Killer Camp and the rise of the British horror game show

Thanks to ITV2 and the forests of Lithuania, the UK is finally getting in on the horror gameshow fun…

This Halloween, a killer will be revealed. For five days now, he or she has been hiding among a group of reality TV show contestants and picking them off one by one. (Not personally but through the proxy of a boiler-suited, masked psychopath who obeys their every command.) 

The deaths have been colourful. Heads have been razor-wired off necks and spun balletically in the air spurting jets of blood, a solitary pedalo has been engulfed in flames, and an eyeball socket has met a painful, pornographic protuberance. Each contestant’s murder has been narrated to their fellow players in the form of a spooky campfire tale by comedian host Bobby Mair, as well as being enacted on screen for the viewers at home.

This is Killer Camp, ITV2’s horror ‘reality’ gameshow, which has been stripped across the last five nights in the run-up to Halloween. It welcomed a group of contestants who’d signed up for a reality show ostensibly themed around a retro American summer camp, but which instead turned out to be themed around the world of 1980s slasher films. Less Dirty Dancing, more Nightmare On Elm Street.

If the ‘killer’ – a contestant who’s been sabotaging tasks and lying their head off since the start – remains undetected until the very end, then they walk away with a bundle of cash. If they’re discovered, then the cash is divided among the survivors and presumably, they face a cruel and unusual punishment not of their making. Possibly involving a statue with a massive appendage. 

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Warning: adult content, swearing, spoilers and very questionable taste contained in the video ahead.

Until recently in the UK, horror game shows have been almost the exclusive province of children’s television. (Mumsie aside, The Crystal Maze was never really scary). The adventure game show genre, in which kids interact with costumed actors, gunge pits and CGI beasties to win the latest CD Walkman or plastic trophy, lent itself well to scares and there have been some excellent and well-loved examples, CITV’s Knightmare being the cream of the crop.

To those of a certain age (in whose childhood featured heavily the poll tax riots, pink custard and the oeuvre of Timmy Mallet) Knightmare needs no introduction, so if you’re able, why not get up and have a walk around while we do this next bit? Your spine will thank you. It’s too late to save mine. 

Knightmare welcomed children to a fantasy realm peopled by elves, wenches, wizards and warrior maidens, all lovingly recreated through the medium of a dressing up box and some early CGI. It was part-horror (navigating giant spider webs, watching bits of your face fall off as your health depleted and being chopped in half by computer-generated circular saws), part-comedy, part-spelling test and all brilliant. (We remember its highlights here and here.)

Later on CITV came Terror Towers, a horror-themed kids’ game show that ran between 1994 and 1996, co-created by Motormouth and Art Attack’s Neil Buchanan, and hosted by his former co-presenter Steve Johnson. Themed around its haunted house setting, it set its young contestants mostly physical challenges in the company of Johnson’s louche games master, a talking spider (Boris – an Easter Egg for eight-year-old Who fans) and an Elvira-type vamp. It was mostly silly fun and had no real scares, unlike Japanese children’s horror game show Analog Assault, clips of which haven’t been included here because its kids are both very young and visibly distressed by the horrifyingly costumed adults lurching after them. Come on, people, don’t be dicks.

CITV continues its horror game show tradition with the zombie-themed escape room-esque Project Z, in which teams of schoolchildren fight to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape, while CBBC’s Last Commanders had the odd horror tinge to its space sci-fi setting. In general though, horror-themed UK children’s game shows tend to have a light touch, even if the trauma of Grotty’s Grotto on the Pink Windmill Show (about 34 minutes in to this video) is felt by some well into adulthood.  

Not suitable for kids

With one extraordinary exception, the adult horror game show is still new territory here in the UK, where the quiz remains king. Expensive to make and far less universal in appeal than their trivia-based peers, British broadcasters have been slow to follow in the footsteps of the US, where the concept has been trialled in various formats. 

Hellevator by Blumhouse productions was one such US series. Presented by Jen and Sylvia Soska (aka the Twisted Sisters) for two seasons in 2015, it involved contestants competing in a series of challenges set against the backdrop of an abandoned slaughterhouse and culminated in an end-level labyrinth/deadly sin inferno where all the ghouls you’d survived in the previous rounds teamed up to get in contestants’ way and stop them from taking home the money. 

13: Fear Is Real, the Canadian Panic Button and the short-lived Estate Of Panic took similar approaches, pitting members of the public against a live-action horror maze/escape room format for a cash prize. Scare Tactics was a horror-themed hidden camera prank show presented by Tracy Morgan, which aimed for laughs over terror at its victims’ expense. 

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Scared Famous, which aired in the US for one season in 2017, and Fight Of The Living Dead took the slightly different tack of combining horror, game shows and the world of reality TV and vlogging. Part prank show, part reality, they set the stars of scripted reality and YouTubers horror-themed challenges designed to get big reactions, all to win money for charity. 

Which brings us to… Release The Hounds

No really, release the actual hounds

Presented first by Reggie Yates between 2013 and 2017, and then by Matt Edmondson, ITV2’s last horror gameshow was an outlandish gem of the genre that married the naughty glee of a prank show with the adrenaline of an adventure game show, all dressed with in a layer of genuine horror fan expertise.

First filmed in the grounds of a spooky English manor house/ Bramley Ordnance Depot in Hampshire, Release The Hounds was moved in 2015 to the Lithuanian countryside, where Killer Camp is also filmed (near Vilnius, if you’re planning a trip). Initially featuring members of the public and later rebranded with reality TV stars as Famous And Freaked, it was responsible for some genuinely well-crafted scares. 

The premise was simple – complete scary challenges (killer clowns, cursed scarecrows, masked murderers) in a dark forest to win keys that incrementally open gates that decrease the distance you have to run in the final round to win a rucksack full of money for charity while being chased by a pack of dogs.  

Caveat: the dogs, by all accounts, were highly trained and posed no threat, only chasing the treats in the rucksacks and not after a chunk of Emmerdale or Love Island flesh. It’s just a bit of fun. Or so you’d think until you see just how effectively the show manages to freak out its contestants…

So there we have it. Marrying elements from multiple genres, these latest entries on ITV2 prove that the UK game show can handle a creative horror twist. Coming soon: Pointless: Dead And Loving It, Danny Dyer’s Haunted Wall and a new format in which CJ from Eggheads pushes contestants into a canal.

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All episodes of Killer Camp are available to stream now on ITV Hub

Read about the creepiest fictional game shows in the movies here.