A happy, all-American couple moves into a house. It’s a fixer-upper, but it’s also a wedding present, and when the price tag says “free,” there are few reasons to complain. First, they make love in every room; it has to feel like home. Then, they start to renovate the space. But just before they’re done, something bizarre happens: a door appears in their basement. It wasn’t there before. They know this. They’ve pored over every nook and cranny, after all. Even stranger, though, is that the door won’t open. The damn thing doesn’t even have hinges, or a lock.
Oh, they try. They hire a locksmith. They try to kick it down, then cut it down. They shoot the door repeatedly. At first, it will not budge, but after days of wearing it down, it finally starts to crack. The nearly impervious door leads to yet another long, dark staircase that leads to yet another door. This one seems to be halfway beneath the neighbor’s basement — but how could that be? Isn’t that physically impossible? The men in the room once again try every trick in their arsenal, but this door is even more secure than the one before it. It’s not until everyone gives up that the wife quietly places her hand on the door. Finally, the door gives in. She steps into the darkness.
At first, it looks like nobody has been inside this room for years. It’s old, decrepit, and the walls seem to be rotting. She scans the area, and that’s when she notices it: a tall, lanky figure, standing in the corner, seemingly abandoned and disheveled. How did it get in here? Before she can answer this question, the figure twists and turns to face her, with total disregard for how a human body should bend and move. It’s as if its bones aren’t connected to each other at all, allowing its arms, legs and torso to become total putty. Watching it move is revolting; it isn’t natural. But before she can react, the creature scurries past her. What the fuck was that?
If the premise for the new season of Channel Zero sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve read one of the most highly voted horror stories on Reddit’s No Sleep forum where people gather around a digital campfire to tell unnerving stories that make it impossible to lie comfortably in bed at night. There are differences between the show and the original tale, titled “I found a hidden door in my cellar, and I think I’ve made a big mistake.” In the original Reddit story, the couple has lived in that house for years. The Syfy show also picks up where the original left off, making the creepypasta function almost as a writing prompt for a larger, more involved story about what it means to love and trust someone when you have mental health issues. The new season of Channel Zero is the show’s fourth creepypasta adaptation, and based on the four-episode preview I watched before its release, it’s one of its best.
Creepypasta, a genre of crowdsourced online myth-building and storytelling, is notoriously spartan in its execution. Many of the best tales are often nothing more than huge text dumps; their believability is enhanced through faults like story padding and spelling mistakes. The format may not be sophisticated, but that’s exactly what allows creepypasta to colonize your thoughts and fears. These are stories presented as though they’re happening to real people. Garnishment is not necessary when authenticity is assumed.
When a creepypasta resonates with the public, it will often be shared widely, if not retold and remixed, until, eventually, it becomes such a staple of the web that it’s hard to pinpoint where you heard about it in the first place. The efficacy of a creepypasta, both in impact and reach, makes it a collaborative art form: a story is told, we bring it to life with our worst fears, and then we spread the scares like a virus. You’d think, then, that adapting such a profoundly internet experience to any other format would be difficult, especially when previous attempts to do so have lost things in translation. But Channel Zero does more than adapt creepypasta for TV audiences; it enhances the story by diving even further into what makes the tale terrifying in the first place.
“I think of our show as the biggest possible tribute to the original story and the writers of the story,” Channel Zero creator and showrunner Nick Antosca tells The Verge. The first season, which admittedly lost steam halfway through, took on Candle Cove, a horror story about a sinister TV channel that put children in danger. By season 2, Channel Zero found its voice through NoEnd House, a tale about a home with nine rooms that seemingly nobody could visit in its entirety. With season 3, Channel Zero got more ambitious with its take on Search and Rescue Woods, a tale about unexplained disappearances that all seemed tied to staircases that magically appear in the woods. While season 3 had some stumbles, it also tried to tell a complex story about the fears of inheriting mental illness. The aim is not to re-create the original creepypasta in its entirety. Some seasons stick close to the source material, while others treat it more as inspiration for a different story.
“[Creepypasta is] such an organic medium,” Antosca says. “It’s made by anybody. Anybody who has an idea can write one of the stories. You see, if you read a lot of them, that they feed off of each other. They grow; they change. Candle Cove is popular, people write Candle Cove fan fiction, and they write sequels, and they make fan art. And people make homemade video games of No End House.”
Antosca says he sees Channel Zero as an elaborate form of fan fiction for the original creepypasta — except, unlike most fan fiction, the showrunners get in contact with the original writer and receive their blessing before going forward. (They pay and give credit, too, and any time they can’t find the original author, they just won’t adapt the story.)
“I kind of think of it as every season being the nightmare you have after you read the original story,” Antosca says. “The original story is like a seed that grows into something much more articulated and complex.”
“The Dream Door,” Channel Zero’s latest season, debuting today, works because it fleshes out the original story. The people become actual characters, and the villains have entire backstories and motivations that cannot be gleaned from the creepypasta.
“We try to bring the sense of dread that we get from the original story, capture the feeling we got from the original story, but express it in unique ways,” Antosca says.
The idea of finding a mysterious door in your basement is scary on its own, but Channel Zero amps it up by making it more human. This is a story about a terrifying creature, sure, but first and foremost, it is a story about a woman with anxiety. She is married and loves her husband very much, but the couple discovers that as much as you care for someone, you can never fully know them. Happy as they initially are, the pair keep secrets from one another. The door, then, becomes a metaphor for trying to get to know someone, only to discover something sinister and shameful hiding inside. The monster hiding in the basement becomes an extension of the wife’s demons, meaning that it is not a problem they can simply kill. Literally, the creature can just come back at any time.
“The scariest things that you encounter in your life often come from within you, and horror can be a really rich way to explore that,” Antosca said. While there’s a killer in the show, it’s primarily a horror story grounded in a relationship.
“My favorite horror movies are always about something other than the supernatural element or the genre element,” Antosca said. “Obviously, the great recent example of this is Get Out ... Rosemary’s Baby, [meanwhile, is] about a woman who really wants to be able to trust her husband at the most vulnerable time of her life, and he betrays her. That’s a scary thing.”
The most impressive thing about Channel Zero is that it goes well beyond jump-scares or violence to deliver its chills. It is a high-concept psychological show that, in prior seasons, has treated heady subjects like mental health, grief, childhood trauma, familial bonds, and even gentrification as the emotional cores of its frights. While the first season was shaky in its execution, subsequent terrific seasons have all centered on women and their anxieties, whether literal or unspoken. To wit, in The Dream Door, the antagonist’s bloodlust intensifies the more his steward is gaslit and disbelieved by the men in her life.
“Female protagonists have a really rich history in the horror genre,” Antosca said. “Most of my favorite horror movies are about or build around women. Whether it’s Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Shining, or most of the slasher movies that we know … the female experience is really kind of central to the horror genre.”
That’s not to discount how horrifying the antagonist of the show is, of course. Played by real-life contortionist Troy James, the clown-like critter is stomach-churning to watch as he moves around the set. Initially, I was convinced it must have been CGI or a machine that could twist and turn without concern for physics or human limits. But no, James is a real person.
James first got involved in Channel Zero during its third season, Butcher’s Block, where he played a smaller role as the physical manifestation of the protagonist’s schizophrenia. The showrunners were so impressed with his performance that they created an entire character in the next season around his unusual abilities.
“This is a man who can run at full speed on all fours, flipped over backwards,” Antosca said. “You don’t find people like that too often.”
James plays Pretzel Jack, an imagined figure created by one of the protagonists as a protective figure during their childhood. On the surface, Jack looks like a stereotypical horror clown, but the elaborate contortions add another dimension to his character. James’ performance has a tinge of slapstick to it: Jack can and will kill someone with his bare hands, but he’ll top it all off with a silly trick to impress his charge. Ta-da! He did it, and he did it for you. As the show goes on, Jack takes on the appearance and feel of a worn-down toy that creaks with overuse. After a few episodes, he feels less like an unimaginative villain than he does as wonderfully understated figure, a monster who is more capable than he seems. And he does it all from the confines of a simple sweater, slacks, and white makeup.
Many of the show’s strengths come from having to work within strict limits like these. Unlike more mainstream genre shows like American Horror Story, one of the biggest challenges to making Channel Zero is its limited budget, says Antosca. The creators have to learn to spread that budget to actualize their vision, which, in practice, means a lot of practical effects and filming a sparse number of takes. The seemingly irreconcilable distance between the couple, for example, is often accentuated by making characters stand uncannily far apart from one another, or distorting camera angles to make spaces seem much larger than they actually are. It’s deliberate, frugal filmmaking.
“We’re trying to create a sense of disorientation, of dislocation,” Antosca says. “We use a lot of domestic spaces — you know, bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens. It feels like home, but it also needs to feel uncomfortable and weird in some ways … horror, to mem, is much more interesting to me when it takes place in spaces that should be reassuring, places that look like home but don’t feel like home anymore.”
It may sound like a pain, but Antosca says that financial limitations are a kind of a blessing in disguise. It grants him “more creative freedom,” he says. “I feel really lucky with what we’ve been able to do.”