Twilight Zone...Meet the Internet
There’s no argument that the internet runs the world. We’ve adapted into a lifestyle where it has changed the way we work, the way we receive information, and even the way we interact with each other. Over time, even our television shows and films have been impacted by the internet, with streaming services providing us with new content, and our entertainment being heavily influenced by things we see online.
One such online medium is the CreepyPasta, a forum-based website that has reinvented the classic fireside ghost story. User-created tales of fictitious hauntings and ghouls-turned-memes like “Slender Man” and “Jeff the Killer” have flooded the site for years, bringing nightmares to young readers and brilliant ideas to budding minds. One such creative genius was Max Landis, son of acclaimed director John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), who decided to produce a television show alongside writer Nick Antosca based on these popular CreepyPasta stories. The result was something truly beautiful and unlike anything I had ever seen before.
Imagine The Twilight Zone, but every story is told through 6 episodes a season; an anthology miniseries, if you will. Through the last four seasons, Antosca has recruited four separate directors to tackle their own respective ghost story. Results have varied, with certain seasons being glaringly better than others. However, throughout the series’ run, there has been a permanent sort of charm coursing through its veins. While the entertainment may begin to dwindle in some areas, the intense melding of excitement and uncertainty keeps the viewer glued to the screen until the bitter end, for better or worse. To properly explain this curious sensation, one would have to break down each season and analyze its distinctive personality with a fine-toothed comb. However, that person would have to be crazy to do so. Fortunately for you…I’m just crazy enough.
There are few pieces of horror media that have impressed me more than Channel Zero‘s first season, Candle Cove. It tells the story of Mike Painter – a name that will forever be glued in the back of my mind – a child psychologist who is haunted by the demons of his past and the inability to get over the loss of his kid brother. But Candle Cove is so much more than just a story about a troubled man. By the end of the series premiere, it’s obvious there is something much darker at work here. Over the course of the season, viewers are introduced to all kinds of supernatural elements, from a demented children’s show that coaxes kids into taking their own lives, to a giant humanoid creature made entirely out of teeth. The real testament to Candle Cove‘s brilliance, though, is its pacing. While each episode has an extreme possibility of seeming cluttered due to its wealth of nightmarish content, Candle Cove successfully treats each topic with just enough focus per hour, making the show feel eerily slow in just the right way.
Furthermore, what made this first season so special was its attention to camera angles. Every scene between two characters was shot over the shoulder, with a third of the screen always empty, either blurred out or pitch black. This made each encounter with this angle an edge-of-your-seat situation, with the uncertainty of what might appear in the frame inducing a greater sense of anxiety. Candle Cove may have had a lackluster, fairly forgettable ending, but it’s the overall season and the events leading up to that finale that stuck with me. Characters like Jawbone the skeletal pirate and, of course, the tooth man haunted my mind for months after, making me ponder what I had just watched – nay – experienced. I even tried to write about this inaugural season for the site and couldn’t get past the first episode without realizing I need to consume this content deeper, and making myself write about it would only hinder that ability.
Candle Cove is an attack on the senses, specifically the ones you’ll wish you didn’t have: fear, anxiety, helplessness. It’s an expertly-crafted tale based off a terrifying original premise that was written strictly in a forum layout. How they created something so magical and deeply horrifying is beyond me, but after seeing Candle Cove for the first time, I knew television would never be the same; CreepyPasta had become an art form.
After having nearly a full year to digest Candle Cove entirely, Channel Zero decided to toss another CreepyPasta into the world of visual media: No-End House. This season came quite a few months after the show was renewed for two more seasons, which instantly excited me at the time as I couldn’t praise Candle Cove enough after its release. Unfortunately, this sudden call for seasons three and four should have set off a red flag in my mind and worried me to no end (pardon the pun), as Channel Zero‘s second season would spark a downward spiral in terms of enjoyment and true psychological horror, and leave a sour taste in my mouth for years to come.
That being said, No-End House is not Channel Zero‘s worst season. The problem with No-End House is that it took the series’ longest standalone source material – seriously, this CreepyPasta is over 5,000 words long – and took way too much creative license, making it even longer for no reason. The story itself is original in its own right: a house appears in town that challenges citizens to enter and navigate through multiple rooms that will prey on your fears. Sounds simple enough, and frightening enough. However, Channel Zero took it to another level, instead opting to base the majority of the show off of the initial tale’s twist ending, and throw in some cannibalism and unnecessary jump scares. Thus began this trend of subliminal imagery and loud noises being flashed across the screen to “mindfuck” viewers. I never really understood the use of this tactic, not in season two or three. Candle Cove did this only a handful of times that I can recall, and it never felt overbearing. But No-End House‘s overuse of such jump scares took viewers out of the overall “experience” that was to be had.
Instead of the feeling of living the story alongside Mike in season one, it felt more like we were watching Margot and Jules live out their lives in season two. It was more cinematic, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing seeing as a lot of camera angles and lighting effects were very well done. Unfortunately, No-End House failed at going all-in with either of the aspects in their favor: full-on cinematic horror, or complete dedication to the source material. Season two consistently missed the mark and left a much more enticing story stranded in the wake of its premiere. However, this didn’t stop critics from ultimately praising it and calling forth another disappointing season that all but destroyed my faith in the franchise.
Sometimes in media, if one installment’s critical reception is high, then its successor can get away with being…utter drivel. This was the case with Butcher’s Block, Channel Zero‘s third – and worst – season. Butcher’s Block had a lot of potential at the start, and I mean a lot. It had little dwarf monsters like Candle Cove, a focus on mental illness like No-End House, and a protagonist haunted by demons of their past like, well, every Channel Zero protagonist. So what went wrong?
Well for starters, remember that thing I said about how Candle Cove paced itself in a way that didn’t make its multiple focus points overwhelming? Butcher’s Block suffers from that same “wealth of content,” yet unlike its predecessor, it fails miserably at keeping it all under control. It feels as though something new was introduced in every single episode, and by the finale, it felt so chaotic that it left me scrambling to piece together the overall narrative. Still to this day, I only think the season was about the horrors of schizophrenia. I can neither confirm or deny I’m correct, but if I’m wrong, then I wasted six hours of my life for nothing. Butcher’s Block is the result of throwing ideas at a wall and then realizing the wall was covered in PAM. It has supernatural elements, it has gruesome monsters, it has jump scares, suicides, and cannibalism; for a horror fan, Butcher’s Block is one endless wet dream.
That is, it would be if any of it made sense together. Every issue is tackled without context until the season finale, and even that is handled poorly. Based on a series of CreepyPastas rather than one standalone product, it makes some sense that this season would be all over the place. That being said, I can only provide Channel Zero with so much sympathy before finally accepting this whole season was a massive failure from start to finish. Any one topic could have been focused on with a clearer microscope, be it the lead character’s mother (whose name escapes me) that struggled with her own schizophrenia, or the family of cannibals who own the new town she moved into. There was simply no reason for the monsters, or the dwarves, or the farmer who only speaks in riddles, or the homicidal dancing man, or the guy who is killed by his own father for no apparent reason and then is subsequently resurrected by the local taxidermist.
The only thing that resembled the source material was the staircase in the middle of a field, and even that concept was butchered (pun intended this time). From start to finish I was disappointed, yet I hung onto season three – not only for the set pieces which were pretty gorgeous in their own right but because I knew there just had to be a silver lining right around the corner.
Enter: The Dream Door.
Channel Zero‘s fourth season is a psychological thriller in its own right. A six-hour social commentary on the corruption of power, The Dream Door was unique right off the bat, as it was shown over the course of six nights in a row leading up to Halloween. Not only did this clutter up my TiVo in quite a distasteful way, but it also shifted Channel Zero into the miniseries realm it was always destined to achieve. Taking some time off between the third and fourth seasons proved to be helpful in the long run, as The Dream Door slowly burned its way into my heart, and my psyche.
Based off a fairly minuscule, and rather open-ended CreepyPasta, The Dream Door follows the story of two young newlyweds who, after moving back into the groom’s childhood home, discover a sealed door in their basement. Over the course of the series this door is opened, and with it comes some truly mind-boggling revelations. The joy of The Dream Door is that for the first time since Candle Cove, the pacing is expertly used to tell this downright brilliant story. One mystery is uncovered after another, and just when one is seemingly solved, another door is blown wide open (these puns just come naturally now).
Without spoiling too much, as this season is a must-see for any psychological horror fan, a new Channel Zero-esque creature is born from The Dream Door, in the form of Pretzel Jack. This bendy clown man appears in the season premiere with virtually no purpose and no place of origin, only to brutally murder a man in cold blood. Having so much blood is unlike Channel Zero, with previous seasons either opting for simulated killings, or rather tasteful throat slittings and…people eating. But Pretzel Jack just goes at it with a shiv to the neck, and he doesn’t stop for a very long time. Then he just sashay’s away, leaving the viewer sitting there, mouth agape, hungry for more. It’s just so well done.
Whereas other seasons have thrown in senseless horror aspects like monsters and jump scares and murders for no reason, The Dream Door leaves the suspense hanging in the air. When death comes, it’s unexpected. When a mystery is revealed, it’s genuinely confounding. Everything happens for a reason, and those reasons hit close to home. Not to mention The Dream Door and Candle Cove‘s attempts at establishing family values don’t fall flat like the other two seasons. These stories are relatable and well-executed, and it’s these Channel Zero memories that I will cherish the most in the wake of its demise.
That’s right. It’s canceled. I just found out today, so here I am singing Channel Zero‘s praises into an ether that has already let me and many other fans down. Perhaps it was the failing ratings, which had dropped nearly half a million from season one’s premiere to season three’s finale. Or maybe it was the unfortunate fluctuation between good and bad seasons and the series’ inability to stay consistently exciting. We may never know exactly why Syfy decided to drop Channel Zero, but two things are certain: the internet will never run out of CreepyPastas, and the world will never run out of geniuses.
All it takes is a group of Netflix bigwigs to say “Hey, that was actually a unique idea. Let’s take a chance on something fresh.” In comes “Slender” and “Jeff,” or “SCP,” or the “Russian Sleep Experiment” to take the world by storm in a new, exciting, and terrifying way. Combine these storylines with some brilliant directors and there just may be a new phenomenon on the horizon. So long as the internet keeps running the world as it does, Channel Zero can never truly die.