Channel Zero is reinventing the horror genre beyond the anthology concept made popular by American Horror Story. The self-contained story told in season one’s six episodes as well as whatever tales are related in future seasons pays homage to an innovative type of self-contained, web-based horror vignettes called creepypastas, a storytelling technique that focuses on disturbing concepts rather than full-blown narratives.
Enter Nick Antosca who, along with producer Max Landis, has expanded the creepypasta idea into a complete story guaranteed to send chills down your spine. As each episode of Channel Zero airs, we’ll ask Antosca the burning questions posed by the current installment and get a glimpse into the process used to create this wholly unique horror experience. Check back each week for further insights!
WARNING: This interview contains spoilers from the first episode of Channel Zero!
Den of Geek: What the heck is “creepypasta” anyway, and what can we expect of a series based on the internet horror phenomenon?
Nick: Right, it sounds like comedy! But from what I understand, just based on what I’ve read, creepypasta is a variation on the term “copypasta” which comes out of early Internet message boards… a kind of dismissive term for random bits of text that gets copied and pasted from one message board to the next. And people started writing scary stories and pasting them here and there — stuff that pretended to be real but was in fact fiction. So the term was adapted to be creepypasta.
Kris Straub’s original creepypasta story of Candle Cove seems to have inspired the dinner table scene and, of course, the ending. Is this first episode a jumping off point from the source material?
Yeah, of course! Every season of Channel Zero is supposed to be like the nightmare that you have after you read the story that it’s based on. So the original stories in every case are very short. They’re brilliantly contained horror concepts; they’re very suggestive; they don’t have explanations. They just sort of present a disturbing phenomenon and let it haunt you.
So to adapt that into six episodes of TV, we have to preserve the original atmosphere and the stuff that we love about the original story, but at the same time bring a whole bunch of new imagery and ideas and concepts to it. And we don’t want to be too expository, but in order to tell six episodes of TV, you have to build character backstories and arcs and build a milieu. So by necessity the stories are a jumping off point, and then we pick stories that allow us a lot of canvas to draw disturbing, exciting stories on.
Let’s talk about the people at the dinner table. First of all, it was great to see Natalie Brown of The Strain and Luisa D’Oliveira of The 100. What can you tell us about these characters who grew up with Mike Painter?
The people at the table are the people that you grew up with in every little town in America. They’re the people that you recognize; they’re friends and neighbors.
Natalie plays Jessica; she’s kind of the girl next door when Mike was growing up — a tom boy, his best friend — and they go back a long time. He hasn’t seen her since he was a kid, but he has these vivid memories of her and she remembers him. And we’re going to learn about their relationship and how they’re connected over the next couple of episodes.
Her husband is the sheriff. He wasn’t quite a bully when he was a kid, but he was kind of the guy who let the bully get away with stuff. And now he’s the sheriff of the town and deep down a decent guy who wants to keep things normal and safe and protect his family. But against his will he’s going to get caught up in all this dark stuff that comes out of the past.
And then there’s Amy, who’s played by Luisa, who is the only person at that table who is young enough that when she was a kid, she didn’t see Candle Cove and has no idea what it is. So everybody else sitting around the table was affected or scarred in some way by Candle Cove, and even though they go through day-to-day life seeming unaffected, there was a seed planted back in the late 80’s when they saw it. And Amy is different; she comes in to the story a Candle Cove virgin, and when really dark stuff starts to happen, she’s the one who gets changed by it the most.
And then there’s the bald guy who we may also have seen coming out of the woods near the Painter house. What’s his story?
That’s Tim Hazel, and he’s got some secrets that will come out. He saw Candle Cove also when he was a kid, and just like Mike, he had a brother who went missing. His brother was found, and he’s harbored some suspicions over the last couple decades about what happened to him and how Mike is connected to it. We’re going to find out more about what’s going on with him in episodes 2 and 3.
Speaking of suspicions, Mike himself is a tough narrator to trust. We don’t know what’s going on with his marriage; we don’t know why he chose to return home initially; and we don’t know that he wasn’t actually involved in Katie’s disappearance at first. Are you planning on keeping us unsettled with Mike throughout the series?
Yeah, absolutely! In fact, by the time you get to the end of the second episode, you’re going to be even more uneasy about Mike Painter than you are at the end of the first one. This is a guy with a whole bunch of crazy stuff in his past, and one of the coolest things about this season is how it let us explore the difference between surface and reality.
It’s like the show itself; Candle Cove is benign and friendly and harmless and bright and cheerful, and beneath the surface there’s something very, very sinister. Mike Painter may be the same way. This is a guy who, to the world at large, appears to really have a handle on life, and one of his first lines in the pilot is about how adulthood is just a sophisticated mask, and beneath it we are still the children that we once were. So we’re going to see how that plays out over the whole season.
The Candle Cove show that you mentioned provided some of the creepiest images of the episode. Along with many of Mike’s memories, they’re cut in quickly with no music or sound effects. What is it that you thinks make these fleeting glimpses so chilling?
I think you hit the nail on the head exactly! There’s an instinct sometimes when you’re editing to hit things with a musical sting to emphasize them, but it’s much more disturbing psychologically to see something that maintains the ambient sound of the scene, and then you go, “Shit, wait, what was that?” It’s sort of constitutionally disturbing and even a little nauseating; you feel queasy sometimes when that’s done right.
Any other details we should be paying attention to moving forward?
You should keep your eye on really every minor character. This is a town populated with people who have interesting secrets. You should keep your eye on Mike himself more than anyone else because he’s a very complicated protagonist.
Nick Antosca spoke to us from Winnipeg where Channel Zero is currently filming its second season. The series airs on Syfy each Tuesday at 9pm ET. Remember to return each week for more insights from the show’s creator.