Syfy couldn’t have timed the debut of its new show, Channel Zero, more perfectly. Brimming with Stephen King tropes and a bleak version of late-’80s nostalgia, the new horror anthology series is tailor-made for fans of Stranger Things clamoring for a new, darker fix.
The show’s basic premise is that it adapts modern urban legends — specifically from creepypasta, a horror genre that’s unique to the internet. The first six-episode half-season, subtitled Candle Cove, adapts what is perhaps the most famous creepypasta tale of all. And just like its eerie source material, the Syfy update transforms childhood memories into raw nightmare fuel.
The plot is one you may have heard before, but with some unexpected twists. A troubled child psychologist named Mike (Parks and Recreation’s Paul Schneider) returns home from a stint in a mental institution to wrestle with his childhood demons, nearly 20 years after a horrifying series of murders that claimed his own twin brother in 1988.
After a lukewarm welcome from a still-grieving mother and a gruff town sheriff, Mike finds himself embroiled in a new mystery when some of the town’s children begin behaving strangely. Haunted by the memory of a strange, short-lived TV show that aired the year his brother died, Mike begins to believe that the show, Candle Cove, is currently airing on local channels and luring the kids into a mission of bloody madness that only he can stop.
Creepypasta is a flourishing online horror genre, and “Candle Cove” is one of its best tales
The “Candle Cove” storyline is one of many that Channel Zero ultimately intends to adapt from an abundant source of web-based horror stories known as creepypasta (pronounced alternatively as “creepy paste-uh” or “creepy pasta”). “Candle Cove” is one of the best-known creepypasta in existence, and one of the most adored by the genre’s many fans. The original version, a short text story of childhood nostalgia that steadily grows more horrifying until the chilling finale, was written and posted by writer Kris Straub in 2009 — a novelty, since most creepypasta are anonymous — but it feels much older, as though it has always been with us.
Creepypasta stories are a spin-off of early 2000s text art known as copypasta, in which memes, urban legends, and other short, random bits of text that could easily be copied and pasted were passed around the web. Creepypasta is the scary version, and it has both outgrown and outlasted its minimalist predecessor, evolving into elaborate forums where creepypasta fans churn out scary tales for their collective entertainment, just like Reddit’s NoSleep subreddit and its extremely popular offshoot podcast.
Creepypasta often tend to be minimal and sparse, leaving much to the imagination — which obviously makes them ripe for this kind of anthology treatment from a TV network. Syfy couldn’t have chosen a better example of the genre to start with than “Candle Cove,” a legendary specimen that not only drips with nostalgia but turns TV itself into horror fodder.
Channel Zero fleshes out the bare bones of the original story to gripping effect, complete with a strong ensemble cast (featuring British treasure Fiona Shaw), a malevolent tone, and a cadre of creepy monsters — including one covered with human teeth.
Channel Zero: Candle Cove faithfully represents how creepy childhood entertainment can be
The original “Candle Cove” creepypasta does one thing especially well: It captures, with eerie accuracy, the uncanny valley between children’s entertainment that is intended to be lighthearted and silly and the dark, hideous underbelly that said entertainment often seems to mask.
If you spent your childhood Saturdays glued to a TV, you remember them: those eerie community access children’s shows; the ones that always aired in the off-hours, late at night or before the Saturday morning cartoons. They frequently involved kindly (cruel) puppet shows, friendly (terrifying) clowns, harmless (malevolent) magicians, and strange tales of low-budget adventures that easily blurred the line between “harmless children’s entertainment” and “sinister surrealism” and aired at such odd times that it’s plausible you could have dreamed them into existence.
If you’re familiar with this kind of programming, you know how easy it is for those innocuous doses of kiddie distraction to morph into something truly terrifying; Candle Cove taps into that primal fear. (In fact, it was an Onion article parodying these types of childhood shows that inspired the original “Candle Cove” creepypasta in the first place.)
The TV show at the heart of the “Candle Cove” creepypasta is a pirate series of the same name that features scary, low-budget puppet pirates menacing each other while sending out what appear to be subliminal homicidal messages to the children watching at home. Any fan of the creepypasta who has longed to be able to watch its fictional TV show Candle Cove will be more than satisfied with the loving, terrifying detail it is afforded on Channel Zero. It’s not easy to bring killer puppet pirates to life without the results being cheesy, but Channel Zero uses them sparsely, creepily, and to great effect.
Consequently, Channel Zero feels malevolent at all times. Though comparisons with Stranger Things loom large, Channel Zero feels darker and scarier. The show boasts a Stephen King-esque pessimism in its approach to childhood, not to mention a monster that feels far more menacing than Stranger Things’ Demogorgon. Even its nostalgia trips are grim; there’s no warm and fuzzy feeling associated with the childhood memories of Mike and his friends. The bonds they formed as kids feel stiff and breakable; the past haunts them because it wants to hurt them, not because it offers catharsis.
The show’s rural bleakness often feels more like the first season of True Detective than Stranger Things, and, like True Detective, its creep factor is rooted more deeply in weird fiction and surreal horror than in sci-fi tropes and a sense of adventure. Getting too close to Candle Cove means death — and we all know how impossible a temptation that is for any kid and horror fan to resist.
Syfy is using Channel Zero to branch out into legitimate horror offerings
Over the past few years, Syfy has consistently advanced its apparent goal of becoming one of the “good” networks on basic cable, moving toward a lineup worthy of its Battlestar Galactica heyday and away from its reputation as the harbinger of low-budget B movies and schlocky, formulaic sci-fi/fantasy like Hercules and Stargate.
Recent series like The Magicians and The Expanse have pushed the network in the direction of making consistently solid programming, while shows like 12 Monkeys and Van Helsing have kept genre fans happy. Now, the network is gunning for the third branch of the speculative trifecta and hoping that Channel Zero will do for horror what its previous original shows have done for sci-fi and fantasy.
The show’s premiere comes in the middle of Syfy’s month-long slate of horror movie programming, which includes a spate of original horror films as well as popular movies. And in making the choice to adapt a popular internet fable for its first scripted horror series in a while, it seems the network is casting its net wide, opting for horror dark enough to please true fans while banking on a story that’s a known crowd-pleaser.
Channel Zero more than pays off that investment: It’s a horror story that feels fresh, well-paced, and suspenseful, with enough intrigue and bloodshed to hook fans and keep them hooked. And with a wealth of popular creepypasta to fuel new seasons of the show well into the future, I’m excited to see what’s next.
Channel Zero: Candle Cove debuted October 11 and airs Tuesdays at 9 pm on Syfy. The season premiere is currently available to stream on the network’s website.