'Survivor: Ghost Island': Jeff Probst and Mark Burnett Explain the New Season's Lore-Focused Twist

Probst and Burnett speak with THR about the next season of the historic franchise, designed as a love letter to fans and a deep dive into nearly two decades of 'Survivor' lore.
Courtesy of CBS

"It belongs in a museum!"

For their next act, the minds behind Survivor are heeding the wise words of Henry Jones Jr. by building the latest version of the historic reality franchise atop their own veritable temple of doom: Ghost Island, an appropriately haunting name for a haunted place, built on the backs of shattered Survivor dreams and destined to create some new Survivor nightmares.

Season 36, officially called Survivor: Ghost Island, premiering Feb. 28 on CBS, features 20 new castaways forced to confront old mistakes from seasons past. Over the course of 39 days of gameplay, the latest collection of hopeful millionaires will find themselves sucked into the vortex of Ghost Island, a cursed world in the middle of the vast Mamanuca Islands of Fiji, oozing with Survivor history from every nook and cranny.

"Survivor is a game in which you're forced to make dozens of decisions if you make it deep in the game, and yet only one can put you out of the game," says Jeff Probst, executive producer and host of Survivor, speaking with The Hollywood Reporter backstage at the live Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers finale. "One of the most enjoyable aspects of the show is looking back on the dumbest decisions ever made. So we decided to build a season around all of those bad decisions."

Those legendary mistakes live on Ghost Island, "the graveyard for bad Survivor decisions." When players arrive at the island, they will walk between towering titans evocative of the so-called "Survivor Gods," shrines built in tribute to immunity idols and necklaces featured in previous seasons, as well as a secluded shelter from which every single torch snuffer in Survivor history hangs overhead.

"I really don't have much memorabilia," says Probst. "The only things I have are the snuffers. But I wanted to be a part of this thing! So I said, 'What if we hang all of the snuffers underneath the area under which they will sleep?' Now, when you're on Ghost Island and you're spending the night, you're sleeping under Survivor death. There are 35 torches hanging above you at different heights, taunting you and reminding you that one bad decision can haunt you forever."

The torch snuffers, the immunity idols and necklaces and other assorted relics from Survivor lore are not only on display — some of these relics are actually in play. In that regard, executive producer and series creator Mark Burnett, joining Probst and THR backstage at the live Survivor finale, reminisces about one of the most famous bad decisions ever made on Survivor, dating back to the 16th season, the first Fans vs. Favorites edition: Ozzy Lusth's fake immunity idol, an extraordinarily kind way of describing a stick shrouded in cloth, discovered by fan Jason Siska, given to veteran Eliza Orlins and ultimately played for the ruse that it was.

"There's a lot of comedy in these bad decisions — both for the audience and when it actually happened," says Burnett. "Ozzy's stick, for example, was just one of the craziest things ever. Eliza took it so easy the whole episode, pre-Tribal, because she thinks she has an idol ... but it's just an effing stick!"

Could we see the "effing stick" rear its head again when someone visits Ghost Island? According to Probst: "One hundred percent."

"It speaks to the uncertainty that prevails on Survivor," Probst says about that moment. "The audience knows what it is. They watched Ozzy make it. But you don't know if you're a player. The funny thing is, even though Jason believed it this time, there are seasons later where idols looked fake and people don't believe they're real, but they were real. You can't ever really know what the truth is."

In addition to that legendary fake idol (indeed, now is as good a time as any to get that "effing stick" hype train back in motion, considering it has stayed firmly within the Survivor family in the years following its creation), Probst specifically cites JT Thomas' unplayed idol from Survivor: Game Changers and James Clement's two unplayed idols from Survivor: China as examples of what viewers might find when Ghost Island makes itself known. "Any advantage or any idol that's been played in a previous season and has been misplayed, it might come back into play this season," says Probst. With that said, the specific details of how these and other relics from Survivor lore will factor into the new season's gameplay remain shrouded in secrecy, except that they stand as a monument to the season's core idea: "Can you reverse the curse?"

"A player will find something from a previous season," says Probst, "like James' idols, and they will be reminded that the last person who held these was voted out with them in his pocket. Will that be you? And then the other question: Could it possibly happen again?"

In an effort to amplify the reality of its own past, the Survivor team veered away from creating replicas of the show's returning iconic artifacts, and instead tracked down the actual objects themselves. Sometimes, the work required little more than browsing their own personal collections, as with Probst's torch snuffers. In other cases, it required a little more creativity. 

"That's the fun part," says Probst. "We had to track down all of these items. These aren't replicas. We didn't get our art department busy. Some of them are owned by Survivor players. Some of them may have been bought by Survivor fans."

"I had my office going through every storage facility in my life," adds Burnett.

"We had one guy who [executive producer] Matt Van Wagenen tracked down," continues Probst. "He had an immunity idol that Tai had misplayed, and we wanted to use it. We told him we would pay him to let us use it. 'We'll invite you to the live show!' The guy said, 'I don't believe it's you. I'm not going to give it up. It's my son's favorite thing!' Matt took a picture of the two of us out in Fiji, with a sign saying, 'This is legit!' And the guy kept saying: 'I don't believe this photo, either!' I got on the phone and was very friendly and said, 'Hey, it's Jeff! We're very excited about this idea!' And he said it again: 'I don't really believe it's you!' Which is when I realized, he just needed to hear Survivor talk to him. So I said, 'I don't even really care anymore, anyway.' I hung up, and he came back to us: 'Okay, I believe you now!' He just needed to feel the attitude of Survivor."

Not just the attitude of Survivor, but the attitude of Ghost Island itself. As Probst explains the concept, Ghost Island isn't just a place; it's a character in its own right, as sassy as it is sinister.

"We wanted Ghost Island to have a personality," says Probst. "We gave it a taunting personality. I very much feel that Ghost Island is not only an added obstacle, but an added character. If you are sent to Ghost Island, you will learn very quickly that it speaks to you with a lot of attitude. It will say things like, 'Feeling lucky?' You have an opportunity to improve your status in the game if you're willing to risk something. The game continues, because you're going to this place that represents bad decisions, and being given a chance to make a decision. If you make a bad one, you become part of Ghost Island. If you make a good one, you'll go back to your tribe with something of value in your pocket. The question becomes: Will you play it correctly?"

There's no question that Ghost Island stands as a daunting and taunting new element for the players competing in the season, giving them the opportunity to rewrite the narrative on some epic mistakes that still reverberate throughout the halls of Survivor history, for good and for ill. But from the perspective of the creative team responsible for bringing Survivor to life over 36 seasons and counting, Ghost Island as both a location and as a theme is nothing short of a love letter to the fans — the ones who remember the good old "snakes and rats" days of Survivor, and everyone who has come along for the ride in the nearly 20 years since.

"It's definitely a tip of the hat to our fans," says Probst. "You don't have this show without your fans, and you don't have this legacy without people like Mark telling that story about the time Ozzy created this fake idol, or James had two of the most powerful items in the game in both pockets and got voted out, or someone misplayed an advantage. I think what's going to be fun for the audience is they will see somebody find an advantage and dig it up in the dirt and go, 'That's JT's idol from Survivor: Game Changers,' they will see the player read the note and learn they're finding the actual idol JT was voted out with in Survivor: Game Changers. Only a show that's been on for 35 seasons would have enough history to pull this off."

Keep checking THR.com/Survivor for more coverage of the upcoming season, including interviews with the new castaways, an even closer look at what Ghost Island has in store experientially and more.