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Spookfest ‘Channel Zero’ will chew its way under your skin this Halloween

Craving some spooky TV that isn’t soaked in 80s kitsch? Try the bone-chilling Channel Zero: Candle Cove, writes Aaron Yap. 

Syfy, look at you! First The Expanse, now Channel Zero? It’s like I might have to start paying attention to your shows or something. Where the former – a superb piece of serious, high-end science fiction – seemed a bid to revamp their schlock-tainted reputation and play in the peak/prestige TV sandbox, the latter confirms that someone at the US channel is determined The Expanse won’t be a one-off.

We’re in the midst of an anthology renaissance right now: American Horror/Crime Story, Fargo, Black Mirror, Room 104, Electric Dreams. The appetite for snack-sized, casual-consumption programming is growing. Channel Zero is a smart, effective way to capitalise on that.

Drawing from viral internet horror fiction known as “creepypasta”, Channel Zero is off to a strong start with its debut season, Candle Cove. This is TV that could be favourably described as the anti-American Horror Story. Where Ryan Murphy’s show is characterised by flashy, fast-paced, over-the-top execution, Channel Zero is all about taking its sweet time to unnerve us. Created by Nick Antosca (Hannibal), its tone-driven approach is similar to shows like The Returned and Outcast. It’s a chilly, pensive blood-curdler, largely forgoing jump scares and blood-and-guts for surreal, reality-bending manifestations of childhood trauma.

Candle Cove started life as a 1000-word online forum thread – the author, Kris Straub, was himself inspired by an Onion story. The series follows Mike Painter (Paul Schneider, of early seasons of Parks and Recreation fame), a child psychologist who returns to his bleakly ordinary hometown of Iron Hill and becomes wracked by flashbacks of the titular pirate-puppet TV show. Mysteriously broadcast in the summer of 1988, it’s a trippy, goofy Sid and Marty Krofft-esque production that still haunts anyone who saw it. As his memories begin flooding back, Mike is forced to confront the lingering emotional wounds left by the unsolved murders of his twin brother Eddie and four other kids during the time that Candle Cove aired.

A tighter cut of the narrative probably exists within these six episodes, but damn, if you love your horror completely soaked in Lovecraftian dread, Candle Cove is an anxiety-inducing pleasure. Skilfully directed by Craig William MacNeill (check out his spooky-doll flick The Boy if you haven’t), the show maintains a subtle balance of freaky, not-of-this-earth elements (a creature known as “The Tooth Child”) and sinister, too-real banality (blood-spattered children, zoned-out on the sofa, watching TV).

The Candle Cove clip itself is an inexplicably disturbing sight. Buried under the ugly, threadbare puppetry and avant garde double-exposures and dissolves is an unshakeable feeling of wrongness, not unlike the static-riddled, cursed videotape of The Ring. It’s pure bad-dream perfection. Who wouldn’t be traumatised after watching this?

Clearly indebted to the works of Stephen King, Candle Cove resembles Stranger Things sans the cosy, fashionable cloak of ‘80s nostalgia. There aren’t glimpses of Evil Dead and The Thing posters hanging self-consciously from bedroom walls. Foreigner isn’t blasting on the radio as teenagers make out. There are, however, emotionless kids snapping other kids’ fingers, wielding knives and ice hooks, and being brainwashed by some malevolent entity.

Rather than conjuring fond, glowing memories of watching Saturday morning cartoons as a child, the show taps into the notion of impressionable minds exposed to media that is deceptively innocuous in the moment, but fundamentally fucked-up in hindsight. Those images of fuzzily remembered origin that haven’t ceased to unsettle well into adulthood. It’s the unspeakable flipside to the idea that children’s minds can be, as Mike Painter puts it, “moulded like clay”.

Viewers sensitive to situations of young people in peril might need to exercise some caution before leaping into Channel Zero: Candle Cove. This isn’t “fun” nor “campy” horror. The protagonist isn’t likeable, and there are no pat, safe resolutions. It’s dark, existential, cerebral – stuff that will burrow under your skin and leave your brain soft and lumpy.

With that, I’m absolutely ready for my next serving of creepypasta.


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