The premiere of Syfy's new horror series Channel Zero signaled a continuation of television's renewed interest in anthologies. The start of the six-episode first season – subtitled Candle Cove after the short story by Kris Straub – kicked things off with a dark, unnerving tale of a children's television show that never existed yet is recalled in exacting detail by those claim to have seen it. Candle Cove itself is what's known as a creepypasta – a horror story that originated on the internet – and is perhaps one of the most well-known examples of the subgenre, lending the unnerving series an almost meta sense of familiarity.
Having worked on NBC's bloody and brilliant Hannibal, MTV's Teen Wolf, and The Forest, series creator Nick Antosca is no stranger to horror. But his ambitions with Channel Zero go beyond bringing scares to television or adapting creepypasta; he also wants to use the new series to provide "a showcase for exciting directors from the world of independent horror." To do that, Antosca has enlisted a different director to shepherd each of the two seasons that have already been greenlit, allowing each story to develop a singular aesthetic that is in keeping with the tales they are adapting.
Screen Rant recently spoke with Antosca about Channel Zero, the challenges of adapting Candle Cove, and what's in store for season 2. Early on in the interview, Antosca explained how the series would work and discussed how it will change from one season to the next:
"Creatively it's awesome. The idea of this show is an anthology series but it's also a showcase for exciting directors from the world of independent horror. So each season should really feel totally different. Every season should feel like a different five or six hour horror movie. And getting two [season orders] at once really allows us to have a proof of concept for that. [For] season 1, Craig William Macneill directed the entire thing. I'm a huge fan of his film The Boy -- I think it's just an unappreciated masterpiece from last year. So we want Candle Cove to have a similarly atmospheric, restrained, sinister vibe that that movie had. And season 2 is kind of a totally different beast. You can see it in the dailies that are coming in now. It looks awesome; the actors are great, the director is great, and it feels completely different than Candle Cove. Every season is gonna have a real signature voice."
As far as season 2 is concerned, can you discuss what story you'll be adapting?
"Sure, yeah, it's NoEnd House by Brian Russell. It's another one of my favorite creepypastas. The best creepypastas are these very contained, stories sort of built around a brilliant concept. And they're suggestive and they open up a world of possibilities, and just like Candle Cove, NoEnd House does that. Candle Cove is built around this scary TV show, which develops all these questions and mysteries, and NoEnd House is built around a haunted funhouse that is much more than it seems. I kind of think of season 2 as -- without getting into too much of the avenue we're going to take in adapting the story -- it's kind of like a horror version of Solaris. Actually... yeah, actually I'm not going to say more than that."
The premise of Channel Zero is really fascinating. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to use creepypastas or the idea of internet folklore as inspiration for the storylines?
"So I have been a fan of creepypasta in general and Candle Cove in particular for a long time. I'm an insomniac and I would spend hours and hours up late at night reading horror short stories whether they're in books or online. And when you go online, of course, you're going down wormhole after wormhole, and you will eventually find some of this stuff. You'll end up at creepypasta. So when I heard that Candle Cove had been optioned and it was in the works, I fought to get on board. And of course the big question is how do you adapt this short story that's in the form of a message board conversation and doesn't have a traditional narrative. It's a different sort of adaptation job than even a regular short story."
What was it about Candle Cove that made it the right story to launch the series with?
"I think "unnerving" is the right word. Candle Cove the story leaves you with a sense of unease that is very hard to capture and it's hard to adapt because it's not jump-scare horror. It's the horror of familiarity. It's the horror of something you remember being much more sinister than you realize it was at the time. So in adapting the story, I saw a really exiting challenge. How do you translate that mood and that sense of dread to six episodes of TV? The mood was really what attracted me, and the challenge of adapting that – and just the fact that I love Kris Straub's short stories."
Given the format in which Kris Straub's original story is told, you have to expand Candle Cove a great deal. What was your approach to transforming a text-based conversation unfolding in an internet forum into a story fit for television?
"The most exciting adaptations to me tend to be the ones that take the spirit of the source material and build on it, collaborate on it, like The Shining. It's one of the masterpieces of horror and it's actually quite different from the novel. Or Apocalypse Now is quite different from Heart of Darkness. But they bring something new to it and still preserve the spirit and atmosphere of the original. And with Candle Cove, obviously the challenge is to do that without a whole lot of concrete source material. What you have is a concept and the atmosphere. So I think it's just a matter of letting the story plant a seed in your head and seeing what flowers. I think every season of Channel Zero should feel like the nightmare you have after you read the story it's based on. And this was the nightmare that was inspired by Kris's story."
The idea of nostalgia is very popular with genre television right now. When you were in production on season 1, adapting Candle Cove, was there a sense that this was the right time to be focusing on a horror story with a nostalgic element?
"Yes and no. There was no sense of a zeitgeist happening when we were writing. That really has only come in for me with Stranger Things, which came out two or three months ago. I remember we were just finishing up production on season 1 when that came out, so I watched it after and it was like 'Oh, wow, this is kind of in the same zone.' I think Stranger Things is really cool; I'm a fan. But we had no awareness of 'Oh, this is kind of a thing that's happening now.' And to me, Candle Cove in style and tone isn't really trying to capture the '80s. We go back to the '80s in flashback but the modern-day elements of it… it wasn't a conscious thing that we were going for the way It Follows or Stranger Things were. I'm very, very happy that people seem to be watching it and feeling a sense of familiarity and nostalgia."
It's a little different with Candle Cove in the sense that the nostalgic element is actually a pretty bleak part of the characters' backstory and it plays into the trauma that Mike Painter (Paul Schneider) and his mother (Fiona Shaw) are still struggling with. To what degree do you want the show to explore the idea that nostalgia can be as painful for some people as it is blissful for others?
"That's absolutely something we wanted to explore. One of the first lines of the show is Paul Schneider's character Mike saying, "Adulthood is just a mask, a sophisticated mask and behind it we're still the kids we once were." And that really is one of the big themes of the show and we wanted to explore how fragile the adult self is. And having come off of Hannibal right before this, we spent a lot of time in that writers' room talking about the psychology of the main character, his mental fragmentation, and the fragility of the self. A lot of that stuff influenced and bled into Channel Zero."
From what we see of Candle Cove, it looks like a fairly unnerving show to watch. Were there any children's shows that you found unnerving as a kid? Was there anything that played into your interpretation of Candle Cove when you were developing it?
"There wasn't stuff that specifically influenced the production of Candle Cove. Honestly for the production of Candle Cove, we just looked at Kris's story. With a few logistical exceptions, we basically just tried to be as faithful to what Kris describes in the story as we possibly could. Which is a challenge, because the show should be scary but it should also be utterly banal. It should be totally benign at first, and then it should be like 'What the f*** is this?' And it should be cheap, too. So we had very, very talented puppeteers. [Robbo] Mills who's worked with the Henson Company and worked on Fraggle Rock, made the puppets. We kept reminding him, 'Okay, they have to be s*****, though. Make it less good, less good.' And then there's a very sort of careful post-production process of just how much can we mess this up to make it look creepy? And it will get creepier and creepier as the episodes progress."
With it being an anthology series, how was Channel Zero different from your experiences working in television in the past? How does knowing you're writing toward a more definitive ending play into your approach toward a story in the creative sense?
"Oh my god, it's a huge relief. I don't think I've ever worked on a show before where it we knew the endpoint. And that is very, very liberating. It means you can write the episodes with no filler. Things can change, and they can change irrevocably and you're going toward a fixed endpoint. It's much more akin to writing a feature than writing an episodic TV show. And we shot the show like a feature, too. I really do think of each season of Channel Zero as basically a horror film. It is one director for the whole thing and the intention is to always make it cinematic."
Channel Zero: Candle Cove continues next Tuesday with 'Ill Hold Your Hand' @9pm on Syfy.