9:00am PT by Josh Wigler
'Survivor: Ghost Island': Jeff Probst Reveals Everything to Know About Season 36
On Feb. 28, Survivor returns with its most haunting theme yet. The 36th season of the landmark CBS reality series comes equipped with a spooky subtitle: Ghost Island, an enigmatic source of danger and dread for the players embarking on the jungle-dwelling journey ahead.
"Ghost Island is the graveyard of bad Survivor decisions," executive producer and host Jeff Probst tells The Hollywood Reporter about the season's name and concept, speaking on location at the start of the season. "You think about every memorable historic bad decision on Survivor, and those decisions have been living out on Ghost Island — they're haunted! They've been waiting for a chance to mess with you again. This year, that's what's going to happen. The question will be: Can you reverse the curse, or is this thing truly hexed forever, and are you going to be its next victim and another resident of Ghost Island?"
If you don't fully understand the concept even after that explanation, never fear. Read on for a much closer look at what's in store for the Survivor universe this season, from the specific nature of Ghost Island to some of the twists at play this season and much more.
For more about the season, its twist and its castaways, listen to the first episode of our preseason podcast series First One Out: Ghost Zero, embedded below.
Return of the Relics
As usual, this season of Survivor will feature hidden immunity idols and advantages. This time, however, these idols and advantages have all been previously featured on Survivor. Internally, the production team refers to these items as "relics," and they certainly aren't replicas; in every single case, the returning relics are the actual items from seasons past.
"That turned out to be its own adventure, for sure, and a fun game," Probst says about the process that went into tracking down the relics. "We had a list of every really big move we could think of. The first thing we did was decide, which are the ones we would love to have? We went through the list and realized that for this to work, we would need 'X' amount of idols and 'X' amount of advantages. We have a pretty good idea of how many idols typically get played in a season, and advantages. Then it was deciding which of the ones on this list are the ones we can actually find. We don't know where some of them are. There are some we would love to have, but no idea. Couldn't track them down through an auction, couldn't track them down by putting it out to Survivor fans. There were other idols left on the beach somewhere. Someone was voted out and they buried their idol back at camp, and we have no idea where they buried it! But we managed to come up with a pretty good group, and I have to say, that was a great day when the pieces started coming in and we realized we have enough."
Probst forecasts what it will be like for the Ghost Islanders as they start discovering these idols and advantages — which, he's quick to point out, will not all be found on Ghost Island itself: "You might end up finding an idol or an advantage on Ghost Island, but you might also find it at camp."
"Imagine being a super fan, and you find an advantage," he continues. "You're already excited. Then you peel it open and you realize, 'Oh my gosh! I was 12 years old and was on the couch when this happened.' Then, back to the sense of humor, the note will tell you: 'Here's who had it, here's what they did with it, here's how it cost them the million dollars. Is this forever hexed, or can you reverse the curse?' It's a fun game, because you can look at it and say, 'I don't believe in curses. This is ridiculous. It's an idol. I'm going to use it.' Okay! Good! Good luck. Other people might look at it and go, 'Man, this was misplayed last time; I don't want to misplay it this time.' And maybe that will get in their heads. It doesn't matter to us. It still has whatever power it says it has. It's up to you whether you want to believe in the fun of Ghost Island."
Sleeping Beneath Survivor Death
It will be hard for denizens of Ghost Island to deny the power of the place, since it's positively covered in necklaces, idols, totems and other relics from previous Survivor seasons — including virtually every single torch snuffer from Probst's own collection, dangling from the roof of Ghost Island's lone, lonely shelter.
"You're sleeping under Survivor death. Who knew there would be a reason why I kept them? Turns out it was for Survivor: Ghost Island!" says Probst, who has held onto all of the snuffers as his only mementos from the show, which he has hosted since the very start, beginning with Survivor: Borneo in 2000. Apparently, before the torch snuffers were schlepped out to Ghost Island, they were in exile in their own right: in Probst's garage at home.
"My son Michael and I would go out maybe every six months or so, and he would go, 'Dad, let's go label them all again,'" he says. "We would pull them all out on the garage floor, and he would go on the computer and look them up on Survivor Wikipedia and go, 'Okay, that one's from Australia, that one's from Africa…' And now here they all are again, being used this season. It's really cool."
"One Bad Decision Can Haunt You Forever"
"That was the thematic sentence of the season," says Probst, describing the sign that's hanging near the shelter on Ghost Island — a warning shot for the new castaways, as well as the defining theme of the season. "This season will center around the idea that you can play an almost perfect game, and if you make one bad decision, it's over. You just saw that on Survivor: Game Changers. Brad Culpepper played a great game, and he made one bad decision. He took Sarah instead of taking Tai, and he cost himself a million dollars. That's the idea. One bad decision. And what makes it fun is that we have idols and advantages that represent the one bad decision from previous players. They were just like you. They were in the game. They had power. The game was in their hands — and they blew it. Now they're a memory, instead of a winner."
The idea of being haunted by one bad decision will also make its way into Survivor's challenge design this year, a fact that's made immediately clear in the opening moments of the season. At the marooning, both tribes are tasked with selecting someone as their leader. The leader then picks one athlete and one person they deem the smartest on their tribe to represent the tribe in a challenge, involving an obstacle course and a table puzzle. The winning tribe receives a massive shelter building kit. The losing tribe loses their fishing gear, a crucial setback given the food situation this season. (More on that below.) However, there's a twist: An hourglass is running throughout the puzzle portion of the challenge. The leader has access to a lever, which is connected to the table puzzle. The leader can choose to pull the lever, destroy the puzzle and forfeit the challenge in order to keep their fishing gear, but can only make this decision while the hourglass is still active. If they forfeit, the winning tribe will still get the shelter building kit, as well as an added bonus: flint for fire, and a healthy supply of eggs.
"For the opening, we wanted to capture this idea of how important and also how hard it is to make the right decision under pressure," says Probst. "We developed a very simple challenge that put all of the pressure on the person responsible for making the decisions. It wasn't so much about being a good puzzle solver or being a good runner. It's about the person in charge of the decision, and how much faith they have in you for being a good puzzle solver or good decision maker, and we kept adding stakes to it. Every time you contemplated A or B, you were risking C, D, E and F."
As for how the challenge played out, Probst offers this tease: "It worked out very well. We had a very cool contrast of leaders and leadership style, and a result that I'm sure people went back to camp and people talked about."
Ghosts of Recent Past
Survivor: Ghost Island is the 36th season of the landmark CBS reality series, and it was filmed mere weeks after production wrapped on Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers. As such, expect some of the twists from season 35 to make their way onto Ghost Island, including the divisive fire-making challenge at the final four, and quite possibly the return of expiration dates on idols and advantages, as seen in Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers' super idol in the opening episode.
"The idea of an expiration date is quite likely," says Probst. "What's fun about it is it forces a move right now. It might not mean you get to the end, but it means you have an opportunity to make a decision right now, and you can impact the game, or get cold feet and not make a decision. It's up to you, but it has no power tomorrow — which doesn't mean somebody wouldn't have an advantage, not play it, know it's powerless, but try to front that it still has power. There are a lot of ways you can play with that. Something else we played with in season 35 was the idea of secrets within the game. That's something else that might find its way into Survivor: Ghost Island — secrets between players."
As Ghost Island enters production, only two weeks have passed since the Survivor: Game Changers season finale, which included the shocking exit of the legendary Cirie Fields, ousted from the game without a single vote to her name. Her exit was only possible due to a freak occurrence of every single other player in the final five boasting some form of immunity, an event known within some fan circles as "Advantage-geddon." Some saw the occasion as proof that Survivor needed to pump the brakes on the amount of idols and advantages in a given season. For his part, this is one Survivor event that doesn't haunt Probst, as evidenced by the core premise of Ghost Island.
"This won't surprise people who hate me, but I thought the Cirie Tribal Council was not only fantastic, but it fulfilled the promise of the Survivor: Game Changers poster," says Probst. "For that season to really resonate, you need a Reservoir Dogs moment where everybody has their guns out. We didn't know it would come about this way, but … the fact that Tai had two idols and decided to play both of them at a final six when he could have guaranteed himself a spot in the final four, nobody would have bet money on that. And the second he did it? It changed everything. I'm standing there going, 'Oh, my God!' I couldn't even keep up with the math at first."
He adds, "I did not go home and go, 'We blew it, guys.' I went home and said, 'The Survivor Gods were looking out for us, because that's what you want.'"
Meet the Castaways
Given the nature of the season — pitting new players against not only each other, but specters of Survivor past as well — Probst says it was crucial to make sure the cast was filled with as many genuine Survivor fans as humanly possible.
"Massively important," he says about the decision to cast fans. "It was really the only criteria, that they had to be super fans, or they have a really good knowledge of the game. They don't have to be super fans. But that was fun. It's who I prefer. I prefer people who know how to play Survivor. I'm not one of the people who thinks it's interesting to have somebody who doesn't get the game. It does makes for interesting gameplay, so sometimes we'll do that, but personally, I would rather play with players every season. That would be my choice."
Another thing to note about the new season's cast: It's a young group. Out of the 20 castaways, two are in their early 40s, four are in their 30s, and the rest are in their 20s — with the exception of the youngest member of the cast, real estate agent and model Michael Yerger, who is 18 years old. It is among the youngest-skewing casts in recent Survivor memory, if not the youngest cast. But it's not by design, according to Probst.
"If you took a whiteboard and wrote the list of priorities down from top to bottom, No. 1 and No. 1A is that they have to be compelling storytellers and they have to be super fans," he says. "Underneath that, it would be age, occupation, geography, demographic stuff. I say this often out here: It's one thing to want the world, and it's another to have to make the decisions about what is actually here. These are our 20 best people and they're younger than normal, and they're a more attractive cast than normal. Okay! That part wasn't by design. I think fans know that, otherwise we would just cast models and bartenders all of the time. But I like this group a lot. I don't think the audience is going to be disappointed with our choices of storytellers."
Learn more about these storytellers in our preview of the Survivor: Ghost Island cast, and keep checking back with THR in the weeks ahead for even more detailed profiles of each castaway.
The Survivor Diet is Going on a Diet
In terms of twists this season that don't involve Ghost Island proper, here's a big one: In most seasons, tribes are provided with basic rations for their lives on the beach — rice, in most cases. This season, there will be rice…but not a lot of it.
"We're constantly looking at the show, and I'm trying to examine, 'Where is the society element of it?' I never want to lose that," says Probst. "Even though the game is definitely dominating, these people are still living together, building shelter, making fire. It has bothered me for quite some time that they can get by without catching any fish or really working that hard."
The result of that brainstorm? An extreme reduction in rations, according to Probst: "The idea is, 'Let's cut their rice in half.' And to be clear, that means we're cutting the minimum amount of rice our medical team was comfortable with giving them in half, knowing they're going to have to go find coconuts — and there are plenty, but it takes work, and you can only eat so much coconut meat before you become a coconut! That, or you're going to have to go out into the water. We gave them a really big fishing kit, and there's a lot of fish out here. People have been catching fish out here in Fiji every season."
Probst views the new food situation as a further complication in the game, one that potentially changes voting criteria. "The dilemma is going to be, if you do have somebody like Sebastian [a professional fisherman on the Naviti tribe], and he's out there catching fish, and you want to vote him out…what do you do? I like that. It's not trying to give Sebastian an advantage, but trying to expand the definition of advantage, or necessity. You can't get rid of someone who's very good at challenges as a tribe, because you need them. You shouldn't be able to get rid of someone who's very good at fishing, either, nor a fire-starter, nor a shelter builder — at least not without consequence. So, if you do run out of rice, and you do run out of fish and you don't have any coconuts, and you call me asking for more? The note on the rice is pretty clear: 'It will cost you.'"
Fans Plan, the Survivor Gods Laugh
Much about Ghost Island remains close to the vest — certainly from the players, who are told limited information about the season's namesake at the marooning, and also from the press about the island's exact nature.
For instance, how does one get to Ghost Island? The island's first official inhabitant will be sent there after the first immunity challenge, as selected by the winning tribe, and therefore safe from the first Tribal Council. Beyond that? It's entirely unclear how players will wind up on Ghost Island. What's more, the full extent of Ghost Island itself remains a mystery; the legendary location will expand and reveal new aspects of itself as the season goes on. Rumor has it that something truly special exists at the Ghost Island summit, though the specifics remain unknown.
As for the idols and advantages, we know they will come in the form of old relics from Survivor past, but we don't know if they will be exactly as remembered. When asked if an idol could return with new powers — or if an infamous fake idol could return as an actual functional idol — Probst remains coy: "It might. It depends on how it was used, and how the Survivor Gods felt about it." It's really that simple? "It really is. Those Survivor Gods! And even the way you're smiling, this is why I'm so enamored with the idea of Ghost Island. We're long enough into our show that we have a relationship with our audience where we can go, 'Oh, by the way, we created something called Ghost Island,' and you can laugh at it! I laugh at it! But we're doing it."
In other words, the intensely enigmatic Ghost Island exists somewhere in the realm between self-serious gravitas and self-aware kitschiness.
"One hundred percent," says Probst. "That's a great way of defining how we imagine the personality of Ghost Island. It's lippy. Ghost Island isn't mean or nice. It's just lippy. So, yes! Come! I hope you have a great stay!"
Ghost Island welcomes its first guest when Survivor returns on Feb. 28 with a two-hour premiere.
Catch up on all of our preseason interviews:
• Angela Perkins
• Bradley Kleihege
• Brendan Shapiro
• Chelsea Townsend
• Chris Noble
• Desiree Afuye
• Domenick Abbate
• Donathan Hurley
• Jacob Derwin
• James Lim
• Jenna Bowman
• Kellyn Bechtold
• Laurel Johnson
• Libby Vincek
• Michael Yerger
• Morgan Ricke
• Sebastian Noel
• Stephanie Gonzalez
• Stephanie Johnson
• Wendell Holland
What do you make of Survivor: Ghost Island as a theme? Sound off in the comments below, and keep following THR.com/Survivor for daily Survivor coverage.