Murtz On The Scene: Panic Button

What pushes your Panic Button?

Is it the thought of being burned alive? What about a boa constrictor wrapping itself around your neck as it slowly squeezes the life out of you? Don’t like the feeling of being buried alive? Creeped out by the image of spiders and cockroaches crawl across your face?

Everyone has a breaking point and Space’s latest series explores what causes them by locking five contestants into a SAW style chamber every week where they come face-to-face with what scares them the most. In lay terms, it is an indoor Fear Factor, but with a much creepier underpinning.

The show filmed in Toronto’s west end, and ironically took over a building that was originally used as a slaughterhouse (only adding to the authenticity of its premise).

The contestants compete the horrific maze individually and in five stages.

The show starts with each player being locked in a completely white room (almost like it was cherry picked from American Horror Story‘s Asylum) where they are introduced to the challenge that they signed up for by viewing terrifying images of what scares them the most on a TV screen. Their taskmaster sounds like the former British host of The Weakest Link (which they will be if they fail in their task), and tells them to put on a blindfold before they are locked in a metal coffin that is then cast through a wall of fire. Oh, and by the way, that’s not even the second stage!

The contestants are given a Panic Button (an illuminated Taboo buzzer) and are told that they can press it at anytime if they can’t take anymore which will immediately free them. The rest of each episode is pretty simple. It’s really just comes down to the producers attempting to get the contestants to push their button through the torturing British narrator.

Last year I had the chance to tour the Panic Button set and to interview the show’s co-creator and series producer Jonathan Dueck as well as co-creator and executive producer Kevin Healey.

They told me that the challenges that the contestants face in every episode can immediately change depending on what garners the best reaction.

“When we were putting the shows together, it’s not like this episode is about snakes. It’s about these people. They come to this facility and you don’t know where it is,” Dueck said. “All you know is that it exists somewhere and it gives us the flexibility… some people have multiple tiny things that have prevented them from becoming who they want to be. We are very flexible.”

His co-creator agreed and said the script can be flipped at the drop of a dime depending on what is happening.

“[Things can be changed] in the middle of a run as well as between subjects coming in,” Healey said.

In the series premiere, one contestant admitted being terrified of mice after one crawled out of his shoe when he was child. While offering a valiant attempt to complete the course, you just knew he was a goner after a rat was dropped directly onto his back. Another snake-fearing music teacher was told that she had to pry an enormous dead snake’s bloody mouth open to retrieve a key that allowed her to move onto the next level.

Really, the show lives and dies by whether its audience will be able to identify with the fears of its contestants. Since the show isn’t serialized, it means that each episode is a standalone and that has both risks and benefits. On one hand, you can easily jump in and out of the series with each episode presenting a new cast of scaredy-cats to gawk at each week. On the other, it’s hard to develop any kind of relationship or rapport with the contestants when they are seamlessly replaceable.

“The concept has to be strong when it is a non-serial format. Every episode is five new people. You have to be comfortable that the concept works,” Healey said. “It doesn’t matter who is doing it, we’re watching to see people get scared, regardless of who those people are.”

The co-creators both admitted that they wanted the show’s addictive nature to be driven by both specific moments as well as the ability to tune in and out.

“I always say that I want to produce the cellphone segments within the show itself so that you are going to want to share three minutes of our show and it is something that can exist on the web, it can exist on your phone and it will be something you can tweet,” Dueck said. “If you get engaged by those moments, you are going to want to see more. Just For Laughs does it. I don’t think we are reinventing the wheel here but we are cognizant of it.”

His partner said that the scope of television has changed recently and that this was of primary concern when Panic Button was being conceptualized.

“How does everyone watch TV now? They wait until its out on DVD and then they watch the whole thing at once. The must-see TV is basically just sports, nothing else really competes with that,” Healey admitted. “I think this show is going to do extremely well. It has one foot in with horror movies and another foot in with real people having real experiences.”

While all of the challenges are terrifying, really, the one that astounds me the most is that the contestants willingly sign up with no cash prize or any incentive aside from being able to say that they attempted to face their fears. Sure, they get the chance to be on television, but this is certainly not what I would want to be watched doing. It’s this fact that makes the show as compelling at is. The best reality and voyeuristic television is often the simplest. We watch because we want to decide what we would do in a similar situation. The fact that there is no prize gives a sense of realness to the program, one that cannot be faked or exaggerated by producers.

When I watched the Blair Witch Project, I remember feeling unfulfilled by the film’s climax as I actually wanted to see what everyone was afraid of. A friend of mine told me that the film’s true genius was the way that it managed to scare you using anticipation versus a physical manifestation of something designed to terrify. While we get to see the tarantulas on Panic Button, they aren’t nearly as frightening as waiting to see what’s waiting for the contestants around every corner and at every level. It feels like you are there even though you don’t want to be and you just.cant.look.away.

Healey said that this is what makes the show even more tantalizing and terrifying than his previous show, Scare Tactics, which on the surface shared a similar premise to Panic Button.

“I think it is scarier. Even though it is artificial, it is very real. Knowing that I am going to get on that roller coaster is sometimes scarier than not knowing I am getting on,” Healey said.

Tonight’s third episode features:

– Courtnay, a 23-year-old corporate trainer who is afraid of being swarmed and is also one of the most high-pitched screamers I have ever heard.

– Leah, a 22-year-old student who has a fear of being tortured.

– Laila, a 19-year-old student who has a fear of being buried alive.

– Darryl, a 22-year-old Zamboni driver who is afraid of needles and hospitals

– Rachel, a 21-year-old police-officer-in-training who is afraid of germs.

The episode, titled “Bobbing For Rats”, features some of the most grotesque missions I have seen on the show. Rachel is forced to make a bed that is covered in maggots and then lie in it. She later also goes bobbing for rats instead of apples in a submerged tank.

Darryl’s feet are injected with needles that are then discarded in front of him while he is asked to dissect a lizard. Think that’s bad? He had to perform a skeletal version of the Operation board game just to get to the lizard task where he was actually electrically-shocked each time he touched the metal wire.

I would push my Panic Button just thinking about it!

Panic Buttons are tonight on Space at 10 p.m.

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