Register Saturday | May 30 | 2020

The Pyrrhic Victory of <i>Fear Factor</i>

"Fear Factor is not the kind of show that fills me with hope. "

I made my brother eat a bug once. I don’t remember doing it. We were small. But I won’t deny that it happened.

Knowing what I know about myself, I’m almost positive that I made my brother eat a bug because I wanted to see if I could make someone eat a bug. The experiment was a success. So much so that now, as twentysomethings, he finds a way to mention the bug incident whenever I see him. He particularly likes to mention the story when there are new people around: I held him down in the backyard and forced a bug into his mouth and helped him chew it by clamping one hand over his mouth and moving his jaw with the other hand. Then I made him eat a handful of grass and some leaves. I don’t know how the bug affected his diet, but I do know that he had a complex about eating salads for quite a while.

No one can even remember what kind of bug it was, but I have a feeling that it was a cricket. I used to apologize profusely for this incident until I realized that my brother wasn’t after an apology. He just wanted me to know that it had happened and that it affected him in some way.

As far as cruelty toward younger siblings goes, I think my brother got off pretty easy. I’m not trying to make myself look better. I’m not proud of making a smaller, more trusting person eat a squiggling cricket, but I didn’t do anything to him that I wouldn’t have done to myself.

Anyway, I was watching the televisual machine a few evenings ago and happened across an episode of Fear Factor. For those who are unfamiliar with Fear Factor, the basic idea is that people who look good in swimwear are forced to compete in physical challenges that test their thresholds of fear. They drive cars underneath speeding semis, mess around in Plexiglas boxes suspended fifty feet above the ground, undo bonds while held underwater and eat all manner of vile things, bugs included. Fear Factor is a terrible show. It’s become such an institution that the fear involved in the stunts has been replaced by a steadfast awareness among the contestants that they’re going to have to do something “extreme.”

And winning on Fear Factor is such a Pyrrhic victory. That is, if your need to live quietly without putting vile things in your mouth outweighs your need to be on the TV. Really, though, most of the contestants on Fear Factor are just average doofuses who want to pay off their bills or win a new car. But the beauty of reality TV is putting average folks on the tube and letting them strut their stuff. Then laughing at them.

It’s difficult for me to make one single generalization about Fear Factor contestants. Every now and again, someone will mention the dire financial need that’s compelled him or her to be on the show. My heart goes out to those people. My ire is reserved for those contestants who are so “extreme” that they consider it an accomplishment to drink a milkshake made out of animal remnants faster than anyone else. Grad school isn’t for everyone, I guess.

The worst I’ve seen is a children’s episode of Fear Factor. It was kind of like Bring your Kid to Work Day for people who work in a poo-eating factory. The idea of parent-child teams is a logical progression for a show that’s been around for a few seasons and needs to mix up the formula. Already, many of the contestants say that they’re doing it because they want their kids to be proud of them. And this strikes a chord with me. From when I was about thirteen until sometime in my very early twenties, I couldn’t even go to the mall with my parents without being horrified by something they did. Or had the potential to do.

Which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t be immeasurably proud to see them on the televisual if they were breaking ground on a new library or fronting a rock band, but watching them squeeze the goo inside a cow intestine into their mouths might make me feel less bad about asking for more allowance. It’s not like they’re proud of me for making my brother eat a bug. I, though, am proud to say that they never made me sit inside a tank full of live cockroaches. Live cockroaches that they had to fill their mouths with and spit out onto a scale to reach a prerequisite weight, at which point a set of keys would be revealed and I could be let out.

We don’t know the long-term effects of many things: erectile dysfunction pharmaceuticals, George W. Bush’s ignorance, chlorofluorocarbons, spending 20 percent of your day with a cell phone signal pulsing through the side of your head, breathing New York City air or allowing your children to be locked in tanks filled with live cockroaches on television.

I don’t think that this is a sign of a civilization in decline; rather, I think it’s the sign of a television show that has misplaced its notion of what entertainment is. Fear Factor is not the kind of show that fills me with hope. It doesn’t inspire me. It doesn’t make me think, “Hey, I could do that.” Appearing on Fear Factor hasn’t propelled any of its contestants to minor superstardom. The show is desperate and sad and does little more than exploit people’s willingness to debase themselves in exchange for money. There are a lot of people who would eat a bug if you bet them five bucks that they couldn’t.

When you dangle a carrot in front of people’s faces, and then refuse to give them the carrot when they fail, it’s just sad to watch. Just because they’re willing to do whatever you want them to do, doesn’t mean you should make them do it. I suppose it’s one thing to walk away from Fear Factor as the winner. Sometime later, you’ll be able to laugh about locking your child in a box filled with cockroaches. But it’s another thing to walk away as the loser. Mommy and Daddy love you very much and all they wanted to do was to make enough money to buy a new SUV. All I know is that I made my brother eat one bug when he was, like, five years old and twenty years later he still won’t let me live it down