Walking where prisoners had been beaten, raped and murdered years earlier, MTV executive John Miller sensed the evil and knew this was perfect for his needs.
"There was a horrible feeling of pressure," says the 35-year-old, whose latest program, "Fear," makes its series debut at 8 p.m. Sunday.
"Unequivocally, everyone who went there felt like they were being squeezed around the chest. They had to get out of there. It just felt evil. So many horrible things had happened in that place, (the energy) sort of builds up."
That's exactly the sort of setting in which Miller wants to place his show.
In "Fear," six contestants, ranging from age 18 to 24, volunteer to spend 48 hours in such evil spaces to document what happens there at night.
There are no film crews around, so the six are equipped with their own cameras, a la "Blair Witch."
To make matters worse for the six, a series of challenges are set up to help them in their research. Anyone who cannot complete a challenge is forced to leave. Those who tough it out and remain get $5,000.
Challenges have included making someone sit in a floor filled with crickets for more than 15 minutes; requiring one particularly squeamish participant to walk through a darkened hallway and pull a sheet off an old electric chair; and demanding that contestants conduct a seance.
How much the show's producers manipulate the situations, by causing bumps in the dark or unexplained noises, isn't clear and is never revealed.
"In almost every show we have done, not everyone can do what we ask them to do," Miller says during a telephone interview from New York.
In Sunday's episode, even a willing contestant is never seen again after a challenge. The head games that "Fear" likes to play are as much for the viewers at home as they are for the contestants.
"Basically, my five senses tonight are going to be working against me," a 19-year-old contestant simply known as Paul tells the camera on Sunday's episode.
"It's addictive to be scared," Miller says. "It's not something we do every day. We don't experience fear as much as we did in the early phases of our development. When you are truly scared, it sends a huge shot of adrenaline into your system.
"We feel happy often. We feel sad often. But we don't feel fear that often, not real fear, anyway. It causes a real physical sensation when you get scared, and it is addictive."
Miller, an executive who has worked on other reality shows such as "The Real World" and "Road Rules," says "Fear" has caused him to think about what's happening in the afterlife.
"There is so much energy in human beings, physiologically speaking, that I can't imagine there isn't an after effect," he says. "It's impossible to not have an emotional reaction to the places we visit for the 'Fear' shoots."
This is how he translates those emotions on the show:
- Challenges are based on the location.
"We find something relative about the location and go from there," he says.
When "Fear" was set at an abandoned prison, challenges involved an out-of-use electric chair. For another episode, set at an old mental hospital, one of the contestants was bound by a straitjacket and left in a dark room alone, waiting to be rescued.
For Sunday's episode at a cement factory, contestants walk through a giant, unused furnace.
- It's all about location. The spookier the site, the better the show, in Miller's estimation. "We scout around for places, just like any other TV show," he says.
"We look for places that have reputations."
After visiting a site, one location scout sat up in bed only to be pushed back down by an unseen force, Miller said. "We all pretty much made fun of him for that," he said with a laugh.
So far, each of the episodes have been set in the Southeast. The prison "was an absolutely terrifying place," Miller says. "The mental institution just had an energy about it where you knew you just were not alone when you walked through the place.
"We are specifically looking for places that will make you jump out of your skin."
When the show is being shot by the contestants, Miller says, he is "far away, but within earshot in case anything goes wrong, we can help (contestants) out."
- Contestants are picked for "their openness to new experiences," Miller says.
"It's no fun if everyone is scared and won't do anything we ask or if they don't have fears at all," he said. "We need people who will be willing to face what scares them."
That includes placing your head in a box and waiting for cockroaches to be dumped on you. "I think the show shows that everyone wonders about the same thing: Can you be possessed by a demon? Can you be visited by a ghost? A lot of people have walked away from the show saying they can't do this.
"This show speaks to people who seem very straitlaced and very straightforward but have a lot of fears about the unknown."