I'll show you fear

Who needs writhing snakes and eyeball hors d'oeuvres? Here's how Reality TV could make one contestant's blood run cold.


March 03, 2002|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,Special to the Sun

In George Orwell's 1984, protagonist Winston Smith was forced to confront his worst fear in the dreaded Room 101. For crimes against Big Brother, Orwell's anti-hero was surrounded by his nightmare: rats.

This, of course, was not his choice. He was not motivated by a cash prize. And a smirking host was nowhere to be seen.

In 2002, all those awful accouterments have helped this once haunting literary device degenerate into the most moronic of mainstream television. Contestants on shows like Fear Factor volunteer to be trapped in a large container full of rats in order to win cash prizes. And host Joe Rogan is there to smirk. Even Orwell could not have conceived of such horror.

Our once innocent world of game shows, of wheel-spinning, price-guessing and trivia tossing, has been replaced with hostile voyeurism. Old-school game shows didn't need these pulpy, sadistic sideshow gimmicks: From the hideous upholstery on the couches in the Price Is Right's Showcase Showdown to the glazed-over look in Vanna White's eyes, they were already plenty disturbing.

But people still watched. OK, mostly old people. Which is why the new gross-out game shows -- including Fear Factor, The Chair and the already canceled The Chamber -- are geared for the extreme generation: people who have come to expect to see masochistic contestants subjected to challenges like eating animal eyeballs, being tormented by dangling alligators, or somehow dealing with other creepy stuff like cockroaches, snakes, spiders and heights.

Yeah, yeah, whatever. Those phobias have been around since Moses. Get with the times, kids! There are so many more interesting things to be afraid of these days. Why, any idiot with an IQ even lower than the misguided thrill-seekers who compete on these shows could suggest something more threatening -- and more likely to happen -- than gargling with a tarantula.

Having an alligator suddenly materialize above your head is just not a common occurrence in everyday America. So why not make these primitive programs little more modern and macabre? There are so many truly bloodcurdling things we confront every day that are guaranteed to get heart rates rising and contestants cowering. A few scenarios:

* Fear of Technology

Young, attractive female is strapped to a defective Sharper Image massaging recliner while her e-mail address and password are broadcast to the entire TV-viewing audience. In the meantime, her cell phone, placed just out of reach, is ringing constantly. The ringer has been set to the tune of Sugar Ray's "I Just Wanna Fly." She sees on the Caller ID that it's her dream date on the line. To top it off, all her underwear is being auctioned off on eBay!

* Fear of Mortification

Contestant sits in wide-screen movie theater with ear-blasting sound. Eyes are propped open Clockwork Orange-style as he is subjected to repeated screenings of I Am Sam, The Other Sister, and other films featuring prominent, narcissistic, Oscar-grubbing actors as developmentally disabled characters.

* Fear of the Future

Contestant is strapped to her greatest fear, singer-songwriter Jewel. TV psychic Madame Cleo dangles above, about to burst from her ropes, while chronologically recounting all the most scarring moments of the contestant's life in that offensive voodoo lady accent, including the time I -- oops, I mean the contestant -- heard her parents getting frisky during The Love Boat. The horror. The horror.

* Fear of Ignorance

In sweeps-week crossover stunt, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? morphs with whichever gross-out show is airing on ABC. Contestant is strapped to the Millionaire chair and forcibly assigned as a lifeline Dustin Diamond (Screech from television's Saved By The Bell). Even Regis laughs at you, not with you.

* Fear of Dustin Diamond

Enough said.

* Fear of Fear Itself

The contestant must defend a shameless, cruel TV concept, a nation numb enough to watch it, the untold amounts of resources wasted in its maintenance, and the smirking hosts that abet in the pointlessness. Oh, and he'll do this all while gargling with a tarantula.

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