On Darkness, which is yet another twist on the survival show genre, three participants enter a pitch-black space in separate locations. They have six days to find each other and exit out the other side.
In the first episode—which airs tonight at 10 on Discovery as a “sneak peak” of the new series (another episode airs tomorrow at the same time)—the meeting between two participants is joyous. But when they meet the third contestant, it’s terrifying, because he’s suffering from delusions and hallucinations.
It turns out that days in complete darkness starts to screw with your brain, and hallucinations are common. That’s why they have just six days to exit, we’re told, because beyond that, they could damage themselves psychologically or physically.
They are doing this not to win a prize, but just for the experience. So how does that work? And how does a show that takes place nearly entirely in darkness, with no light whatsoever, even make sense as TV?
I talked with Chris Grant, the CEO of Electus and an executive producer of the show, who said the idea came originated with the Discovery Channel. “I got a phone call from the network they were interested in exploring the survival space in a new and unique way, and they wanted to possibly explore not only the physical aspects of the genre, but the psychological impact.”
He said they thought it “could be perhaps thriller-esque” with “a real psychological angle, in addition to physical.”
“What inherently scares people? Darkness, the dark, came up pretty early on. It’s obviously a very very relatable fear,” he said, “one that plagues us from the very beginnings of our lives but doesn’t really ever end.”
How and where Darkness was filmed
It is scary to watch the participants lose it, and the episode I watched focuses more on their mental state than survival. There’s a search for water, and a few worms that are eaten, but otherwise it’s mostly about navigating and staying sane.
A disclaimer at the top of the episode says “a psychologist and medic are monitoring them at all times,” and I asked for specifics: Were they being checked on a regular basis, as participants on other survival shows are?
Grant wasn’t forthcoming with details—he said “you always have doctors and psychologists on standby and available … because you can’t anticipate what’s going to happen”—and when I asked if that meant they were on call (versus checking participants regularly), he said “yes.”
“This is much more of an experiment than it is any kind of game to me,” Grant said, and he’s not kidding: One participant told the Star-Telegram he received only “around $2,000” for six days in the dark with strangers.
As Discovery’s announcement of the show said, producing it “has only become possible in recent years thanks to the latest advances in infrared, thermal and remote imaging technologies,” and that technology is used “by a highly-specialized team specifically trained to shoot in extreme environments with minimal interference.”
So the crew can see the participants, but they can’t see anything. The show almost comically illustrates this by occasionally giving us the participant’s perspective: a black, empty screen.
Each episode moves to a new location, which are typically caves and mines.
Because there haven’t been other reality TV shows seeking out those locations, there were quite a few possibilities. “I’m not saying easy finding locations, but this has never been done before, no one has shot” in these locations, Grant said.
How safe is Darkness?
“At any point one of the contestants can end the experiment” and “immediately be taken out,” Grant said.
But otherwise, producers don’t interfere. “There was so little producer involvement as it pertains to go this way or do this,” Grant told me, which is “very much the opposite of the bad stuff you hear about reality TV sometimes. This was a real experiment.”
So, how exactly is this safe? In the episode I saw, the participants come upon several drop-offs, and have to make decisions about which direction to go. In the dark. Without any ability to navigate.
Grant said that starts with casting.
“You’re not casting everyday people,” he said, so the contestants—who have training in the military, or law enforcement, for example—are better equipped to navigate dark spaces, and not just charge ahead. “You do feel around more,” Grant said. “Could something have happened? God forbid; there’s always a chance.”
Again, I tried to get him to be specific about when or how producers would intervene—stopping them from continuing on a certain path, or alerting them of danger, but Grant didn’t offer specifics, saying only that it was “a judgment thing” on behalf of the crew, who he praised.
“Everyone was extremely committed to making a great show,” he said, “but making sure no one gets permanently injured.”
Electus has produced other survival shows, including Running Wild, and Grant said their “goal is to take the contestants to as far a place as they can be taken but not ever hurt anybody. … The objective of the show is to put them in a very arduous situation where they can accomplish their objectives without getting severely injured.”
“This is by far the last survival show I would ever want to go on,” Grant said. “I think it would be challenging to accomplish what these men and women set out to accomplish even if they had flashlights—it would still not be easy to do this.”