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‘Darkness’ on Discovery pits competitors against mazelike caves, mines and more

Brandon Lee, one of the participants on Discovery

Brandon Lee, one of the participants on Discovery Channel's "Darkness." Photo Credit: Discovery Channel

Talk about being blindsided: The participants in Discovery’s new series “Darkness,” premiering Wednesday at 10 p.m., must find their way out of mazelike caves, mines and other labyrinths in complete and total . . . well, like the show’s title says.

For people like firefighter and Army National Guardsman Brandon Lee, 37; retired arson investigator and former firefighter Jeff Tucker, 54; and military contractor Jack Stallings, 59, the stars of the premiere, that meant stumbling along in sensory-deprivation blackness through an Ozark Mountains cave, across mud, underground streams and treacherous rocks, sometimes on their bellies through crawlspaces, toward an exit — how far away they did not know. (It was about two miles.) And though properly dressed, booted and helmeted, they had no food or water, and only a backpack of basic survival gear — paracord, blanket, water-filtration straw.

What are they, nuts?

No, assures Lee, a former Marine with two Iraq tours and now a training officer at the Shreveport, Louisiana, Fire Academy. “The only person who was worried about my getting hurt and not coming back was my 9-year-old daughter,” says the married father of five. “Everyone else knew I had the abilities and mental fortitude to be able to handle it. Of course,” he adds with a chuckle, “they said I was crazy in the same breath.”

“The type of human being who does this, they really want the utmost challenge,” says Chris Grant, 38, CEO of the production company Electus. “No one’s being paid. They want to prove something to themselves and their loved ones. It’s a very personal choice, and it’s not a competition.”

Indeed, the premiere’s three participants each entered the cave on private land in Pulaski County, Missouri, through separate entrances and were told only that there was a possibility of other participants being in there with them. “I wasn’t sure of the number or if I would even find another person,” Lee says. “I was told basically to find other people if they are there, to try to find resources of food and water, and to try to find my way out.”

During the six days allotted within the abyss, the trio saw nothing except, well, nothing . . . and the occasional sensory-deprivation hallucination. Viewers see the men as eerie images shot by a stealth crew equipped with night-vision goggles and infrared and thermal cameras. The participants carried such cameras as well (the men could point them, but couldn’t see what they were shooting). Remote cameras were also placed throughout.

How did Lee, in total darkness, know which direction was forward, and that he wasn’t getting turned around? “For the most part I tried to use some of my training and strategy from the fire service, trying to use walls to feel my way through,” he says. “There may have been times I might have been turned around. But you try to stay calm, remain focused and try to gain a relation to the feeling of different formations in the area.”

Hunger proved less of a concern. Though we see him eat an earthworm at one point, “that might have been about all I ate. After that initial onset of hunger, I don’t think I felt hunger too much after the first 24 hours. After a while you just kind of forget about it. The main things I wanted were water and to see some light.”

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