Horror is the hand that traces our bodies of knowledge and digs into the folds, those places unexplored but scarred. It opens the spaces in our minds stitched shut by anxiety and tells us to peek inside, to stare at the inner workings of our fear: the palpitations of things unseen, the arteries of things we refuse to confront. Good horror isn’t primarily aimed at scaring us so much as it is about sewing doubt: It’s not about making you think the darkness contains monsters, but making you doubt the dark doesn’t.
The horror genre is particularly apt at a time when it seems the world is run by unashamed ghouls. But in television, horror often seems to be sprinkled over more traditionally “safe” genres: The Walking Dead couches its soap opera beneath the rotting flesh of zombies; Stranger Things leans heavily into childhood adventures and coming-of-age stories, while adding flashes of The Outer Limits; and American Horror Story is more a carnival ride through hammy acting than an attempt at terror.
No wonder then that when I watched SYFY’s horror anthology series, Channel Zero, I found myself genuinely haunted by what I’d seen. With its newest season about to premiere Friday, Oct. 26, it’s worth finding out more about this outstanding show.
Each season of Channel Zero draws from Creepypasta, creepy online short stories written by ordinary internet users and pasted on message boards. “Part of the appeal of adapting Creepypasta was finding new voices,” Nick Antosca, the creator, showrunner and executive producer tells me. “After [the first season], we basically picked the stories without knowing anything about the authors, including in some cases their names.”
Creepypastas provide ample and fertile ground to develop any number of projects. Or as Antosca puts it: “There are so many of these stories. They’re like nightmare seeds lying around all over the place. Waiting to grow!”
Antosca and the Channel Zero team have nurtured those seeds into four fertile seasons of horror. Rather than rely on known tropes, like zombies or aliens, each six-episode season focuses on the modern anxieties of its audience.
The show’s first season, titled Candle Cove, drew from a Creepypasta of the same name by Kris Straub. With all six episodes directed by Craig William Macneill, it tells the story of a mysterious, old children’s show that only appeared on TV in a specific region—then vanished without a trace, leaving no record of its existence save the memories of the now-grown children. The show included creepy puppets, grainy visuals and sound and the constant dread of a creepy skeleton figure. Old children’s TV shows made in earnest to entertain children often look like nightmare fuel today. The first season taps into that, and expands on the nightmares and unrealized traumas we experience in childhood and then carry into adulthood. When I ask Antosca about the first season’s theme, he echoes what a character named Mike voices in the show: “Adulthood is a sophisticated mask, and behind it we’re still the children we used to be.”
The second season, No-End House, directed by Steven Piet, is yet more sophisticated in its horror, drawing from Brian Russell’s Creepypasta “NoEnd House.” A young woman and her friends enter a mysterious house that claims to provide a unique, increasingly terrifying experience in each room. But it becomes something more very quickly, dealing with trauma and asking what we’re willing to sacrifice to maintain safety, even if that safety is a horrifying illusion. Antosca says we shouldn’t look at the second season in isolation from the first: “They’re companion pieces. Both stories are about dealing with death and the loss of a loved one.”
The third season, directed by Arkasha Stevenson, focuses on body horror, a departure for a series grounded in psychological horror. The season was inspired by Kerry Hammond’s ongoing series on Reddit about the experiences of a search-and-rescue officer: strange stairs appearing in the middle of the woods, unexplained disappearances of children, and so on. Channel Zero’s adaptation focuses on a mysteriously rich family called the Peaches. The show’s portrait of the clan combines all the creepiness of a legacy American family with too much wealth and power with the bloodiness of Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Sawyers. The Peaches’ meat-packing factory is on a city block, hence the season’s title, where there are a high number of disappearances. Explaining where the Peaches are and what drives them becomes central to the body horror of the show: as the name implies, there’s a lot of meat involved.
The patriarch of the Peaches is played by legendary character actor, Rutger Hauer. His deep-voiced serenity in the face of eldritch horror makes the experience that much more unnerving. (“He brought a didgeridoo player to set,” Antosca says. “Later we got network notes on some scenes: ‘Is that a didgeridoo we’re hearing?’ We had to cut it out.”) The Peach sons are played to creepy perfection by Andreas Apergis and Bradley Sawatzky; one brother, Apergis’ Robert Peach, is a tall, greasy manchild who loves attacking innocent people – I couldn’t help but see Donald Trump Jr. and therefore the Peaches as the Trumps while watching. This was, allegedly, unintentional.
“You know, I don’t think we ever said in the writers’ room that they were the Trumps,” Antosca tells me. “But in retrospect, how could that not have been an influence? But I swear, it wasn’t a conscious thing.”
The central characters of both Season 2 and 3 are women, which is not itself unique to horror. Bu female leads in TV shows are worth celebrating, as are female directors like Arkasha Stevenson, one of only a handful in the industry today to have helmed an entire season.
In Channel Zero’s upcoming fourth season, Dream Door, the lead characters are a black couple, Tom (Brandon Scott) and Jillian (Maria Sten). Scott makes his return from the third season, and I expected he would be the lead. But after the first three episodes, the actual lead character is Sten’s Jillian. I asked Antosca if casting black performers was deliberate.
“The roles were written racially non-specific,” he said. “I loved working with Brandon Scott on the third season, so I wanted to work with him again at some point. But he auditioned for the role of Tom just like a hundred other actors did, and he won it. He was just the best actor. And we auditioned tons of actresses for Jillian, and Maria gave the best performance. Once we cast them we were aware of the anxieties a black couple might have that a white couple wouldn’t, and the actors were really thoughtful about that. I'm glad it turned out that way. I do think it’s another way in which the season feels like an unfamiliar horror story.”
Dream Door draws from Charlotte Bywater’s “I Found a Hidden Door in My Cellar.” Directed by E.L. Katz, its premise, as Antosca puts it, is as follows: “There’s something in your basement and you let it out. Your house is your psyche. What’s locked in the basement?” He tells me he found Bywater’s story “so Freudian.”
I’ve seen what’s locked in Jillian’s basement: I will never sleep again.
Dream Door is visually stunning and continues the dream-like feel of the previous seasons. This was no accident. “The challenge was to have a distinctive visual style and make each season visually unique and distinguishable. That comes in part from our planning in the writers’ room, but mostly from what the particular directors brought to each season.”
“Because the seasons are only six episodes long, they let us hire one director to do the whole season,” Antosca notes. Each director takes thematic threads from previous seasons and weaves them into a unique creation; the lingering, constant dread and otherworldly horror remains constant throughout. Each season’s brevity reflects its Creepypasta origin, allowing for a perfect balance between deep storytelling and a definitive ending.
When I ask Antosca about his horror inspirations, he lists Shirley Jackson, Thomas Ligotti, Helen Oyeyemi, Kelly Link, and Tannanarive Due. But he also lists the old-guard titans: “Stephen King and Clive Barker are influences on the series—how could they not be? They loom too large over the genre to pretend otherwise.” In terms of creating a season, Antosca says the team reads “five million creepypastas and make lists of the ones we like best. We list the themes. We think about whether the story suggests a larger world.”
The rough structure of a season, Antosca says, is already sketched out before his writers go into a room together. “I know the characters and some key things. Then as a room, we break it out in detail… Everyone is encouraged to mine their own fears and anxieties and try to find the unexpected path for the story. Then we assign scripts, people (or pairs of people) go off and write, then we all give notes on the scripts. We rewrite on set a lot, once we cast the roles.”
Nearly every aspect of Season 4 sits uneasily with a viewer: The characters, the house, the alleged allies. Good horror instills doubt, and the show is excellent at making you doubt whether the villains are really evil and the heroes good. This season does this in rather dramatic fashion, drawing out its audience’s underlying anxieties with almost surgical precision. “Horror is the most interesting way into character and psychology,” Antosca says.
Good horror makes you doubt what is familiar, what is known; it’s about injecting anxiety into the bones of the familiar. Channel Zero doesn’t need zombies, space monsters or ghosts. It tells us to look at what we think we love and know, and asks us: “But do you?”