Take a Look: An Oral History of Reading Rainbow

RRKIDS
RRKIDS

For students, the summer months represent freedom from the shackles of regimented learning. For educators, they were becoming a problem. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was growing concern that children were becoming so captivated by both television and warm weather during their summer vacation that they had abandoned reading altogether. When they returned to school in the fall, their literacy skills had noticeably plummeted.

For a group of broadcasters and teachers, the solution was unusual: Air a new program during the summer months, and use television as a means to get kids excited about opening up a book.

The result was Reading Rainbow, a magazine-style series that celebrated books by reading them out loud to viewers, then exploring their themes in on-location segments. Hosted by LeVar Burton, the show grew from modest trials at PBS affiliate WNED in Buffalo and Great Plains National out of Nebraska. It ran for 150 episodes and 26 years, making it one of the most enduring children’s shows to ever air on public television. If Sesame Street taught kids the alphabet, Reading Rainbow helped them develop a love of words, paragraphs, and narratives.

Despite Rainbow’s altruistic aim, the series was frequently in danger of halting production due to a lack of funds. Lacking merchandisable characters or licensing opportunities that boosted shows like Barney, its producers struggled to convince financiers of its importance. In 2006, succumbing to a changing media and public television landscape, Rainbow shot its final episode. But the show's fans—and Burton—never gave up hope.

With the Reading Rainbow brand once again visible via apps and electronic devices, Mental Floss reached out to several members of the production team to revisit its origins, the approach to the very static practice of reading for the dynamic medium of television, and how Burton didn’t let little things like elephant snot discourage him from helping generations of kids learn to love reading.


In a 1984 survey by the Book Industry Study Group, young adults under 21 years of age were experiencing a marked decline in their interest in reading. In 1978, 75 percent reported they read books. Six years later, the number was down to 63 percent. In Buffalo, New York, and Lincoln, Nebraska, two public television employees grew fixated on how television—long thought to be a thief of a child’s attention—could be repurposed to combat the phenomenon.

Twila Liggett (Co-Creator, Executive Producer): I had been hired by ETV in Nebraska, which distributed programming to classrooms. One day my boss came to me and said, “You know, we’d like to make some television rather than just distribute it.” So I started to think about something in the area of reading.

Cecily Truett (Producer): Putting books on television wasn’t unheard of. Captain Kangaroo had done it. It was Tony Buttino who conceived of the summer loss concept for television.

Tony Buttino (Co-Creator, Executive Producer, Former Director of Educational Services, WNED): I started looking into the summer reading loss phenomenon, which came out of research being done in California. The basic idea was: Kids don’t read during the summer. When they come back to school in the fall, teachers spend two to three weeks bringing them back to their past reading level.

Pam Johnson (Former Vice President, Education and Outreach, WNED): The station would talk to their educational advisors, and what Tony kept hearing from professors, librarians, and teachers was that there needed to be something that explored a love of reading during those summer months. Having that capability early on puts kids on a path to doing well in school.

Larry Lancit (Director, Producer): There was always interest in getting kids to read more, but this was more of a highly-targeted mission. We wanted to make reading fun for kids and encourage them to participate.

Buttino: I started looking at programs that were available to run during the summer. One was called Ride the Reading Rocket, which we aired for a couple of years starting in 1977. I didn’t like the show, but it was something. We’d give out workbooks for classrooms that wanted to use them.

Liggett: There was a lot of stuff made for the classroom then, but it was not that great.

Johnson: Tony went back to 1959, 1960, when WNED first went on the air with live television. You’d have a nun come and read books, or a guy from the zoo come talk about science. It was seeding that notion.

Buttino: After Rocket, I went to see Fred Rogers. He turned us over to David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and we shot some short wraparounds with him over the next few summers.

Johnson: WNED would take some preexisting shows and basically use them as experiments. They were all a precursor to Reading Rainbow. It was all building a case for why TV could be good for that kind of thing. WNED was like an incubator.

Liggett: I wanted to do something to mirror what I did in the classroom, which was read to kids out loud, get kids involved in the experience of reading, and have kids talk to each other about reading. Those became the three basic elements of Reading Rainbow.

Buttino: Before Reading Rainbow, we had the Television Library Club. That worked well, but eventually we started thinking, “Well, what kind of show would we make if we had money?”

Lynne Ganek (Writer): The original mission was to create a summer series for inner-city kids who couldn’t go to camp to remain interested in reading. Larry, Cecily, and I sat down and said, “Well, this could be more interesting if we took a different route.”

Buttino: I basically copied some research that had been done for The Electric Company, which showed that if you can get kids in second grade to love to read, it’s a real turning point. Fifth grade might be a little too late.

Liggett: Nebraska's ETV and Great Plains wound up partnering with WNED in Buffalo. Ride the Reading Rocket was not fitting the bill anymore, so I suggested we take my idea and latch it onto the summer reading phenomenon.

Johnson: They compared notes and it really seemed like all roads were leading to the same thing. Different players were having different conceptions of how it might work out.

Ellen Schecter (Writer): The question was: How do you keep kids reading over the summer? There were all these studies showing that reading plummeted, but not solutions.

Ganek: The idea was not to teach kids how to read, but to encourage a love of reading.

Liggett: It was never about sounding out words, but a love of narrative. It was the perfect follow-up for kids who [had moved beyond] Sesame Street. You’d grab them with Sesame Street and then send them on to Reading Rainbow.

Truett: It was Tony who recognized the phenomenon, and Twila who said, “Why not make a TV show about it?”

Liggett: Tony has been known to claim it was his idea, and I take no umbrage at that. Success has many mothers and failure is an orphan.

Buttino: The word “creation” is interesting. I would say I created it, but then Cecily and Twila and Larry came along and recreated it. If I hadn’t done five summers pulling together what was important to the program, I’m not sure how it would have come together.

Ed Wiseman (Producer): What I remember is Ellen Schecter being the heart and soul of the show. Larry and Cecily organized it and put it together. Watching that dynamic with the three of them was wonderful.

With Liggett and Buttino convinced that a show about reading was viable, its execution was left to Cecily Truett and Larry Lancit, a married couple who owned New York City's Lancit Media. Having produced the kids' show Studio See and medical education programming, the couple knew how to navigate informational television with imagination on a budget.

Truett: Tony introduced us to Twila and explained what the goal was, which was to keep kids interested in reading. I thought, “Whoa, how do you do that on television?”

Schecter: We would sit around Cecily and Larry’s apartment at West End Avenue and talk about what kind of show we wanted.


Wiseman: I remember getting a call to come meet with this producing couple who worked out of their apartment. I went there in a three-piece suit, which is what I thought you did. They were so casual and relaxed.

Truett: I answered the door for Ed in a bathrobe.

Ganek: At the time, I was working for WNET in New York. Tony and Cecily hired me to be the associate producer when I was nine months pregnant.

Liggett: Cecily and Larry were responsible for the design of the show. They were and are brilliant producers.

Ganek: Cecily was good about allowing people to speak their mind and doing the same. I’d have an idea and she’d say, “Lynne, that sucks canal water.”

Schecter: An early idea was just to have people sitting around a library, but it was too static and boring. That got shot down.

Liggett: We briefly thought about putting the words on screen and having kids follow along as they were read to. We looked at Zoom. We looked at Sesame Street, of course, the giant of kids' TV. We looked at Mister Rogers.

Ganek: I grew up with Mr. Rogers and even got to know him a little bit later on. He always felt it was important for kids to be spoken to directly by the host. He was a huge supporter of the show.

Truett: We met with Fred, who was a great mentor to us. We wanted to have the kind of relationship Fred had with his audience.

Liggett: The name came from knowing that kids like alliteration and that we wanted to have “reading” in the title.

Buttino: An intern at WNED came up with the name Reading Rainbow.

Ganek: The formula we developed was used for the next 26 years of production, so I think we did something right.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting agreed to fund roughly half of the first season’s 15 episodes, leaving Liggett to petition corporations for the rest of the $1.6 million budget.

Liggett: It took about 18 months. I became sort of impossible to live with. People were telling me to let it go. My then-husband said, “You love this project more than you love anything else,” implying he was the anything else.

Ganek: Twila was very significant in getting Kellogg’s.

Truett: Twila was a relentless Nebraska girl with a will of steel. She was indomitable.

Liggett: I had written proposals for grants and funding before, but nothing on this scale. My big break came when I asked someone I knew at the University of Nebraska Foundation for assistance. He couldn’t get the money from the school. Then he said, “But I do sit on the Kellogg’s Foundation. I’ll contact the CEO and tell him he should see you.”

Schecter: We were always asking things of people in positions where normally you wouldn’t dare approach them.

Liggett: I went to Kellogg's by myself. How I had the guts, I don’t know. I had enough of the show laid out to convince them it would be a good idea.

Rev. Donald Marbury (Former Associate Director, Children’s and Cultural Programs, CPB): At CPB, we funded about half the budget. That’s the way it works in public broadcasting. There’s nothing PBS can fund in full. We become the initial money to parlay that into leverage to find other granters.

Liggett: Between Kellogg’s and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, we had enough money for 15 episodes. Without Kellogg’s, the show never would’ve gotten off the ground.

Money was only part of the production’s concerns. Without an engaging host, Reading Rainbow was in danger of being passed up by viewers in favor of more exciting programming.

Truett: [The original host was going to be] Jackie Torrance, a highly-regarded storyteller. But we also knew boys were at a greater risk of reading loss and were in need of a good role model. We looked at probably 25 people or so.

Buttino: I wanted the kind of host you’d buy a used car from.

Lancit: We had been thinking about—who was that guy who spoke at the Republican Convention? Scott Baio.

Buttino: I didn’t want a robot. I didn’t want anyone in a costume, someone dressed like a sheepdog or something. I wanted someone sincere. In the proposal, I think I mentioned Bill Cosby.

Ganek: We had gone to a kid’s TV conference and LeVar was there. He was just coming off Roots at the time.

Truett: Lynne said, “Have you seen LeVar lately? He’s so handsome, articulate, magnetic.” We thought, “Gosh, this guy is perfect.”

Schecter: Everyone knew him as Kunta Kinte from Roots. He was so 'live' and expressive.

LeVar Burton (Host): I had done two seasons of a PBS show out of Pittsburgh called Rebop. I had an affection for PBS. It made perfect sense to me, because of the reaction to Roots. You felt the sheer power of the television medium. Over eight nights of television, you experienced the transformation of what we meant when we talk about slavery in this country.

Lancit: I remember Lynne called us and said, “You really need to see this guy. He’ll be on the six o’clock news.” We turned it on and he just had this sharpness about him.

Liggett: Larry sent me a note saying I wouldn’t believe how camera-friendly he was. I saw a thing where he recited poetry on stage for Scholastic high school contest winners and he was so compelling. You could not take your eyes off of him.

Ganek: We decided to get in touch with LeVar, and he agreed to shoot the pilot.

Schecter: Once LeVar said yes, that was it.

Burton: I loved the counter-intuitive idea of it. It was no secret children were spending time in front of the TV set, so let’s go to where they are and take them back to the written word.

Ganek: At the time, LeVar was being managed by Delores Robinson, who was married to Matt Robinson, who played Gordon on Sesame Street.

Liggett: She was a former English teacher.

Truett: Lynne called her when LeVar was doing ABC’s Wide World of Sports on the Zimbabwe River. She said, “He’s not even in the country, but he’ll do it.”

Ganek: [Delores's] heart was in kids' TV and she was instrumental in getting LeVar to do it.

Burton: I was all in. It made perfect sense to me.

Truett: At the time, having an African-American kids' TV host was completely unprecedented.


Marbury: He was the first black host, surely. And more than being an African-American male, he was the first genuine celebrity we had landed for a public broadcasting series.

Burton: It wasn’t on my mind from day one, but it came into my awareness the longer we were on the air. I like to ask what Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, and LeVar Burton have in common: We all worked in children’s television.

Schecter: I’d go over scripts with him and ask how he felt. He really brought a lot of himself into the show, stuff that would relate to him—like how he learned to ride a bike and how scary it was until he realized his father wasn’t holding on to him anymore. That’s a perfect story for kids to hear, and it came off as very genuine because it was.

Wiseman: I would say LeVar on the show was 70 percent him and 30 percent refined for the viewer. He was playing himself, but a character, if that makes sense.

Liggett: The power of LeVar was remarkable.

Truett: No young black men were taking the lead in this kind of show. He was like Fred Rogers, talking directly to the audience.

There was little precedent for Rainbow’s format of focusing on a single book. Out of 600 possibilities for the first season, 67 were selected. While producers assumed publishers would appreciate the free advertising, not all of them fully understood the goal.

Ganek: I’d go to the library and just start pulling out books from the shelves, sit on the floor, and read them.

Schecter: The idea was to pick a book with enough juice to build a show around. If it was about dinosaurs, we’d go dig up dinosaurs at Dinosaur National Park. If it was a book about camping, we’d go camping. We went to film a volcano erupting—anything dynamic to hook kids. To pick out a book, it would have to be something that just jumped off the page and became alive within the context of the show.

Ganek: We wanted something whimsical or serious.

Schecter: When we picked out the books, we went to the National Library Association to make sure the titles we featured would be available when kids went looking for them. If you’re turning a kid on to a book, they have to be able to find it.

Ganek: The first season, we had to pay for the rights to use the books. No one was going to let us use them for free. It wasn’t much, but we had to pay.

Liggett: It was hard. That was why we used mostly unknown authors that first season.

Schecter: I think there was some apprehension over how the books would be presented.

Truett: We went to Macmillan and told someone there we were doing a series about summer reading loss and we’ve got no budget, so could we please have it for free? He was dumbfounded. He said, “I don’t see how this is going to sell any books for Macmillan.”

Liggett: They could not wrap their brain around how we could take the story and stretch it over half an hour.

Truett: I think we paid a few hundred dollars for the first book.

Schecter: Once publishers figured out they’d be on TV, they’d be pretty dumb not to say, “Fine.”

Liggett: We had to negotiate with both the author and the illustrator, since many of them were picture books.

Once a book was chosen, it was up to Lancit Media to figure out how to film its pages while remaining visually interesting.

Ganek: Maintaining the integrity of the artwork in the books was huge.

Liggett: I like to say we were Ken Burns before Ken Burns. We moved the camera across an illustration the same way a child’s eye would move across it, from left to right. That was Cecily’s idea.

Truett: I had been working for Weston Woods, a company that adapted books to slideshows way back when. The kids could see the illustrations rather than have the teacher hold up the book for everyone to look at. We knew we couldn’t be static.

Lancit: We realized early on it would be beyond our budget to do cel animation. We adapted books in what we called an iconographic manner, basically moving the camera on still images. We’d get copies of the books from publishers, cut the pages out, and send them to a company in Kansas that would adapt them by extending characters or adding art in case one of them was cut off by a page. Later, we would do limited animation if it made sense.

Reading Rainbow was divided into three segments: the book recitation, a field trip relating to the content, and a concluding segment where kids reviewed other, similar titles. It was one of the few times children on television had an opportunity to voice their opinions.

Schecter: That was a big thing, to have kids review the books. Kids talking about books didn’t happen often on TV.

Buttino: We found the kids in Buffalo for the first few years.

Johnson: Those were real kids from real neighborhoods in Buffalo. We’d test hundreds and hundreds of them and go, “OK, which one of these 6-year-olds has a presence?”

Ganek: I want to give credit to a librarian I spoke to in New Jersey. She came up with the idea for the kids to do book reviews. She had a little file on her desk where kids had left reviews and said, “Here, you don’t have to take my word for it.” That’s where LeVar’s line came from.

Schecter: I recall I wrote that line and that was my idea to have kids review the books. There would be the main book, and then it would be something like, “If you love this, you’ll love these.”

Truett: That was Ellen Schecter, pure and simple. It found its way into one of the scripts and we thought it would be a nice way to end each show.

Ganek: We found a little girl who was spectacular at doing the review and we were going to use her throughout the entire series. Eventually, we decided to use different kids every time.

Truett: Our research showed kids loved watching kids review the books.

Ganek: We were later accused of coaching the kids, and there was some of that, but it was really in their own words.


With funding and plans in place, shooting for the pilot episode began in early 1983.

Liggett: At first, Kellogg’s said they’d fund us but wanted to see a pilot episode first, which was only reasonable. But essentially, one of the assistants there took me aside and said, “Don’t worry. We love the show. Just go do it.”

Truett: LeVar showed up to shoot in New York City having just gotten off the red eye from Africa. It was 7 a.m. He asked me if he could have a toothbrush and a glass of orange juice.

Burton: I had no time to prepare. Talking directly into the camera and breaking the fourth wall is not something actors do often. I had to learn how to feel like I was very specifically talking to one kid.

Wiseman: He was just so incredibly sincere. I remember shooting that and he was developing his character through the smallest things. He had a backpack, and it was like, “Does he carry that? Does he not? Does he swing it over his shoulder?”

Burton: I just assumed that it was me they were looking for. Over time, I really dialed in the voice of LeVar on Reading Rainbow, and I recognized it as the part of me that either was a 10-year-old or appealed to 10-year-olds. They’re kind of one and the same.

Schecter: We did spring for some animation, where a woman opens a book and this big cloud of activity comes out of it.

Liggett: We contacted the people who had just done an animated Levi’s commercial. We wanted real kids to turn into animated kids. We almost ran out of money just doing that.

Truett: We did take one segment out of the pilot that was a bomb. It was called, “I Used to Think But Now I Know,” which was about first impressions not necessarily being the correct ones. It was a barker.

Lancit: When we took that out, we needed to fill time. We shot footage of a tortoise out in Arizona crawling around. I went to our music guy and said, “Can you get me a tortoise song?” I had no idea what he’d come back with. It was a clever little song. It was just two minutes of this little tortoise.

Ganek: I did have one incident after the pilot. I went to visit Dorothy and Jerome Singer, two professors at Yale who had done work in children’s television and had a column in TV Guide. I really looked up to them and so I brought the Reading Rainbow pilot along with me so they could take a look. They later wrote and told me it was awful and would never go anywhere. So much for academia.


Reading Rainbow premiered July 11, 1983 as the first summertime program funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. While it wasn’t the first episode to air, the pilot, featuring the book Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport, proved to be a memorable introduction to the series for the crew.

Ganek: Someone at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting thought it would be too scary.

Wiseman: The title had “monster” in it, and that led to discussions.

Schecter: Often, self-important people will have ideas about what kids will or will not like. The book was not at all scary.

Truett: One of our advisers had a traumatic experience as a kid because someone brought a Gila monster to her house. It slept in a cage next to her.

Liggett: Our hearts were set on that and we went after it like gangbusters.

Truett: Gila Monsters was perfect because it showed how we would take a book and relate it to a kid’s life, like the fear of moving.

Ganek: I was in the pilot while I was still pregnant, and I remember PBS wasn’t comfortable having a pregnant woman on the show. They shot me from the neck up.

Truett: The response was extremely enthusiastic. We had real Gila monsters on the show. People loved it.

Schecter: The response was extremely positive from the public. It wasn’t like it was with Sesame Street. Older kids were watching it and enjoying it.

Wiseman: It was the most adult-watched kid’s show out there. They’d watch it without their kids.

Liggett: Sometimes we’d be criticized for not picking up the pace, to go faster. But we trusted a kid’s attention to let us take time to get to where we were going.

Not all of the debates surrounded the books. Over time, Burton’s choice of hairstyles and facial grooming would become popular topics of conversation off-camera.

Truett: One of the things we would always have to come to grips with what hairdo LeVar would have in a given year ... There were conversations about his mustache.

Burton: And when I got my ear pierced.

Marbury: We had some wonderful conversations about his haircuts.

Burton: I remember those conversations, and I remember saying, “Look, if you want me, you’ve got to take all of me.” Whether I had a mustache or not, or an earring or not, my authenticity and enthusiasm was coming through.

Wiseman: His hair and style would change from year to year depending on his acting projects. He was partial to a mustache, and the concern was that it aged him. Like, here’s a dad instead of a friend.

Truett: The producer called and said, “Hey, tell him to get rid of that thing.” They wanted more continuity since he didn’t have one in the first season. He shaved, but he was not happy about it.

As Reading Rainbow grew in popularity, publishers and authors began to understand what it could do for their business. Some titles experienced such a surge in sales that books would go back to presses or issue paperback editions to meet the demand.

Burton: The joke was that we would wear kneepads because we were begging publishers to allow us to put their books on television. In the 1980s, TV was still being discussed in academic circles as evil. It was seen as a direct competitor for readers.

Ganek: After the first season, we could barely fit all the books we were getting sent into the office. Publishers would send us practically anything they had.

Wiseman: Boxes came in every day.

Schecter: The whole children’s book business exploded. Some titles went up by 800 percent in sales.

Liggett: Kids would come into libraries asking for books they saw on the show.

Truett: The publishers started making little Reading Rainbow stickers to put on the featured books.

wetoucansshare via eBay

Ganek: The show changed the way children's books were published. They would do very small print runs until Reading Rainbow, and then the numbers got big.

Truett: They finally got it when they saw the show. Reading Rainbow was tied to the sale of thousands of books.

Schecter: Once they saw how carefully we were treating the work and how we were getting celebrities like Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep to narrate the books, they understood.

Ganek: We had no budget, so anyone you heard reading the stories was doing it because they thought it would be good for kids.

Liggett: Some donated their fee to a charity, and some did it for nothing.

For the second season, Rainbow’s episode count would be cut down to just five installments. Plagued by budget constraints, it would join a number of other public television projects that had problems finding funding. “It’s a very scary time for children’s television,” PBS head of programing Suzanne Weil said at the time.

Liggett: We never did 15 episodes in a season again. It was too hard to raise the money.

Schecter: Money was always a worry. We would get it, but not always in time to keep a steady flow of episodes going. The problem was that we needed a schedule to get shows in production and on the air.

Lancit: Few series get continual funding with no risk. Sometimes we’d be within weeks of putting people on hiatus, then somehow we’d get it going again.

Ganek: Twila was the person responsible for continuing to get money to produce the show.

Truett: Every time we were on the brink of letting everyone go and moving on, Twila would snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. She’d turn people upside-down and shake the money out.

Liggett: It was never guaranteed. One year, I thought we had money for a season and then my contact at Kellogg's went on vacation. The budget got redirected. When she got back, she told me our money was gone.


Schecter: Places like Kellogg’s and CPB didn’t really understand that you needed to keep the production moving. There would be a month or two of waiting, then everyone would have to hurry up.

Marbury: We funded it each and every year. It became a centerpiece for us. It was a marquee value children’s series we just embraced.

Liggett: Barnes & Noble funded us at one time.

Schecter: The questions would always be: How much will they give us? How much can we afford to spend?

Liggett: The National Science Foundation was suggested by a friend of mine. We did science-related books, so it made sense. But after a few years, it’s, “OK, you’ve had your stint here. We can’t fund this show forever.”

Unlike Sesame Street’s large cast of easily-merchandised characters, few elements of Reading Rainbow translated into licensing opportunities, which is one way series can meet their financial needs.

Liggett: We left no stone unturned in an effort to get us licensing deals. A friend set up a meeting with Joan Ganz Cooney, who ran Children’s Television Workshop. She told me, “I can tell you this, you’re not going to make much money selling book bags.”

Truett: We didn’t have the cuddly guys you could take to bed.

Wiseman: The thing that made us special was not having gimmicks, but it also made us less marketable. We didn’t have those licensing dollars flowing back into the show.

Liggett: At one point I wasn’t far from Hallmark in Kansas City. I went over there and thought, “Surely, Hallmark can see their way clear to do something with this.” And their licensing guy basically said, “The problem is, you have these books, but you don’t own these books.”

Truett: Publishers were the largest beneficiaries of the show. We talked about maybe adding a character to the show we could license. We thought about maybe the butterfly from the intro, but that felt very cheesy.

Burton: I was very, very wary of that idea. Thank god we never put it into play. I felt introducing another major character all of a sudden would have a negative impact in how I related to the audience.

Wiseman: I remember in college, a professor was talking about kids' TV, and said that animation and puppets were losing that humanity. LeVar was so sincere. It was back to the Fred Rogers model.

Johnson: We never had LeVar dolls, or ways to leverage those ancillary rights.

Liggett: We never figured it out.

Despite the financial constraints, there was always an allotment set aside for location shooting. In some of the more memorable segments, the show visited a zoo, a Chinatown parade, a live birth, and a high-security prison.

Ganek: Once we settled on a book, we sat down in a circle and talked about what we could do with it. That led to going on field trips depending on what we could afford. We went to a lot of interesting places. We did whitewater rafting in Arizona. We didn’t have money to pay the experts on the show, but when you’re doing work for children, people are very willing to give their time.

Schecter: LeVar was such a good sport. When we did the camping episode, it rained all the time.

Liggett: When he got Star Trek [in 1986], he’d shoot for a week there and then do our show on weekends. Unbelievable stamina.

Burton: I actually thought I was done with Reading Rainbow when I got Star Trek: The Next Generation. I felt I had done it for long enough and it was time to hang them up. They actually started looking for another host. Then Rick Berman, the executive producer on Trek, told me he used to work in children’s programming and had a soft spot in his heart for it. He made sure I could go out and shoot Rainbow when I needed to.

Schecter: I remember LeVar shooting at a zoo and an elephant had a cold and kept blowing snot all over him. He never lost his cool. “OK, let’s try it again.”

Truett: That was hilarious. The elephant was going for the apples LeVar had, and this stream of snot was coming from its trunk.

Burton: My whole thing was to not interrupt the flow of conversation with the viewer. That’s sometimes difficult to do when you’ve got elephant snot on you. I had goats trying to eat my clothes.

Truett: We pulled him out of a goat pen before he got pummeled to death.

Wiseman: I remember shooting near a live volcano. We left our editor about a mile from the eruption.

Liggett: We did an episode on the Starship bridge. Patrick Stewart remains one of the most courteous people I have ever met.

Truett: The biggest mistake Trek made was covering up [LeVar's] eyes with that device. People knew him from Trek, but on our show, he was talking directly to the audience.

Ganek: The biggest, and really only, arguments we’d have would be where to go on location. Someone would ask, “Where do they have the best dinosaur collection?” Someone thought it was Pittsburgh, and someone else would say otherwise.

Schecter: Chinatown [in Manhattan] was a problem. We did Liang and the Magic Paintbrush there, but it was not easy. There are gangs there and you have to be on the right side of them. We managed to ingratiate ourselves.

Truett: As time went on, we delved into more mature topics. We talked about the Underground Railroad, about slavery. We did Badger’s Parting Gifts, about losing someone you love when they die.

Wiseman: We filmed in Sing-Sing, in parts where cameras had never been allowed before. We pushed the envelope in quiet ways. We live-filmed the birth of a baby! We choreographed it with an OB/GYN and a mom. It had never been done in children’s TV before.

Lancit: We coordinated it with a doctor and didn’t show anything graphic. It was all above the waist.

Wiseman: Every PBS station aired it but one: WNET in New York, of all places.

As Rainbow rolled on, it drew considerable attention from libraries, publishers, and the television industry itself, taking home 26 Emmys for excellence in children’s programming.

Wiseman: People at the Daytime Emmys would look at us sideways. “Here come the Reading Rainbow people.” I think we won in just about every category.

Buttino: That was always wonderful, to dress up and attend those shows.

Wiseman: During the 2003 Emmys, LeVar went on stage to accept and said, “This might be the last time we’re up here. There’s no funding.” And we wound up getting funded because he said that on TV.

Burton: I don't remember that, but it sounds like something I would do. Year in and year out, we continued to stay afloat despite a continuous need for funds. I think Reading Rainbow always had a guardian angel that was looking out for us.

Lancit: I always said we had Reading Rainbow karma. Whatever we needed, we would eventually wind up getting. People were always willing to help.


In 2006, Reading Rainbow had seemingly run out of goodwill. The culprit: the No Child Left Behind Act, which placed restrictions on how the Corporation for Public Broadcasting could allocate funds.

Wiseman: We just kind of always thought there would be more money, that Twila would find a way to get it. Like, this show is too good to just die.

Liggett: We ran out of money in 2006 and did our last show in 2006.

Truett: Part of it was the gradual move to other shows. Even though parents wanted their kids watching PBS, they’d leave the room and the kids would go back to Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

Liggett: To this day, I’m bemused by the funding issues we had. Everyone is obviously in support of reading and literacy—until you start asking for money.

Ganek: Encouraging a child to want to read was our downfall in some ways. No Child Left Behind wanted kids to be taught the mechanics.

Burton: No Child Left Behind was the death knell. The money was marked for the rudiments of reading. There was no mandate for encouraging a love of reading. All the sources we had come to depend on were no longer able to help us.

Liggett: The mechanics of it would make your toes curl, but basically, CPB got ready-to-learn funds and then shows would come in and plead their case. I argued. I can’t tell you how hard I argued.

Marbury: There were greater demands from Congress to venture out into other areas. We had to start questioning how much we put into the series year after year.

Truett: PBS had to justify its existence to political constituencies. The programming choice for a lot of public television became animation. Stuff like Blue’s Clues.

Burton: We shot our last episode in 2006 but weren’t pulled from the lineup until 2009. After three seasons with no new content, we were pretty much canceled.


Although the show aired in reruns through 2009, Burton was adamant that Rainbow not be forgotten. In 2012, he and partner Mark Wolfe launched an iPad app that capitalized on interactivity and the digital age of entertainment. In 2014, their Kickstarter campaign raised more than $6 million to become the most-funded project in that site’s history.

Burton: When it was taken off the air, it was like a light bulb moment for me. “Wait a minute. There’s something I can do.” We spent most of 2010 and 2011 gathering the rights that had been scattered to the winds and throwing a rope around them to make a deal with WNED.

Wiseman: It was, at the time, the biggest Kickstarter ever, with $6 million. That shows you the power this show had.

Burton: It held the record for the biggest number of backers. It was pretty overwhelming, seeing the depth of passion and enthusiasm for the brand.

Schecter: I thought it was kind of strange. LeVar owns Reading Rainbow? How could this be?

Burton: There was an opportunity to raise seed capital and hire a team.

Liggett: My understanding is that WNED made a deal with the University of Nebraska, and that LeVar and his company made a broad licensing arrangement with WNED, but WNED still owns it.

Truett: I’m thrilled LeVar is keeping the legacy of Reading Rainbow alive.

Buttino: I’m not sure LeVar and WNED are getting along too well right now. I think WNED sold some stuff to him and they’re not happy about it. [WNED and RRKidz are currently involved in litigation concerning the Reading Rainbow license, with WNED accusing RRKidz of “illegally and methodically” trying to “take over” the brand by pursuing projects that were not part of their original agreement.]

Burton: There’s nothing I can say about it right now. I hope and believe we’ll get it resolved soon.

Today, Reading Rainbow remains a touchstone children’s television series, its impact on both viewers and its production team immeasurable. Burton's RRKidz continues to reach children via apps and other online iterations of the series.

Ganek: The cast and crew of Reading Rainbow loved each other.

Wiseman: If we had a crew member come in and say, “It’s just a kids' show, it doesn’t matter,” they’d be gone. It was because it was a children’s show that it had to be the best.

Truett: We started out as kids ourselves, really, and grew up over 26 years.

Wiseman: I married Orly [Berger, a fellow producer]. Our kids wound up appearing on the show.

Liggett: We made kids want to read, and that makes a huge impact. It’s like playing the piano. The more you do it, the better you get.

Truett: It was one of the first shows that shined a light on books and literacy, of enjoying books and enjoying books with your kids.

Johnson: PBS would commission surveys, and over an 18-year period, teachers reported Reading Rainbow was the most-used video in their classrooms. They saw it not only as a reading show, but as a way for disadvantaged kids to see things they might not otherwise get exposed to. They can see a bee farm, or a live volcano.

Wiseman: People will talk about the show with tears in their eyes.

Marbury: I’d put it up there with Sesame Street. I really would, in terms of undergirding the cruciality of reading to our young people.

Burton: Part of the secret sauce of Reading Rainbow was tying literature to a real-world experience. I cannot tell you how many people I have met who told me they became a writer or librarian or bee keeper or were inspired by the show to some degree or another and that it had a major impact on their life.

Ganek: So many people today do their own version of the Reading Rainbow theme song on YouTube. I saw Jimmy Fallon dressed as Jim Morrison from The Doors doing it on his show with The Roots.

Liggett: People will sing the theme song to me.

Marbury: I could sing it right now! Butterfly high in the sky, I can go twice as high …

Buttino: Friends will say I was involved with Reading Rainbow at restaurants. Waiters will come up to me and show me the theme song is their ring tone. It happens all the time.

Lancit: I think there was a purity in the way we presented the program that reached kids and touched them in a way where they didn’t feel patronized. We spoke to them at a level that made them feel confident. That I had something to do with giving a generation of kids that feeling is a wonderful thing.

Truett: I believe in my heart that the relationship LeVar created with young people was one of the factors in bringing them to embrace a relationship with an African-American man. It changed a generation’s perspective.

Wiseman: He made color both an issue and not an issue at the same time. LeVar transcended race, gender, and age.

Burton: That’s something emotional about that sweet spot of childhood, and Reading Rainbow triggers that for people. It was during a much simpler time in their lives. The world is a lot faster now.

Marbury: I don’t think enough children’s programming has followed Reading Rainbow’s lead. There is nothing more important in education than reading. We must continue to make it foundational to the educational process.

Schecter: Sometimes I’ll meet friends of my kids who go, “You wrote Reading Rainbow? That was my favorite show. I’d get a book, close my bedroom door, and let my imagination go.” That’s what we wanted.

Burton: It was very pastoral. We allowed that conversation with the audience to breathe. I think that’s part of the appeal. I felt they believed they had a friend. Someone who was rooting for them, that knew and cared about them. And that was real.

All images courtesy of RRKidz unless otherwise credited.

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.

Traumatic License: An Oral History of Action Park

In the summer of 1983, Action Park—a collection of water-themed amusement rides installed over a ski resort in the rural town of Vernon, New Jersey—debuted their newest attraction. Dubbed the Cannonball Loop, it seemed to obey the laws of cartoon physics, with a steep enclosed slide feeding a 360-degree turn at the bottom. The idea was that a park attendee would climb into the mouth of the ride some 50 feet off the ground, get hosed down to reduce friction, and then speed through the tube like a chambered bullet, clearing the loop and emerging at the other end into a shallow pool.

Action Park owner Eugene Mulvihill enlisted his teenaged son, Andy, to test it while it was still under haphazard construction by a squad of welders. “There wasn’t really any engineering,” Andy tells Mental Floss. “It was just trial and error.” Andy agreed to test it while wearing his hockey equipment. He was fine. Others were not. “The problem was if the momentum didn’t keep you on top of the wall, you’d fall three or four feet to the other side on your face, breaking your nose or your teeth.”

The Cannonball Loop would be open only sporadically over the next 13 years, a perpetual work-in-progress that mirrored the state of Action Park itself. From 1978 to 1996, up to 20,000 people a day from the tri-state area would flock to Eugene’s oasis, which emphasized a ride-at-your-own-risk philosophy that earned it the nicknames “Traction Park” and “Class Action Park.” Speeding at high velocity down cement slides, boozy guests would try to push their limits—and Mulvihill would let them. Bodies flew off rides like crash test dummies; skin was peeled off in layers. It was not uncommon for guests to see bloody and bandaged patrons being driven across the grass in carts equipped with EMTs and stretchers. A total of five fatalities were reported, creating a mythology that danger lurked around every water-soaked corner.

If you were a reckless guest, sometimes it did. Most all of the rides at Action Park could be navigated safely, but “My dad’s whole idea was to do an amusement park differently, not where you just got strapped in and twisted around, but one where you controlled what was going on," Andy says. "You can have an awesome time, but you can also hurt yourself if you don’t use good judgment."

To understand how Action Park not only survived but thrived with a business philosophy out of Mad Max, Mental Floss spoke to well over a dozen former employees and guests who recalled an environment of fun, sun, and tending to broken bones at the most intense amusement park ever constructed.

I: THE ACTION NEVER STOPS

In the mid-1970s, Eugene Mulvihill and several investors backed Vernon Valley/Great Gorge, a ski resort located in Vernon Township, New Jersey. When Mulvihill became the sole owner, he decided to expand the property’s operations into the summer by building water rides that would take advantage of the steep mountainside acreage and help drive business year-round.

In 1976, two years before the park officially opened, Mulvihill debuted the area’s first summer ride: the Alpine Slide, a cement raceway distributed by amusement operator Stig Albertsson that allowed guests to careen down the mountain in cement troughs while riding a tiny cart that let them control the speed. The Alpine Slide would account for hundreds of injuries over the years.

Jim DeSaye (Park Security): The Alpine was on a big hill, not a little baby hill. It’s basically you on a sled on a concrete track. And there is nothing keeping you on.

Andy Mulvihill: That was one my dad bought from a manufacturer in Europe. There had been a couple installed elsewhere, but not a lot.

Bill Benneyan (General Manager): At that time, the ski industry was going through some tough years. You needed to be able to use your land the other half of the year.

Chris Ish (First Aid): It was really tricky. You had to have skill and balance to stay on the track. If you pulled back on the brake, the cart would kick to one side. If you’re on a flat stretch, that’s no problem, but if you’re coming up on someone and brake too fast on a curve, you’re falling off of it.

Greg Gianakis (Guest): There were these stupid little sleds that had handles for adjusting speed that never did anything.

DeSaye: Basically, people would think, “This is an amusement park. I can’t get hurt here.” And they would go flying down the track, brake too hard, and then fly into the woods or into the rocks.

Therese Mahler (Ride Attendant): The Alpine had the reputation it had because if you fell off the cart and didn’t land on the grass, the momentum would carry you for a while and you’d get these disgusting-looking, oozy wounds from the friction burn.

Ish: The cart would come out from under you and then you’d just slide over this fiberglass track. It was like a rug burn.

Mahler: We always gave a little speech at the top. “You’re responsible for controlling the speed and balance of your cart.” Over and over again.

Corrine Zimmerman (Ride Attendant): When you shifted your weight wrong and went sliding down, it took several layers off your skin and your whole body and the cart would go flying off. We had staff positioned along the track to keep an eye out for that sort of thing. It was harder to spot people when it got dark.

A guest descends down a water slide at Action Park in Vernon, New Jersey
Joe Shlabotnik, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Al Rescinio (Guest): It wasn’t like you were armored going down this thing. You’re wearing a T-shirt and bathing suit or shorts. You didn’t know how unstable these little carts are the first time you go on them.

Thomas Flynn (First Aid): The primary ingredient in those tracks was asbestos, by the way.

DeSaye: People would bounce off. That’s why we called them Gumbys. Down in first aid, at the end of the night, you’d be having pizza and inevitably someone would come in looking like they had a giant burn from head to toe.

Benneyan: It was the Action Park tattoo.

Ish: You wouldn’t want to cover that up because it would just ooze. We’d use a disinfectant spray on it.

Flynn: I remember that ... I can’t believe we used it, actually. It was like 70 percent alcohol and 10 percent iodine. Imagine spraying 70 percent alcohol on a rug burn. We’d spray these dudes down and take bets on who would do the craziest dance. They would run out of first aid like we had just set them on fire.

Gianakis: The Slide was just under the chair lift that took you to the top. People would spit and throw things at the people below them.

Ish: When we’d have collisions, those would be the more severe injuries. You had control of the brakes and could go as slow as you wanted to. You could have a mom with a kid in her lap going down at a slow pace. The only problem was if someone was going fast going behind you. People were catching up to each other all the time.

Gianakis: They’d tell you not to, but my friends and I would make trains. A guy would wait like 100 yards down where the attendant couldn’t see and then we’d just ram into them.

Zimmerman: If someone was hurt badly enough, first aid would come with a sling they could put people in. They’d use the cart to push them down the slide. It was the only way to get them down.

Mahler: We used to have carts we didn’t let guests ride. I don’t really remember why, but it might have had something to do with the brake.

Zimmerman: Those were like an engineering anomaly. For whatever reason, they would go down the hill faster than the others. We kept them because we didn’t want to let customers ride them, and because the staff liked to go really fast.

Mahler: My friend Jason rode down the Alpine and got horrible slide burn over his arms and legs. We took a photo of him in first aid and mounted it on a piece of wood so people would see it. Like, “This could happen to you.” But they were already committed at that point. They had ridden a chair lift up and there was only one way down.

DeSaye: A lot of times people would be too drunk to get on the ride and the attendants would tell them that, and they’d just get belligerent. That occurred daily.

Rescinio: I was 19 or 20 years old. When you’re that age, you laugh it off. It wasn’t until I became an attorney that I realized these rides could be extremely dangerous.

The Alpine Slide eventually lived up—or down—to its reputation when park employee George Larsson Jr. rode it after work hours on July 8, 1980. Flung from the track, he hit his head on a rock, fell into a coma, and died several days later. The New Jersey State Department of Transportation found that nothing was wrong with the ride. “The ride didn't injure Larsson. It was a rock 25 feet away that hurt him,” park spokesperson Wesley Smith told reporters. “This is an action park where people are doing things physically to themselves. Their situation is not totally in our control.”

The accident made local news in New Jersey, foreshadowing the controversy over the park and its relaxed oversight of attendees that would last for nearly two decades.

Benneyan: It was actually the beginning of the water park industry. Gene didn’t think he was inventing the industry, but he was putting together pieces of the puzzle.

Joe Russoniello (Director of Marketing): Gene was way ahead of his time in terms of what we were developing. The Wave Pool, the Tarzan swing, the rapid rides, whatever it was, he was doing it early on.

Flynn: Were the rides engineered for maximum safety like they are today? Absolutely not. They were designed where, as the slogan went, “You’re at the center of the action.”

John Keimel (Supervisor): People called it Traction Park, “Where you’re the center of the accident.”

Benneyan: The whole idea of Action Park in the 1980s was identified in the marketing. You’re in control of the action. That was a pretty out-there concept. It was a really neat fulfillment of all these backyard fantasies.

Alison Becker (Guest): You would inevitably see someone get severely injured every time you were there and you just assumed people got injured at every water park. We lived out in the sticks. This was just water slides put on the side of a mountain.

Mulvihill: I don’t think my father necessarily understood the liabilities of running a park. It was not sophisticated. If he went to an amusement park conference and liked someone’s idea, he’d ask them to build it, even if they had never built it before.

Russoniello: Gene wanted it to be really exciting and wanted to break the rules as much as he could. And there weren’t many rules and regulations to break back then.
 
 

The ski lift takes visitors to the Alpine Sled
Joe Shlabotnik, Flickr //CC BY 2.0

Benneyan: Gene was a fascinating guy. He had investments in cancer research. He assembled the largest wine cellar in North America. He worked with partners to build a robotic parking garage. It was all kinds of things. He was always pushing for something new and different.

DeSaye: What Gene did was allow a certain amount of responsibility for each person. There were injuries, but ski areas have a ridiculous number of injuries. Nobody was telling you to drink and get on a sled doing 70 miles per hour.

Flynn: There was a high degree of personal responsibility. Individuals needed to make smart decisions on what they did and didn’t do on rides. Gene’s whole idea was: you controlled your own fate.

Benneyan: Gene’s delight was in people having fun. To do that, he wanted to push the limits. And in order to do that, everything was going to be bigger, faster, or some other superlative.

Mulvihill: Gene didn’t ever want to see anyone hurt ... His goal was to build a participation amusement park that was very unique and super fun and where there were certain risks. Individuals needed to be personally responsible for their behavior at the park.

Rescinio: You can ski off a mountain and into a tree if you’re not paying attention. It’s really nobody’s fault but your own.

Mulvihill: The best comparison is with skiing. With skiing you need to be responsible for how fast you go, staying out of the woods, not hitting another person, no jumping in the air unless you can handle it.

Russoniello: Gene wanted something on the cutting edge to bring new and exciting experiences to people. Back then, people wanted that.

Mulvihill: People who had been to other amusement parks were trained to have a certain experience. When they went to Action Park, they could jump off cliffs, drive race cars, and swing on ropes, and I don’t think they could quite believe the freedom they were given. 

That sense of freedom was often tested by park-goers, who came from the tri-state area and paid frequent visits to the park's many beer stands.

DeSaye: There were bars throughout the park, which is something when you’re surrounded by rides requiring dexterity.

Ish: The park was not real good about cutting people off.

Becker: My parents were very Catholic and very “safe,” but I remember my mom sipping wine at a picnic table while we went on all these rides, so it was like she was getting a break, too.

Andy Fiori (Guest): You were definitely able to buy beer and walk around with alcohol in the park. It was an open-container policy. Alcohol was very prevalent.

Mahler: If you had three or four beers and you’re in the hot sun all day, you might be judgment-impaired.

Mulvihill: We once had a group of bodybuilders come in and start throwing lifeguards into the pool. We had to call the police. Guys were just aggressive. They were feeling their oats.

DeSaye: The Vernon police were awesome. They were used to it. We once called them to a fight with 20 people here. It was some gang thing that was so violent, people were hitting each other with bricks from the cobblestone walk. They were hell-bent on hurting each other. The cops had to bring the dogs.

Gianakis: They might throw you off a ride, but they would never throw you out of the park.

DeSaye: It was the Wild West. Fights every day. Guys would come in from the city, think we’re bumpkins, and want to take over. I saw a chair lift attendant hit a guy in the head with a shovel because he didn’t like something he said.

Flynn: The park did these Gladiator Games, basically a take-off of American Gladiators. And one of the Gladiators on payroll beat the crap out of one of the patrons using those bopping sticks. So the guy comes back with a dozen friends to fight six of the Gladiators. It was a melee, a riot of 40, 50, 60 people. Everyone responded—food service, lifeguards. It was ridiculous, the amount of wounded we took in from that. People were nuts.

Mulvihill: I can’t tell you the number of people who would jump into the water, start to drown, get pulled out, and then we’d ask if they knew how to swim. They’d go, “Nah, I don’t. I figured the lifeguard would pull me out.” That is just insane.

Gianakis: Basically, there was real Lord of the Flies stuff going on in this whole park.

II: ACCIDENTAL TOURISTS

Although Action Park had its official opening on July 4, 1978—complete with a Dolly Parton lookalike contest and a tobacco-spitting competition—it would be several years before Gene Mulvihill’s resort expansion began attracting a steady flow of attendees. To stir up interest, Mulvihill ordered construction of more attractions, including the park’s most infamous and most mythologized monument: the Cannonball Loop.

Mahler: It was the first thing you saw when you walked into the park. It was open very rarely. Basically, you’d hear people screaming all the way through until they landed in the pool at the bottom. They’d skip a little bit, then stagger around for a second before walking away. 

DeSaye: It was a giant metal tube on a tower with a 360-degree loop and people would go shooting out of it.

Fiori: I didn’t really think a person could go through a 360-degree loop.

Becker: It was like a Hot Wheels track with a friggin’ loop in it. No human should do that. I never saw it open. It was like a relic of a more dangerous time.

Ish: It was in operation while I was working there. I’m not sure about the story of the dummy, though.

Mahler: The story was they sent a dummy down and it came out in pieces.

Rogers: They filled up one of those maintenance man jumpsuits with sand bags and the first one came out with no head.
 

Keimel: It seemed like a crazy thing to try. It was so vertical. What happens when someone gets to the top of the loop and doesn’t go all the way around?

Benneyan: You could look at it and know there was something iffy about it.

DeSaye: What happened was, they sent employees down it. The first one smacked his face and his teeth got knocked out. The second person came out all cut up. When they went in, the first guy’s teeth had gotten stuck inside and cut the second guy.

Ish: It was completely dark in the tunnel. You had a sensation of being upside-down and right-side up and then the next thing you know, you’re on your back in the shallow pool looking up at the sky.

Mahler: We had to weigh people at the bottom to make sure they weren’t too light or too heavy. They wouldn’t get enough speed to clear the loop. We didn’t want an Augustus Gloop kind of situation.

Ish: The problem was that people would sometimes get stuck and no one thought to put an escape hatch in it. So people wound up crawling in a couple of times to rescue someone until a hatch was put in.

Mahler: It was just so obvious something could go terribly wrong here that I think it got a level of scrutiny from management that other rides didn’t get.

Mulvihill: We operated it for a couple of weekends and then shut it down. Then we’d leave it alone for a year or two and try to reopen it, and it just never worked. Maybe one in a 100 people would smash their face, but that’s too many. Maybe if it was one in 1000.

DeSaye: We called it a monument to stupidity.

Although the Loop was a bust, Action Park continued building out, offering three distinct plots—Waterworld, Motorworld, and Roaring Springs. The turning point, according to Andy Mulvihill, was buying commercial ad time on television in and around New Jersey. Suddenly, the park and its rides—including the Wave Pool, a mechanical wave machine that could produce a 40-inch tide that was introduced in 1981—were filling up. That year, park attendance exceeded 1 million people paying $14 million in admission fees.

Mulvihill: The first couple seasons were so-so, and then we discovered commercials. The market really responded and we couldn’t handle all the people coming in. It was getting packed.

Fiori: I still remember that commercial. “The action never stops at Action Park!” They were kind of like used car commercials: not very well-produced, but very recognizable.

Mahler: There wasn’t really anything else to do in Vernon. We were 45 minutes from the nearest mall.

Gianakis: It was the place to go. My friends and I would come from Long Island, leaving at four in the morning, getting there when the park opened, and leaving at night. It was like taking your dog to the dog park. As soon as the car pulled up, the doors would be flying open before you even parked.

Ish: The Wave Pool was commonly overcrowded. They didn’t limit the number of people in the pool. It was just a sea of heads bobbing up and down.

Mulvihill: We bought the Wave Pool from guys who had built them before and provided us with filters, chlorination, and told us capacities. They were as expert about it as you could be.

Fiori: The pool would encourage body-surfing and stuff like that, which doesn’t help when there are a bunch of people crashing into each other. You’d go through cycles of small waves, then bigger ones. 

Gianakis: I used to be a really good swimmer, and even I couldn’t deal with the Wave Pool. I remember it being huge at one end, almost like a beach, and then it got deeper and deeper where the waves were. You’d be afraid to get too close to the massive fans underwater.

Flynn: Part of the problem was depth. The very shallow end was fine, but the further out you went, it probably got to be about 12 feet or so. And there was the unpredictability of man-made giant waves. That plus the size of the pool created a recipe for disaster.

Mahler: The Wave Pool had like eight or 10 guards on duty at all times. I think they would log like 30 saves a day.

Flynn: If you wanted to become a good lifeguard, you got a job at the Wave Pool.

Mulvihill: This was the New York market, and people did not know how to swim. We’d pull hundreds of people out in a weekend.

Gianakis: I cracked my head on the ladder [trying] to get out one time. I was bleeding all over the place.
 
 

Action Park guests enjoy the Wave Pool attraction
Joe Shlabotnik, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

DeSaye: The problem with the Wave Pool was that it had people screaming for help who didn’t need it. And then when someone really needed help, they’d be under water for five minutes.

Ish: It was harder than swimming in a pool. You’re swimming uphill on the back of waves. It could easily catch people off-guard and tire them out faster than normal.

Mulvihill: With the Wave Pool, we could not see the bottom because the water wasn’t clear enough. We kept adding chlorine. The question became: Why operate it if you can’t see the bottom? Well, you can’t see the bottom of a lake or ocean where people swim, either. It doesn't mean you shouldn't let people go in the ocean.

Ish: We had a big problem of people taking the attitude that they bought an admission ticket and should be able to go on any ride and then get in over their head because they can’t swim.

Zimmerman: Someone once dove into one foot of water. That is not the fault of the park.

Flynn: The first season I was there, we used to do rotations with a staff of six. And I started seeing wristbands in addition to the regular admission wristband, a pink wristband with “CFS” written on it. I go to the top of two big cliff jumps and talk to one of the lifeguards who is letting people jump off, and say, “Hey, man, what’s with the pink CFS wristband?” He told me it meant, “Can’t F***ing Swim.” They jump 30 feet in, sink, get dragged from bottom, and tagged so they didn’t jump in again.

Ish: The problem was not the lifeguards. It was asking them to guard an overcrowded pool.

Zimmerman: My friend that worked with me on the Alpine was also a scuba diver and he eventually got switched to Waterworld. He had to go diving for bodies in the deeper water set-ups.

DeSaye: I witnessed a couple accidents there. It wouldn’t be a good day when it happened. The police would come and inspect the ride and there would always be an investigation. It’s no different from someone drowning in a pool.

Ish: The lifeguards were always very shaken up by it.

Mulvihill: I pulled a dead guy off the bottom of a pool once. I heard over the radio there was a code red, which is life or death, and showed up a minute later. The lifeguards were doing a search of the pool at Roaring Springs. Sometimes guys would jump off and swim underwater and make it so you couldn’t find them. There were a lot of false alarms, but the lifeguards seemed convinced someone went down. EMTs were there and tried resuscitating him, but it didn’t work. The guy didn’t know how to swim. Why he jumped off without knowing how to swim, I don’t know. It goes back to personal responsibility. I was 17. I was shattered.

The drownings led to increased scrutiny by local media over the park. In 1986, the New Jersey Herald reported [PDF] that 110 injuries were logged for the summer 1985 season, including 45 head injuries and 10 fractures. That figure grew to 330 for summer 1986. The paper’s reporter, Evan Schuman, also charged that the park was allowing teenagers under the age of 16 to supervise rides and asking those [who were] underage to go home when inspectors from the Department of Labor came. The park denied the allegation.

DeSaye: The local papers hated the place.

Ish: I never saw any of the stuff from the paper. Where I think the confusion comes in is that we had kids working there but they weren’t lifeguarding or operating equipment.

Zimmerman: There were kids working there, sure, but they couldn’t operate rides. On the Alpine, those guys would be putting carts onto chair lifts or fixing carts. They weren’t able to have any interaction with the lift itself.

DeSaye: We hired 14-year-olds for general services. No way did they supervise anything. But I can’t tell you if there was or was not a time when 20,000 people were in the park and someone went, “Crap, we don’t have enough employees. Take these kids and give them shirts.”

Rogers: Kids basically ran the park. It was high school. The seniors were their bosses.

Mahler: It was like any place that hires a bunch of teenagers. There were a percentage of people who were lazy, lackadaisical, and not paying attention to what they should be paying attention to. But I really feel that aspect of it was exaggerated. I do remember incidences of people being kind of drunk at work, but as soon as someone in authority found out, they put the kibosh put on it and it was not allowed to continue.

Rogers: I don’t really think any of the employees were drinking. If they did, I don’t think they were wasted.

Flynn: One thing that doesn’t really get covered is how the park would take advantage of low-cost overseas labor, basically flying in kids to take summer jobs from Europe. These kids would live in little hovels, little condos, party like rock stars every night.

Keimel: Yes, there was a large contingent of foreign workers; people from the Dominican Republic.

Flynn: The kids did the best they could. When you are 16 or 17 years old and given minimal training, and it’s summertime, you’re interested in a bit more than just letting people go down a slide. Safety protocols could be little lax at times. But most people would be doing bone-headed things, like going down slides backwards.

Rescinio: I went there and like any kid, I didn’t file a report when I got injured. For every injury they reported, there were probably 10 or 20 that weren’t.
 

Guests ride down a raft at Action Park
Joe Shlabotnik, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Mulvihill: I would say I am a guy who is not a big believer in over-regulation by government, and neither was my father. So when they would put various regulations out there in reporting injuries, we would be very careful about complying.

DeSaye: The inspector would come in and say, "You don’t have enough lifeguards, blah, blah, blah. We’ll give you a warning this time.” They’d be there for a while then go and things would go back to normal.

Flynn: The complexion of clientele, maybe 20 to 35 percentage of the patronage were non-English speaking. Were they fully and adequately informed of the risks? Probably not. There was probably an opportunity to improve a certain population’s awareness of risk.

Ish: It’s a rural area. The local fire and ambulance is volunteer. They were not happy to show up a couple of times a day to get people and take them to the hospital. The park decided they were right and so they bought an ambulance to use themselves.

Mulvihill: We absolutely owned an ambulance. We also made donations to the town. We donated one ambulance. We would strain their services and we wanted to have a good relationship with the town and so we’d try to help them out.

DeSaye: For the most part, it was people doing stupid things they shouldn’t have done. And even after they’re warned, they keep doing it again and again. And eventually that comes back to bite you.

Mulvihill: We had a good relationship with a doctor in town and would bring him certain types of injuries without going to the hospital. It was sort of an early urgent care center.

Ish: We had maybe 100 calls on a busy weekend day. Maybe three or four of those were something serious. It was not as many as the newspaper articles would have you think.

Keimel: They had these little propane-powered golf carts that the medical personnel would ride in. You could fit a stretcher on the back.

Gianakis: They were like little mini-ambulances.

Becker: I remember seeing a kid in the golf cart who was busted open and gushing blood. Someone was holding a towel to his head.

Ish: If something was serious, like a cut or something we bandaged, we’d fill out an accident report and forward it to the liability people. Anything from a sprain on up. We’d put people into splints for X-rays, but true broken bones were not that common. It was more sprains and dislocated shoulders.

Ultimately, the park would log a routine series of injuries and a total of five reported fatalities. In addition to the 1980 death of employee George Larsson Jr. on the Alpine, 15-year-old George Lopez drowned in the Wave Pool in 1982. On July 30, 1982, Jeffrey Nathan, 27, died seemingly after being electrocuted and suffering cardiac arrest during a trip through the White Water Kayak Experience. The state's Department of Labor found no fault with the ride, although there were “intermittent” electrical shorts noted.

On August 25, 1984, 20-year-old Donald DePass drowned in a pool in the park’s Roaring Springs area. And in 1987, 18-year-old Gregory Grandchamps died in the Wave Pool, with a Park representative alleging that Grandchamps had “food in his mouth” when he was retrieved from the water. The estates of Larsson, Nathan, and Lopez received six-figure settlements. While the incidents were in line with the inherent danger of any given water park—from the 1980s to 1997, 176 total deaths were reported in 125 parks across the country—Action Park seemed to garner more notoriety than the rest.

Keimel: We were always surprised there weren’t more lawsuits, but the word was Gene had good lawyers and made things go away.

Mulvihill: We fought everything tooth and nail to make sure no one was filing frivolous lawsuits.

Rescinio: They defended everything very aggressively. Their stance was that people assumed all responsibility when they chose to go on the rides. That was their basic defense, assumption of risk. That is a legal defense.

Mulvihill: Like my father, I believe in personal responsibility. People get hurt or die skiing all the time.

Rescinio: You go down a slide and assume the risk. OK. You may get hurt. I would argue you do not assume the risk the ride is improperly designed and will throw you in the air and on your tailbone.

Benneyan: There are 20,000 people in attendance. People are going to have injuries. You’re in control of what you choose to do. Disney’s perfect? Disney’s not. They have their own ambulances. It’s not uncommon to have first aid staff.

Russoniello: We did a number of surveys, and what people liked was the thrill and excitement. They felt they were participating in the park instead of just sitting on a ride.

Rescinio: I represented a woman who went down the Alpine Slide in 1988 and got injured. And they have signs that say “Ride at your own risk,” but what if [the riders] don’t understand what those risks are? If the rides are not properly designed, is that a risk you’re willing to accept?

Litigating personal injury lawsuits became an operating expense for Gene Mulvihill, who found that fighting allegations of park malfeasance or offering small settlements was manageable. Unbeknownst to most people, however, was the fact that Mulvihill had actually been “insuring” himself, telling state regulators that the park was covered by a phony firm called London and World Assurance, Limited. Mulvihill entered into a plea agreement in 1984 and received a suspended sentence for the deception [PDF].    

DeSaye: They were self-insured, to their own detriment.

Rescinio: I was always suspect about the self-insurance thing, in the sense it was not financially-backed in the way a real insurance company would be backed. If they really got hit, they wouldn’t have the reserves to pay it. Geico has billions, maybe $500 million in case something happens. They can weather it.

Mulvihill: I think my father tried to hire really good lawyers to defend the company and to minimize costs. He got insurance with a shell company, effectively self-insurance, which people have moved to today, but he got in trouble for that [at the time].

DeSaye: Most of it was minor. Road rash. Concussions. Some broken bones. Of course, there were the deaths.  

Rogers: Someone died on the kayak ride, and that’s when my mother told me, “You’re not working down there.”

Gianakis: They had electric fans underwater making rapids so you can use the kayak, and exposed electrical wires were under the water. The guy falls under the kayak, steps on the wire, gets electrocuted.

Mulvihill: One day there were a few people in there, and a couple of them passed out. One of them didn’t start breathing and there was talk of shock. The guy who died did nothing wrong. He didn’t have a heart attack, though we had a lot of those. The state seized the pumps and could find nothing wrong. The guy did nothing wrong.

Zimmerman: That was the only one that felt like the stupidity of the park. To shield ourselves from the horror of that, we called it the Fryak.

Fiori: I would say some of us were kind of blissfully unaware of that. I would hear things like that, like an urban legend, but it only makes it cooler at that age. You don’t wrap your head around the consequences. It could’ve easily been you stepping on a loose electrical wire in water or hitting your head on the Alpine.

Zimmerman: It gets back to people taking personal responsibility for their own actions. Before you paid admission, you saw a sign that said, “Participate at your own risk.” People didn’t take it seriously. That’s not the fault of the park. It’s your arrogance thinking you won’t get hurt.

III: A SLIPPERY SLOPE

Action Park’s headlines did little to dissuade visitors from making the trip. Attendance remained strong into the 1990s, bolstered by a number of attractions in which no fatalities were reported but the morbidly appealing risk of bodily injury remained in play.

DeSaye: There was a whole big section called Roaring Springs with cliff-diving, man-made rivers, rafts, speedboats. Of course, people got hurt. I put you in a little speedboat with 20 other speedboats and you’re going to crash into the docks or into other people. People would bump into one another and gas would go into the water.

Keimel: There was a sheen of oily residue over the water.

Gianakis: If you freaked out and shut down the throttle, the front of the boat would just dive in. Water would be flying over the top and fill where you’re sitting. I’m surprised more people didn’t sink.

Keimel: The Tarzan swing was just in the middle of the woods. They put a dam in a ravine and made a pool out of it.

Fiori: It was like a 25-foot drop. If you didn’t let go, you’d just swing back and fall into the woods.

Gianakis: They had these tubes you’d go through. They were pitch black, like slides. And in the middle of the tube, there's a right angle you don’t know is coming. Your head would just smash against the far wall. Then the tube just dumps you out, 20 feet above water. You don’t know what’s going on.

Ish: In the Springs, they wanted to maintain the natural aesthetic of a swimming hole and made the decision not to paint the bottom of the pool. It was clear water, but the bottom was dark, and you couldn’t see a person if you had to. It was eventually painted white.

Benneyan: People would be at the edge of a cliff, bragging about jumping, and then suddenly realize they don’t want to do it. They’re stepping forward, backward. There are hundreds of people there, all screaming. It was like being in a football game.
 

Guests at the Mountain Creek resort contemplate jumping
Mountain Creek, YouTube

DeSaye: Roaring Springs came from these gorgeous spring-fed streams from the top of the mountain, but the water was ice cold. But in Motorworld, it was a giant swamp. There were fish and snakes in the water. You did not want to tip over.

Ish: There were never any snake bites. They never swam after people. They kept to themselves.

Keimel: There were snapping turtles. When the sign said to stay in the boat, it meant stay in the boat.

Flynn: There’s one ride that doesn’t get a lot of attention. It was the Aqua Skoot. It was probably a 40-foot high slide, with the slide itself made of metal rolling pins. The patron would bring a heavy plastic cart up five or six flights of stairs and then the attendant pushed you down and you’d shoot across the water kind of like a skipping stone.

Keimel: If you go to a warehouse and see people pushing crates down rollers, that’s essentially what it was. There were these rigid plastic sleds that went down meat rollers. We called them that because people were the “meat.”  

Gianakis: I remember one time there was a hornet or wasp’s nest underneath the thing at the top. Four of us in a row ended up getting stung by wasps, freaking out, and going down in the carts, sliding down on our asses on metal rollers which are hot beyond belief because it’s summer. But they didn’t care and I didn’t care.

Keimel: They had these grand prix racers, and the mechanics would take them off Motorworld and race around the park. I even heard stories of them taking the grand prix cars on some of the roads, which I never witnessed, but you’d see on the ground where they left rubber marks.

Flynn: The cars were not terribly unsafe by themselves. But you mix the line for the ride with a beer stand and suddenly you have the ingredients for major motor vehicle accidents. 

In the summer of 1997, employees were disheartened to see that Action Park had shuttered for the season. The problem: Gene Mulvihill’s expansive business interests had forced his Great American Recreation portfolio into a bankruptcy filing so complex it took up 20 feet of a shelf in a New Jersey court storage room. Action Park would be a casualty of unrelated real estate deals that had gone sour. Great American Recreation was $47.9 million in debt, including $3.8 million owed as a result of lawsuits against the Park.   

Rescinio: They were successful for a long time because they had done calculations that showed, hey, leave the park as-is, bring in the money, defend the cases, have a good attorney, and rely on the odds that more often than not they’re going to win. [Rescinio’s client, who suffered injuries on the Alpine in 1988, lost her case on appeal.]

Flynn: In 1996, it seemed as busy as it ever was.

Mulvihill: My father was in and out of a million different businesses. He got caught up in real estate, got funding from a hedge fund, then the hedge fund went broke in six months. He wound up selling the park to Intrawest, which got rid of half the rides and made it safer and smaller.

Benneyan: Intrawest’s big focus was real estate. They were not in the water park business. They got an operating management contract and we became bystanders.

DeSaye: I think the world just changed around it. From 1982 to 1990, though, that place was the sh*t.

Ish: There was a comradery. People would get together after work.

A group of Action Park visitors poses for a photo with the Cannonball Loop behind them
Joe Shlabotnik, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

DeSaye: The more I think about it, the more fond I am of it.

Flynn: After hours, there was tons of drinking. We’d have big end-of-season parties by the lake.

Becker: It was fun to see people wipe out, get rug burns. I think it’s a product of being from Jersey, liking that kind of humor.

Flynn: If you saw the movie Adventureland, you’ve seen Action Park. It was exactly like that.

Mahler: I’m in my mid-40s now and made some of my best friends there. Some of them are still close friends and we still laugh about some of the things that happened. We spent all this time together at work and then we hung out afterwards. You met people from other high schools. I was kind of an arty kid, and without the internet, it was harder to find your people. That was one of the places I started to find them—other arty weirdos.

Today, Action Park is no more. After Gene Mulvihill spearheaded a reacquisition of the property in 2010, he passed away in 2012. In 2015, Andy Mulvihill and his family sold their remaining financial interest in what is now known as Mountain Creek, with several of the rides either shuttered or redesigned with mandatory safety equipment. Over the years, the contrast between today’s sterile amusement park experience and Gene’s renegade approach to thrill rides has made Action Park an urban legend. 

Mahler: The place had this reputation for being completely lawless, and that’s fun to talk about, but it wasn’t really the case.

Mulvihill: The guys currently operating the amusement park, the guys that bought us out four years ago, lost three rides that had been there for 40 years. The state said they’re not safe. Why say that after 40 years? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just knowing how to manage bureaucracy that wants to control people’s lives.

Ish: It appealed to your sense of adventure. You could get some bumps, bruises, and scrapes and talk about them. People would come out sore. It was an active day, and sometimes people would later translate that into a dangerous experience.

Flynn: It was the 1980s and the amusement industry was in its infancy. It was an organic experience.

DeSaye: There was never any malicious intent on the part of the people who ran the park. Never.

Benneyan: Gene had the best of intentions. He wanted to show people a really good time.

Russoniello: People in the industry would go, "Oh, Action Park. Scary." And those same people would come up and ask to try the rides—especially the Alpine.

Fiori: There was no waiting in line. You just ran around and went right on the rides. As a kid, you could do it all multiple times a day.

DeSaye: If you went to Action Park more than once and didn’t get hurt, you weren’t doing Action Park right.

Mulvihill: You’d just see crazy stuff as a kid in Vernon that you’d never see any other time. Guys smooching with their girlfriends in the woods, someone beating someone up. It made life exciting.

Becker: I think a lot of it is this pre-internet mythology. No two stories kind of line up, so people really are chasing the truth. There was a very small group of people who experienced this very odd thing, and now it kind of lives on as this living, breathing rural myth.

Mahler: I was in Mexico at a bar with a friend and a couple came in on their honeymoon. The woman was from Brooklyn and we got to talking about Action Park. She pulled up her shirt and showed me a scar and told me, “That’s from the Alpine Slide.”

DeSaye: It was the one place to really push your limits. Ninety percent of my friends have scars from the park, a broken arm from the park. It’s like a medal of honor. You had a sense of bravado, like, “I went there, I did this.” People would go there just for that.

Mahler: I’m being 70 percent serious when I say it was the best job I’ve ever had in my life.

Gianakis: It was the greatest park ever. I’ve been to Disney, I used to go to Great Adventure, I’ve been to Magic Mountain, and nothing has ever compared to this park. You knew what you were in for and it delivered. And as beat up as you got, as many bandages as you had on, as soon as you got back in your car, you went, “Oh, I can’t wait to get back here.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER