Once upon a time, all the way back in 2016, Syfy Channel greenlit a series with a goofy sounding premise: Taking “creepypastas,” or stories that were (frequently anonymously) written for message boards like Reddit’s NoSleep forum subsequently passed around the internet in the grand tradition of spooky campfire tales, and turning them into, well, TV shows. It wasn’t exactly a unique idea–amateur filmmakers had been taking stabs at adapting various creepypasta stories and characters, like the now infamous Slender Man, on platforms like YouTube for years. But this Syfy show would come at it with the strength and the budget of a major network, and the audience of a recognizable TV brand.
The show was called Channel Zero and it was helmed by Hannibal alumni Nick Antosca. Designed to be an anthology series, each season of the show was set to tackle a different popular creepypasta story with the first being Candle Cove, a true classic about adults recovering childhood memories of an extremely disturbing TV show that apparently never existed. Following Candle Cove was No End House, an admittedly less popular and much looser adaptation of the story of the same name about a mind-bending haunted house. Season 3 was subtitled Butcher’s Block, a confusing name that made it difficult to connect to its inspiration, a famous Reddit thread titled “I’m a Search and Rescue Officer for the US Forest Service,” that told stories, often in list format, of a fictional park ranger’s supernatural experiences on the job. Finally, Season 4, Dream Door, adapted a story called “I Found a Hidden Door in my Cellar, and I Think I’ve Made a Big Mistake.”
It probably won’t surprise you, based on the titles alone, that each season of Channel Zero became progressively more esoteric in terms of their definitions of “adaptation.” Something to remember is that creepypasta stories are often short, meant to feel as though the character is writing a social media post themselves. They’re full of loose ends and half-remembered details and, more often than not, they don’t have anything resembling a traditional three-act structure or arcs for any of their characters. Still, Candle Cove was largely married to the biggest elements of the Candle Cove story–a cast of monsters portrayed by horrific, vintage-inspired puppets, and a creepy TV show that didn’t really exist despite people remembering it. With each subsequent season, that relationship grew less and less direct. By Butcher’s Block, it became almost impossible to tell which creepypasta story the show was adapting, unless you were a mega-fan who could be clued in by tiny details–things like staircases to nowhere showing up in the woods, or impossible doors leading to mysterious cellars.
And yet, here’s the kicker: It didn’t matter, at all.
While Channel Zero’s seasons all equally experienced some whiplash-inducing ups and downs, being a “successful adaptation” was never the show’s strongest, or most enduring quality. Instead, its steadfast dedication to experimenting with everything, from the way the source material could be represented to the way the creatures themselves could manifest, was where it consistently excelled. From the jump, the show had some of the weirdest and most wonderful ideas in terms of what horror could be and how it could be serialized. Not all of them worked all of the time, but that was refreshing in its own way. Channel Zero was a lot of things but it was never once boring–and beyond sheer entertainment value, the show never once played it safe. In doing so, it became one of the most criminally underrated horror TV shows around.
Beginning in Candle Cove, Channel Zero threw gauntlet after gauntlet down in terms of creature design, relying almost exclusively on practical effects to build creatures like a child made entirely out of teeth, or the horrific “Skin Taker,” who wore a sort of ill-fitting pirate costume overtop of it’s mounds of disfigured flesh. This interest in practical and physical monsters carried out through all four seasons, spawning some truly bonkers concepts–a manifestation of mental illness represented by a person with a giant paper mache head, corpses full of pomegranate-like meat in lieu of muscle or bone, a contortionist harlequin who could have passed for normal if not for his waxy, disfigured face.
But the ideas themselves were only part of the equation. While horror often excels in cheating scenes with shadows and darkness to really amplify the scares, Channel Zero leaned hard in the opposite direction. The vast majority of all four seasons drug their monsters–and subsequently some of their scariest moments–out into broad daylight. Whether it was a well-lit, surreal suburban neighborhood, a scenic meadow, or an otherwise brightly illuminated mansion, school, or warehouse the show always jumped at the chance to drop a monster into an otherwise safe-feeling afternoon.
As noted before–not all of Channel Zero’s ideas worked. Some episodes were notably stronger than others and not every concept paid off in a satisfying way, but even when it fumbled the landing, it was still doing things that no other horror TV show had tried. And, in the years since its cancelation, no other horror TV show has stepped up to fill the voice. The nearest we’ve got is Netflix’s Brand New Cherry Flavor, which, unsurprisingly, was also co-created by Antosca–and even then, the comparisons are slim.
Add this in with some truly powerhouse performances (John Carroll Lynch and Amy Forsyth in No End House specifically come to mind), bite-sized seasons (only six episodes each), and a near endless source of potential inspiration from popular creepypasta stories all over the internet, and you’ve got what should have been a perfect storm for a new runaway horror franchise that could have slotted in nicely with other seasonal favorites. Instead, however, by Season 3, Syfy was already majorly pulling back on promotional support for the show, relegating it to a confusing release schedule with no clear streaming availability. By Season 4, it was pushed entirely to Syfy’s now defunct digital platform, dropped all at once and all but immediately forgotten.
It’s hard not to feel like Channel Zero just never really got its due in its own time, and equally hard to ignore that it was hardly its own fault. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to realize that Channel Zero both as a concept and as a franchise came just a year or two before its time. With more successful streaming services available than ever and more and more of them leaning into their own seasonal horror offerings, a show like Channel Zero would be right at home in the landscape of 2021, with six delightfully bizarre episodes based (however loosely) on a familiar internet story made available to audiences to stream when and how they chose.
Fortunately, after a handful of years in streaming availability limbo, all four seasons have found a home on Shudder and are available to watch now. And even more fortunately still, the internet’s wealth of creepypasta stories certainly isn’t going anywhere so, you know, should some network or platform see the potential and choose to revive the show for a few more seasons, it’s not like they’d be hard pressed for ideas.
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