Trash for Cash: An Oral History of Garbage Pail Kids

Topps
Topps

Susan Wurthman of Massapequa Park said her daughter Tracy, who is 7 years old, collected Garbage Pail Kids until ''I put a stop to it'' because ''they're not at all healthy.'' In support of that argument, Mrs. Wurthman referred to a character named Dead Fred, depicted as a cigar-smoking juvenile gangster with a bullet penetrating his forehead. ''My daughter said: 'I like this one. My dolly would look nice with its head blown off, too.'"

The New York Times, February 5, 1986

Vomit. Snot. Drool. Occasionally, pus. No oozing orifice went unexplored in the 660 stickers produced by Topps Chewing Gum, Inc. between 1985 and 1988, when its line of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards broke free of convenience store counters to become the single most controversial kid’s product in the country. With characters like Luke Puke and Messy Tessie dripping bodily fluids in portraits created by talented—even Pulitzer Prize-winning—artists, the series delighted an audience obsessed with the gross.

While children bought well over 800 million of the mucus-covered cards, adults were mortified. Psychologists wondered if a preoccupation with upchuck could affect a child’s development. Schools banned them outright. Protest groups managed to get a CBS cartoon canceled before a single episode even aired. But no one was more offended than the Cabbage Patch Kids, whose lawyers argued that the vile, dimpled drawings were copyright infringement and devastating to their squeaky-clean reputation.

For the first time ever, over a dozen of the principal creative forces behind the Garbage Pail Kids—and a few of its detractors—have been roped in by mental_floss to discuss the making of the series, the cards that went too far, and how the widespread panic raised Topps’s profits while lowering their standards. No company since Kleenex has profited better from boogers. This is how they did it.

I. THE GARBAGE MEN

In 1938, Russian immigrant Morris Shorin decided to sell his gas station and tobacco interests to finance his family’s entry into the lucrative chewing gum business. With his four sons—Joe, Ira, Abram, and Philip—Shorin founded the Topps Chewing Gum company, named for their desire to “top” the competition.

In an effort to make their bubble gum more appealing to consumers, in 1948 Topps began inserting “X-ray” novelty cards into products that would materialize when viewed under cellophane. While those eventually gave way to sports cards, the company continued to pursue non-sports properties like Hopalong Cassidy and, later, Star Wars. It was only natural that Shorin’s grandson, Topps CEO Arthur Shorin, would try to secure the rights to the hottest pop culture property of the early 1980s: the Cabbage Patch Kids.

Mark Newgarden (Creative Consultant, Topps 1984-1993): The idea to do a Cabbage Patch parody series originated directly with Arthur Shorin. Topps had previously pursued a license with the Cabbage Patch folks.

Len Brown (Creative Director, Topps 1959-2000): We actually tried to get the rights to do Cabbage Patch, which were very popular. When that failed, one of the senior officers at Topps, and it was probably Arthur, said, “Well, let’s parody them if they don’t give us the rights.”

Roger Schlaifer (Former Licensing Agent, Cabbage Patch Kids): I went out to see Arthur Shorin at a country club. We were going to play golf but got rained out. In retrospect, it was probably symbolism.

Newgarden: All I ever heard was that [Cabbage Patch owners] Original Appalachian Artworks felt it was too low-end a product category for their high-profile brand. You have to remember that these dolls were originally luxury items and sold for fairly outrageous prices.

Schlaifer: I was interested and they seemed interested. I asked Topps to make a proposal on what they thought the cards would do, royalties, all of that. We had a unique agreement with licensees that penalized them if they didn’t come out with new product. All of a sudden, they stopped taking my calls.

Brown: I don’t know what was going on between Arthur and Roger.

Newgarden: I recall hearing they [Appalachian] had a problem with bubble gum cards. Maybe the severe terms were a reflection of that.

Topps’s decision to satirize the Cabbage Patch Kids had precedent in Wacky Packages, the company’s line of cards dating back to the 1960s that spoofed consumer products. It was part of an irreverent sense of humor that had been around nearly as long as the company itself.

Jay Lynch (Freelancer, New Product Development, Topps): Norm Saunders painted Batman cards for Topps in the 1960s. There was an extra space for a card on one of the proof sheets, and so for fun, he painted a secret Batman card with Batman taking a dump in the Bat-toilet. There was even copy on the back: “In the middle of an adventure, Batman must answer nature’s call.” There are about a dozen out there, just for the people who worked on it. Nobody ever told upper management.    

Brown: Topps had always done real well with baseball. Non-sports cards, I called them novelty cards, those came and went. It was just added business.

Lynch: There was a Wacky Packages card Mark Newgarden did called Garbage Pail Kids. He did the rough, wrote the joke, and John Pound did the painting.

The original Garbage Pail Kid. Copyright 2016 Mark Newgarden.

John Pound (Primary Artist, Garbage Pail Kids): The gag they had me do for Wacky Packages, they gave me a rough sketch and it looked like a little baby bum in a trash can.

Brown: It didn’t look like how the final Garbage Pail design looked, but it certainly came from Mark and his group.

Newgarden: I vividly recall that Cabbage Patch parody being rushed into that meeting to show Arthur that we were already thinking along such lines. And an hour later the word came down that we needed to figure out how to make a series out of this thing.

That responsibility fell to Topps art director Art Spiegelman, who was finishing what would become his Pulitzer-winning account of the Holocaust, Maus; supervisor Stan Hart; and Newgarden. Together, the New Product Development team began to hammer out the approach to “GPK” by auditioning a number of artists—Pound among them.  

Pound: The idea was to be rude, crude, gross, rebellious, snotty, disgusting, all of these things. I sent them 30 or 50 pages of ideas, including a nice one of a little kid barfing on a baby blanket.     

Lynch: Art Spiegelman at first just did a rough drawing of a doll with a big nose named Olga. It didn’t make sense, and he knew it, but eventually it was he who figured the way to do 80 cards which were all different, yet all part of the same universe.

Howard Cruse (Freelance Artist): I sent some concept sketches to them, but I didn’t know they were doing a riff on Cabbage Patch Kids and so my concept had nothing to do with that look. They were just strange and weird dolls. Playfully grim.

Newgarden: Right off the bat, John gave us about four times as much input as the others, including pages of gags, color studies and logo treatments. His creative energy literally dripped off the page.  

Pound: The idea of making them disgusting was not sitting real well with me. For selfish reasons, I wanted to have them feel good to look at. I was vaguely aware if you had the gross mixed with the cute, it was more interesting.

Newgarden: He worked in acrylics and airbrush and his paintings were bright and clean and vividly colored. His sense of composition and staging was impeccable. He brought a very strong, direct, poster-like approach to GPK that made almost any concept feel positively monumental.

Pound: Art or Len said, “OK, we like what you sent, let’s get practical. Can you do 44 paintings in two months?” The wanted it done by one artist for a consistent look and feel. It was basically a painting a day. I had to break it down—background is one hour, flesh is one hour, clothing one hour. They were all about five inches by seven, or twice the size of the card.

Newgarden: I do vividly recall opening John's FedEx package with that Adam Bomb painting in it pretty early on in the process. I felt then and there we had something special cooking. Strangely enough, I think I was the only one at Topps who felt it at the time.

Pound: Adam Bomb was about 85 percent my idea. I had the sketch of the kid sitting there pressing the button, and in background, a bomb blast going off. When Art Spiegelman approved the idea, he said, “Well, make it coming out of the head.” It’s like, "Yes, good one!"

Newgarden: There was always a lot of back and forth. Phone meetings, faxes, FedExed tracing paper overlays with voluminous notes. John's pencils or paintings would come in on a Monday and I'd make notes. Then on Tuesday, Art would make notes on my notes and we'd call John in the afternoon and hash it all out.

Lynch: My overall reaction was that this was nuts. You know, “Nobody will buy this.” But Arthur Shorin always thought it was a good idea.

Bob Sikoryak (Freelance Artist): When you talk to Art, he always references Harvey Kurtzman and MAD magazine. GPK totally came out of that.

Newgarden, Spiegelman, and other freelancers and Topps employees would often find themselves in brainstorming sessions, conceiving of characters plagued by indigestion or runny noses. Crucially, the pieces had names—Acne Amy, Slain Wayne—that allowed kids to feel as though they were personalized for their amusement.

Lynch: Art [Spiegelman] developed the system of a negative adjective before a kid's first name. He figured out the method. If there wasn’t a clear method, we’d be doing stuff randomly, throwing it against the wall.

Newgarden: We'd sit around the table, turn the paintings over one at time and play at being the Algonquin wits of snot and vomit.

Pound: There was one case where I had a stomach flu or food poisoning and I remember thinking between barfing, “How about a waiter barfing up a complete meal at a restaurant?” That one did get accepted.

Brown: Pound would send in rough sketches. We’d look at it as a group and make suggestions like, “More snot!”

Pound: For some reason, snot never occurred to me at first. Vomit, yes.

John Mariano (Freelance Writer/Artist): It was no different from a couple of guys hanging out in the cafeteria, running stuff by each other. Whatever makes you laugh. Our objective was to satirize.

Newgarden: Len was always very concerned about making absolutely sure we were including the most popular kid names of the moment. We never had a "Mark" in the first GPK series because Len insisted it wasn't a popular name. Since nobody ever thought these would go beyond the next series, the idea was to always feature the most common names so kids could actually use them.  

Brown: We did names way back on the Ugly Stickers series in the 1960s. Kids looked for their name and loved to find a friend or classmate to use as a nasty put-down, like Vomit Vic.

Newgarden: At a certain point I tracked down a slightly outdated baby-naming book, which we worked from.

When Pound’s 44 paintings had been completed, they were taken to Shorin for a final review. 

Newgarden: Arthur Shorin was the final word at Topps, period. So the line was probably drawn depending on whatever Arthur had for breakfast that morning.

Pound: Religious elements didn’t fly. One little gag sketch had a little kid like Moses receiving GPK stickers instead of the Ten Commandments tablets. Then things, gags that were suicide-related, like someone hanging themselves, you didn’t want to promote that as something kids might do or try.

Steve Kroninger (Freelance Artist): There was one of a kid in an oven. It was a sketch from Mark or Art. It got painted but didn’t get final approval. 

Newgarden: I don’t believe we ever put a baby in an oven.

Pound: There was an idea I had done of a kid in a pickle jar. It went all the way through to a completed painting. Maybe that was an issue of taste or interpretation, like it could’ve been an aborted fetus.

Brown: I remember that image.

Pound: Lincoln, that one was an idea assigned to me, to do Lincoln with a bullet hole in his hat. I did that. Someone suggested adding a Playbill to it.

Brown: More often than not, I had a sense of what Arthur would go for. He liked underwear gags. 

Kroninger: Len was the grown-up in the room.

Brown: We knew we could push envelope just so far.

Pound: There was change I saw happening later. We had a wino Garbage Pail Kid in series one, a little drunk bum character staggering around and leaning on a post. Later on, we shied away from jokes about alcohol.

Lynch: The best card I ever did they didn’t use. It was a little girl and a dog and a turd. The little girl is pointing at the turd accusingly, looking at the dog, but the dog is pointing equally accusingly. They didn’t use it because it had two characters.

Newgarden: We always had an extra painting or two up our sleeves for the final “elimination round” of every GPK series, so if Arthur Shorin nixed an image, like the Lincoln assassination, we would have a less objectionable backup all ready to go. Then we would resubmit those rejected images next time around, again and again, and eventually wear poor Arthur down.

Brown: Using “moron” or “idiot” was off-limits for a long time. Someone at the company had a child who was mentally challenged, and Arthur just cringed at those words. We couldn’t do it. Later, we probably did Moronic Morton or something.

Kroninger: There was one of a kid playing a trumpet and blowing a cloud of smoke out of his butt. That was the Garbage Pail Kids.

II. DUMPSTER DIVERS

When the 88-card Garbage Pail Kids were released in June 1985—each character was printed twice, with a different name on each—Topps anticipated nothing more than a single series of cards. Testing the 25-cent packs in local northeast markets, distributors were quick to let them know something bigger was happening.

Brown: We’d do testing in retail stores. There was one store across street from a school, and we knew kids would come in every day at three o’clock to buy candy, baseball cards, and, hopefully, a pack of Garbage Pail Kids. We’d call the place at four after the rush and see how things were going. Kids loved it.

Pound: Topps had an amazing distribution system. The cards were always right by the candy counter or by the register.

Newgarden: Art used to drive back into Manhattan and I'd often go along for the ride or to hang out afterward at his place in SoHo. He'd normally drive over the Brooklyn Bridge and cut through Chinatown. One day we both did a double-take when we saw some guy on a street corner selling ersatz uncut GPK series two sheets [that] had literally just come out. We stopped and checked them out. How an original uncut sheet made its way into the hands of the nefarious Chinatown counterfeiters so quickly is still an unsolved mystery.

Tom Bunk (Freelance Artist): I knew they were popular, but I didn’t realize how popular until I would go and see wrappers on the floor, on public toilets, the stickers all over. Punk bands had them on guitars.

Brown: In those days, we had tobacco distributors selling to stores. And we’d hear from them: “I just sold three cases. Give me a dozen more.” We kept going back to press. I got an immediate, panicked call from Arthur Shorin: “Get started on series two. This is like a wildfire.”

With demand growing, Garbage Pail Kids became Newgarden’s full-time responsibility at Topps. And while the company wanted to maintain a consistent visual look, it was clear that John Pound did not have enough hours in the day to keep up.

Newgarden: Our job was to crank out rancid sausages—but we were determined to give them the best rancid sausages possible.

Bunk: Sometimes Pound would just refuse to do jobs that were too disgusting for him.

Newgarden: John Pound was a very fertile GPK idea machine. At one point he designed a software program to randomly generate GPK concepts.

Pound: On my first computer, I wrote a program that generated GPK ideas by combining words or phrases. These could be printed out as a list of ideas. I sent a printout to Mark, and I think there was [one usable] idea in it, something like “kid with a skateboard foot.”

Bunk: I was working in Berlin and came to New York in 1983 for personal reasons—a love affair. I didn’t know anyone in New York, so I went to Art Spiegelman’s address because I knew where he lived. He asked me if I would be interested in working for Topps. For Pound, I think he was working on like one painting a day, which is crazy, so they asked me to start helping with the fronts. Then James Warhola came on as a third.

James Warhola (Freelance Artist): They showed me the cards, and at first, I didn’t let my opinion out. I thought they were most obnoxious, disgusting illustrations I was ever requested to do. I took some sketches home and got the hang of it, [and] really enjoyed it after the first week. But before that, it was revolting.

Editors advised Warhola to use "more goo" for "Julius Sneezer."

Newgarden: James came from the world of fantasy illustration and he painted his Garbage Pail Kids in oils. His renderings had a spooky, moody vibe that contrasted nicely with the others. I always felt his strength was in the depiction of “place.” When I think of James, I think of craggy trees, weathered rock, and bleak landscapes.

Bunk: I tried to give each Kid a soul, something which was not just a cold drawing and stuff, but like a real kid. You also had to try to emulate John, who had developed the style. He was like Walt Disney.

Warhola: Sometimes when an idea was too obnoxious, as an artist I would say, “This is a little bit over the line, I don’t think I’m good for this particular card.” I didn’t mind a kid on an island in a toilet, with feces floating. It’s gross, but I’d probably draw the line if it was too bloody, like barbed wire or knives. I’m squeamish.

Pound: I didn’t know they were going to have other artists doing ideas from pencils I had done, like Fat Elvis. I was a little frustrated and jealous at the time.

Newgarden: John was sometimes supplying more concepts than paintings, so some got swapped around.

With more and more cards needed to fill the sets, Newgarden employed a growing number of freelancers to pitch ideas for characters or jokes for the card backs.

Mariano: In a sense, we were kind of like factory workers. There would be jokes about the tuna sandwich at the cafeteria. “Come to Topps and get a free lunch.”

Kroninger: I remember the grilled cheese sandwiches in the cafeteria. It was part of the deal. You got $50 for the day, then Mark would buy you lunch.

Newgarden: That wasn’t a typical situation. Kroninger was a friend and an entertaining guy to hang out with who could use the $50, so I invited him out to visit. 

Kroninger: He knew I was broke at the time. I think he was lonely there, too. 

Newgarden: He came up with a few good ones.

Kroninger: I remember my wife, who was my girlfriend at time, realized I could use the money, so she did one which was an astronaut up in space with vomit hanging in front of his head. I called it Haley’s Vomit.

Bunk: I’d usually go there once or twice a week. There were no windows in this room. It was like a bunker.

Newgarden: Tom [Bunk] was local so he’d take the subway over and we'd hold the same sort of session in person. Seeing what these guys would come up with was always a highlight of my week.

Tom Bunk and Newgarden (R) in a snot summit. Copyright 2016 Mark Newgarden.

Warhola: Week after week, it was like being on a treadmill with them. You’d pick up sketches, deliver finals from the previous week, pick up sketches for the next week, go one week after another. It was pretty intense for about two years.

Kroninger: You’re just kind of walking around on the street and realize you’re thinking of horrible ways to torture children.

Newgarden: Topps never imagined there would be a need for a "next" GPK series until the new set flew off the shelves. Again. Then they needed that next series by Monday morning. 

Warhola: I would talk to my uncle [Andy Warhol] pretty regularly. He was always interested in what I was doing. He knew I was trying to be an illustrator. He found the Garbage Pail theme and whole nature of it quite intriguing. He admitted they were pretty gross and disgusting, but he liked it.

As popular as the card series was becoming—some stores reported sales of up to 500 packs a day—it wouldn’t be long before the media noticed. In a preview of the tidal wave of negative publicity to come, Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene wrote two stories—printed November 17, 1985 and February 16, 1986—that took Topps to task for circulating cards that could be used as a tool for bullies in grade school.

Bob Greene (Former Columnist, Chicago Tribune): What prompted them was the teacher and principal being distressed about how terrible the child was being made to feel because the card [which read “Most Unpopular Student”] had been anonymously left on his desk. I probably had never heard of the cards before the principal and teacher told me about what the boy was going through.  

Newgarden: I'm sure it didn't hurt any, but I think GPK was already a high enough profile fad for Greene to pick up on.

Brown: Topps was very worried because of the link with baseball. They didn’t want to give themselves a black eye.

Greene: There are a lot of people out there who have been pushed around and mocked and made to feel small on a daily basis. Only in recent years has bullying been given widespread attention. I think that perhaps the most wrenching line in the piece was when the boy said: "I've been through this before."

Elaine Smith (Teacher, via Observer-Reporter, March 5, 1986): There is one card with a character named Susie Snot. Now, what if you have a child with a bad cold or an asthmatic child? These names stick.

Greene: I don't know what became of the cards in the years that followed, whether or not the more hurtful messages were removed from them and they became something more lighthearted; my piece was about what that one boy was enduring.

Brown: Greene was syndicated, so it went nationwide. I remember that being a very big deal. “Look at what Bob Greene wrote.”

Lynch: I knew Bob. I used to illustrate articles he wrote for Midwest Magazine, an insert for The Chicago Sun-Times. He didn’t know I worked on the cards, though.

The cards proved to be such a distraction in classrooms that many districts banned them from school property. It was also rare for a Garbage Pail series to be released without accompanying news stories about the negative impact they could have on children. (When the line was released in France, famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau warned parents that children exposed to them could “go off the deep end and end up on cocaine.”) Owing to the controversy, a planned animated show for CBS was fully produced but never aired in America.

Bob Hathcock (Director, The Garbage Pail Kids animated series, 1987): We visited Arthur Shorin at Topps’s headquarters in Brooklyn and they said they had hired child psychologists who assured them that the content was similar to old fairy tales in that it gave children a face for their fears—not getting to the toilet on time, being maimed, etc.

Brown: I don’t recall that. I do know Topps really wanted that deal with CBS [for the cartoon] to go through. It sounds like we were coached by Shorin before the meeting. 

Hathcock: There was a boycott in the Bible Belt against the cards, network, and advertisers and this caused CBS to chicken out and pull the show before it aired and before anyone saw a frame of film. We made 13 episodes.

Judy Price (Vice President, Children’s Programs, CBS): That was basically born out of the fact that advertisers got nervous, affiliates got nervous, and that’s what happens when you have interest groups. If we had gone on air with it, it’s likely affiliates might not have carried it, and some advertisers might have pulled out.

Hathcock: We could not use the really gross stuff. The show got pulled anyway. The protest was about the cards and they never saw a frame of film. If they had seen the show without prior knowledge of the cards there would have never been a problem.

Price: It cost at least $1.5 million. When the plug was pulled on the show, we had not completed production. Because I didn’t think it was fair to lay off the production team after they had been promised 13 episodes, I insisted we finish it.

Hathcock: We were so close to being finished that it made more sense to get them in the can for possible future use.

The CBS cartoon was eventually released on DVD. Topps didn’t share the network’s reluctance, however, doubling down on the cards by releasing up to five series a year despite criticism.

Newgarden: The mailroom ladies would sometimes stop by and share something particularly off-the-wall with me, but I never saw any death threats. We did see plenty of public hatred for GPK on TV newscasts and in print. Most of it was absurd and amusing, and naturally fueled sales. For Topps it was like hitting the lotto again and again.

Brown: For years, we weren’t allowed to talk to anyone outside the company. If a major publication called us, like LIFE, we had to turn it over to our PR person. It wasn’t until Topps started to do comics in 1990s that staff was allowed to talk.

Newgarden: [We made the cover of Reverend Jerry Falwell’s] The Liberty Report in September 1986. Imagine how proud we all were!

III. IN THE TOILET


With stores actually limiting the number of cards children could purchase in order to have packs left over and even accusing Topps of withholding inventory to increase demand, Garbage Pail mania was at its peak in the spring of 1986. That’s when Topps was hit with a potentially devastating response from Original Appalachian Artworks, the copyright holders of the Cabbage Patch Kids.

Brown: I think we got pretty far before we heard from them legally.

Schlaifer: I think I saw the cards three or four months after the meeting with Shorin. I thought, “Damn, how could that guy do that? He seemed so nice.”

Pound: I probably used a Cabbage Patch doll as a reference, yes.

Cruse: When the Cabbage Patch dolls became one of those cloying, mass-produced things, that’s like waving a flag to cartoonists.

Schlaifer: They violated the MAD magazine rule of limiting it. I think it’s fair to say unless you’re Donald Trump, ridicule is not good, particularly with something that has an endearing quality to it.

Brown: Satire tends to ridicule something. I don’t know how you do soft satire if you want to be funny.

Schlaifer: It wasn’t parody. It was debasement.

Newgarden: It was a bit unnerving. There were a lot of emergency closed-door meetings and palpable anxiety. All of my GPK drawings vanished from the office overnight. They didn’t want me testifying. They didn’t want Art [Spiegelman] testifying.

Pound: I remember the opposing side doing a deposition, talking with me, and they did find something, some note I had kept from Topps that said something like, “Make them look more like Cabbage Patch Kids.” I thought, “Hmm, this won’t be helpful.”

Newgarden: Ultimately, Arthur, Len and John Pound all went to Atlanta. We heard they were not getting good “vibes” from the court down there and thought it was safer to settle.

Bunk: I knew they had to pay millions, and had to change look of it, the logo, the banner.

Newgarden: The terms were never revealed but they called for a redesign to avoid the look of their “soft-sculpture” dolls.

Tom Bunk's style guide for the "new," post-lawsuit Garbage Pail Kids.

Brown: The concession was to make them so they didn’t look too much like the Cabbage Patch dolls. We made the artwork look like it was made of hard plastic, not a soft, woven doll. We actually painted in little cracks.

Brown: We were desperate to continue. It was like printing money.

Schlaifer: They made $70 million on those cards.

Bunk: Topps didn’t really share anything with us, didn’t even get a bonus. They made so many millions, but as artists, we didn’t get anything

Brown: We agreed to pay royalties as though we had licensed it. So we owed them a chunk of dough and then paid out moving forward.

Schlaifer: They paid what was tantamount to a license fee and Topps had the ability to continue selling them. My wife and I and everybody associated with the company put everything they had into creating the brand, and to let it continue to have a disparaging marketing component, nothing about it was pleasing to me. It was just unsatisfying.

At roughly the same time of the February 1987 settlement, Topps entered into a deal with modest distribution/production studio Atlantic Releasing for a live-action The Garbage Pail Kids Movie.   

Newgarden: My understanding was that [director] Rod Amateau was the party who optioned it from Topps. I think he had some connection to Arthur and that’s how the deal came about.

Mackenzie Astin (Actor, “Dodger”): I had been on The Facts of Life for three seasons. Making the jump to the silver screen is something everyone wants to do. It’s a different vibe. This came along, and the title alone appealed to me. I was a fan of the cards. I know I was more enamored with the idea of starring in a movie than focused on whether the material was worth investigating.

Newgarden: Amateau was getting on and seemed a little disconnected. And we really weren’t exactly thrilled to have to meet with a Hollywood producer and hear ideas for a movie based on our thing.

Astin: Rod had been in the business for 60-something years. He was a stunt guy for a number of actors. And it was a money job for him. It made sure he got Directors Guild benefits.

Newgarden: I think he passed around some Polaroids of the sculpts for the masks and we chatted congenially. But he seemed fairly clueless about GPK and somewhat unengaged in general. I was probably in denial at this point and was absolutely convinced the movie would never happen.

MGM

Astin: The contracts were signed by the time my dad [actor John Astin] had a chance to look at the script. He did everything he could to get me out of it. Like, “Dude. This is not a good idea, son. I know what I’m talking about.” But the ink was dry.

Kroninger: I think Mark was hoping to write it.

Newgarden: I would have loved to be involved in a GPK script but Arthur would have never permitted it. Topps definitely didn’t want us spending our valuable time on anything that might interfere with getting the next series out. With these license deals it was always a case of “take the money and run.” There was never any semblance of quality control once GPK passed to another entity.

Brown: [Co-star] Anthony Newley was the equivalent of a Broadway star in England.

Astin: Newley was famous for a play and song he did, "What Kind of Fool Am I?" And when the movie came out, my dad got a chuckle out of a review that started, “Now I know what kind of fool Anthony Newley is.”

Amateau and co-writer Linda Palmer wrote a modestly budgeted script about an antiques dealer (Newley) who acts as a caretaker for a bunch of mischievous mutant children. When his young employee (Astin) accidentally lets them out of their trash can home, he tries to round them up before they’re committed to a “home for the ugly.” To realize the cast of Garbage Pail characters, Amateau hired several little people and had them fitted with latex and foam masks that could be controlled by off-screen puppeteers.

William Butler (Effects Artist): I painted the heads. Normally, we used special paint that has a flexible medium in it that allows the puppets to move, but I had never used the stuff. I painted the heads only with acrylic paint not knowing it would harden. We got the heads on set, dressed the little people in outfits, and as the mouths opened up, they ripped on both sides like the Joker.

Kevin Thompson (Actor, “Ali Gator”): I remember that. The constant touching up, it was like getting fumigated from all the paint.

MGM

Butler: I single-handedly nearly destroyed the movie. Lucky for me everyone rallied and filled the cuts, but if you look closely at the movie, the heads look like they have scarring on the mouths. That’s thanks to Billy Boy.

Thompson: We only had one head each, and if it got ruined, production got shut down, so you had to make it durable, and the thing about durable is, it’s not going to be cute, and it’s not going to look as good.

Astin: The heroes of the entire experience are the seven little people actors in costumes every day in triple-digit heat in the San Fernando Valley. They couldn’t see or hear. There was only so much time they could have the heads on before they ran out of oxygen.

Thompson: Mac was a great kid. The air conditioning would be out, we’d be sitting in costumes for 15 minutes until he got out of school, and I’d say, “Can you please nail this in one take?”

Butler: They were constantly running into walls. We didn’t film on a soundstage; we filmed in a warehouse. The metal roof screwed with the radio controls. All of a sudden, the eyes would start whirring around in a circle.

Astin: There were these huge hoses connected to generators connected to air conditioners outside that were stuffed into every crevice to keep people alive, literally.

Butler: We had worked on over 100 movies by then, and no one thought to ask, “Hey, is this being shot on a soundstage?” That’s like asking if we’ll have running water or toilets.

Astin: They were hampered by me being a minor at the time. It was maybe an eight-hour day as opposed to 12 or 15. 

Thompson: Phil Fondacaro, who played Greaser Greg, left for a week to go shoot Willow. His brother took over. Production was a little upset about that.

Newgarden anticipates the film's opening. Copyright 2016 Mark Newgarden.

Opening in limited release in August 1987, the film received near-universal scorn, making just $661,512 in its opening weekend. While kids didn't need an adult's permission to buy a 25-cent pack of cards, they did need someone to drive them to the movies. Few parents wanted to.

Kroninger: Having them team together as a gang—no! They’re all isolated misfits! Nobody hangs out!

Astin: The first scene in the movie is a drug dealer chasing down a 13-year-old kid with his two goons. What drug dealer worth his salt is chasing down kids in a park in the middle of the day?

Newgarden: To his credit, Arthur Shorin gave us a bonus when it was finally released, but that was it.

Thompson: I thought it would do well. There were 150 kids in line to meet me in costume at the premiere.

Astin: I remember going on opening day in Los Angeles, and there were about eight people there.

Butler: I think it was a stupid idea of a stupid screenplay, with stupid designs, that made for a cacophony of stupidity

IV: FINE FART WORK


By the end of 1988, it was clear the fascination with Garbage Pail Kids was dwindling. Though a 16th series was completed, Topps opted not to release it. By way of closure, the last card in the regular line was of Ada Bomb, a bookend to the first release’s Adam Bomb.

Newgarden: The movie was worse than I could have ever imagined and no doubt helped drag down the kids’ perception of GPK.

Kroninger: I think Mark lost interest in them. They weren’t fun anymore.

Newgarden: For me the characters became somewhat diluted as a result of the lawsuit and subsequent redesign. They were less appealing and there was also a little bit of a loss of visual continuity for the collectors. But, I think in the end, GPK had run its natural course. It was a fad, and that generation moved on.

Brown: I just think it died a natural death. We did 15 sets, about the same as Wacky Packages. There was almost a pattern. The first series was good, the second one had kids getting more aware of it, three and four were a peak, and then it was a slow decline from there.

Adam via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Pound: I worked on Trash Can Trolls, Bathroom Buddies. Mark Newgarden had a project, Toxic High, that was a parody of a high school class yearbook.

Kroninger: Toxic High was even grosser than Garbage Pail. I’m not even sure it made it out of tests.

Sikoryak: That was a more envelope-pushing series. I wrote some gags for it, but I don’t think I was mean enough. I had found my level with Garbage Pail.

Although Pound, Bunk, Warhola, and other contributors elevated the card series into a kind of gross-out master class in cartooning, the card industry at the time had little interest in acknowledging their work or returning their art. In 1989, the company held an auction that sold many original works from Garbage Pail predecessor line Wacky Packages.

Newgarden: We’re talking late 20th century here, but Topps business practices were still firmly rooted in the late 19th. Topps naturally didn't want our names involved because they were afraid that we'd be all instantly wooed away by deep-pocketed competitors. Or maybe even medium-pocketed competitors. Or maybe just competitors that had pants.

Brown: I thought we had promised the artists we’d return the work after a certain period of time. Art Spiegelman lobbied very strongly about all of this. He brought in so many artists.

Bunk: We were not allowed to keep the artwork, the final art. Then in the late 1980s, Topps had an auction and sold them to make money, but we artists didn’t get anything from that. That’s when Art Spiegelman got pissed and left.

Warhola: There was a little bit of bitterness from there, art being sold for profit for the company. It’s a little bit of a tacky thing.

Brown: It was an alien idea at the time. We bought and paid for the art. Why give it back? I agree now, but at the time, it’s the way business was done.

Cruse: Topps said, “Well, we have to hold on to it. We might reprint it.” All of a sudden, they’re making big money with auctions. It was kind of a drag. But I don’t blame Len Brown for that. It was a corporate decision.

Pound: One thing that was discussed early on was that the work would be unsigned and that any unhappy PR stuff would be handled by Topps. The artists were basically anonymous to the world. I would have preferred to sign my work. Although some other artist did “John Pond,” which was a kid covered in pee. 

Warhola: It was just like Disney. Disney didn’t want anybody to sign art. Same with the kids. It never bothered me.

Lynch: I didn’t especially want to take credit for it at the time. I don’t think anyone did. The underground comix we did then were deeply intellectual studies of the human condition, whereas this is just mindless insanity. With heavy emphasis on bodily fluids.

Newgarden: We'd occasionally sneak our names or initials into products, but nobody ever seemed to notice or care.

Pound: I put a big, red “J.P.” in graffiti on one card.

Today, those names are not only well-known, but appreciated. Pound, Bunk, and others were asked back when Topps revived the series in 2003; a documentary, 30 Years of Garbage, is scheduled for release in the summer.

Bunk: Now kids who grew up with them have jobs and can afford to buy sketches and stuff. I do a lot of commissions. It made such a strong impression on them they want to relive it.

Warhola: Lately I’ve have been doing these large paintings inspired by the Garbage Pail cards, big 4-by-5 foot cards for my own amusement, turning lowbrow art into some highbrow piece. Maybe I’ll show them someday.

Highbrow meets lowbrow. Courtesy of James Warhola.

Sikoryak: This stuff hit kids really intensely. They were so lovingly painted that it was easy to get taken [in] by them. It was a lot of craft considering how proudly lowbrow they are.

Kroninger: It was our chance to subvert the youth of the nation. Kids kind of need it. They’re spoon-fed unicorns and lollipops. It’s a necessary corrective.

Pound: It kind of felt like they were underground comics for kids.

Sikoryak: Seeing a subversion of something so ubiquitous like Cabbage Patch, it can’t help but be an eye-opener.

Astin: Cabbage Patch was so crazy popular with parents climbing over one another before they sold out. It was the counter-culture aspect of cards that spoke to people, seeing through that consumerism craziness.

Warhola: Who would’ve thought they turned into what they did? It was a part of American culture from the 1980s that lit up little kids.

Pound: Going into cartooning, it was an attempt to just be a kid, to never have to grow up and to play. And when Garbage Pail Kids came along, it was a chance to play a lot.

Mariano: I think you could say Ren and Stimpy was influenced by Garbage Pail Kids. Animation changed at that period. It became kind of gross and crazy.

Lynch: Everything was in poor taste then. But now turn on the TV, and everybody vomits. SpongeBob farts.

Cruse: Just like kids love horror, which gives them a chance to rehearse fears for real-world horror, kids enjoyed Garbage Pail. It gave them a chance to vent feelings about disgusting things.

Bunk: It’s like everyone who read MAD for the first time, when you recognized what was really going on. It’s like waking up out of a dream. This kind of attitude was carried on in underground comics. And Garbage Pail Kids was all in the same spirit. Not everything is pretty. Life is not pretty.

Lynch: When I die, any people who visit my grave will come because of Garbage Pail Kids. And will probably vomit on it.

All images courtesy of Topps and Aaron J. Booton via GPKWorld.com unless credited otherwise.

The Dark Side: An Oral History of The Star Wars Holiday Special

Larry Heider
Larry Heider

Summer 1978: Over a year after its debut, Star Wars wasn’t through smashing box office records. Ushered back into theaters for a return engagement that July, it made $10 million in just three days. George Lucas had welded mythological structure, pioneering special effects, and a spectacular production design to create a cinematic phenomenon that redefined how studios selected and marketed big-budget spectacles. Movies would never be the same again.

Neither would television. That same month, filming began on The Star Wars Holiday Special, a 97-minute musical-variety show that featured Bea Arthur serenading a giant rat and Chewbacca’s father, Itchy, being seduced by a virtual reality image of Diahann Carroll. Originally, the show was intended to keep the property viable and licensed merchandise moving off shelves until the inevitable sequel. But with Lucas’s focus on The Empire Strikes Back and producers shrinking his galaxy for a television budget, the Holiday Special suffered. So did viewers.

Mental Floss spoke with many of the principal production team members to find out exactly how Lucas’s original intentions—a sentimental look at Chewbacca’s family during a galactic holiday celebration—turned to the Dark Side.

I. A VERY WOOKIEE CHRISTMAS


Thomas Searle via YouTube

According to onetime Lucasfilm marketing director Charles Lippincott, CBS approached Star Wars distributor 20th Century Fox in 1978 to propose a television special. Fox had seen a boost in box office returns after several aliens from the Cantina scene appeared on Donny and Marie Osmond’s variety show; CBS figured the success of the film would translate into a ratings win; Lucasfilm and Lippincott though it would be a good vehicle to push toys.

With all parties motivated to move forward, two writers—Leonard “Lenny” Ripps and Pat Proft—were brought on to write a script based on an original story by Lucas.

Leonard Ripps (Co-Writer): Pat and I spent the entire day with Lucas. He took out a legal pad and asked how many minutes were in a TV special. He wrote down numbers from one to 90. He was very methodical about it. He had at least a dozen stories he had already written, so we were just helping to fill in a world he knew everything about. His idea was basically for a Wookiee Rosh Hashanah. A furry Earth Day.

Pat Proft (Co-Writer): Wookiees played a big part of it. Stormtroopers were harassing them. I don't have the script. It sure as [hell] wasn't what it ended up being.

Ripps: Pat and I had written for mimes Shields and Yarnell, which is why we were brought on. We had written lots of non-verbal stuff. The challenge was how to get things across. Wookiees aren’t articulate. Even in silent movies, you had subtitles. Whatever we wrote, it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Proft and Ripps delivered their script several weeks after the meeting. It focused on a galactic holiday celebrated by all species, with the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk selected to host the festivities that year. Chewbacca’s family—father Itchy, wife Malla, and son Lumpy—were introduced, with the writers leaving gaps for executive producers Dwight Hemion and Gary Smith to insert celebrity guest stars and musical acts. For the latter, Hemion and Smith turned to producers Ken and Mitzie Welch to arrange original songs and enlist talent.

Elle Puritz (Assistant to the Producer): I was working for the Welches at the time. I remember hearing, “OK, we’re going to do a Star Wars holiday special,” and everyone laughing about it. I thought it was a terrible idea.

Miki Herman (Lucasfilm Consultant): Lippincott requested I be involved with the special. I did a lot of ancillary projects. I knew all the props, all the actors. I hired Stan Winston to create the Wookiee family. [Sound effects artist] Ben Burtt and I were there to basically provide authenticity, to make sure everything was kept in context.

George Lucas (via Empire, 2009): Fox said, "You can promote the film by doing the TV special." So I kind of got talked into doing the special.

Ripps: Lucas told us Han Solo was married to a Wookiee but that we couldn’t mention that because it would be controversial.

Herman: I do remember Gary Smith saying they wanted to have Mikhail Baryshnikov and Ann-Margret involved, high-caliber people that were popular.

Puritz: Ken and Mitzie called Bea Arthur. They wrote a song with her in mind.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Ripps: It never occurred to us to get Bea Arthur. We spent just that one day with Lucas, then got put in touch with [director] David Acomba. Our notion was Acomba was very much Lucas’s guy, so he spoke for Lucas.

Acomba was a Canadian filmmaker who had coincidentally gone to the University of Southern California around the same time as Lucas, though the two never crossed paths at the time. Lippincott knew him, however, and hired him to direct the special in keeping with Lucas’s spirit of finding talent outside the Hollywood system.

Larry Heider (Camera Operator): David came out of a rock 'n' roll world, a documentary world. Smith and Hemion had three different projects going on at the same time, so I think they felt they wouldn’t have time to direct just this one thing.

Puritz: David wasn’t used to shooting television. Using five cameras, everything shooting at the same time. He was very indignant about his own lack of knowledge, and he did not get along with the Welches.

Ripps: I got the impression it was not what he wanted, and had turned into something he didn’t want to do. I don’t want to say he was overwhelmed, but it would’ve been overwhelming for anyone.

II. FORCING IT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

With a budget of roughly $1 million—the 1977 film cost $11 millionThe Star Wars Holiday Special began filming in Burbank, California in the summer of 1978 with a script that had been heavily revised by variety show veterans Bruce Vilanch, Rod Warren, and Mitzie Welch to reflect the Smith-Hemion style of bombastic musical numbers and kitsch. Chewbacca was now trying to race home in time for “Life Day,” with his family watching interstellar musical interludes and comedic sketches—like a four-armed Julia Child parody—on a video screen. 

Ripps: Lucas wanted a show about the holiday. Vilanch and everyone, they were wonderful writers, but they were Carol Burnett writers. In the litany of George’s work, there was never kitsch. Star Wars was always very sincere about Star Wars.

Herman: Personally, I was not a fan of Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, or Art Carney. That wasn’t my generation. But they had relationships with Dwight Hemion and the Welches.

Heider: Bea Arthur was known for being a little cold and demanding. When she was asked to do something a second time, she wanted someone to explain what was wrong. When the script wasn’t making sense for her to say something, she had a hard time translating all of that. She was pretty much [her television character] Maude.

Bea Arthur [via The Portland Mercury, 2005]: I didn't know what that was about at all. I was asked to be in it by the composer of that song I sang—"Goodnight, But Not Goodbye." It was a wonderful time, but I had no idea it was even a part of the whole Star Wars thing … I just remember singing to a bunch of people with funny heads.

After shooting the Cantina scene, it became apparent that Acomba was an ill fit for the constraints of a television schedule.

Heider: David was used to a single camera—run and gun, keep it moving, a real rock 'n' roll pace. This show was anything but. There were huge sets, make-up, costumes. It was slow-paced, and it got to him.

Ripps: I didn’t go down for the filming, but Pat went down. He has a story.

Proft: Took my kid for the Cantina scene. All the characters from the bar were there. However, they forgot [to pump] oxygen into the masks. Characters were fainting left and right.

Heider: Characters would walk around onstage with just their shirts on to stay cool. We were shooting in a very warm part of the year in Los Angeles, and it was difficult, especially with the Wookiees. They took a lot more breaks than they had calculated.

Ripps: I knew how frustrated David was. It wasn’t his vision. He phoned me up and said, “I’m not going to be working on this anymore.”

Acomba left after only shooting a handful of scenes. A frantic Smith phoned Steve Binder, a director with extensive experience in television—he had overseen the famous Elvis ’68 Comeback Special—and told him he needed someone to report to the set the following Monday morning.

Steve Binder (Director): I was between projects and got a call from Gary basically saying they had completely shut down in Burbank and there was talk of shutting it down for good. The first thing I realized was, they had built this phenomenal Chewbacca home on a huge film stage, but it was a 360-degree set. There was no fourth wall to remove to bring multiple cameras into the home. I would think it would be impossible for a crew to even get into the set to shoot anything.

Puritz: I think David was part of that plan.

Heider: I remember when that happened. I don’t think it was David’s idea. It was the way it was conceived by producers on how to make this look really cool, but it didn’t work. You have no lighting control. Steve got it. He’s really a pro. There’s no ego.

Binder: They FedExed me the script. The first thing I looked at was, the first 10 minutes was done with basically no dialogue from the actors. It was strictly Chewbacca sounds. The sound effects people would use bear sounds for the voicing. It concerned me, but there was no time to start changing the script.

Ripps: We had concerns about that. But George said, "This is the story I want to tell."

Binder: The Chewbacca family could only be in the costumes for 45 minutes. Then they’d have the heads taken off, and be given oxygen. It slowed everything down. The suits were so physically cumbersome and heavy. The actress playing Lumpy [Patty Maloney], when she came in, I don’t think she was more than 80 or 90 pounds and she a lost tremendous amount of weight while filming.

In addition to guest stars Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, and Art Carney, Lucasfilm approached most of the principals from the feature for cameo appearances. Feeling indebted to Lucas, they agreed to participate—reluctantly.

Puritz: They had made this big movie, and now they’re doing a TV special. Carrie Fisher did not want to be there.

Herman: They didn’t love doing TV. At that time, movie actors didn’t do TV. There was a stigma against it.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Heider: Harrison Ford was not happy to be there at all. Carrie Fisher, I think part of her deal was she got to sing a song, and that was her draw to it. Because Lucas was involved, and if another movie is coming out in two years, there’s pressure to keep going. So they showed up, on time. Mostly.

Binder: My recall with the whole cast was that there was a little mumbling going on with a few of the actors who felt they should’ve been compensated more for the movie. I think Lucas did do that after the special, giving them small percentages.

Heider: We were doing a scene where Ford was sitting in the Millennium Falcon and he just wanted to get his lines done and he made that very clear. “Can we just do this? How long is this going to take?”

Harrison Ford (via press tour, 2011): It was in my contract. There was no known way to get out of it.

Heider: Mark Hamill was a good guy. He just had that normal-guy-trying-to-work vibe.

Mark Hamill (via Reddit, 2014): I thought it was a mistake from the beginning. It was just unlike anything else in the Star Wars universe. And I initially said that I didn't want to do it, but George said it would help keep Star Wars in the consciousness and I wanted to be a team player, so I did it. And I also said that I didn't think Luke should sing, so they cut that number.

Herman: I worked with the actors on a lot of the ancillary stuff. Honestly, they were just all so dopey.

III. BUILDING BOBA FETT


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

 

Before Acomba departed the production, he and Lucas reached out to a Canadian animation company, Nelvana, to prepare a nine-minute cartoon that would formally introduce one of the characters from The Empire Strikes Back: Boba Fett. The bounty hunter originated from a design for an unused Stormtrooper by production designers Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie; he was intended to make public appearances in the interim between films, initially popping up at the San Anselmo County Fair parade in September of 1978.

Michael Hirsh (Nelvana Co-Founder): David knew me personally. Lucas watched a special of ours, A Cosmic Christmas, that was just coming on air at the time. He asked people on his crew, including David, who we were. David said, "Oh, I know these guys." We were not a well-known company at time.

Clive Smith (Nelvana Co-Founder, Animation Director): Lucas supplied a script that he wrote. I think I probably had about two weeks to storyboard, then start character designs.

Hirsh: Frankly, I think the cartoon was more along the lines of what Lucas wanted to do in the first place—if he did the special, there was a possibility Fox and CBS would fund Star Wars cartoons. The variety show itself wasn’t something he was particularly interested in.

Smith: We ended up shooting slides of each storyboard frame. There must’ve been 300 to 400 frames. I loaded them up, put myself on a plane, and went down to San Francisco and did a presentation with a slide projector. I was in this room of people who were absolutely silent. Things that were funny, not a whimper or murmur. But at the end, George clapped.

Hirsh: CBS wanted him to use one of the L.A. studios, like Hanna-Barbera, who did most of the Saturday morning cartoons. But Lucas, from the beginning of his career, had a thing for independent companies, people who weren’t in L.A. The style of animation was modeled after [French artist] Jean “Moebius” Geraud, at Lucas’s request.


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

Smith: A lot of the designs and characters were inspired by Moebius, who did a lot of work for Heavy Metal magazine. We thought it was a good direction to point ourselves in. At the time, there was no Star Wars animation to follow.

Hirsh: There was a big deal made about the introduction of Boba Fett.

Smith: We needed to design Boba Fett, and all we had was some black and white footage of a costumed actor who had been photographed in someone’s backyard moving around. We took what was there and turned it into a graphic idea.

Hirsh: I directed the voice sessions. Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) had the most dialogue, and the other actors came in for short sessions. Harrison Ford and the other performers generally came in and nailed lines, whereas Mark Hamill was anxious to try different things. [Hamill would go on to a successful career in voiceover work.]

Herman: Michael got upset when I told him Princess Leia wore a belt. It was part of her costume, and they didn’t have it. Redoing it was going to cost them a lot of money.

Hirsh: That’s possible. Lucas was happy with how it turned out. After the special, we stayed in touch and we were developing a project with Lucasfilm and the Bee Gees. Nothing ever came of it.

IV. SPACING OUT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Nelvana had a relatively smooth journey to the finish line compared to the live-action production team. By the time Binder was prepared to shoot the climactic “Life Day” celebration with the entire cast and a group of robed Wookiees, there was virtually no money in the budget left for a large-scale spectacle.

Binder: No one ever mentioned there was no set for the closing. I was told by the art director we had no money for it in the budget. So I said, "No problem, just go out and buy every candle you can find in the store." We filled an empty stage with candles. I had experimented with this on another special, maybe a Victor Borge ice skating show. Candles in a dark environment give off an incredibly creative effect.

Herman: The sad truth is, everyone was so overwhelmed. Ken and Mitzie knew that last scene was a disaster. They came to me saying, "Help us." But George was out of the picture. It was a runaway production.

Ripps: Acomba and Lucas had walked away from it. They weren’t there to fight for anything.

Lucas: It just kept getting reworked and reworked, moving away into this bizarre land. They were trying to make one kind of thing and I was trying to make another, and it ended up being a weird hybrid between the two.

Heider: They were spending a lot of money for stage rental, lighting, a TV truck, and everyone was putting in really long hours. It translated into a big below-line budget problem. 

Herman: Honestly, a set wasn’t going to save that scene. All the Wookiees were wearing [consumer licensee] Don Post masks.

Premiering November 17, 1978, The Star Wars Holiday Special was seen by 13 million viewers, a significant but not overly impressive audience for the three-network television landscape of the era. It came in second to The Love Boat on ABC for its first hour, with a marked drop-off following the conclusion of the cartoon at the halfway point. Gurgling, apron-clad Wookiees, low-budget Imperial threats—they do nothing more sinister than trash Lumpy’s room—and an appearance by Jefferson Starship proved too bizarre for viewers.

Binder: I felt you have to open with a bang, really grab the audience, make it worth their time to sit and watch. The opening scene going on as long as it did was a killer for the TV audience.

Ripps: I had no idea what had happened to it. When it was broadcast, I had a party at my house and ordered catering. After the first commercial, I turned it off and said, "Let’s eat."

Binder: The day I finished shooting, I was on to other projects. It’s the only show I never edited or supervised the editing of. The Welches had the whole weight of the unedited special in their hands, and I questioned how much experience they had at that given they were songwriters.

Heider: Somebody made choices in terms of how long each scene would be on TV, and it's really painful.

Herman: I remember I was moving to Marin County the next day. I was staying at a friend’s house, and their son was a Star Wars fan. I had given him all the toys. Watching him watch it, he was really bored.

Binder: What I realized was, the public was not told this wasn’t going to be Star Wars. It was not the second movie. It was going to be a TV show to sell toys to kids. That was the real purpose of the show. It had nowhere near the budget of a feature film. [Lucasfilm and Kenner produced prototype action figures of Chewbacca’s family; they were never released.]

Heider: I didn’t watch it when it was on, but I do have a copy I bought several years ago on eBay. It’s not a great copy, but it’s enough to show how it was cut together. I haven’t been able to sit through whole thing at one time.

Herman: George hated it, but he knew there was nothing he could do about it.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

Binder: I never met Lucas, never got a phone call, anything. Which was disappointing to me. It was his show, he developed it. To totally walk away from it and critique it negatively was, I felt, not cool.

Ripps: One of the reasons I took the job was I thought it would be an annuity. Every year, I’d get a check for Star Wars.

Hirsh: I did watch it. I was happy with our contribution. It was a phenomenal opportunity for our little company. We got to work on the Droids and Ewoks animated shows later on.

Ripps: I still go out to dinners on the stories. Once, at a dinner party, one of the waiters had Star Wars tattoos up and down both of his arms. When he found out I wrote the special, we got better service than anyone in the restaurant.

Lucas: I’m sort of amused by it, because it is so bizarre. It's definitely avant garde television. It's definitely bad enough to be a classic.

Herman: The interesting thing is, the day after the special aired was the day of the Jonestown Massacre. It was just a bad time for everyone.

Dwight Hemion (via NPR, 2002): It was the worst piece of crap I’ve ever done.

This article originally ran in 2015.

Alone in the Dark: An Oral History of MTV's Fear

MTV
MTV

While shooting their 11th episode at the Mina Dos Estrellas mine in Michoacán, Mexico, in 2001, the production team behind the MTV reality series Fear encountered a very unusual situation. The show, which dropped five or six contestants into mysterious locations reputed to be haunted and dared them to spend time alone in the decrepit buildings, awarded a cash prize of $5000 to each person who successfully faced their anxieties without fleeing. Of the group, at least a handful would usually be left at the end of each show to collect their reward.

The mine was different. It was said to be patrolled by the spirits of miners who died while on duty, as well as the Nahual, a werewolf-esque creature. The sense of foreboding was too much to take. On the first night of shooting, all six contestants quit.

“Instead of being there two weeks to shoot, we were there a month,” Alissa Phillips, a production associate-turned-associate producer on the series, tells Mental Floss. “We had to fly an entirely new cast in to see if they could manage it.”

Fear, which ran for 16 episodes from 2000 to 2002, remains an anomaly in the reality genre. Unlike most docudramas, there was no camera crew in sight. The cast wore chest-mounted cameras and carried handheld recorders to provoke a feeling of real isolation. Nor did the production orchestrate artificial scares—apparitions, fleeting figures in the woods—like a modern haunted house. Instead, the contestants were largely left alone to get lost in their own heads, the weight of the violent, sometimes-murderous locations bearing down on them as they sat in pitch-black areas thought to have paranormal occupations, sometimes for hours. Some contestants successfully made it through to the end; others quit in their hotel room, before they had even arrived at the site.

For MTV, it was a departure from their typical reality fare like The Real World. For producers, it was an opportunity to craft a “real” horror movie, capturing the genuine reactions of hysterical, sobbing young adults who jumped at the sound of every wind gust and creaky floorboard. To get a sense of what it took to craft this real-life Paranormal Activity, Mental Floss spoke with members of the cast and crew. Here’s what they remember about the series, its challenges, and some truly terrifying moments they still can’t quite explain.

I: FEAR ITSELF

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

In 1999, MTV was riding a wave of inexpensive reality programming that brought disparate personalities together and forced them to either live together (The Real World) or compete against one another (Road Rules). Coupled with the music video countdown series Total Request Live, it remained a destination channel with a clear identity for young adults.

That brand was put to use by writing and producing partners Martin Kunert and Eric Manes, who conceived of a feature film pitch about an MTV-esque reality show that goes awry. Kunert and Manes began shopping the feature around town. While they eventually found interest, it wasn’t in quite the way they expected.

Martin Kunert (Co-Creator, Co-Executive Producer): 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. It was called Dare.

Beau Flynn (Executive Producer): I was obsessed with In Search Of, the old Leonard Nimoy show, and I was thinking of rebooting it. I merged the two ideas to create Fear and took it to Dawn Olmstead, who was one of my best friends from college.

Dawn Olmstead (Executive Producer): He sent over the feature idea. Beau and I discussed what would happen if we basically did it for real.

Kunert: The pitch was about these kids that go to [the allegedly ghost-occupied swamp area] Honey Island in Louisiana. And it turns out the place really is haunted and sh*t happens for real.

Eric Manes (Co-Creator, Co-Executive Producer): Basically, they said, “Instead of making this movie, why not actually make the show within the movie?”

Alissa Phillips (Associate Producer): I was working for Beau as his assistant at the time. Dawn had recently joined the company and had worked at MTV. They ended up selling it there as a show.

Olmstead: MTV thought it was a cool idea, but I think there was suspicion over whether we could pull it off and be scary. I flew with an executive to a run-through for the pilot and he told me on the plane, “Listen, no one is going to die. What are we actually shooting?”

Craig A. Colton (Editor): I was cutting World’s Wildest Police Chases when [Fear supervising executive producer] Cris Abrego called me out of the blue and said, “I’m executive producing this show called Fear. I think you’d be perfect for it. It’s a pseudo-game show where young contestants have to spend 72 hours in a haunted location. If they do, they win $5000.” I was like, “Huh.”

Phillips: In those days, reality was really still defined as Road Rules and The Real World and that was it.

Jonas Larsen (Segment Producer): It was a crazy idea. How were we going to execute this? How were we going to create a sense of these people actually being alone?

Colton: For me, haunted location shows had never quite worked. It was for the same reason people generally don’t put magic in movies. Audiences think, "Oh, it’s manipulated." Same with ghost stories. How do we know the location is haunted?

Olmstead: My thinking was, remember how scared you get watching a horror movie and seeing someone going down into a basement? The scariest parts are watching people nervously going somewhere.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

With the premise settled, producers set about creating an environment unique in television—isolating the cast from the production and allowing stationary mounted cameras in the location and on the cast's bodies to cover the action.

Kunert: The idea was to not have any interaction with the production. That was the way to get genuine fear. They felt completely isolated and alone.

Gordon Cassidy (Story Editor): With these ghost-hunting shows, one of the things that breaks the spell is the presence of a camera crew. How scared can you really be with a cameraman and soundman standing next to you?

Olmstead: The main problem was: it’s not going to be scary with producers around. We used every idea and innovation we could to make them feel like they were alone and abandoned.

Luis Barreto (Director): You can’t put the camera on the head. It moves too much. It had to be more of a shoulder or body mount.

Cassidy: They came up with the idea of people self-filming. It was a vest-worn camera on a gooseneck arm that extended out a little bit then pointed back to the face and shoulders for a medium close-up.

Phillips: Beau’s company produced Requiem for a Dream [in 2000], where the crew had built camera rigs that Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly wore for certain shots. We used the same basic rigs.

Flynn: We had a huge camera rig mounted on their chests for three or four shots. We did that, but with a lipstick cam.

Kunert: The vest cams didn't come from Requiem from a Dream. We designed and built originals in order to get close ups when people were alone.

Colton: We called it the Clam Cam. It was basically a harness that had arms with a camera mounted on the end. Their body was like the tripod. When they ran, you would get this incredible low-angle shot on their face. Because they were infrared, it didn’t matter how dark it was.

Cassidy: The effect on screen is disorienting and scary. The person is still but the background moves around them. It reinforces the fact they were in this space by themselves.

Colton: The Clam Cams were used for dramatic emphasis. When contestants freaked out, we went to the Clam Cam for that in-your-face Exorcist moment.

Cassidy: It changed the experience. We got real human behavior. It wasn’t mediated by the presence of a camera crew. The material was very compelling, spooky, and striking.

Colton: We also used it to build suspense. If someone is going down the stairs, we went to a close-up. Now the audience can’t see what they see.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

Colton: We also used it as a red herring. Say someone was going down stairs: We’d go to the Clam Cam and the audience would go, “Oh, something scary is about to happen.” But then nothing happened. It gave the audience a false sense of security.

Flynn: The important part of the pitch [to MTV] was that fear lives in the eyes, and you have to be sure to capture that.

Colton: In a couple of cases the camera would get knocked off-kilter if someone ran into something. One time half of someone’s face was showing, and that was actually really cool.

Olmstead: It was a happy accident. If they started running and bumped into a wall, the camera would move and you’d see a shoulder and hear someone breathing. They were too scared to adjust the camera, nor did we have access to say, “We can’t see you.” But when we saw the footage, it was scarier than if we had seen their face.

Colton: As the viewer, your back is to what’s coming around the corner. That’s the basis of all great horror films. It’s what the filmmaker chooses not to show you that’s scary.

To populate Fear, MTV turned to a reality TV staple: a revolving door of young, attractive 20-somethings orbiting Los Angeles, New York, and select casting hotspots around the country.

Barreto: MTV had a whole casting department. Fear wasn’t as heavy-duty as a show like Road Rules that had six weeks of interviews. It was much more truncated. We talked to them, found out what they were about. Some people came in with some preconceived ideas. Some were skeptics.

Olmstead: We were going for a Breakfast Club mix. Six people trapped in a building. How would you cast it as a movie? There’s a prom queen, a nerd.

Flynn: Breakfast Club is exactly right. I grew up on John Hughes movies. How do we put together a grouping of people that will be interesting?

Kunert: We wanted people who had some type of big emotional issue in their life that was boiling to the surface. Some big decision they had to make.

Manes: People who are looking for something emotionally are open to things. Maybe things in their life aren’t going according to plan. Maybe they’re in a fight with their parents. That just gave us stuff to work with.

Phillips: We needed kids who were as tough as possible. If someone in an audition was saying, “I’m spiritual, I believe in the paranormal,” it was like, “Ohhhh, probably not.” We were looking for people who were cynical, who would look into the camera and say, “I want the money. You’re not going to scare me.” Because people would just quit the first night.

Steven Breier (Contestant, “West Virginia Penitentiary,” Episode One): They asked a bunch of weird questions. Are you afraid of spiders? Are you scared of the dark?

Jason Harbison (Contestant, “Mina Dos Estrellas,” Episode 12): They were interviewing people in Birmingham, Alabama, with one group of six people per table. Me and my brother both went. They asked questions. I remember being asked why we wanted to be on the show. One guy gave some bullsh*t answer like he wanted to study the science of ghosts. The interviewer got to me and I said, “I just want to be on TV and meet some hot chicks.”

Cassidy: They did a good job of putting together people who were contrasting types. One was athletic, one was skeptical of ghosts, another was a can-do guy. It was a pretty good cross-section of people.

Flynn: One thing we learned is that in extreme situations, when you’re feeling vulnerable and afraid, it’s very bonding. We drop all the presentational qualities that we have.

Barreto: We told them, “Be ready to go. Bring one bag. Don’t bring a phone. Tell your friends they won’t hear from you for five days.” They’d get taken somewhere, get blindfolded, go to a hotel room with no television, and left alone for 48 hours. We treated them like prisoners.

Harbison: I got to Mexico City and the driver was kinda hot. I guess that part doesn't matter. But she was kind of cold and callous toward me and wouldn’t make conversation. I eventually asked her about it and she said, "Well, they asked me to be like that."

Olmstead: Sometimes they’d be flown to one city but then driven to another. They had no communication with the outside world. We were trying to de-stimulate them.

Kunert: If they feel safe, they’re not going to react. We tenderized them in the hotel room. They’d go in front of the cameras and say, “This is not what I expected.”

Manes: They had a VCR in the hotel room or safe house, but they could only watch horror films.

Harbison: Poltergeist was one. The Shining was another.

Barreto: Friday night, someone shows up. They get blindfolded. No one tells them where they’re going. Once you get to the safe house, good luck.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

Phillips: We put bags over their heads. That was not fake. They never knew where they were going. One girl vomited in her bag. I was like, “Is this dangerous?”

Olmstead: She wasn’t the only one who puked.

Phillips: We left one kid with a bag over his head for hours. We did some evil things.

Breier: Someone woke us up and put a pillowcase over my head and walked me out to a car. I could tell other people were in the car. We drove around for about an hour. When we got out, it was like 3:30 in the morning. They told us to put our hands on the shoulders of the person in front of us.

Flynn: We didn’t want them talking or planning beforehand. We wanted all of them to meet for the first time.

Manes: Sometimes people would get there and say, “It’s MTV, nothing is going to happen.” We made it clear that MTV is not there.

Breier: I thought, well, while this is scary, and maybe you might get hurt tripping in the dark, it’s not a situation that will create grave harm.

Manes: By the time participants actually ended up walking into the location, they were already so prepared to be frightened, so concerned about where they were, that even if they thought it was a gimmick when they auditioned, they were worked up by the time we finished with them in the prep stage.

Barreto: I’m an old-school reality producer. I believe there’s a process to getting people ready to be on set. It’s a holistic thing. The whole approach has to work. Participants have to come ready to play ... They were primed already. You just had to keep satisfying the expectations of what they’re about to go through.

Major Dodge (Contestant, “Mina Dos Estrellas,” Episode 12): They’d mess with your sleep. You’d be up all day and awake at night. I knew they were doing certain things to get us to break mentally a little bit.

Breier: One contestant ... had a little pagan altar set up and said she practiced witchcraft. Before we even started, she left.

Colton: It’s almost like horse racing. You put the horse in the starting gate and it’s their instinct to run but they can’t. When you ring the bell, the horse takes off. That’s what the contestants were.

Flynn: Because of my passion for In Search Of, I wanted to educate people about these places. All of that stuff was real. We’d research it and incorporate it into the episodes. It was a great way to tell the backstory, to merge it with what the modern college kids were experiencing.

Colton: We had a documentary on top of the show that explained why the location was haunted. It communicated the story to contestants. We saw it visually and they heard it verbally. It was also to sell the audience—like, OK, there could really be some paranormal activity in this location.

Cassidy: They’d be told of the haunted spots.

Breier: You got your head filled with stuff before you even got there.

Colton: We might exaggerate the story to build some suspense.

Manes: We also had an insurance waiver. Instead of saying something like, "Hey, we don’t take responsibility if something happens,” it would say, “In case you get dismembered or blinded here …” We built up the feeling of danger.

Even with a cast on edge, no one at MTV was entirely convinced a show about contestants grappling with their own internal anxieties could be effectively communicated on television.

Olmstead: I think there was some trepidation about, could we capture scariness on TV when we knew no one would die? Could we capture what it feels like to be scared out of your wits at a haunted place? Would it be too scary and people would quit in five minutes? We kept adjusting as we went along.

Manes: We started working on [the feature film idea for] Dare before The Blair Witch Project, but their [success] definitely helped us out.

Olmstead: I think Blair Witch influenced people who wrote about Fear, but it wasn’t like Blair Witch inspired it. What I do think happened is Blair Witch helped the network feel confident that they would find an audience for it.

Manes: I think part of what helped the show was that the network expected it to be a complete disaster. They left us alone. No one at MTV wanted to get blamed for it, and so they allowed us to get crazy.

II: SCREAM FACTORY

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

Before Fear went to series, the network ordered a pilot that took place in West Virginia State Penitentiary, a notoriously brutal facility located in Moundsville that had been open from 1876 to 1995 and was said to be inhabited by the spirits of the estimated 100 inmates who had met violent ends via execution. The objective was simple: Walk into the darkest recesses of the building and see if you had the nerve to stay put.

Phillips: Martin and Eric wanted to go to the prison first. They really honed in on it. It was included in the original pitch document.

Flynn: There was a lot of history there. When the prison was built, it was on an Indian burial ground. They flattened the land and put the prison on top of it. Ultimately, it was shut down. There was more death and murder per square foot there than anywhere. It was a lot of bad mojo.

Olmstead: It was a great story. The idea of putting young adults and dropping them off after midnight in a prison seemed really frightening. The reason we played with the idea of mental institutions and prisons was because we knew the idea that, if you believed in ghosts, and someone died while being incarcerated, you could be trapped there forever.

Larsen: Martin, [director] George [Verschoor], and I went to scout it and start the documentary process. We decided, “You know what, let’s see if we can get some local kids and see what their reaction is.” Have them come and hang out with us at the prison and test it out. There was a place in the basement where, during a riot, some inmates had killed some other inmates, decapitated them, and played soccer with their heads. I told the kid, “Here’s what you need to do. Go into the room with a video camera and spend 15 minutes by yourself.” I think we offered a couple hundred bucks.

What he didn’t know was that [we had someone] hiding in a hallway leading down to the room with a little metal chain. He jingled it and the kid freaked out and came screaming out of the room. I said, “Listen, we’ll give you $500 to go back into the room.” Then it was $1000. He wouldn’t. That’s when we looked at each other and knew we had a show. It’s all in your head. It doesn’t take much to tap into that fear.

Cassidy: Frankly, the space even in the footage was scary and intimidating. It was a real penitentiary and real violence occurred within its walls.

Phillips: It was terrifying for the crew. No one wanted to go to the bathroom alone. Actually, no one did in any location.

Cassidy: The narrative device imposed was that once they entered the penitentiary and were given a home base in the prison chapel, they could kind of relax and talk to one another. In the room, there was a computer with instructions on what they had to do next.

Phillips: On a pilot, you don’t really know what you’re doing. I was not sure it was going to work—kids with cameras in an enormous location. Luckily, we got incredible footage.

Kunert: The Sugar Shack was scary.

Cassidy: That was the inmate rec center. There was a lot of graffiti on the walls. It was a spooky place.

Breier: That was the worst for me. It’s a big, open room with nothing in it, just pillars. People could be hiding in there. I didn’t know if there were actors ready to jump out and scare us.

Manes: That was genuinely scary. I personally did not want to go in there. I felt an awful, evil presence. My body and soul were telling me to get the hell out.

Phillips: The crew did not want to rig the Sugar Shack alone. It was an intense room, freezing and dark.

Cassidy: For the documentary material, a production crew traveled there and interviewed inmates who spent years in Moundsville. People were telling me the most frightening moments of the show were getting interviews from some of those guys and hearing accounts of what had gone on in the old days. It was chilling.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

Flynn: I saw water shooting up from the urinal. I know Dawn had a similar experience.

Olmstead: I went down a hallway there and there was no running water in the place. I get into a room and there is water and sludge dripping out of stones in the walls. I grabbed a piece of paper and drew a cross on it.

Phillips: I did a dry run with a walkie-talkie and headset and no flashlight to test the directions we would give them. It’s pitch-black and I’m being read the same instructions the kids would get the next day. So someone says, “Climb up the ladder in front of you.” I got to the top and couldn’t see anything. There is no light at all. Now I hear, “Walk three paces forward” in my ear. So I was standing there and heard someone say, “No,” but not in my ear. I vividly remember someone saying no. So I relayed back, "I’m not doing this.”

The next day, someone from the crew that was rigging said, “Thank god you didn’t do that.” It turns out there was an enormous trap door in that part of the prison, where they put hay down for horses. It was 10 or 15 feet wide. If I’d proceeded three feet, I’d have fallen to my death.

Cassidy: There was a young woman in the pilot who was very sensitive to psychic things. She was open to the experience and was having some intense experiences and ultimately decided it wasn’t healthy for her to continue putting herself in those places.

Flynn: Whether you believe in ghosts or spirits or not, one thing is undeniable and that’s the energy. Just like you can walk into someone’s house and feel good energy, there’s bad energy. Walking into that prison was terrifying. We shot for one night there. We didn’t even need two nights.

Olmstead: After shooting, we went to a diner ... A telephone pole cracked in half, this giant telephone pole, and almost killed all of us in the van. It made the local news. This was after the first night of filming.

Flynn: It came out of nowhere. The lights went out in the Denny’s and the pole just fell down.

Larsen: Eric and I were in one car and they were in the other, passing each other. There were fire trucks and people in hazmat suits. The guy directing traffic just left and we kept going. Police got really mad at us for driving through a detour.

Flynn: When I got back from Moundsville, my house had been infested with rats. That was odd and terrifying.

via GIPHY

Despite the near-fatalities, the crew got what it needed. Of the six contestants recruited for the pilot, three remained. To finish the challenge, a contestant named Ryan successfully pulled off a tarp from the prison’s electric chair. Though it was just a cloth on top of a seat, his apprehension cemented Fear as a show where the simplest dares proved most effective.

Larsen: We used the actual electric chair from the exhibit at the prison.

Cassidy: The electric chair reaction was right on the edge of total fear, but also kind of very big. Like he enjoyed it but was also genuinely terrified.

Phillips: What we learned is that it was better to give them real goals than to just sit there and get terrified. It gave them a sense of purpose and stabilized them a little bit. Like, “Document this, find this.” Otherwise they would often just quit.

Kunert: MTV did a test screening and their method was, if someone in the audience says, “I’ve seen something like this before,” it would never get on the air. Or, “I could see this on another network,” that wouldn’t get on air, either. MTV wanted innovation.

They got it. Debuting September 21, 2000, Fear (sometimes styled as MTV's Fear) resonated with audiences in a post-Blair Witch culture, living vicariously through the frayed nerves of contestants. Producers were already scouting future locations.

Phillips: We had concepts for different experiences. We wanted an old hotel so we did [Poconos resort] Buck Hill Inn. That was like, where can we find The Shining? We wanted a former sanitarium, so we found Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts. We conceived of an experience and then sought to find it.

Olmstead: We did a lot of research for what the most haunted places in America were. We wanted it to be like a movie, a visual feast.

Kunert: It was the job of a producer or associate producer to go to a location and spend the night alone. If they weren’t scared, we weren’t going to send a whole crew.

Olmstead: We wanted to know if it felt haunted and if we could tell a story about it.

Phillips: Jonas Larsen scouted a location. He is the most level-headed, cool, no-nonsense guy, and he came back with a story that blew our minds.

Larsen: I went to this island in upstate New York to look at a castle that had been built in the 1800s by a guy for his wife who died before it was ever completed. A pastor lived there and did Sunday services. The caretaker took me there in his speedboat. I spent time touring. It was funny in a Scooby-Doo kind of way. Basically, there was a network of secret passageways in the house. There were even eyeholes cut out of paintings so you could spy on people. There was also a jail cell, in what was supposed to be a private residence, which made me curious.

The pastor invited me to spend the night instead of going all the way back to the hotel. At about 3 or 4 a.m., I felt a tug on my sheets. I had a feeling of not being able to move, like someone had taken the sheets and was holding them down. I laid like that, awake, like, “What the f*** is happening?” All of a sudden, I felt it let go. I turned on the light and there was nothing there. I did not go back to sleep.

Flynn: Jonas was a total non-believer. 

Larsen: I travel quite a bit. Your sleep habits get messed up. It could’ve been a combination of being in an unfamiliar place and jet lag, or it could’ve been some paranormal thing. I have no idea.

Olmstead: He was sure he had a little PTSD. He felt he was attacked in his bedroom.

Flynn: He came back, sat with me and Dawn, and said, “I’m quitting the show.” He felt he had been abducted by a ghost.

Larsen: [Laughs] They’re embellishing. I produced the rest of the episodes.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

It could be hard for viewers to grasp how intimidating some of the show’s locations could be. In addition to multiple prisons and mental institutions, Fear eventually made it to the purportedly haunted USS Hornet; the Duggan Brothers cement factory, which had seen numerous industrial accidents; and the Ki Sugar Mill, a shuttered Hawaiian location reportedly harboring a strange subterranean creature.

Colton: These places were huge. Hundreds of thousands of square feet. Just to go down into one of these places in the dark, it’s a headf*** right off the bat.

Phillips: The early rule was: If it has a soda machine, we’re not going.

Barreto: It had to have a history. It had to be old. That was an environment conducive to having that kind of experience.

Phillips: We didn’t want to go to places you had heard of. We weren’t going to the Winchester House.

Colton: These buildings had been empty for decades.

Phillips: We had [psychic] Carla Baron come in advance and decide where the paranormal readings were. They’d tell us, “Be in this room.” Carla was lovely and intense. We all believed in her abilities.

Carla Baron (Medium): Cris Abrego called me, or I called him. A friend of mine knew Bonnie Hammer at MTV and suggested me for the series. So we talked and I said, "You should change the name of the show from Fear to MTV’s Fear because the numerology would be much more successful for you." He said, “You’re freaking me out. The network just called and wants to change the name to MTV’s Fear.”

Manes: We did all the work before the contestants showed up. The whole crew worked like crazy to lay all the cable, set up the dares, and put the cameras in the right places.

Barreto: Someone told me we laid down 10,000 feet of cable in some places.

Flynn: We were maybe using more cable than the Super Bowl.

Phillips: This was long before the idea of remote cameras. We rigged cable for all of the cameras.

Kunert: We had to make sure the places were safe so no one hurt themselves.

Phillips: The leper colony in Canada is probably my most memorable location. It blew my mind. It was this huge, abandoned city, like everyone had just suddenly left.

Colton: The Boettger Brewery [a.k.a. Lemp Mansion in St. Louis, Missouri, where multiple people had committed suicide on the premises] stood out for me. There was tons of debris around. Old tables, desks, vats, junk. It looked like a deserted supernatural environment.

Phillips: The locations were terrifying even during the day. If they had electricity in the past 50 years, we were psyched.

Manes: Some of these places had been condemned. You couldn’t trust the floors.

Baron: I’d go through rooms and see what latent spiritual activity was there—if there was anything dangerous, anything unresolved, if there were spirits that needed to move on.

Phillips: We usually renamed the places for security reasons. Sometimes we had to beg for permission and had to promise [site representatives] they wouldn’t end up with people descending on them.

Olmstead: For Fairfield State Hospital, we were on the phone with the mayor, then the governor’s office. It was an old, abandoned mental institution where horrible things happened and they didn’t want it to look bad for the state. So we wound up changing the name to St. Agnes, after Agnes of God.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

Oddly, many of the truly unsettling experiences surrounding Fear happened off-camera, when the production team was getting situated in their haunts.

Barreto: St. Agnes, that place was not good. There were weird cold spots in the rooms. Half the room would be cold, half wouldn’t be. There were nasty smells all over the place. I actually got sick.

Flynn: There were these incredible cold patches in places where we knew bad things had happened, but there was no window or breeze of any kind underground. There was no explanation for it.

Olmstead: I felt a lot of weird things. Sometimes you’d be in one room that was identical to another and just feel like your soul dropped out. The next day, a grip would refuse to go in the same room to lay cable. The psychic would come in and start crying, saying many people had been murdered in the room.

Manes: One instance I won’t forget. It was maybe in a hospital. One contestant was walking down a hallway underground from one building to another. She was talking to the others back at the safe house. Everything is fine until she walks near this room numbered 572, which was in the documentary. She said, “Oh, wow, I feel this weird cold air right there.” All of a sudden, her cameras went dead, the light in the hallway went dead, the flashlight went dead. These were all on independent battery sources. All three went dead at the same time.

Phillips: We were at the Buck Hill Inn, and Luis was the director on that one. I looked over and as he was talking, blood started running out of his nose. It was some kind of asbestos issue. We were all getting sick.

Barreto: That’s true. That did happen. However, I did get nosebleeds from time to time before I worked on the series so I’m not certain the location had anything to do with the bleeding.

Flynn: I’m not sure where we were, but there was a time when a crew member always felt like he had a hand on his back. One time he took a digital picture and in the center of the frame was something that looked like a tear. It was like a rip in the space-time continuum.

Baron: A crew member got pushed down the stairs at the penitentiary by something. He was by himself. He fell all the way down. He was so frightened he almost quit the show.

Phillips: At the leper colony, we went to the bathroom in groups. Three of us were working there late at night. There was a house near where we were shooting, which was exciting, since we used Porta-Potties a lot. So I walked up the steps with Jenn, the accountant, next to me along with another girl. I went to touch the door and the door handle just turned and opened itself. The door swung open. We all just ran and screamed. No one would touch the house after that. It became this legendary story.

Baron: I went back to my hotel when we were doing Eastern State Penitentiary and something followed me back there. I got a call asking if this was Carla. It was someone with an Indian accent. I called production right away and asked if they had sent anyone over. They said no one had called me. We signed agreements where we can’t tell anyone where we were going. Nobody knew I was there. I called the front desk. There were no calls that night. I talked to someone for five minutes who knew my name.

At midnight, there’s a knock on the door so loud it could wake the dead. I said, “Who’s there?” Someone said, “housekeeping.” I swung the door open. There are 50 rooms to either side of me. No one was there.

Phillips: Eric and I went to the Ki sugar plantation in Hawaii a week early to get a feel for things. There was this two-person subterranean elevator that took you down, then you’d get into a boat in some water tunnels. It was like a mile underground. We saw this huge, white, prehistoric creature illuminated by a flashlight—this biological creature.

Manes: I don’t remember the details but I definitely remember going down in that nasty old elevator with Alissa, in the dark, and getting really freaked out to the point that we turned right around and got the hell out of there. I don’t even remember making it out of the elevator. I think we saw something nasty stuck to the wall with our flashlights and said, “Screw this,” and high-tailed it out of there as fast as possible.

Phillips: It was this bone white crab thing crawling in this place with no light. It was unbelievable. We started rowing back. No one else ever saw it. We prayed the cast would.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

With the environment of each episode carefully laid out, producers largely sat back and allowed the foreboding atmosphere to influence the contestants’ behavior.

Colton: In a zero-visibility environment, your mind becomes a vehicle for some intense hallucinations. You think you’re seeing things and you’re not. Their minds were their own worst enemies.

Phillips: We had to run multiple kids through the same dare sometimes to get one clean enough to use. They’re screaming and dropping the camera.

Baron: I said, "Look, someone needs to talk to the kids before they go into these locations. They have no idea what they’re dealing with."

Olmstead: If a dare didn’t further the story, or if it didn’t play out on camera, we’d cut it. Sometimes we wanted to release tension or wanted something to be funny, like a good horror movie.

Harbison: They didn’t show my dare for some reason. I had a dare where I went into a cave that was boarded up where they supposedly trapped one of these Nahuals. I was supposed to tear it down with a pickaxe and stand there with my back to the entrance in complete silence. I did it, but they didn’t show it.

Cassidy: They’d split up into teams and use walkie-talkies to communicate. The radios would crackle and break up and people would get scared.

Colton: They would psych themselves up to the point where any little sound would set them off.

Manes: They would freak the f*** out.

Kunert: I remember the first time we had a séance, the network said, “No more séances.”

Larsen: That was a kid performing a séance in the basement of the Fairfield asylum. He started speaking in tongues and acting weird. It was like he was communicating with the dead. Watching it live, I was like, “What the hell is going on?” It freaked him out and freaked us out, like, “Wow, maybe we better not mess with a Ouija board.” It was the last time we used that.

Baron: One kid had marks on her leg that no one could have made. She was in a room all by herself.

Phillips: MTV was supportive except for the Civil War episode. We did a branding on a person. It never made it on-screen. We rigged it with dry ice so it wasn’t an actual branding—it wouldn’t harm you. But it looked like the person was getting branded. We even ran a little card onscreen saying, “No one was harmed.” But he thought he was being burned, yeah.

Larsen: We didn’t want to psychologically damage anyone. It was supposed to be fun.

Colton: The contestants were never fake. They would have to be a great actor to do some of the shit they did, bouncing off the walls and going apesh*t.

Phillips: We wanted to do a werewolf episode and thought we could expand to the middle ground of a mythical monster. That was the big episode [“Mina Dos Estrellas”] where everyone quit. There was one guy in the two-parter who was the last one by himself on the first night. Everyone else had quit. He’s sitting there by himself just looking up at the ceiling and my heart went out to him. He was scared but he didn’t want to quit. We really wanted him to go on.

Dodge: I didn’t care if six people had quit. In my mind, nothing was going to happen to me at all. If it did, I’d be rich.

Kunert: That episode had a guy climbing down into a pit and crying for his mother.

Dodge: I did ask for my mom. “I want my mom.” I was playing into it.

via GIPHY

Harbison: I do remember thinking he was a little too hysterical for what was going on, but I also looked at it like, I wasn’t down there with him. I don’t know what he’s going through. I’m focused on my sh*t.

Dodge: I was down there for a while. There were real bats flying down in the pit and that was freaky.

Olmstead: I was there watching footage live and more than once I felt like, “Should we pull the plug on this?” It seemed like he was about to break.

Dodge: So many people gave me sh*t for that, friends I wrestled with in college. I was like, “Dude, I’m trying to get camera time.” I never felt afraid in any way or worried.

While some contestants expressed little concern over the potential for paranormal contact, others claimed to have had a first-hand experience.

Barreto: We were at a military academy that had been open in the 1890s. The dare was for a woman to go down into a subterranean room and stand in a cross position, waiting for some spirit to reach out to her. We’re monitoring it and hearing what sounds like someone having sex. Like, whoa, this is weird. She comes back to the safe house and explains that she was molested by a ghost.

Baron: When people quit, they did it with real tears. They’d be shaking. It was psychological terror.

Barreto: Two years ago, I was sitting in a cafe in Los Angeles. A woman walks in and says, “Hey, aren’t you Luis Barreto?” It was the same woman. She introduced herself as the woman who had been molested by a ghost. I thought she had gone crazy. She said, “No, no, I got back home and was fine.”

Phillips: Some kids were rocks. Watch the Danvers episode. This one guy had been there for hours by himself. Some kids blew us away with their fortitude.

III: FEAR ITSELF

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

As Fear continued airing on MTV in 2001 and into 2002, audiences were sometimes left wondering if some sequences had been enhanced by the production. Today, the question remains: Were the slamming doors and howling winds created for effect, or did they have an organic—and potentially paranormal—origin?

Kunert: The thing we found out from the beginning was if you do gimmick stuff, people will yelp, but it’s better to let their imaginations go and have their own fears play out. That’s how you come up with unique reactions. That’s why it’s called Fear.

Manes: The two of us resisted any manipulation. It would ruin the show.

Flynn: We never had to do anything to augment people being scared. A lot of reality shows do what they have to do, but there was nothing we did to accentuate it. It was very organic. There were no special effects or boogeymen to scare people.

Cassidy: You didn’t have to come up with fake scares. The places themselves were frightening. You wanted to keep that feeling of it being authentic.

Breier: I remember hearing wind or other noises, but the prison was so big and vacant with so many openings, the elements could have played a factor. I don’t think they were staging anything.

Olmstead: We wanted the viewer to go, “Oh, no, don’t get the Ouija board out!” That’s where the manipulation came. If you were in an 1800s prison and learned it was on top of an old Indian burial ground, where is the last place you’d want to be alone? We’d send the contestant to that place and the viewer would have the information why it would be so scary to go there by yourself.

Phillips: I can say with absolute impunity we worked so hard to deliver a truthful show with integrity. Reality TV was not like it is now. We wanted to achieve as much of a paranormal experience for the cast as possible.

Olmstead: Most of the noises were explainable to the place. A draft may have closed a door. I would say there were times we manipulated the time frame of the reaction and the sound.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

Larsen: There might be some well-placed sounds or something mechanical, where you’d brush your leg against something. Sometimes we’d use things like that, but for the most part, it was their own imagination.

Colton: We never said that we would show you ghosts. What we said was, “We told the contestants there are ghosts. Now watch them freak out.”

Cassidy: Even with The Real World, there were early discussions of, “What happens if it’s boring? If people are just sitting there?” But anything contrived reads as contrived. Anything you do where viewers can point and say, “That’s a piece of fishing line tied to a chair,” once you do it once, you break your contract with the audience. Nothing was ever arranged to move. In a dark, scary place, the mind provides you with enough.

Olmstead: We knew if they caught us doing something, they would be snapped out of the experience. And in very large places, like an abandoned cement factory, you’re gonna hear stuff.

Dodge: Some moments I was like, “MTV has set this sh*t up well.” They asked me to put some goat blood down in the pit, then the wind starts swirling. And then I hear some evil growling like right outside. There’s no one down there but me. Like an evil sound, “Ehhhhhhh.” That’s a really good sound effect, or there is something really evil out here.

The other question: Could a reality series really be filmed with virtually no intervention from the production?

Manes: We had one person who was on location in case they had technical difficulties, if their camera batteries died or the camera wasn’t working. You couldn’t go days without a working camera. What they didn’t know is that the [tech] person was an off-duty police office and paramedic.

Barreto: There were people they could speak to, but not daily. It’s not like, “Hey, guys, come here.” Once they were inserted, like on the USS Hornet in the bowels of the ship, they’re committed to having the experience.

Colton: You have to remember, we had people walking in the dark. We had to have certain safety measures in place to make sure they didn’t get injured. People were placed in the location to make sure they were OK and then we had the control room to monitor shots.

Manes: Having a dropped radio signal was a nightmare. We wanted them talking with each other. The problem was going underground into cellars with thick walls. A lot of these structures were old and built solid.

As the series progressed, producers had more ambitious plans. But by the standards of the reality genre, Fear was quickly becoming an expensive proposition for a budget-conscious MTV.

Kunert: We wanted to do the catacombs in Europe.

Olmstead: We wanted to go abroad and take it to the next level.

Flynn: We had a huge list of locations we wanted to explore. We had big plans to go to castles in Europe with these thousand-year histories. We were thinking of doing celebrity Fear.

Barreto: You’d work during the day, then be up all night for three days, then travel someplace else to do it all over again. We’d be on the road for seven or eight weeks at a time. It was cumbersome. You can’t move all that equipment and all that cable by air.

Manes: One of the problems we had with MTV which seems comical now is that the technology at the time was so incredibly expensive. Just the [file] storage alone. Now I have as much storage at home as we were using then. But the space for the footage from all the cameras running all the time was a huge thing.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

Kunert: They wanted us to cut the documentary we showed to participants. Well, if you don’t feed their imagination, you won’t have the same result.

Barreto: They cut the budget on the second season. They wanted us to spend less money and have the same show.

Despite the solid ratings, Fear was canceled in early 2002.

Colton: It was a big hit. We were shocked when it got canceled.

Phillips: I remember being sad about it but I had also been traveling literally for two years. There was a phase of my life where I vividly recall being at the airport and having no clue where I was or what plane I was supposed to catch. I didn’t know what state I was in. It was amazing and exhausting.

Kunert: There was a rumor someone got killed on the show, but that wasn’t true.

Larsen: There was a regime change. John Miller, the executive who greenlit the show, left. That might’ve had something to do with it.

Manes: The ratings were fantastic. That wasn’t the issue. It was relatively expensive compared to other things MTV was doing at the time. Kids [on other shows] are just hanging out. Our was many times more expensive.

Colton: It doesn’t matter how expensive something is. Nothing is cheaper than a hit, and MTV was not spending a lot of money on the episodes. They were only giving out a prize of five grand! People were sh*tting their pants on camera for $5000!

Olmstead: MTV came to Beau and I and asked us to halve the budget. We were unwilling to do it. We knew what it took to make the show. We loved the show and didn’t want to make a lesser version of it. We thought they might come back and say, “OK, do it,” but that didn’t happen.

Cassidy: Most reality shows don’t travel every week. It took real money and real manpower and effort to do it right.

Kunert: Even today, it probably cost twice as much as an average reality show does in 2018.

Phillips: Reality became very cheap to produce. Get one cameraman instead of 70 unmanned cameras.

Colton: What I heard is that because of 9/11, the idea of people running around in the dark and screaming was too close to home after the Towers had come down. People were in rubble. MTV said, “We’re not sure the public really wants to watch this anymore.”

Manes: After 9/11, they did express concern people would be flipping through channels and hit someone running down a dark hallway screaming for their life. We were never told it was the reason, but we felt it was a combination of that [and money].

Colton: They might have cloaked it in a budget situation but look what happened after 9/11. You had a lot of feel-good, touchy-feely comedies.

Flynn: I think something happened at MTV where they didn’t want a show with people in isolated spaces.

Cassidy: All the networks reevaluated their content in light of 9/11. They might have wondered if it seemed exploitative.

Barreto: I think MTV choked. It could’ve been a perennial series like Real World. But they rolled up the carpet on it.

Although it’s not commercially available and rarely seen in reruns, Fear fans have kept word of the series alive by uploading episodes on YouTube. More than 16 years after the last episode aired, it continues to be an inspiration to other paranormal-themed projects both on television and in film.

Baron: MTV was pioneering with this. I met the [cast of the Syfy docuseries] Ghost Hunters, Jason [Hawes] and Grant [Wilson], and they thanked me. They said, “Carla, if Fear hadn’t happened, our show wouldn’t exist.” We were the first show of its kind.

Colton: [The 2007 found-footage movie] Paranormal Activity was just a higher-budget Fear. People looking into cameras and talking.

Cassidy: If you look at Paranormal Activity, I think the visual tropes of the show—that grainy, dark video that conveyed authenticity—lived on.

Breier: It was a time when reality TV was a new concept. It wasn’t established as the successful thing it became.

Colton: I think if you brought back Fear today it would have to be more high-tech. I think the tastes of the audience have changed.

Cassidy: Like with a lot of reality stuff, the bar has been raised. At the time, there wasn’t a huge plethora of supernatural ghost hunting shows. But human behavior is always fascinating. It could work. Visually, we have more tools to cover the experience.

Colton: The show came together in a way you hadn’t seen before and that’s why it sticks with people. If I run into a younger person and we’re talking horror movies and I ask if they’ve seen Fear, they say, “No, but I’ve heard so much about it.”

Manes: It wasn’t a game show. People weren’t competing against each other. They all got rewarded if someone finished and made it all the way through. It was designed so they would love each other and try to support one another. It gave the show a different feeling from what reality shows later became, which was nasty.

A screen shot from the MTV reality series 'Fear'
MTV

Dodge: I’m still friends with Jason and [contestant] Adesina on social media. There’s definitely a bond there.

Breier: At a young age, it opened up my mind to seeing how a group of human beings from different walks of life can quickly become dependent on someone to help you through a situation.

Olmstead: In a moment of fear, they could reveal something about themselves. Maybe it was that they were gay and coming out, or maybe it was issues with their father. The fear could break and rebuild you in the same episode.

Flynn: It was an opportunity for people to not be afraid anymore. Maybe they were embracing sexuality they had kept to themselves. They felt a real sense of accomplishment.

Manes: If people realize I was involved in Fear, they usually ask, “Did you believe it? Did you believe the places were haunted?” I come from a skeptical state of mind, but crew members had experiences that were unexplainable. It opened my mind to maybe there’s something more than I believe there was. These places were genuinely scary.

Flynn: I learned a lot from Fear that I took into making movies, like [2005's] The Exorcism of Emily Rose. There’s a theory and a concept about opening yourself up to these things. If you allow yourself to see the devil, the devil can see you.

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