'Survivor: Ghost Island': What to Expect From Season 36's Haunting Theme

The Hollywood Reporter's Josh Wigler provides a firsthand account of what it's like to experience the CBS reality series' latest twist.
Courtesy of CBS

In the two-hour premiere of Survivor: Ghost Island, one of the 20 new castaways will walk away from the episode with a special distinction in Survivor history: the first person to spend the night at the season's titular Ghost Island, a brand-new game mechanism steeped in the show's  lore. 

At least, that's technically true. But there's an unofficial story — my story. Not to take the honor away from Ghost Island's first official guest, but perhaps to dirty up the luster, here's a news flash: The night before the season began production, I was the first person sent out to Ghost Island, hanging my hat (buff?) inside the grim shelter of the so-called "Spooky Playground," a place where lifelong dreams swiftly become lifelong nightmares.

As a recap, for those who haven't heard much about the theme of the season: Ghost Island is a very real slice of paradise on Fiji's Mamanuca Islands, which has played host to Survivor since the show's 33rd season, with no end in sight. It's functionally similar to Exile Island, a game mechanism that debuted in season 10 and has since appeared in several additional seasons. Both islands strand its inhabitants from the other castaways, far away from the heated social politics. Unlike Exile Island, Ghost Island is a place that's shrouded in relics from Survivor history, including a vast array of immunity idols and necklaces, not to mention the more than 30 torch snuffers wielded by Jeff Probst over the course of the show's nearly two decades on the air.

For more about Ghost Island, and a closer look at my night spent lurking around the so-called "Spooky Playground," listen to the penultimate episode of our preseason podcast series First One Out: Ghost Zero, embedded below:

"Ghost Island is a place where people will be exiled, and you're away from the social politics," Probst tells THR. "That can sometimes be good and sometimes be bad, depending on where you are in the game. Also at times, Ghost Island might be in a playful mood. It might challenge you to a game of chance. If you're willing to wager something of value, it will put something up of equal value that can give you power in the game."

Located a short boat ride away from Monuriki, the island where Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks (and, really, Wilson) broke moviegoers' hearts with 2000's Cast Away, Ghost Island is an imposing hunk of land: white sand beach, with lush jungle-covered peaks springing up toward the Fijian sky. It's not until one walks farther down the beach that Survivor lore starts to rear its head, in the form of two towering wooden statues, guarding an entrance that looks and feels as if it was ripped directly out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.


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Immediately upon scaling the rope bridge and wandering into Ghost Island proper, its true essence reveals itself: idols, idols, everywhere, some of them scattered among the rocks, others serving as the centerpieces of shrines littered throughout the island — at least, littered throughout what I was allowed to see of the island during my visit. 

During my stay, I was permitted access to little more than the main circuit of Ghost Island, a substantial hike through rough terrain, albeit one that stops short of a trail that leads toward the island's peak. Rumors persist that there's something special at the summit of Ghost Island, and producers insist that the location itself will evolve and expand as the season progresses.

How does one arrive on Ghost Island? In the first instance at least, the winners of the season's opening immunity challenge will send someone from the losing tribe to become the first inhabitant of the graveyard of bad Survivor decisions. The exiled castaway will lose some time with their tribe, sure, but they will also miss out on the first Tribal Council of the season — and therefore guarantee their survival through the first three days of the 39-day adventure. 

What's more, the players who arrive on Ghost Island will have the opportunity to participate in a game. An apparatus containing breakable cylinders invites players to crack into one cylinder per stay, with different messages and potential challenges offered up as a result. This rudimentary device wasn't in place when I visited Ghost Island, but a simple challenge was on hand all the same.


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"The Survivor Gods," the nebulous idea of the show's powerful forces given name by players, prognosticators and production alike, invited me to demonstrate my survival skills in order to win a prize. If I could make fire with flint, I would become the proud owner of an enigmatic item, contained within a veritable bamboo treasure chest. If I failed in the fiery pursuit, I would become the proud owner of… well, pretty much nothing. Them's the breaks out on Survivor: glory to the victor, eternal shame for the loser.

Knowing how to make fire on Survivor has always been a valuable skill to possess, for all of the obvious outdoor survival reasons, not to mention surviving the game. Sometimes, in the event of a tie vote, players are tasked with competing against each other in a fire-making competition in order to make it into the next round. 

These days, fire-making has become more essential than ever. Last season's Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers introduced a new wrinkle in the game: At the final four, the person who wins immunity selects one person to join them at the Final Tribal Council, where they will plead their case for the million-dollar prize; the two remaining players must battle it out for the final spot by way of a fire challenge. The inaugural winner of this new mandatory final four fire challenge, Ben Driebergen, went on to win the whole season.

I was completely unaware of the new twist in the game's format when I spent the night on Ghost Island. Not that it would have changed much… 


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Despite several fire-making training sessions leading up to my overnight, when push came to shove, I wasn't able to get a fire going. I cracked open the hollow bamboo, which contained little more than an epic diss, a ragged piece of parchment with a punishing message: "You came. You tried. You failed." Few things are subtle on Survivor, especially failure.

Adding insult to injury, it's the will of the Survivor Gods that I will never learn what was inside the bamboo I would have earned in the event of my fire-making success. The lack of closure, combined with the parchment's pull-no-punches message, left me with a deep appreciation for the season's main catchphrase, etched on the sign hanging near Ghost Island's lonely shelter: "One bad decision can haunt you forever." 

Forever's a long time, but almost a year later, I'm still licking my wounds... wounds that are little more than a scraped knee compared to the wounds the castaways will sustain on their quest to win Survivor: Ghost Island, and the milliondollar prize that accompanies the Sole Survivor title. Good luck to them — especially in the fire department.


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What are your expectations for Survivor: Ghost Island? Let us know in the comments section below, and follow THR.com/Survivor for more coverage. Survivor premieres Feb. 28 at 8 p.m. on CBS.