July 26, 2017 02:21 PM


The hallucinations began after a few hours.

First I saw flashing red lights. Then I saw electric blue lightning that rolled into spirals before exploding in a shower of sparks. A herd of incandescent zebras strolled by. A ghostly iPhone screen hovered just out of my reach. “None of this is real,” I told myself. “My eyes are just playing tricks on me.”

I was experiencing Darknessa new reality show from The Discovery Channel. I was marooned deep in a pitch-black cave in Missouri. I called out for help, but no one answered. I was all alone.

My mind went back to the 4-ft. snake that had greeted me at the entrance of the cave. I hoped he was nowhere nearby.

Here’s how Darkness works: three survivalists are trapped at different points inside underground cave systems for up to six days. Their goal is to find each other and then navigate their way out of the cave. They can’t see a thing. Participants are filmed using infrared cameras that emit no visible light — and are sometimes left all alone with infrared GoPros strapped to their bodies. 

For my adventure, I was alone. I had 24 hours to escape — and producers warned me that any false move could result in injury or even death. Sometimes, cameramen in night vision goggles silently spirited around my cave with the stealth of goblins. Other times, I was left alone with stationary cameras on tripods. I had body cameras attached to my helmet, backpack and chest.

Steve Helling in Darkness
Courtesy Discovery Channel

If that wasn’t terrifying enough, some of the tunnels were so small that I had to crawl through them on my belly. I felt a tightness in my chest as I found myself entombed.

I have no specialized training for this type of adventure. Most Darkness participants are avid survivalists with experience in caves. Many of them are former military. My only specialized skill is being able to recite most of the lines from Fargo, which was no help at all in the cave.

As miserable as I was, I was determined to press forward until a nasty fall caused my hip and leg to start throbbing. (I’ve helpfully included a gross photo of my injury below. You’re welcome.)

A bathroom selfie of my bruised leg
Steve Helling

So this begs the question: why would anybody do Darkness? Surely the compulsion to be on a reality TV show isn’t that strong, is it?

Perhaps it is, but the point of the show is to push people past their physical and mental limits. Discovery has become the go-to place for extreme reality TV adventures with Naked and AfraidThe Wheel and Deadliest Catchbut this is the network’s first show where they deprive their cast of one of the senses.

So how did my experience end? Spoiler alert: I didn’t escape the cave, but I managed to make it for the duration without tapping out. The first video of my experience is above — and more will follow as the show nears its premiere date.

Darkness premieres Aug. 2 and Aug. 3 at 10 p.m. ET on the Discovery Channel.

You May Like