Everything I’ve ever heard about Channel Zero, I’ve heard from other people on the internet. Perhaps that’s the way it should be. This rich, gorgeous, and astonishingly frightening horror anthology series takes the story lines for each of its four seasons so far from creepypasta — scary short stories in the form of faked message-board posts and comment threads. They’re the online era’s equivalent of urban legends, passed around from one terrified reader to the next. That’s how Channel Zero reached me, pretty much: from other impassioned viewers, desperate to persuade me to watch it too. The show infected them like a virus, until they passed that virus to me. And now … well, if you’re reading this, it’s too late.
But there’s so much more to the series than that slightly cutesy high concept, which I suspect turns as many people off as it turns on. Created by Hannibal veteran Nick Antosca, Channel Zero is full-service Good Television. It’s engrossingly beautiful and austere filmmaking, as shot by a different promising director every season. It’s a showcase for intriguing and surprising performances by a wide variety of talented actors, particularly women, who’ve led three of its four seasons. It’s a merciless autopsy of suburban disconnection, and how the few intimate bonds that are formed in that environment — with friends, with family, with lovers — can harm as well as help.
And above all, it’s scary. Just incredibly scary. I say this as a horror person, who crammed all four seasons down my gullet as fast as I could, alongside my partner, another horror person, and was flabbergasted by its singular, consistent, and prolonged ability to frighten, disturb, disgust. Take it from someone who endured several prestige-y limited-series adapted from famous horror novels/novelists this year: I was scared more, and more often, by the first scene in the first episode of the first season of Channel Zero alone than I was by quite a few other horror shows combined.
So, the basics: Channel Zero airs on SyFy, where episodes are available both on the network and on demand via SyFy.com, before making the jump to the horror streaming service Shudder (available both as a stand-alone platform and as an add-on to Amazon Prime Video). Each season consists of just six episodes with short, commercial-network run times of 42 minutes or so. You can knock back an entire season during one late-night binge the way you might cue up an It Follows/Get Out double feature.
The first season, Candle Cove, is adapted by director Craig William Macneill from the story of the same name — about dimly remembered but nightmarish visions of a forgotten children’s television show — by Kris Straub. Director Steven Piet took the reins for season two, No-End House, adapted from Brian Russell’s story of a notoriously frightening (and possibly inescapable) haunted-house attraction. Butcher’s Block, loosely based on Kerry Hammond’s sprawling “Search and Rescue Woods” saga of paranormal activity surrounding mysterious stairways in the middle of nowhere, is helmed by Arkasha Stevenson. Directed by E.L. Katz, the fourth and most recent season, Dream Door, expands on Charlotte Bywater’s “Hidden Door” to chronicle the discovery of secret doors in the basement of a couple’s new marital home and the things that emerge from them.
One way showrunner Nick Antosca & Co. distinguish their series not just from the source material but also from their televised competition? Monsters, lots of monsters, and all of them as viscerally grotesque and terrifying as you could hope for in a work of horror filmmaking today. Chances are good that if Channel Zero is on your radar at all, it’s because of gruesome inventions like the Tooth Child from Candle Cove or Pretzel Jack from Dream Door. These creatures take basic templates — established by Clive Barker’s Cenobites and H.R. Giger’s Xenomorphs in the former case, or your basic killer-clown archetype in the latter — and use unique design, patterns of movement, and moments of curious empathy to make them feel brand-new.
This is to say nothing of Father Time, a chipmunk-cheeked, genderless, relentless representation of schizophrenia from Butcher’s Block, or Dream Door’s Tall Boy, a lurching embodiment of the “big kid” every bullying victim wishes they’d had in their corner — monsters that feel unprecedented in how they tap into fundamental but rarely articulated fears and feelings. Other humanoid monsters, like the Father in No-End House and Robert Peach in Butcher’s Block, pivot off powerfully physical performances from actors John Carroll Lynch and Andreas Apergis respectively to turn them into avatars for humanity’s most selfish and destructive impulses, even toward the people we love.
Indeed, despite having four different directors working from four different sources, isolation from and paranoia about our immediate environment — our lovers, our best friends, our siblings, our parents or children, our neighbors, our local authorities, even our own homes and our own minds — unifies Channel Zero across its four seasons. Unearthing and processing traumatic memories is the common element to all four seasons, more so than urban legends (present in three out of four), hidden realms (three out of four), or supernatural doorways (also three out of four). Channel Zero is about what we would like to forget ever happened.
And I’ve never seen anything on the big or small screen that makes suburbia look this frightening in quite this way. The burbs of No-End House and Dream Door aren’t Lynchian islands of nostalgic placidity with darkness under the surface, nor are they sites of eerie lost-in-time conformity like Edward Scissorhands or a Stephen King flashback. They seem completely denuded of real people, of real life, till all that remains is a series of overlarge houses running up and down treeless streets like mausoleums with their doors slightly ajar. They feel dead.
The small town beset by the cursed kids’-show broadcast in Candle Cove and the wrong-side-of-the-tracks slum from which Butcher’s Block gets its all-too-fitting name are livelier locales, yes. But they’re still largely defined by places that are empty, abandoned, or unfinished: derelict playgrounds, dark school auditoriums, half-built houses, bootlegger tunnels that haven’t been used in nearly a century, empty streets, a field of yellow flowers so vast that its infinitude is oppressive. These in turn are echoed by No-End House’s empty dwellings, the forever incomplete exurban housing development launched by the father of two of Dream Door’s protagonists, and so on. Channel Zero is, in many ways, about the threat of the void, and what our minds and bodies might do to fill it.
To that end, Antosca and all four directors adopt a unified tone. As Butcher’s Block’s Arkasha Stevenson has said, “Channel Zero has this very meditative pace, with this dark, simmering surrealist imagery.” Takes are long, camera movements slow, close-ups lingering, zooms and pans and tracking shots seemingly endless. And while brief flashes and glimpses of horrors to come are a staple, as they have been since they were pioneered in The Exorcist and The Shining, before long each season forces you to look long and hard at every evil entity and spectacularly gory physical violation it can come up with. You know the old saw that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do? Tell that to the multiple characters literally driven insane by what they, and we, are made to witness in this show — at times hitting heights of cosmic horror unseen this side of Twin Peaks: The Return’s “Gotta Light?” episode.
The final, crucial element to Channel Zero’s success is its characters and the actors who play them. As child psychiatrist Mike Painter, Paul Schneider anchors Candle Cove like a man waking up into a nightmare rather than out of one. Amy Forsyth and Aisha Dee deliver weathered, exhausted performances as two young friends estranged by grief felt by one but not the other in No-End House. Olivia Luccardi and Holland Roden are live wires of blended affection and anxiety as genetically schizophrenia-prone sisters Alice and Zoe Woods in Butcher’s Block. Maria Sten and Brandon Scott convincingly portray newly married couple Jillian and Tom Hodgson in Dream Door, evoking both romantic heat and the slight distrust inherent in the early days of getting so close to another person.
Fine, meaty roles are reserved for older performers too — Rutger Hauer gets a career highlight as the gruff and mysterious meat magnate Joseph Peach in Butcher’s Block — and particularly for older women. There’s Fiona Shaw, never better, as grieving mother Marla Painter in season one; Krisha Fairchild, indomitable and disabled (a condition treated with workaday respect rather than used to reflect her moral character in some way) as journalist Louise Lispector in season three; Marina Stephenson Kerr, playing diametric opposites as a secretive piano teacher in season one and a skeptical detective in season four. Women and people of color play leading roles throughout, with Butcher’s Block in particular relegating men to secondary consideration.
The end result is harrowing, absorbing television — the kind that keeps you up at night, haunted by the frightened, grief-stricken faces of the protagonists as much as by the nightmare-fuel monsters who accost them. Moreover, the show’s short, self-contained seasons mean you can start anywhere, at any time, and access that experience. (Personally I think Butcher’s Block is the high point for Stevenson’s bold, Kubrickian whip-zooms alone, though I recommend watching them all since they’re all excellent.)
Channel Zero belongs in the same conversation as Antosca’s alma mater Hannibal, along with David Kajganich and Soo Hugh’s harrowing period piece The Terror and David Lynch and Mark Frost’s masterpiece Twin Peaks: The Return, as the state of the art in television horror today. For that matter, it’s as strong an argument for the validity of the anthology format as Fargo (with which it shares the gifted composer Jeff Russo) or American Crime Story (whose executive producers, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, dabble in the genre with American Horror Story). All the ink you’ve seen spilled on buzzier horror shows — Stranger Things, Black Mirror, The Haunting of Hill House, not coincidentally all products of Netflix — is Channel Zero’s rightful property.