The third season of Channel Zero, Syfy’s sneakily great horror series —inspired by internet-generated stories —is nightmarish. Literally. Nick Antosca, the series’s creator, and showrunner says that some of the creepiest parts of the new season came from actual nightmares he and the other writers had. That should help explain why Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block, stands out amidst a crowded horror field. It’s cerebral, psychological, and, well, genuinely creepy.
Season 3, which premieres on Wendesday, is based on a well-known Creepypasta by Kerry Hammond called Search and Rescue Woods, a forest service officer’s eerie tale of grim deaths and strange staircases in the middle of a national park. That visual, the staircase to nowhere, is just about the only identifiable part of the original story to make it to the screen.
“This season departs more from the source material than previous seasons, that’s one reason we changed the title,” Antosca tells Inverse in a phone conversation. “That wasn’t the original intention, but when we got into the writers’ room, the story inspired so many horror ideas that it just kind of flowered and evolved to be The Butchers Block.”
The show follows two sisters, Alice and Zoe, as they move to a crummy city that’s the epitome of post-industrial blight. The pair, played by a It Follows actress Olivia Luccardi and Teen Wolf’s Holland Roden, are looking to start a new life for themselves and do their best to escape a family history of schizophrenia. However, there are rumors of strange staircases in a run-down park, and people disappear from the worst neighborhood in town, known as Butcher’s Block. Plus, there’s something going on with the supposedly long-dead family that used to run the meat factory that supported the city in better days.
The season’s name and mention of a creepy meat factory might’ve tipped you off that this is a bloody season, and indeed, it is. Channel Zero, which was never lacking for upsetting visuals in its past two seasons, adds flesh, blood, and self-cannibalism to the mix for some truly stomach-churning sequences. That’s not the scariest part of the Butcher’s Block, though.
“We try to keep the horror psychological, and we try to go unexpected places,” Antosca says.
Channel Zero throws all sorts of uncanny, upsetting, and extremely creepy ghouls, apparitions, and imagery at its poor viewers. Fans of Season 1 will no doubt remember the Tooth Child, which Butcher’s Block has emaciated figures with bloated porcelain doll heads, deformed and murderous dwarves in children’s garments, and a flayed gentleman, to name a few.
“When we have a writers room with avid horror fans, it’s honestly what do we not include, rather what do we include,” Antosca says. “That’s what a group of disturbed imaginative individuals can do,” he jokes.
Gobs of scary imagery are all well and good, but they can lose impact after a couple episodes. That’s where the psychological element comes in, as that’s the underlying horror that keeps viewers scared for the characters. While cannibalistic ghosts and deranged murderers are horrifying, the idea that our heroes’ minds are just as terrifying as these outside spooks is really unsettling.
“Every season of Channel Zero deals with themes of loss of self, loss of sanity, to me there’s nothing scarier than losing your mind,” Antosca says. “Both the first season and second season deal with mental illness, suicide, loss, and three is a little more overt.”
Alice and Zoe’s struggles with mental health are illustrated in some outlandish, spooky ways. But, the underlying fear that your brain may be working against you touches a deeper nerve than, say, Blade Runner star Rutger Hauer as a bloody meat magnate, creepy as he is. There are some seriously unsavory implications here — mental health is already stigmatized enough — but Antosca tries to make the narrative support the depiction.
“We actually read a lot of first-person accounts of what it’s like to lose your sanity,” Antosca explains. “We talked to psychologist who gave us a lot of background and foundation, and once you know that stuff, you proceed with the metaphor and imagery.”
That psychological element — and the narrative uneasiness that comes with it make Channel Zero feel different from other horror we see on TV today. Antosca cites Italian horror legend Dario Argento as a major inspiration, and compares Butcher’s Block to “Candyman with elements of Don’t Look Now and maybe in the Mouth of Madness.” In the crowded field of TV horror, this approach stands apart.
“Channel Zero is occupying its own space in terms of psychological horror,” Antosca says. “Black Mirror has its own thing, technological horror; American Horror Story is a kind of heightened comic snap horror, and does that brilliantly; and Channel Zero is arthouse horror.
That’s somewhat of a double-edged sword, as arthouse horror isn’t always fulfilling despite — or because of — how strange the scares are. Butcher’s Block is full of scary ideas, and though they might not totally come together for a cohesive whole, they’ll rock you while you’re watching, and linger for a while longer.
Butcher’s Block doesn’t leave the viewer pondering great questions about society and the human condition, the way the best Black Mirror hours do, but scare-for-scare, Channel Zero is consistently weirder and more effective. The calories might be a little emptier, so to speak, but like human flesh, it’s a lot harder to sleep after you’ve consumed it.
Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block premieres on Wednesday, February 7, at 10 p.m. Eastern on Syfy.