Channel Zero: Candle Cove, Syfy’s new six-episode anthology series, hopes to bring a new kind of horror to the small screen.
Season 1, based on a popular online horror story by the same name, follows child psychologist Mike (Paul Schneider), who connects recent child disappearances in his hometown to a weird ’80s children’s program that has started airing again.
“He’s also got to go back home and reckon with some dark stuff from his past,” teases showrunner Nick Antosca (Hannibal), who tries to avoid using traditional scare tactics, like jump scares, to frighten the audience. “It’s a slow build that’s full of dread, atmosphere, and weird scares that you won’t get from any other show.”
Ahead of the series premiere, EW chatted with Antosca about how his new series is different from other horror anthology series on television, how his time working on Hannibal prepared him to run his own show, and what is up with that tooth-covered child in the show’s weird promos.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The first season of Channel Zero is based on an online short story. Can you talk to me about that story?
NICK ANTOSCA: The first season is based on Kris Straub’s short story Candle Cove, which is a very unusual horror story. It’s basically a modern epistolary story. It’s written in the form of message board posts on a internet nostalgia forum where people are talking about this creepy TV show that they remember seeing as kids. We all have this experience where the thing we used to watch on a random channel that was sort of weird and you remember later, “They showed that to kids?” Then, of course, as these people remember stuff about the show, it starts to sound weirder and weirder and they think, “Where did that thing come from? What channel was it on?” Then, it stars to seem more and more sinister.
Kris’ story is just this elegant, brilliant concept. To turn it into six episodes of TV is both a real opportunity and a challenge because you have to build more stuff than you would normally in adapting something. Our goal and our challenge was to honor what we loved about the original short story and build a bunch of cool new stuff around it that was in the spirit of that.
And the first season is about a child psychologist who is starting to remember this weird TV show from the ’80s, right?
Yeah, exactly. And in the show, the show within a show aired while some disturbing events took place back in the ’80s and he’s the only one who connects them necessarily to the show. When he goes back to his hometown, the show starts airing again and very disturbing stuff starts happening again. So, he’s got to figure out what the connection is and try and stop it this time.
What leads him to connect the disturbing stuff in the ’80s show to the TV show?
Well, he knows some stuff about what happened in the ’80s that nobody else knows. Without giving away spoilers, he’s also got to go back and reckon with some dark stuff from his own past.
One of those things is that his brother went missing in the ’80s when this show was originally airing, right?
So, he knows some of the stuff that happened to his brother that he can never tell anyone, and when he goes back, he has to face his mother (Marla), played by Fiona Shaw, who still lives in this town and has been dealing with the ramifications of what happened when they were kids. So, the story is also about their relationship and there’s like a seed of that in Kris’ short story. So, we took that mother-son relationship that was slightly hinted in the story and built to that.
What makes this Candle Cove show so creepy? What’s the show like?
The show is like that half-remembered thing from your childhood where when you start to think about it, “What mind put this together?” It seems benign at first, but the more you see it the more trippier it gets. People start to go, “Oh yeah, that show gave me nightmares,” and then somebody else is like, “No, no, that’s not a nightmare because I remember that, too. That really happened, like that was an episode the show.” So, our challenge with creating a show within a show was to make something that felt sort of friendly and simple and benign at first, but the more you watch it, the weirder and creepier it gets until the puppets turn toward the screen and start talking to you. We spent a lot of time thinking about like what the show should look and feel like and we hired this great crew out of Toronto, a guy named Rob Mills who used to work for The Jim Henson Company, Fraggle Rock, and they built these puppets that Kris described in the story and we shot them on actual VHS tapes and had him do the voices.
What disturbing events start happening when Mike (Schneider) returns to his hometown?
Kids start disappearing and start doing things that you would be scared if you saw your kid do. Back in 1988, as we learn at the beginning of the pilot, five kids went missing in this town and four of them were found dead and the fifth one was never found. When he finally goes back, for reasons that become clear in the pilot, another kids goes missing and he realizes, “Oh s—, it’s happening again.”
Channel Zero is premiering at a time when horror is having a resurgence on television. Did you look to anything else for inspiration for how you would start the first season?
Sure yeah, we looked to both our favorite TV horror and to our favorite horror movies. This show is interesting in its conception and execution because each season is basically a movie. They’re six episodes long, so it’s about five hours of screen time, and we block shoot them like a movie. There’s no, “Oh we’re shooting episode one, we’re shooting episode 2.” Basically, we went up and shot them like an independent film and each season has one director. So, the idea is to do something, which, to my knowledge, no other show is doing or has done: [create] an anthology show where each season is a showcase for an emerging, exciting film director. So, in the first season we’ve got Craig William Macneill, who directed one of my favorite films of the past couple years, The Boy (2015). So, we got Craig to come up, and the first season is both my voice and his voice and we both wanted to do something very thematic and unusual and something that felt like a film. We looked to inspiration from Twin Peaks, Hannibal, which is the show I worked on before this, and in terms of films, stuff like The Witch or our favorite David Lynch films.
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What did you take from Hannibal?
Basically, I drew on stuff that I learned on from Bryan Fuller, who is a genius and was a mentor, about how to get unusual, strange things on television. Hannibal was on NBC, but it didn’t feel or look like anything else on NBC or broadcast television. It was kind of uniquely cinematic and that was something we wanted to do here. We didn’t want it to like other horror shows. We love American Horror Story. We love The Walking Dead, but we wanted this to have a very unique, distinct voice each season. So, in terms of what I took from Hannibal, part of it was the aesthetic of taking your time, building mood, atmosphere, and dread rather than relying on jump scares.
Speaking of weird stuff on television, what can you tell me about the Tooth Child we see in the teasers?
In 2014, I sat down and broke out the concept of the first season and while I was doing that, I had just started working on Hannibal. One night I had a nightmare about the tooth child and it was connected…I had a nightmare about a little child covered in teeth. It connected conceptually to some of ideas that were coming out in Candle Cove and it ended up being part of the story.
What are you excited for the audience to see when it premieres?
I’m incredibly excited about our cast. We’ve got some really exciting people who we’re thrilled to work with and that’s also true of season 2. Paul is somebody I’ve admired and wanted to work with since I saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which is one of my favorite movies of all time. Fiona’s a fantastic actress. I knew her from Tree of Life and Harry Potter and they just kind of brought a different level of talent and depth to the roles. Each season, in addition to bringing in a director, I want to bring in somebody from the art world who wouldn’t normally do TV, and we have this French performance artist named Olivier De Sagazan, who appears briefly in Candle Cove. I’m excited for people to see him. He’s one of my favorite artists and we used to watch his stuff in the Hannibal writers’ room. I’m just sort of excited for people to see this very, very weird story and what I feel like is a different kind of horror. It’s a slow build that’s full of dread, atmosphere, and weird scares that you won’t get from any other show.
Channel Zero: Candle Cove premieres Tuesday, Oct. 11 at 9 p.m. ET on Syfy.