Warning! Full spoilers for the episode below.
I thought I knew the basics of Channel Zero going in. The show is based on the popular CreepyPasta Candle Cove by Kris Straub from 2009. The source material is laid out in the style of an Internet forum thread, in which many people chime in on a discussion about a children’s television show they used to watch. They each share their experiences, with one person having recurring nightmares and another vividly remembering a specific character called the Skin-Taker. At the end of the post, screen name “mike_painter65” informed the group that he visited his elderly mother recently, and she told him the show was fake all along – wondering why he’d tune the TV to static and watch it for hours. Now it may be difficult to envision the mind trip that is Candle Cove as a television series. How can SyFy cram the story of some delusional children’s imagination into one hour at a time? Certainly, there must be some spooky scenes here and there, yet it seems a questionable premise for a TV show. But no, Channel Zero is not just a TV show; it’s an experience. It may feel like a slow burn at times throughout the pilot, but it quickly becomes a showcase of one man’s mental breakdown, all due to a fictional TV show that he believed to be real.
Much like the CreepyPasta itself, Channel Zero follows a man named Mike Painter, “America’s Child Psychologist”. Mike is on a Larry King-style talk show set, being interviewed about his new book. The most captivating thing about Channel Zero is its over-the-shoulder technique of filming. The camera is always offset in a way that two-thirds of the screen is an out of focus background, with the actual in-focus character taking up a small portion of the shot. It’s instantly noticeable, and gave the whole viewing experience quite an uneasy feeling, which was always welcome. I constantly felt as though something was going to leap out of the darkness at any second.
As the interview continues, Mike tells his crooked life story. Back in 1988, in his hometown of Iron Hill, Ohio, five children were killed, including Mike’s twin brother Eddie. Their bodies were discovered in the woods, all with their teeth missing. Unfortunately, Eddie was never found, and the 12-year old Mike was sent to live with relatives after his mother couldn’t cope with the loss of her son. It’s easy to see why Mike never returned home. Now he’s plagued by these haunting nightmares full of burning monsters and calliope music (much like the music described in Candle Cove). Throughout You Have to Go Inside, Paul Schneider expertly portrays Mike Painter as a truly terrified man. He struggles to find confidence in his own abilities as a psychiatrist because he himself is in a constant battle with his own mind. It’s a joy to watch and makes him so much easier to relate to.
On the way to Ohio, Mike envisions flashbacks to his childhood. We see him and Eddie as they explore their rural town, walking through the evergreen fields and discovering a warehouse. I’m sure this is all foreshadowing for what’s to come. Perhaps it’ll even provide insight as to Eddie’s whereabouts, explaining why Mike is having these visions in the first place. Once he gets into town, we are introduced to many new characters from Mike’s past. Marla, his mother, is a calm and caring woman with a dark past. You can tell that time without either of her sons (really no family at all), has withered and beaten her down. She doesn’t even have photos of blood relatives on her fridge anymore, claiming this practice keeps out “intrusive thoughts”.
Mike’s return to Iron Hill surprises Marla because she doesn’t want him to get hurt trying to solve his brother’s murder. I enjoyed the scenes with Marla in them, as she seems like the presence that will keep Mike grounded, but she’s not without her own demons. She reminds me a lot of The Walking Dead‘s Carol, a likable mother figure with her own brooding hardships within. Just like Carol and Sam, Marla has a close friendship with a young girl, Katie, the daughter of Mike’s childhood friend-turned-sheriff of Iron Hill, Gary. Particularly atmospheric was the scene between Gary and Mike in the Police Station, which made strong use of the show’s characteristic camera angle. It delivered a sequence that kept me entertained through all the backstory the show was throwing at me. I was captivated with every scene; even though this episode had a lot of typically draggy character-building moments, I never found myself bored at all.
At Gary’s dinner, Mike is an obvious outsider. It’s clear he doesn’t fit in, which could either be a result of his sudden disappearance as a child, or perhaps there’s something the guests know about Mike’s past that we don’t know as of yet. Some more story-building occurs at the dinner table, which just felt drawn-out and unnecessary. I’m sure all the minor details will come together in the end, but this felt like a very lengthy, nonsensical scene for the pilot episode. Eventually, Mike excuses himself to find the bathroom and stumbles across Katie, who tells him she’s been watching Candle Cove on television. This sparks a spontaneous discussion at the dinner table about the lost children’s show, and it’s here where Channel Zero truly begins to shine. The creepiness comes out as each dinner guests describes their experiences with the Cove, with one person having recurring nightmares and another vividly remembering a specific character named Jawbone (sound familiar?). Words are literally ripped from the CreepyPasta, and for any fan of the online source material, this is where the senses went on high alert.
It took a while to get here, but Channel Zero nails the downright disturbing tone of Candle Cove. Watching the puppet show play out the way it’s described in text made me feel like I was really part of the show. I felt just as drawn into the show as the kids did for the two months when it was broadcast. Then, just as quick as it came, it vanished from the airwaves. The occasional shots we see of the demented program in Channel Zero kept me hanging on for dear life. The calliope music, the subliminal messages of skeletons and darkness, it all pulled me in deeper. To make matters worse, every time we entered a flashback involving Mike and his brother, Candle Cove was always there. When a bully beat up Eddie and nearly broke his hand, the boys went home and watched the show. When Mike spends the night in his childhood bedroom, he sees visions of the Cove and Jawbone standing in his room, while the TV produced static on its own. Channel Zero is just a nonstop mind trip. You never know if something is going to jump out, or scream, or…just stand there menacingly. That camera angle certainly doesn’t help settle my anxiety either. It’s a testament to the production of the show, though, and the dedication to making the viewer feel as captivated as the children were, as they watched Candle Cove’s brief run before it disappeared for nearly thirty years.
Speaking of disappearing, Katie goes missing in the episode’s second half. This wild goose chase brought up some interesting plot points, though, including a huge twist that changed our perspective of Mike. The revelation that he’s a psych patient made me question his sanity overall. This immediately explained the crazy visions he’s been having since the opening scene and reveals his true nature for coming back home. Something made Mike carve the message into his arm; something compelled him to return to Iron Hill. This also opened up a whole new can of worms, most notably: is Mike the 1988 killer, and will Katie become the instigator of the 2016 killings? Candle Cove‘s resurgence instantly becomes something more malevolent than we had imagined. It made Eddie get stabbed with a meat hook. It made all of those kids jump to their deaths. It even made Katie run away from home, out to the Crow’s Nest, and it’s here that we got our first look at Channel Zero’s most villainous entity.
The Tooth Guy deserves to be his own discussion topic. At first glance, he’s this horrific beast made of teeth, who also eats children’s teeth. It’s obvious that he’s the reason why the ’88 Murder victims were missing theirs. His motives are unknown, and it’s never explained in the pilot if residents of Iron Hill know about him at all. I have to admit, Tooth Guy here is the reason why I was drawn into Channel Zero. He was used in all the promotional material, and as a fan of Candle Cove, I couldn’t remember a Tooth beast mentioned in it at all – even as someone who knows the source material, Tooth Guy is a brand-new character (I see him as the Twisty the Clown or the Demogorgon of Channel Zero). In both American Horror Story and Stranger Things respectively, there are multitudes of villains and all-around “bad guys” beating down the protagonists at every turn. But there’s always this underlying evil, and I see the Tooth Guy as that. He’s a literal monster; a freaky mutant that is disturbing to both the eye and the mind of the viewer. But much like the other enemies mentioned, he’s the least of the protagonists’ worries when it comes to their broken psyches. I’m sure we’ll see Tooth Guy a bit here and there going forward, but not really dive into his origins until Channel Zero‘s climactic finale.
It’s been said so many times already, but Channel Zero is absolutely captivating. It’s a riveting emotional roller coaster from start to finish. Even its “finish” left me wanting more, with the final twist of a cliffhanger delivered by Mike’s mother. “Who made it up?” she asks him, “The show…wasn’t real. You used to sit, watching the TV…just watching the static.” Finding out everything was all in Mike’s head (as well as the head of every child in Iron Hill) was the final blow of Channel Zero. This conclusion tied everything back to the CreepyPasta where it all began, and I even felt like it wrapped itself up quite nicely. But I don’t want an end. I’m eager for more! I’m anticipating the next shot of the marionettes, who closed out the pilot stating “you have to go inside” the next obstacle, Bravery Cave. I want to know more about the Tooth Guy; is he a menace to society, killing kids every 20-something years? Or is he just misunderstood? Or…is he Eddie? And why did that cop go into the woods one night as Mike watched from his window? Like I said before, it’s simply captivating. Channel Zero kept my mouth agape from beginning to end.