Showrunner Nick Antosca on Building the Monster for ‘Channel Zero: The Dream Door’

We talk with the series creator about finding the right creepypasta to unravel for the most effective audience scare.

Channel Zero Pretzel Jack
SyFy Channel

You don’t have to scroll far to discover something terrifying and horrible on the Internet. I can’t even remember the last time I went online and didn’t trip over some grotesque tweet or fall into some endless clickbait oblivion. Screaming from your desktop or iPhone is a hellscape of humanity, and to survive sometimes, we have to go running towards the darkness, or better yet, find a darkness that you can properly manage.

Mask your eyes from the latest presidential tirade by diving into the pit of creepypasta. Take the right turn on Reddit, and you’ll find all manner of nasty, delicious micro-fiction scrabbling for your attention. These quick fits of fright have spawned dreary, subpar cinematic ventures like The Slender Man, but also the darkest delights of SyFy’s Channel Zero.

The latest season, The Dream Door, found its inception within Charlotte Bywater’s creepypasta “The Hidden Door” (which you can read HERE). As with previous seasons, showrunner Nick Antosca and his writer’s room take that kernel of thought and stretch it into six brutally scary episodes complete with several atrocious and soon-to-be-iconic monsters. In the most satisfying of creature feature fashion, the things in the basement are merely tools for the writers to strip a couple’s marriage to its bones.

I spoke to Antosca over the phone just a few days after he screened a chunk from The Dream Door at the Frightening Ass Film Fest in Chattanooga. We start off the conversation discussing how he determines which creepypasta tale is right for the series, and how the nightmarish Pretzel Jack made its way into the latest season. We also talk about the benefits of a six-hour anthology format, especially relating to the capture of singular vision like director E.L. Katz.

Channel Zero is easily one of my favorite television shows, and that was hard to hide in the conversation below. So often we look at the big screen to deliver our next wave of famous monsters, but Channel Zero happily supplies a few new beasties for us to celebrate. Pretzel Jack is not just a creepy clown to induce a few shivers. Not only does he fit nicely next to Channel Zero’s Tooth Child, Tall Boy, and the Crayons, but he belongs next to Frankenstein, Freddy Krueger, and The Babadook.

Here is our conversation in full:

So I just finished the season of The Dream Door this morning. Loved it, loved it, loved it.

Thank you.

I want action figures immediately of the Tall Boy and Pretzel Jack for sure.

Me, too. I want the Crayons as well.

Yes, like a pack of them. I think there’s a market there if you’re not working on it already.

Yeah, I mean, somebody should tell SyFy that there’s a demand. I would love a Pretzel Jack action figure. He would have to be very flexible.

Yeah, like one of those bendy action figures, right? Or Stretch Armstrong!

Exactly.

What comes first when you’re constructing this show? I mean, is it the creepypasta? Do you have an idea before that? Does the monster come into play first?

Well, the creepypasta comes first and we go from there. The creepypasta acts as one of those little pellets that you put in water and it expands into something fantastical. So the stories that we pick have to be really rich with possibility, and kind of nightmarish concepts that we can explore and play with. Then it’s like other nightmares come and stick to it. And inspirations that come out of the writer’s room, things that I’ve wanted to do for a while, personal fears. All the writers kind of contribute their own fears and nightmares and stuff, and we just play it for a while.

We also think about what the theme is, what the psychology is at the beginning, and make sure that everything we do kind of comes out of that or plays on that in some way, so that every season, even though there’s a lot of horror ideas and tropes and a lot of different things in the stew, every season is centered around a core idea of the theme.

So the creepypasta, do you just have this giant book of stories that you’re constantly adding to?

Yes, it’s called the Internet [laughter]. It’s called, well, maybe, I don’t know, Reddit. Yeah, there are a million of these stories and at this point, we’re pretty familiar with them. There’s so many that at the beginning of the first season, we made a list of ones that we wanted to do and that list is very long, and we get to keep going off that. But we do still read them regularly and gather new ones. So the [Charlotte] Bywater story…well, Angel Varak was a writer’s assistant on the first two seasons and a staff writer on the bigger seasons. She found that story and sent it to me, and it was just one of those perfect feeds for a season.

Right, sure, looking at that story, it’s certainly evocative. But you bring so much more to it. I mean, Pretzel Jack, included.

Yeah, the stories serve as premises, as starting points, and we go from there. So, you read that story and it’s basically a question. What came out of the basement? And then, if you explore that question and make it not just about the monster but about the people whose house it is, it becomes really interesting and it opens a world of possibility. And that’s what we wanted to explore.

Well, let’s talk about the people who own that basement. This idea of having a relationship but like the hidden door, there are secrets that they’re withholding from each other. How did you draw that out of the creepypasta, or how did you come to put that on the frame of the creepypasta?

The creepypasta has a sentence or two about the fact that the narrator is married and has a spouse, and it’s not a big part of the story, but it was an interesting thread to follow. And what is in the story gave you the house and something in the basement, and that’s a very Freudian thing. The idea that your house is in a way you, it represents your psyche. The basement is your subconscious or what’s beneath the psyche and you find a door there that you didn’t know was there. There are all sorts of hidden possibilities. What have you buried beneath the basement? What have you hidden away? What’s lurking in your psyche?

We liked the idea that it wasn’t just about one person. It’s about two people’s psychologies that have come together, and the house represents their union. They both bring things to it. And then what’s buried in the basement? What comes out? And when you join your psyche to someone else’s, you have to deal with what comes out of their basement.

What’s so wonderful about Pretzel Jack, after he steps through that door, is that he ultimately, without spoiling anything, but he is more than just a monster, more than just a creature. There’s empathy to that being.

Yeah. Yeah, and that was important. It’s six episodes, so we wanted to give the audience’s relationship to him an arc as well. I mean, there’s a version of it where he’s just a slasher for six episodes, which could’ve been scary and cool. But I think it’s more interesting to give him somewhere to go and to feel affection for this protected entity by the end of the season.

Then you have Troy James bringing so much personality to him as well.

Yeah, Troy is obviously a remarkable physical performer, and he brings a lot to that. It’s not just a contortionist performance, it’s an actual performance. Doing stuff with his eyes, he’s got a playful physicality and he’s doing it all without words of course. And Evan Katz, who directed the whole season, who is really fantastic, put a lot of thought into how to make the audience feel about Pretzel Jack and how to walk the line between terrifying and funny and playful. And in the scene at the beginning of Episode Four where Pretzel Jack first emerges from Jillian’s closet when she’s a little kid and they had that kind of first playful interaction, a lot of thought went into that of like what their sort of dance would be. We had a choreographer, Sofia Costantini, who worked with Troy and Evan to get what Evan wanted for this sort of rudimentary, yet elegant and playful dance that they would do.

Speaking of Evan, Cheap Thrills is one of my favorite recent flicks as. It’s just such a funny, horrible, relatable thriller. I love, love, love that film. And, so, one of the things I liked so much about Channel Zero is how as an anthology series, it is introducing new stories to the audience, but also introducing new voices, new styles through the director.

Yeah, the show is a showcase for directors. It’s also an excuse for me to work with directors who I think are really cool, incredibly talented and whose next movie I want to see.

There’s so much content fighting for attention right now. I feel like Channel Zero has really struck this perfect format of six episodes, rather than falling to, not to throw shade at other studios, but places like Netflix, that are trapped to a 10-13 episode format, those seasons are just a little too long for some of their stories. How did you fall on six being the magic number?

It was kind of a happy accident. When we pitched the show, we just assumed that it would have to be like 10 or 12 episodes per season. And when SyFy was playing with low-budget models for new shows, we got this idea of, “Well, if we do 12 episodes but two seasons at once, then we could have one director do the entire six-episode season. We could not worry about filler story. We could do it like a movie.” And it’s been a very fortuitous, cool way to do it.

I feel like you tricked audiences into watching six-hour films.

Yeah, exactly, that’s exactly what it is. And by the standards of TV, our budget is like a micro-budget, but by the standards of indie film, it’s pretty good. So, you bring in indie film directors who are resourceful and used to working under extreme constraints, and we’re able to maximize our production value and make the show look, at least a little more expensive than it is. And yeah, kinda create a thing that’s not just sort of handheld indie verite but something composed.

But how does that affect your job as showrunner? You know, the six-episode format. You must be working on this season at the same time as another, and still, have to be thinking about two more coming down the pipe.

(Laughter) Yeah, I don’t know what to tell. That just is my job. I wouldn’t say it’s easy. It is what it is. It’s a dream job, but it’s a lot of work, and I have to … We’ve now made four six-hour movies over the past two years, which is hard, but it’s fun and it’s exciting.

Well, what’s your end goal for this? How many seasons do you see this thing going?

I have no idea. I have two more seasons in my head right now that I would love to do. I have no idea if we’re coming back. I have no idea … I assume we’ll know at some point before the end of the year, probably soon. But everybody involved with the show wants to go make more. At the same time, we feel super lucky that we’ve gotten to do four seasons at this. That’s like crazy.

Yeah, well I feel super lucky to have them, frankly. That six-episode format, the anthology aspect, it allows you for more variety and potential. I have my fingers crossed, but there doesn’t necessarily ever have to be an ending. The only thing stopping you is if the creepypastas stop.

Cool, yeah, I mean I’m just happy to be making fun, crazy horror show with directors that I love and actors that I love. I’m glad people are into it.

Before I let you go here, I wanted to talk just a little bit about the way it’s released. I love how you can watch it episode to episode every night as it builds up to Halloween. Or you can go on the app and watch it all now. And then eventually it’ll be on Shudder for all of us to see there, too. What’s your satisfaction around that delivery system?

Honestly, all the programming stuff is totally up to SyFy and I have very little to do with it. I’m just happy for it to be out there. I like the one episode per day thing because it gets them out there faster, and everybody’s more likely to be able to bring it more quickly. But it’s honestly, it’s the Wild West in terms of distributing content.

Right, it’s hectic to navigate just as a consumer.

So, I’m just sort of happy to be making this show and putting it out there.


Channel Zero: The Dream Door is now available to stream in its entirety on the SyFy Channel app as well as VOD.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.