The new SyFy series Channel Zero: Candle Cove is about a hypnotic 1988 children’s television program that may be linked to the murders of several children and the unsolved disappearance of another nearly 30 years ago in Iron Hill, Ohio. In present day, the sinister-pirate puppet show within this show begins to reappear on people's TV screens, implying that bad things could be happening all over again to a fresh batch of kids.
Just reading that premise probably makes previous works of horror immediately pop to mind, including Stranger Things, Poltergeist (referenced in Stranger Things), Stephen King’s novels, especially It (also alluded to in Stranger Things), and The Ring, among others. Watching the show, which is somewhat clumsy but nevertheless gripping, has a similar effect. It feels simultaneously like something new and something vaguely familiar, a sensation akin to the one plaguing Channel Zero’s main character, Mike Painter (Paul Schneider), a child psychologist who returns home to Iron Hill for the first time in years and becomes consumed by memories of his twin brother, Eddie, who went missing during those odd events in '88. It’s clear from the first few minutes of the premiere, which airs tonight at 9, that Mike is in a mental fog. We’re never sure whether the flashes of imagery in his head are hallucinations, memories based in reality, or things that are really happening to him in the now. What is clear is that the figments of his past — moments shared with his brother and the primitive imagery from that weird-ass TV show, called Candle Cove — refuse to go away.
Aside from maybe the apocalypse, the past that keeps coming back to haunt has become the dominant theme in contemporary TV horror, a genre invigorated by the success of The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, and that will likely swell further in the wake of Stranger Things. Whether they’re ongoing series, recurring limited series that, like AHS and Channel Zero, aim to tell a different story each season, or more classic anthologies where each episode focuses on new plots and characters, a lot of what’s being produced has a tendency to look back, either conceptually or via setting and plot, particularly at the latter half of the 20th century.
Some — like Fox’s The Exorcist, Starz’s Ash vs. Evil Dead, Hannibal, MTV’s Scream, or A&E’s one-and-done season of Damien, based on The Omen movies — do their looking back by rebooting or revisiting well-known horror franchises from the '70s, '80s, and '90s. Others immerse their stories, either entirely or partially, in those time periods and their horror tropes. Stranger Things is the most obvious example of this, but there are others, including Freeform’s '80s-set summer-camp shocker Dead of Summer; Scream Queens, which flashes back to 1995 and often evokes slasher films from the '80s and '90s; and virtually every season of American Horror Story, which has touched on all the latter 20th-century decades, not to mention a few that go back a hell of a lot farther than that. Even Black Mirror, which traffics mostly in disturbing tales about our present/future relationship to media and technology, features an episode in its upcoming third season that’s set in 1987.
Channel Zero: Candle Cove, which time travels frequently to 1988, is also a show that speaks directly to how hard it is to shake psychological traumas that first took root decades ago, something it shares in common with Cinemax’s Outcast, Robert Kirkman’s portrait of a present-day man (Patrick Fugit) plagued since childhood by his proximity to demonic possession.
Consuming Channel Zero and a lot of these shows acts as a trigger: They either remind us of the films and TV shows that scared us when we were growing up, playing into our endless craving for nostalgia, or they force us to remember how it felt to be truly scared when we were young. Adulthood doesn’t make fear disappear by any stretch of the imagination. But when you grow up, it’s easy to forget that being a kid can be an intensely frightening experience at times, whether the thing that’s causing nightmares is the dark, the possibility of your parents getting divorced, or too much exposure to Five Nights at Freddy’s. (Or clowns. But you know what? Let’s not discuss that right now.)
Channel Zero plays with all of these ideas in a way that has the same effect that Candle Cove has on its impressionable audience: It sucks you in, against your will, for reasons you can’t entirely explain. There are definitely notable flaws in the series, developed by showrunner Nick Antosca from a creepypasta online story by Kris Straub. The dialogue is so horror-movie typical at times that when it lands, you can hear it go clunk. (“It’s starting again, isn’t it?” asks one character, prompting another to respond: “I’m going to try to stop it.”) The two best actors in the cast, Schneider and Fiona Shaw, are fine overall, but even they sometimes lean too hard into the suspense, holding their pauses too long or speaking with so much gravity that it renders a scene momentarily funny. As for Candle Cove, the '80s kids show that randomly shows up on TV screens amid static-filled interference, it seems more silly and babyish than creepy. I understand that children are immediately supposed to fall under its spell regardless of its shoddy quality; even so, it’s hard to believe any present-day fourth or fifth grader would glance at it for long enough to be lured into its vortex, especially when Pokémon Go beckons.
Still, as I said, I found myself interested to watch more, especially when I reached the end of episode two. Once it gets going, Channel Zero: Candle Cove smartly peels back additional layers of its central mystery so that the audience won’t be satisfied until they finally get to the core of what really happened in Iron Hill all those years ago. There’s also some genuinely eerie business involving skeletons and children’s teeth that will, at the least, make you squirm.
“Adulthood is just a mask, a sophisticated mask, for sure,” Mike says early in the first episode. “But behind it, we’re all just the same kids we were.” That’s the same point Stephen King was making in It and a message that millions of other scary stories since have conveyed, too. Channel Zero: Candle Cove is another to add to the list. It’s not the first of its kind, and lord knows it won’t be the last.