walls, really weird stuff.” Before you scoff, she goes on to explain why this generic set décor seems “weird” to her: “I am a Christian, I have been my whole life. I go to church every Sunday. I believe there is a devil and the devil’s work.” And here she is performing it.
The occasional boy tends to play protector, at least in the first episode (airing 7 January). “Show,” real name Nasser, is an aspiring rapper and current concierge. After an impromptu performance for the rest of the crew, he’s plainly a preferred protector. Their first challenge involves going out into the dark woods in pairs, at which point, says the Mastermind, “My helpers, minions I call them, will take over from there.” It appears the Mastermind needs to get out more. Leah complains, out loud, “I don’t do well in the dark I don’t do well with monsters or the woods.” Which means she has placed herself in the ideal situation.
Laura, a nursing student, is most expressive. “I’m so scared,” she says while they divide into teams. “I’m like, shaking!” A close-up suggests she’s not actually shaking, but she puts her hand to her mouth and pretends her fear is real. “I just started panicking,” she says in the confessional taped later and inserted here. She has, like, this real anxiety about abandonment. She has a childhood story. She seems to believe it.