It's all too easy while watching Survivor (or any competition show, for that matter) to shake our heads as a contestant makes a fatal mistake. They fail to play an idol. They trust the wrong person. They're blindsided by a betrayal. "Poor guy," we say, or perhaps less sympathetically, "silly them".

But what if those fatal mistakes left a mark - and what if they came back to haunt the show?

On Survivor: Ghost Island, the 36th season of the original US series, the legends and lore of Survivor become part of the game. As the longest-running reality competition show on television, Survivor US faces the challenge of making each round as fresh and interesting as the last. For this season, which takes place on Fiji's Mamanuca Islands, the producers went back in time.

"Ghost Island represents the graveyard of every bad Survivor decision," says executive producer and host Jeff Probst. "If you've been a fan of Survivor, you can think back to the time when James was voted out with two idols, or when JT was voted out with an idol in his pocket, or when somebody gave an advantage to somebody and they were betrayed by them.


"Ghost Island is this idea that all of those bad decisions have been living and haunting Ghost Island for years, and now they're ready to come back and haunt this group of players," he says. "Every advantage and every idol that's in the game will be an actual advantage or idol from a previous season that was misplayed. If you find an idol on the beach, it's going to be an idol that has a bad history with it, and . . . it's the actual idol."

For Probst and his producers, that meant trawling through the past 35 seasons and compiling a list of the most iconic bad decisions on the show - and then spending months tracking down the different idols from all over the world. Though some had been thrown away or lost in fires, many past contestants had kept them as souvenirs, or super-fans had collected them as memorabilia. Probst remembers one owner of an idol who flat-out didn't believe he was speaking to the host of Survivor.

"Even when he was talking to me he said, 'I don't really believe this is you.' And then I realised - maybe he needs to hear it in Survivor speak," says Probst. "So I changed my tone and I said, 'Look, dude, I don't really care one way or the other, you gonna be in or out? Let me know.' And I hung up. He called right back and he goes, 'Okay, I believe it's Probst, I'm in."'

For the idols to affect the psychology of the gameplay, the contestants needed to know what they were looking at - which is why all 20 contestants in this season are super-fans of the show themselves. With that prior knowledge of these so-called "cursed" items, the contestants suddenly find their superstitions tested just as much as their endurance.

"The question we posed at the beginning of the season is, 'Can you reverse the curse?' And you think, 'Well this is silly, what a ridiculous question, there's no such thing as a curse'," says Probst.

"What's really interesting is a lot of people playing the game went, 'Oh man, is there a curse?' And all it takes is that little bit of doubt, and suddenly you start second-guessing - 'Man, I have this idol, the last guy that had this idol didn't play it and was voted out, is that what's going to happen to me?' What does that do to your instincts?"

One contestant, Michael Yerger, is just 18 - meaning he was just an infant when the first season aired in 2000. "He's been watching the show since he was 7 or 8 years old," says Probst. "If he finds an idol or an advantage, imagine that moment for him when he says, 'Wow, I was literally sitting at home as a little kid when this moment happened, and here I am now, digging it up myself in a season of Survivor, 10 years later."'

With the second season of Survivor New Zealand in production, the global franchise continues to grow and expand. Probst says he's keen to watch our version progress and establish its own lore.

"I'm excited to welcome New Zealand into the Survivor family," says Probst. "It's a great family, and as a show we all support each other, so there will be things from our show that the New Zealand producers will use, and there will be things from the New Zealand version that we've never thought of.

"Any time we get a new member in the family, I feel like it just makes Survivor bigger and stronger and ultimately better."


Survivor: Ghost Island premieres Saturday March 3, 7pm on Three. Survivor New Zealand season 2 is coming soon to TVNZ 2