The first time I can recall being legitimately frightened by a work of fiction was when I was three. The work in question was a book about two friends trying to identify a mysterious creature based on clues it leaves behind. With each new bit of evidence, the duo imagines a different incarnation of the beast: Does it have big ears? A gaping mouth? Long legs? The thought of a formless monster scared me to tears; my imagination inspired a fear that seemed bigger than myself.
That story, I learned later, was a Barney picture book called What Can It Be?. In retrospect, the illustrations are certainly nothing any reasonable adult would construe as inappropriate for a toddler. The “monster” at the end is a rabbit playing a tuba. This happens so often when grown-ups reflect on their childhoods: Things that seemed unfathomably disturbing are revealed in the cold light of maturity to be harmless, even silly. After all, when growing older means learning about all the big and serious dangers of the world, old ghosts lose their malice.
But in the new Syfy horror anthology show Channel Zero, which debuted earlier this month, those old terrors live on, as malicious as ever. The series, subtitled Candle Cove, follows a child psychologist named Mike Painter (Paul Schneider) who returns to his hometown of Iron Hill, Ohio, nearly 30 years after the murders of five kids, one of whom was his twin brother. He’s convinced their deaths were partly caused by a strange children’s television program called Candle Cove, which only aired during the two months the murders took place. But rather than exploring why kids find normal things abnormally terrifying, the series hinges on one question: What if your childhood phantoms are just as frightening as you remember? Despite being much quieter than most horror shows, Channel Zero manages to be deeply unsettling for the way it makes its grownup characters vulnerable to the monsters, both literal and abstract, from their youth.
Channel Zero was inspired by internet-based horror stories known as “creepypasta,” with this season being based on one of the most popular examples. The original story takes the form of a fictional web forum where adults are discussing an old, obscure kids show called Candle Cove, which was pirate-themed and featured weird puppets. But as the exchange progresses, the forum participants start realizing how sinister the show was, with its villain known as “the skin-taker” and one episode where all the characters just screamed. The twist at the very end of the story helps form the premise of the Syfy series, which mostly involves Mike Painter trying to figure out why Candle Cove has mysteriously begun airing again—and why it’s causing a whole new generation of children to start behaving bizarrely, even violently. Helping him to solve the case is his mother (Fiona Shaw) and his childhood crush, Jessica (Natalie Brown).
For those accustomed to the hectic, maximalist style of American Horror Story, Channel Zero might even seem boring. It’s a slow-burning but elegantly filmed watch where scenes and conversations and character personalities err on the side of understatement. This is perhaps intentional—the show, after all, features ridiculous-looking puppets, so the more dreamy pacing and visual style are a useful counterbalance. In a way, this approach suggests that Channel Zero takes children’s fear seriously, on its own terms, far more than most similar stories do. The show lets the random snippets from the fictional Candle Cove and Mike’s memories speak for themselves, trusting that older viewers will be able to viscerally empathize via their own experiences.
Over the first four episodes, a great deal of backstory is told through subtle flashbacks—some lasting for minutes, others for mere seconds. The result is a merging of past and present that brings Mike’s nightmares of Candle Cove to life, albeit in a fragmented manner. Mike’s old friends, now grown up, are also haunted by flashbacks to their youth, suggesting that Channel Zero seems intent on keeping the past close to the surface. In the first scene of the series, Mike appears on a talk show to discuss his job as a child psychiatrist. “Adulthood is just a mask,” he tells the host. “A sophisticated mask, for sure. But behind it, we’re still the kids we were.” The show has thus far taken care to treat adulthood as just that—a mask—and one that it constantly snatches away to show how age doesn’t lessen humans’ capacity to be wildly afraid.
For a show as concerned with the malevolent dimensions of childhood as this one, it’s no surprise that Channel Zero’s main monster is a silent, eyeless creature made entirely of baby teeth. The symbolism is fairly simple: The teeth are artifacts of youth and innocence, but they’re also kind of gross. While investigating some neighborhood thefts, the deputy sheriff, Amy Welch, balks at a mother who reports that the thief stole her child’s baby teeth from a memory box. Amy can’t understand why any parent would keep loose bits of their child’s bone matter, explaining, “Every time you smile, you’re showing off your skeleton.” In many little ways like these, the show imbues childhood with a sense of danger.
In an upcoming episode, Channel Zero amps up the danger even further, with one of its most gruesome scenes yet (fittingly, one involving masks). The scene is a direct consequence of the show’s adults constantly underestimating children, despite the potential mind-controlling powers of the newly airing Candle Cove. (Curiously enough, the only grown-up who doesn’t underestimate them is a character who emerges as the likely villain and puppet-master.) But for all the show’s emphasis on spooky skeleton puppets and teeth monsters, Channel Zero doesn’t shy away from the real physical and psychological violence kids often visit upon each other: There are graphic scenes of bullying and cruel verbal exchanges that undercut the idea of childhood as a safe haven from the dangers of the real world.
Channel Zero’s more mundane approach to horror might keep it on the outskirts of popular attention, but the show is all the more compelling for its restraint. Without any jump scares or narrative gimmicks to write off, viewers might find the series actually dredging up some of their own creepy memories, and evoking a darker nostalgia than the kind typical of such throwback shows. Though its larger arc has relatively little to do with the source material that inspired it, Channel Zero: Candle Cove is faithful to creepypasta in the way that matters most: by recognizing that children can experience fear that’s as complex, terrifying, and real as anything felt by adults.