The following study shows our interest in reality television as a barometer for society, yet one show caught out attention in particular: Trick or Treat. It was created and written by British mentalist Derren Brown, who has also created Trick of the mind, Hero at 30 000 feet, The Heist, The Assassin, The Guilt Trip. His work combines magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection, showmanship, as he often warns in the beginning of his shows, and at no point are actors or stooges used.
While he is not very famous outside of the UK, his social and psychological experiments, combined with a theatrical presentation, have fascinated people from around the world. In the programme Trick or Treat, which we will focus on, the participant is presented by Derren Brown with a blind choice of two cards, one saying Trick and another- Treat. Having signed an agreement that they allow the show to do “whatever they want with them” as Brown often says, they are then, without their knowledge, observed by a surveillance team, which strives to learn a bit about the life of the participant. This allows the team to create a scenario tailored to the life and character of the participant, which will test them in one of two ways- a pleasant one or an unpleasant one. Ultimately, the aim of the show is the same in both cases: to improve the life of the participant by teaching them a new skill, or helping them get over a trait of their character which may be holding them back, for example negative thinking, lack of self-confidence, or in one case- reckless driving. The episodes last 25 min. and each episode shows one participant’s story.
There are various reasons why we chose this show. Firstly, its originality, as we’re unaware of any other show with similar format. Bratich’s (2007) comment that reality TV is not called that because of its realistic depiction of life but because it intervenes in real life, was an argument we felt was strong and it stuck with us. In this respect, the show fits into the category of reality TV, mainly for its attempts to intervene and improve lives. Thus, we felt we had an extraordinary case in our hands. There are no contestants or competition, though it can be branded as a testing the limit show.
Apart from the originality of concept, we felt that the show was genuinely positive, as it made no point of criticizing or ostracizing participants for not fitting in a prepackagedmodel (beauty, behaviour, particular identity), it aimed at challenging them on an individual level. This was either to improve a trait which could be harmful to them, or to simply teach them psychological techniques which would be of help (learning to speed read, improving their memory or being able to better pick up on body language cues used in poker, for example). We felt inspired to investigate the topic because it seems that Derren Brown’s work in particular hasn’t been researched before, despite his growing popularity and reputation, also because this topic could make a somewhat valuable, even if small, contribution to the understanding of narrative and construction of this particular genre in the RealityTV field.
This episode is talking about Lauren, a girl from the United Kingdom that has a predisposition to being held back by self-criticism, and this affects her confidence in her capabilities. The problem here is her self-confidence, but the complex system is negative suggestion.For Lauren, Derren Brown sets a scenario which will show her the destructive power of negative thinking. The trap is that we focus so much on not doing a certain thing that we just end up being unable to resist it anymore. Derren Brown will make her experience an extreme example of negative suggestion, illustrating that positive thinking is the key for entering a more constructive state of mind.
We consider that The Kitten episode illustrates the best what we argued before about behavior reductionism. Moreover, this episode is a perfect example of how atypical Trick or Treat is as a makeover show: no-one asks specifically for help, neither are they presented in opposition with a hegemonic cultural ideology with which they need to comply. After showing her a kitten locked in a metal cage with electric wires attached to it, Lauren is told explicitly that if she doesn’t electrocute the cat (by pushing a button in the middle of the room) she will be compensated with 500 pounds. What should be a simple task turns into a torturous internal conflict. Derren Brown induced a child-like state of mind(through negative suggestion not to touch the red button, offering her tea, using words with specifically childish connotations) and thus leaves her in a state of heightened susceptibility to suggestion. Despite herself, she pushes the red button, supposedly killing the kitten. Unsurpisingly, the cat remains alive, but Lauren, the protagonist, has experienced at the same time both a real event and unreal one. Regression to a predictable behavior brought her to a mythical terrain of her own making, the unconscious level of which can be used as nurturing field for personality changes.
The symbolic violence of the kitten’s staged, unreal, death marks the death of Lauren’s negativism and an abrupt change into a more positive state of mind, after seeing how negative thinking can have serious consequences….continue reading