"Follow the Nightmare": An Interview with Channel Zero's Nick Antosca
Channel Zero is the most shocking, terrifying show on TV right now. With the meat-cult third season that was Butcher's Block now finished, creator and showrunner Nick Antosca talks about the show's development, themes, and future.
Feb 07 2018 (US)Other
It's difficult to determine which the most horrifying scene is in this season of SyFy's Channel Zero, but when we see the character of Zoe -- a fresh transplant to a new town with her sister Alice as they try to recover from the scars (both mental and physical) caused by their schizophrenic mother -- alone in a bathtub, she is struck by a new supernatural craving for meat. Instead of lashing out and snacking on those around her, she instead slices off a bit of her own leg and (through much anguish) shoves it in her own mouth. She doesn't want to, and is terrified at the prospect, but it's better her than someone else, right?
While assuredly not for the squeamish, Channel Zero is unquestionably the best horror TV show on the air right now, rife with stunning visuals and horrific concepts that will stick in your head for days on end. It's an anthology show, so each six-episode season has a new cast and new premise, but what gives the series its fresh edge is how they are based on "creepypastas", a modern form of internet-based ghost stories where traditional concepts and narratives are thrown out the window for tales that truly tap into and exploit our modern paranoias, taking our fears to nightmarish extremes.
While Channel Zero is still a cult phenomenon, that cult is growing rapidly, and the show's third season, subtitled Butcher's Block, has been the most acclaimed yet. For creator and showrunner Nick Antosca -- who is a novelist and former co-producer on the excellent NBC adaptation of Hannibal -- the response to Butcher's Block has been phenomenal.
"It's nice when [both] viewers and critics like the show," Antosca tells PopMatters shortly after the Butcher's Block finalé aired. "At the same time you can't live or die by that. Before it came out I did not necessarily expect good reviews -- I never do, every season, we're a very strange show -- but I felt great about what we made. We try to capture the feeling of a dream or a nightmare. Butcher's Block is particularly feverish. I'm proud of what the writers' room created. And I think [season director] Arkasha Stevenson truly elevated this season. She's amazing and she brought ideas and instincts that no other director could have."
While modern horror television has taken on many forms ranging from the schlocky interconnected universe of American Horror Story to the standalone techno-phobia episodes of Black Mirror, Channel Zero works due to the laser-focus of each season, giving a very concise and engaging mystery that only grows in terror with each passing episode. The first season, Candle Cove, dealt with a rash of murders associated with an old children's TV show that no one seems to ever have recorded (only remembered). The second season, No-End House, dealt with a haunted house that works on each visitor's worst nightmares, up to the point where even when you think you've left the house, you may still be in it.
"All You Ghost Mice" S3, E3 (Syfy)
Butcher's Block is the show's boldest move yet. While we are drawn to Alice (Olivia Luccardi) and Zoe's (Holland Roden) fractured relationship with their mother (along with the fear of succumbing to schizophrenia), this show also features occult rituals, dancing murderers, and cops that don't care. Then there's the story of the Peach family (lead by Joseph Peach, played by Rutger Hauer), who ran a meat packing plant before disappearing under mysterious circumstances, leaving his town in a state of economic depression.
The central hook of Butcher's Block (at least at first) isn't so much what happened to the Peach family as it is about what the heck that staircase is about. Randomly, out of nowhere (and almost always at night), a mysterious white staircase appears in the woods that leads up to a largewhite door. There's no explanation for it (it looks very "copy-pasted"), outside of the small robed and disfigured children that appear near its base and take delight in stabbing passers-by.
For those who read the original creepypasta that this season is based on ("Search and Rescue Woods" by Kerry Hammond), the stairs do play a powerful role, but the strange vignette-styled stories of the odd encounters that a forest ranger's search and rescue crew come across have virtually no place in Butcher's Block's final product. In an interview with GameSpot, Antosca said that the series is "our fan fiction of the original creepypasta". So how does he decide what creative liberties to take with the source material and what to keep?
"You just follow the nightmare," he says. "What's up the stairs? What is their significance, their energy? Those are dangerous questions to ask because their power in the story is mysterious. The image is totemic. That's what attracted us to the original story. But you do have to ask those questions when you are building a greater narrative. I think it began a little bit almost as a pun, a joke -- what is the season? 'It's an upstairs/downstairs story.' And then there really was a horror story to tell about class. And the decaying city fit well into that. And so did the story of mental decay. And the civic and psychological degradations could echo each other."
While Candle Cove was about coming back to your past and reconciling what you did as children (also, there was a monster made entirely out of human teeth) and No-End House dealt with grief, loss, and letting go, Butcher's Block really helped elevate Channel Zero's focus on horror of the familial to a whole new level. Alice and Zoe are worried about the looming specter of schizophrenia in their lives, so when a mystery man comes and has a potential solution, the girls wonder what the other end of this bargain is. Their worries and fears only add on to the already-fearful environment they're in, as they (and by proxy, we the audience) wonder what is real and what is just imagined.
"Most great horror stories are family stories, psychological stories," Antosca continues. "Your teenage daughter is changing. Your father is an alcoholic. Your husband betrays you for his career. The Exorcist, The Shining, Rosemary's Baby. It wasn't necessarily the goal when I pitched the show. But it's the kind of horror I like. Loss is the most frightening thing. Loss of self, loss of loved ones. It took roots in the show."
"Guest of Honor" S1, E5 (Syfy)
When pressed about how deliberate it was to create an "unreliable narrator" conceit to Butcher's Block, Antosca admits that it was "reasonably deliberate, and yes, it's a theme in every season -- but we also want to avoid the impression of 'maybe it was all in his head, or it's all a metaphor' -- I don't like it when a genre story tries to have it both ways, so the creators can feel more literary or whatever. Commit to your story. Regarding the staging, it's more about creating a feeling of unstable reality, of thin ice, of a nightmare where anything could happen."
Channel Zero's biggest miracle of all though may be that it's even allowed to be presented as is, with what appears to be very little interference from the network. While Hannibal masterfully pushed the envelope in terms of what was presentable to audiences in network primetime, Channel Zero moves in similar fashion, allowing truly terrifying scenes to take place but not just for for the shock factor or at the cost of a good narrative turn. The cinematic quality of each season shows that SyFy is truly invested in the show's future, which is why after Season Two, SyFy quickly greenlit another two seasons.
"Creatively they have been wonderful," Antosca notes when asked about how it's like working with SyFy. "There really isn't anything I've wanted to do in terms of story that I haven't been able to do. Casting at a network is always a challenge -- you wish you could just put what's in your brain into other people's brains so they could understand what you feel you need creatively, but that is just the nature of show running. I have been amazed at how much we've been allowed and encouraged to do with the show. I never expected to have this much freedom. I may never have it again."
Speaking of casting, the show has managed to nab a pretty big get with each and every season, with Paul Schneider headlining Candle Cove, John Carroll Lynch in a sympathetically-shocking role in No-End House, and, of course, Rutger Hauer being a marquee draw for Butcher's Block. How important is it to get a big name like that for each season? "It's not that important as a general rule;I just cast the actors I love," Antosca notes. "Our budget is small, we can't afford big stars with high quotes. John and Rutger and Fiona Shaw and Paul Schneider were all amazing to work with. I was shocked and thrilled that Rutger agreed to do the show. He doesn't need to work, he just loved the scripts and he and Arkasha and I got along really well. He is a beautiful madman. Our fourth season is all relatively younger cast (around age 30) so we won't have a familiar character actor of that type."
Of course, while the fanbase of Channel Zero is small, it's no doubt rabid, which is partially why we couldn't let any hints about Season Four slip through. "Season Four is a love story," Antosca tells us when pressed for details. "It's about a marriage -- or any serious romantic relationship -- and what we bring to that. It has elements of De Palma and Cronenberg."
So now, with an acclaimed show that includes children made out of teeth, servants made out of meat, and dead fathers coming back to feast off your memories, one has to wonder what in Nick Antosca's career is his biggest regret, and -- conversely -- what he feels his proudest accomplishment is.
"My biggest regret is the amount of time I have spent on social media," he tells us. "Almost every single second I've been on Twitter or Facebook or whatever has been a wasted one. I could have gotten so much more writing done and had so many more interesting thoughts. I'm trying to avoid being on Twitter anymore, although I feel some obligation to promote the show.
"I don't know what my proudest accomplishment is," he continues. "It changes every week probably. I am proud of making a show that feels like a nightmare and is full of things directly from my nightmares, and putting a writers room of talented people together and working with directors and cast and crew who are good and talented people."
As for his favorite creature that he and his team have brought to the screen? "I think the creepiest and most haunting creature is The Father in No-End House. I don't find Meat Servant creepy at all to be honest with you. I think he is sweet. And the Tooth Child is just a boy."
There: the creature made entirely out of human teeth is just a boy. Nothing to be scared of at all.