Sure, the nine contestants on the second season of Solitary were made to stay awake for long stretches, deprived of food, and subjected to amplified infant screams. But that was only the beginning. Here are a few other ways in which the players were kept busy.
1. Playing with her subjects’ sense of time, Val (the omniscient computer-voiced host) has each enter a cramped black box with a ridged floor, which is subsequently heated to a sweltering temperature. Players, sans watches, are told to exit the box after exactly three hours; the one who comes closest earns a pass on the next “treatment.” A couple of contestants emerge from the box prematurely, and two come very close to three hours. The others, however, express surprise when, after more than four hours, Val alerts them that the contest is long over.
2. Players are asked to stand barefoot on a board covered with wooden pegs for as long as they can. Says J.P., a 33-year-old Survivor alum, “It feels like someone took two metal rods, implanted them right underneath your heels, and shot ’em both up your leg.” Two female contestants endure the “footbed of nails” for close to three hours.
3. In a Flowers for Algernon moment, each player is given a white mouse in a cage to ponder as a metaphor for his or her own situation. In a later episode, they race to help the mouse escape confinement by piecing together a Habitrail-style rodent tunnel. To earn the 51 tunnel pieces, they must ride a total of 2,040 revolutions on a treadmill.
4. Players are asked to grate 10 large onions, an eye-searing task for which they earn 50,000 “vallers” (Val’s imaginary currency). Later, Val hosts an auction. Among the prizes players bid on is the ability to punish a rival with an hour of sirens, additional time in the black box, or the removal of something the rival treasures.
5. Wearing handcuffs, contestants are presented with a giant bowl of ultrathick gruel. (Could the key to the cuffs be in there?) Soon after, their pods are filled with roughly 100 playground balls of all sizes and colors, each of which Val has given an arbitrary weight—players must determine the combination of five balls that totals 211 pounds, 12 ounces. Following the test, Val tells her still-handcuffed players that a clue on how to escape their manacles may be found in a huge box crammed with enough packing peanuts to fill the pods ankle-deep. They search, listlessly, and nobody succeeds.