The first season of SyFy’s Channel Zero was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2016, as far as genre shows on TV are concerned. It was actually nothing new for SyFy, which has quietly been producing some top-notch shows as of late — check out our July feature on how SyFy is leading the revolution of televised leading ladies — but the quality and cinematic scope of Channel Zero’s first season was impressive nonetheless. In six one-hour episodes, the anthology series laid out a startling story called “Candle Cove,” focused around the shared experiences of a group of adults who all witnessed a bizarre children’s show when they were young, which coincided with a rash of murders in their small town. Borrowing some of the vibe of Stephen King stories such as It, “Candle Cove” followed several of those adults as they delved into a mystery that redefines their own childhood experiences.
All that, and there’s a monster made out of collected human teeth.
So yes, “Candle Cove” was very impressive, especially for TV. The show contained a streak of visual brilliance that should probably be credited at least partially to director Craig William Macneill, who conjured up a disturbing universe for its characters. But we should also not look beyond its brevity—at only six episodes (albeit 60 minutes a piece), Channel Zero is a tidy anthology series that condenses its scares into an efficient package. It feels less like a TV series, and more like a six-hour film, or six sequential episodes of a series with a cinematic vibe, such as Black Mirror. There wasn’t anything else quite like it on TV last year, driven home by the fact that all the stories of Channel Zero are based on internet “creepypastas”—urban legends that proliferate on story-sharing hubs such as the popular “No Sleep” subreddit.
Now, Channel Zero is back for Season Two on Wednesday, Sept. 20, adapting another creepypasta called “The No-End House” and hoping to recreate the first season’s aura of creepy menace. We had the opportunity to chat with series creator Nick Antosca about what Season Two has in store, and the episodic nature of Channel Zero seasons. The show has recently been renewed for Seasons Three and Four, so “The No-End House” is only the tip of the iceberg. Expect further nightmares to come.
Paste: How did you first encounter the phenomenon of creepypastas online?
Nick Antosca: Well, I have been throughout my life at various times a severe insomniac, and I stay up late at night going down rabbit holes on the Internet. And if you do that enough as a horror fan, you will invariably end up at creepypastas. Despite the goofy name, there are some genuinely disturbing and memorable stories told via creepypastas that will stay with you. So I was familiar with “Candle Cove” long before the opportunity to adapt it came up. “No-End House” was always another one of my favorites as well. So from the beginning, when we pitched this [to] SyFy, I knew that if we got multiple seasons or installments, “No-End House” would be a dream season to do as well.
Paste: Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t a fair number of the better-known creepypastas from anonymous authors? Is it possible to adapt something like that?
Antosca: The answer is, I’m not sure. I strongly prefer to adapt ones where we can find the original author, option it from them and give them some credit and exposure. Kris Straub who wrote “Candle Cove,” is a well-known cartoonist, so that wasn’t difficult. Brian Russell, who wrote “No-End House,” he was not hard to track down. He actually works on The Exorcist TV show on Fox, believe it or not. He and I introduced the pilot of “No-End House” to the audience at Comic-Con in July.
If we were to do many more seasons though, I’m sure at some point we might want to do one where we couldn’t find the author. I’m not sure how that would work, though—you might have to set aside some money for them or something, but I’m just speculating now.
Before IMDb got rid of their comments, I actually used to see commenters who were mad at us because they thought we were just ripping off internet creepypastas without attribution. But it says it right on screen during the opening credits! It’s very important to us to honor the spirit of the original story and give the original author credit.
Paste: Is there something about that storytelling format that seemed appropriate for serialization to you? What do you like about the format of creepypastas?
Antosca: Well I love urban legends, and creepypasta are the modern urban legends. They’re a window into collective fears and even the collective unconscious, to a degree. They reflect themes of culture, modernity and technology, and the best creepypastas are usually a really strong, simple horror concept: haunted TV show, haunted house, etc. But they suggest a larger world and a larger mythology than we’re able to see. I think of every season of Channel Zero as being something like the really vivid nightmare you have after reading the original creepypasta online.
Paste: What kind of immediate thematic differences might someone notice about “No-End House,” in comparison with “Candle Cove”?
Antosca: In terms of the differences between Season One and Season Two, we want every season to be a different flavor of horror and feel totally different, and I also want each season to be a showcase for a talented new indie director, in this case Steven Piet. So every season, I’m looking for a collaborative auteur director to come in and put their stamp on it, in order to make the show kind of an incubator for really cool talent.
Every season will have a different flavor of horror in the sense of what it evokes—like, I think of “Candle Cove” as sort of our Stephen King season. “No End House” might be more of our John Carpenter season, or like “John Carpenter doing Solaris.” And then Season Three is more of an Argento vibe.
Paste: You put together a well-decorated crew of writers for Channel Zero, but I’m curious how you write one episode yourself and then hand off others to the other writers while still shepherding it to the conclusion you have in mind.
Antosca: We have a really cool writer’s room full of great horror storytellers. In addition to me there’s Don Mancini, who created Child’s Play and worked on Hannibal with me, and there’s Harley Peyton, who wrote a ton of episodes of the original Twin Peaks, so it’s a great opportunity to pass off the baton and let each person run with it.
I write the pilot on my own of each season, and I have a general skeleton of where the whole season goes. I know where the arcs are, and the themes, and where we end. Then we go into the writing room, and outline every episode together, putting up note cards on the board so we’re all on the same page of what happens in each episode.
Paste: How involved are you in casting? I was super excited when I saw John Carroll Lynch, because he has such a powerful, menacing quality in films like Zodiac and The Invitation. That was a great feature for Season Two.
Antosca: I could not agree more, he was our dream choice for this role because we needed someone who could be fatherly, who could be terrifying, who could be sympathetic, and who could be creepy. There’s not many people who could do exactly what we needed, but he’s one of them. I’m very involved in the casting of each season; the director for each season and I meet with our lists and he was the one guy we both desperately wanted to work with. He was a dream to work with, and the young cast was as well.
Paste: Before I forget: Max Landis is listed as an executive producer. What was his role in the genesis of Channel Zero?
Antosca: Max is the one who optioned the original “Candle Cove” story, so the series wouldn’t really exist without him. Now he’s working on his BBC show, and Bright, his Netflix movie, so he’s pretty darn busy. But he was big for Channel Zero.
Season Two of Channel Zero, “No-End House,” premieres Wednesday, Sept. 20 at 10 p.m. on Syfy.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror geek. You can follow him on Twitter.