Derren Brown – how I convinced one man the world had ended

The TV illusionist explains how creating a zombie apocalypse brought his subject back to life...

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Magic can be a childish business – hiding behind a bush waiting to spring a practical joke is hugely exciting but most certainly puerile. But in recent years I have become fascinated by the possibility of using magic to change someone’s life.

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Take Steven, a young chap who by his own admission took his life for granted. By the time I had finished with him Steven had re-discovered how much it really means to him. How did we achieve this? By convincing him the world had ended.

Stoic Hellenistic philosophers advised us to rehearse regularly the loss of everything we love. Only that way, they believed, could we learn to value what we have in life, rather than fixate upon things we don’t.

Seneca’s advice, for example, to consider the mortality of your daughter as you kiss her goodnight, may strike us as morbid. But to remind yourself regularly that your loved ones, your home, in fact everything you value might be taken away in an instant, is to value them so much more. It seems our psychological landscape hasn’t changed much since Seneca was penning advice to his protégés in ancient Rome.

We are bombarded daily by overt and covert messages from advertisers, media and peers, conditioning us to hanker after the latest, shiniest, most expensive trinket – a bigger house, faster car, sexier partner. And yet once we have attained these things we only enjoy them for a very short while before reverting back to our former dissatisfied state.

This hedonistic treadmill keeps us moving forward, and despite the spikes of momentary glee as some new status symbol comes our way, we don’t really grow any happier. The joy of the car and the house and the phone doesn’t stick around. The way to feel satisfied is to hunger after what you have already in your life. To master desire, we must learn to want what we already have.

In my new programme, Derren Brown: Apocalypse, Steven, who personifies that familiar lazy sense of entitlement so prevalent today, comes to believe that the world is going to end. He has no idea that he is the star of an ambitious television show. We hack into his phone, control his Twitter and news feeds and have his favourite radio DJ and television hosts record special versions of their shows to play into his home – all of which refer to an impending meteor strike.

Once the seed is planted, we end the world for him while he’s on his way to a gig. He passes out and then, seemingly two weeks later, he wakes up in an abandoned military hospital. The man who took his life and his family for granted must now fight to get them back.

And in a final twist, he’ll have lurching hordes of infected zombies to deal with, as the meteor has picked up from its interstellar travels a deadly and highly contagious disease.

What follows is a carefully crafted horror-film plot, intricately designed to teach the unwitting Steven valuable lessons. The infected are, of course, hideous embodiments of his former slothful life. The survivors he encounters are created to teach him what he needs to know about courage, about selflessness, about decisiveness. It’s The Wizard of Oz with zombies.

With over 100 actors involved, along with nearly 60 meticulously hidden cameras, 2,000 ft of cabling, eight months of very hard work, and an extraordinary amount of money being spent, maintaining a seamless experience for Steven was paramount. Our survivor-actors were rehearsed for months to deal with every possible eventuality that Steven’s never-entirely predictable behaviour might instigate. The whole illusion could have been brought crashing down by the smallest of things like the furry or undead entity that ate through our main cable on the first night and left us helpless in the morning.

What some people may ask is, was it worth putting someone through this to have them realise their potential? The response to that sensible question depends on two factors: a) the degree of negative emotions that he experienced and b) the level of change that the adventure brought about. And on balance my answer would be yes.

Steven’s application to be part of the show incorporated a series of rigorous interviews with an independent psychiatrist, who had to be certain that Steven was robust enough to handle what was in store for him. At the same time, and with the full knowledge and help of Steven’s family, the plot was carefully structured to ensure that we kept a sense of hope alive for him throughout.

Most importantly for me, as well as Steven, the changes have to be profound and self-perpetuating. The challenge is to set up new thought patterns that won’t just grind to a halt after the initial adrenaline of being involved in a TV show has worn off. I have maintained a relationship with Steven and continue to ensure that the work was all worth it. Which is, along with the joy of going to such great lengths for one unsuspecting person’s experience, the best part of the job.

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Derren Brown: Apocalypse is on Channel 4 at 9pm on Friday 26 October