Channel Zero: Candle Cove, the first installment of Syfy’s Creepypasta-inspired anthology show, has been relentlessly, wonderfully terrifying.—that is, until last night’s first season finale aired. But even though it didn’t quite stick the landing, the show took viewers on a unique, dread-filled journey to get there, one any horror fan should take.
First of all, creator Nick Antosca deserves props for taking a 1,000-word story that was written in the style of message-board posts, plucking out the main elements that made it so insanely eerie, and expanding it into six hour-long TV episodes. If the end results were sometimes uneven, the fact that a world filled with so many layers emerged from that simple, original concept—about a mysterious kiddie program called Candle Cove that conceals sinister intentions within its puppet misadventures—is reason enough for celebration.
In the context of Channel Zero, the pirate-themed puppet show was first broadcast in 1988 in Iron Hill, Ohio. Not coincidentally, also in 1988, Iron Hill suffered a gruesome series of still-unsolved child murders. Today, Candle Cove lives on only in the memories of adults who watched it as kids, until one day it suddenly reappears on the airwaves.
Mike Painter (a name taken from the original Creepypasta tale) left Iron Hill soon after the killings; one of the victims was his twin brother, Eddie. Though he’s now a renowned child psychologist, Mike’s started to crack up in his middle age. An overdue visit to his hometown only makes things worse, and this makes him a delightfully unreliable protagonist.
A good portion of the show consists of flashbacks to Mike and Eddie’s confusing and violent last few days together. We’re also treated to Mike’s fevered, Candle Cove-induced visions, though Channel Zero also has plenty of real-world imagery that’s just as unsettling, much of it involving children: a bully who breaks wee fingers like they are candy canes; kids who conceal knives beneath their homemade pirate costumes; sibling rivalry that suddenly escalates to disembowelment. And, of course, once seen, the visage of the Tooth Child is not soon forgotten:
Though Iron Hill looks like an ostensibly peaceful place, the way it’s framed by director Craig William Macneill (an indie filmmaker who helmed all six episodes) gives it an inescapable menace, with an ill-seeming wind that’s constantly blowing through its grassy fields and trees, and hints of innocence lost, like the broken-down amusement park that backgrounds one of episode five’s key moments. Channel Zero’s sound design also deserves special mention; in particular, the Tooth Child’s signature sound effect is a subtle clickity-clack that’ll make all your hair stand up every time you hear it.
As Mike’s life spirals into a nightmare—over the course of the show, he’s arrested, accused of kidnapping and murder, shot, stabbed, psychologically fucked with, and forced to fight for the life of his young daughter—Channel Zero ramps up the tension, and its pace noticeably quickens, and its slow-building dread pays off with some gruesome shocks.
Throughout, the biggest question is “Who’s behind Candle Cove?”, followed closely by “WHY?” We finally get there in episodes five and six, but even viewers who’re willing to embrace surreal ambiguity over a tidy conclusion might be left wanting after learning the answers.
Though sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Booth certainly did her part to make things terrible—throat-slashing an interloper with a pirate hook and stashing the body where her cat could help with its decomposition wasn’t even the worst thing she did—the architect of Candle Cove was Eddie all along. As in, Mike’s twin, who died at age 12, the last kid to perish in the Iron Hill child murders. Except, as we learn, Eddie was one murdering the kids, until Mike killed him (also with a pirate hook) to end his reign of terror.
So that solves the 30-year-old murder mystery. But there’s a supernatural element, too, and that’s where it gets a bit murky. Somehow, through the manifestation of his troubled mind and the help of a lurching alter ego called the “Skin-Taker,” Eddie made Candle Cove appear on TV—or in the minds of the kids who thought they were watching it on TV, since Mike and Eddie’s mother recalls the show only appearing as white-noise static. When Mike finally confronts Eddie in the latter’s mind palace, which is lined with curtains made of skin, Eddie says that he’s lured Mike back to Iron Hill so that they can swap places. Evil Eddie, who’s been needing all those teeth for his Tooth Child masquerades into the real world, will take over adult Mike’s body, and the real Mike will have to hang in the borderland created by his twin’s sick mind.
Body-swapping. Twinning. Okay. That makes a certain sense. And Candle Cove, we glean, was created so that Eddie could exert mind control over Mrs. Booth and the other kids so that they would do his bidding. We learn that he has a dark force inside of him that was unlocked by childhood traumas—his father leaving the family, that finger-cracking bully—and that allows him to do things like cure Mrs. Booth of her seizures, which actually was a pretty nice thing to do, but he requires human sacrifices to grow stronger.
That’s about all the detail we get as far Eddie’s motive or end game. Over six episodes, Channel Zero packs an amazing amount of detail into its story that you might not even notice on your initial viewing; for instance, when we first meet Mike, he’s brushing his teeth, foreshadowing a theme that appears over and over as the show progresses. And while Eddie’s powers are eventually held in check, thanks to the combined efforts of Mike and the twins’ long-suffering mother, the explanation of what’s made him such a monster feels almost too terse.
But then, perhaps that’s the whole point. The unknowable parts of evil are far scarier than anything we can explain away. “The TV show made me do it” is way less freaky than “I created the TV show that made everyone else do horrible stuff for reasons you will never understand.” And aren’t the unknowable parts of evil the fuel of Creepypasta stories to begin with?
Channel Zero returns to Syfy next year with a second season built around a different Creepypasta tale, with Antosca still calling the shots but a different director (Steven Piet, who like Macneill has an indie-film background) at the helm. Check out the trailer below. It goes without saying that we’ll be watching.