Fear Factor

by Jonathan Beebe


Fear at a Distance

“Ironically, it is when people live inside terror that we experience life most intensely.”
—Kiyoshi Kurosawa

cover art

Fear Factor

Director: Endemol Entertainment USA, Inc.
Creator: Inc.
Cast: Joe Rogan
Regular airtime: Mondays, 8p.m. EST


I think it’s safe to say that director Kiyoshi Kurosawa was not referring to the latest spate of reality television when he made the above statement, and I’m guessing that his definition of “terror” does not encompass the consumption of bull’s testicles. But I do think that the success of NBC’s Fear Factor is at least partly due to the point he’s making.

People love to be scared, or at least, to watch other people being scared. And while I can’t say that Fear Factor is a particularly scary show to watch (“gross” is probably the more accurate adjective), there is just enough of a thrill in seeing the contestants freak out to keep a good number of viewers tuned in. (Apparently this is indeed the case, since the show has already been picked up for next season.) But why would we want to see contestants scared at all? If it’s true that I have absolutely no desire to jump out of a 20th story window with only what looks like a too-thin cord keeping me from hitting the ground, what is it that intrigues me about watching someone else jump? What makes the contestants’ experience of fear “intense,” to use Kurosawa’s term?

One explanation might go back to the very nature and structure of moving pictures, described in Walter Benjamin’s conception of “shock.” Benjamin wrote at a time when film was less than half a century old and TV hadn’t yet been invented, so much that we now take for granted was still new and somewhat foreign to him. At the time, he was one of many writers commenting on what seemed to be the monotony of modern life brought on by the Industrial Revolution. People were losing a sense of the present, as a day-in, day-out repetition wore them down. Benjamin wrote that cinema could “shock” people out of their daily succession of dull moments, especially by the technique of montage, or editing. By shocking someone, according to Benjamin, you made that person aware of time, aware of where she or he was at that moment. Shock was a means to bring intensity back into modern life.

I think it is this idea that works in Fear Factor, and in any show that trades on scaring the hell out of someone as a selling point (most recently, MTV’s Fear and Fox’s Murder in Small Town X). When we are afraid, we become aware of the present moment as well as self-aware and, assuming we survive whatever it is that causes our fear, feel a subsequently intense sense of being alive.

The first time I watched MTV’s Fear, with the lights off, in an apartment by myself, I was terrified. As in The Blair Witch Project, the video was dark, grainy, jerky, and took a first-person perspective. I didn’t know what to expect and that not knowing is what thrilled me. Most of the footage is shot from a camera mounted on the contestant’s shoulders so that we see the terrified look on his or her face even while we don’t see what the person is looking at (which is usually nothing but darkness). Though contestants are given “missions,” these are less important than the repeated money shot—someone screaming in the dark. Of course, I now know better: absolutely nothing happens in this show. But, the first time I watched a contestant freak herself out in the basement of an abandoned prison, the sheer novelty of watching someone at such an intensely private moment freaked me out as well.

I have never been freaked out while watching Fear Factor. Here, very little time is spent looking at the fear on a contestant’s face. Most of the footage is instead focused on the mechanics of the challenge. Viewers become more concerned with whether or not someone will succeed, and less concerned with that person’s psychological state. This creates a distance from the contestants, in that you never really feel what’s at stake for them. This distance is compounded by the show’s structure: there are six contestants (usually three men and three women) and three well-defined challenges that increase in difficulty. The first and third challenges typically have something to do with height, speed, or physical ability (or sometimes all three, as when contestants had to jump eight feet from the top of one train to the top of another while the trains sped parallel to each other at 40 MPH).

The second challenge is invariably what I call the “gross-out” test. It either involves laying in a pit filled with insects or animals (e.g., snakes, rats, and mealworms) or the contestants are challenged to eat something that is, for most of our palates, incredibly disgusting (e.g., sheep eyeballs and bull’s testicles). A random order is selected for the six poor fools to attempt the challenge. If each succeeds, then he or she moves on to the next round. If one fails, that’s the end of the game for him or her. The final challenge usually requires the contestants to do something better than the others. Therefore, just completing that challenge is not enough to win. Instead, you need to complete the challenge better than everyone else. (Usually, this is determined through speed so that whoever completes the task fastest wins.) Throughout, host Joe Rogan (Joe from Newsradio) makes enough smart-ass comments to reassure us that no one will get hurt, yet another distancing effect.

There are occasional visible shocks, for instance, the shock of someone coming to terms with the three sheep’s eyeballs he must eat in the next three minutes. Any sympathetic shock we might feel, however, is tempered by the distance between us and him. What starts as shock ends up being yet another element in the monotony TV has to offer—Benjamin co-opted by NBC. All this distancing is probably what makes the show so watchable. As with most television, we are allowed to view from a position of safety, without being too deeply implicated in the goings on. I can watch someone on Fear Factor be afraid, without feeling fear myself, just like I can watch Drew Carey make an idiot of himself without feeling the fool. Fear Factor perfectly plays off the voyeurism we’ve become used to with TV—looking without being caught.

Part of what we’re looking at might seem unbelievable: contestants put themselves through these abuses for $50,000, a sum that no longer seems so large, since Who Wants to Be a Millionaire has made $32,000 a relatively easy prize to win. And the show is usually lumped in with other “reality” game shows. Critics have enjoyed trashing Fear Factor for the past several months as the lowest of the low (see especially, Nancy Franklin’s 7/23/01 review in The New Yorker). But I can’t help but think that it’s no better or worse than what we’ve been continually offered by the networks. In the end, it’s a gross series with a mildly amusing host—nothing as subversive as these critics would have us believe.

It can even be fun to watch if nothing else is on. Ultimately, though, I think I’d prefer watching reruns of Unsolved Mysteries on Lifetime, the only show that scares the hell out of me time and time again.

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//Mixed media