Syfy’s hit anthology series, Channel Zero, is a nightmare, but we mean that in the best way possible. Creator Nick Antosca’s previous work on fright-heavy shows adapted from previous source material — like Hannibal — gives him some serious genre cred. He brought a similar mentality to Channel Zero in its first season, entitled Candle Cove. The show is based on notorious internet urban legends called “creepypastas,” which allowed Antosca and his collaborators to expound upon the source material’s appropriately creepy mythology.
“I’m not super interested in traditional storytelling, but much more into nightmare logic,” Antosca told Inverse about the show. “One of the opportunities that adapting creepypastas offers is they’re so short and so condensed and simple that they offer a lot of opportunity for expansion.”
The original story, by web-cartoonist and author Kris Straub, was a brief kind of digital epistolary horror tale consisting of nothing but message board posts from a group of people recalling their disturbing shared experiences watching a fictional children’s television show called “Candle Cove.” When Antosca adapted it into a full-fledged TV series, he added new details and characters, including the troubled protagonist Mike Painter (Paul Schneider) and the mysterious entity covered in the teeth of dead children dubbed the “Tooth Child.”
Antosca was inspired by some of his genre favorites, films that “honor the spirit of the original but expand on them and give you something new,” citing movies like The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, and Apocalypse Now. As for TV precedents, he pointed out FX’s adaptation of the Coen Brothers classic Fargo. “That show invents a ton of stuff, but maintains the spirit of the original very faithfully,” he said.
Antosca’s biggest challenge with Candle Cove seemed to be how to present the cursed kids TV show as a legitimately unsettling threat without wandering into corny joke territory. When the audience is laughing at your deathly serious horror TV show, you know something is wrong, a fact not lost on Antosca, who knew he had to get the right young people involved for what will end up being a very kid-centric climax in the final episodes of the season.
“We made the decision early on, before the script stage, that we didn’t want to do a campy or cheesy version of this show,” he said. “You have to stage it so it doesn’t seem silly, and you have to shoot it so it looks cinematic. I was warned a lot early on by some of the other folks involved about not doing the creepy killer kids. But I just thought I find it disturbing and a little funny, but not in a campy way.”
Antosca explained the way they overcame that challenge was all about preparation, starting with casting believable child actors in or around where they shot the season in Canada.
“We were very lucky to find an actress to play Mike’s daughter Lily — Abigail Pniowsky — who is a local Winnipeg kid who is phenomenally good and a natural on-screen. “She’s in Denis Villeneuve’s movie Arrival right now,” he added. It’s an important role considering in the remaining episodes, Lily has somehow walked all the way from her home in Westchester, NY to mysteriously visit her father Mike in Iron Hill, Ohio, and might even be channeling her father’s dead brother. She might be the key to unlocking the mysteries of Candle Cove.
The other huge challenge for the show was finding a young actor to play young Mike and his brother Eddie, a challenge that was not easily solved. “We tried to find real twins for a long time, but the funny thing about trying to cast real twins is that they come in for the audition and a lot of times one of them will be enthusiastic and the other will be a kid who was just kind of dragged along because the other twin wanted to act,” he joked. They eventually settled on another local Winnipeg actor to play both parts.
“We looked all over in Vancouver and Toronto, but Luca [Villacis] came in and had such naturally quiet qualities,” said Antosca, “[mainly] a contained anger but with sympathy and vulnerability.” As Eddie slowly descends into madness in the show’s flashbacks, that anger and vulnerability will inevitably come to a head.
It makes for a horror experience unlike anything on TV right now, and it might have scared Syfy if it weren’t for Antosca’s assurance. “Once we turned in the cuts I think the network was understandably a little freaked out. They were like, ‘What are all these long pans?’ But we were like, ‘Trust us, this is exactly what we all talked about. There’s no jump scares, it’s a feeling of dread, it’s character-based horror,’” he told reporters on a conference call. “And then they still understood and supported us. We’re very lucky to be on Syfy right now.”
We’re all just lucky that the network gave Antosca the chance to make something as ambitious and gloriously unsettling as Channel Zero.