The Creepypasta-inspired series scares with a sinister puppetshow.
I can still remember the AoL chain email that made me lose sleep during my teenage years. A young girl is home alone when her parents are out of town, a crazed maniac is on the loose (naturally) and one stubborn window in the basement just won’t lock. During the night, the girl hears dripping coming from the bathroom. Afraid but not alone, she sticks out her hand to her dog and receives reassurance in the form of comforting puppy licks. In the morning, the girl discovers her dog, dead and hanging from the shower rod, bleeding blood into the tub with a steady drip-drop. On her mirror is an ominous message: “Humans can lick too.”
We have long loved, collected and regurgitated urban legends, some of which have roots in actual crimes (as explored in the 2014 documentary Killer Legends), but many of which are simply fictional cautionary tales. As this storytelling shifted down into the hands of a more Internet-savvy youth, chain emails eventually morphed into Creepypasta, a viral way to share and create scary stories.
Creepypasta have crept into our cultural lexicon, perhaps most significantly with the character of Slender Man, a tall, faceless supernatural being in a suit who sometimes abducts children. But another Creepypasta, Candle Cove, written in 2009 by Kris Straub, gained popularity for its tale about a sinister children’s program being recalled in a series of progressively disturbing posts on an internet chat board. It is this simple premise that makes up SyFy’s newest original series Channel Zero: Candle Cove, which explores the children’s show introduced in Straub’s story.
In the show’s opening sequence we’re introduced to Dr. Mike Painter (Paul Schneider), a child psychologist who is doing a Charlie Rose-type interview to promote his new book. But things quickly takes a dark turn when the host brings up a series of unsolved child murders that occurred in 1988, when Mike was just twelve. Although the bodies of five local children were eventually uncovered, Mike’s identical twin brother, Eddie, went missing and was never found.
Mike is unsettled by the mention of the murders but the host presses on, slamming a telephone onto the table and telling Mike there is a troubled boy on the other end. Mike tries his best to be professional, but there is only a child’s laughter and strange music on the other end. Finally the child asks Mike, “Why are you afraid to come home?” Mike is deeply disturbed by this and quickly looks around the studio. Suddenly, he notices a strange masked figure and mannequins behind the TV cameras. The host interrupts this Lynchian nightmare to ask, “Mike, why are you scared to come home?” Without warning, the scene quickly changes to a scarecrow figure in flames walking down a hallway before we get to Mike, awake and bathed in white morning light and our opening titles.
On the heels of that surreal and unsettling opening, we see Mike return home to Iron Hills, Ohio to try and solve the mystery behind the murders, his brother’s disappearance and Candle Cove, the strange children’s television show that haunted his childhood during that time.
The strength of Channel Zero lies in its ability to offer brief but deeply unsettling flashes of horror that go beyond just the creepy marionette puppets featured in the Candle Cove scenes. Mike’s mother, Marla (Fiona Shaw), is unsettled by his abrupt homecoming and is worried that he will reopen the wounds left behind by his twin’s disappearance. Instantly, we’re confronted with images of Mike carving open his own arm while his wife screams on the phone, terrified. Later on, when his childhood friend, Jessica (Natalie Brown) confronts him about having just been released from a psych ward, Mike tells her that home kept calling him and finally it is revealed that he has carved “Mike Come Home” into his own arm.
When Jessica’s daughter, Katie, goes missing after watching Candle Cove, it is Mike who finds her at the Crow’s Nest, the same spot where the children’s’ bodies were found in 1988. As Mike takes Katie away, a creepyclawling tooth child (yes, literally made up of children’s teeth) straight out of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story nightmares sneaks around the corner to collect two bloody teeth that Katie has left behind.
Katie’s disappearance and it’s connection to Candle Cove is enough to drive Mike away from Iron Hills but the past keeps calling, quite literally, as Mike is woken up in the middle of the night by the same sinister child’s voice asking him once again over the phone, “Mike, where are you going? We’re just getting started.”
And it’s a great start, as Channel Zero pulls no punches, offering deeply unsettling scares even while establishing the series storyline. The next few episodes offer plenty of shocks, as well as more insight into the relationship between Mike and Eddie and what really happened during the 1988 murders.
Although urban legends and even other Creepypasta haven’t successfully translated on-screen, Channel Zero seems to be in capable hands with creator Nick Antosca and Craig William Macneill, who directed all six episodes. As the mystery in Iron Hills continues to unfold, it’s unclear whether the story will extend beyond these six episodes or if it will become an anthology series but either way, SyFy have stumbled onto a rarity – a horror series that genuinely scares and unsettles and that cannot be missed.