Channel Zero isn’t just one of the best shows of 2018 — it’s two of them.
Creator and showrunner Nick Antosca’s stylish, slow-burning horror anthology series aired two seasons this year, joining two previous seasons, all of which tell self-contained stories over the course of a six-episode run. Season three, Butcher’s Block, stars Olivia Luccardi (It Follows) and Holland Roden (Teen Wolf) as sisters whose incipient mental illness leaves them vulnerable to the depredations of the Peach Family, a sinister clan led by a patriarch, played by Rutger Hauer, and empowered by something ... insatiable.
Season four, Dream Door, shares family secrets and absolutely terrifying monster designs with its predecessor, but the similarities end there. Maria Sten (the forthcoming Swamp Thing series) and Brandon Scott (Blair Witch) star as a newlywed couple whose fractious relationship draws the attention of both an oddball neighbor played by Scott Robertson (Elementary) and an imaginary friend — who’s no longer so imaginary — called Pretzel Jack. It’s as intimate in scope as Butcher’s Block is kaleidoscopic.
Like the show’s first two seasons, Candle Cove (about a famous child psychologist haunted by memories of a bizarre children’s TV show) and No-End House (about two friends who become entrapped in the perversely wish-fulfilling world of a supernatural haunted-house attraction), this year’s installments have other things in common: They’re based on creepypastas, the internet urban legends designed to read like message-board posts or comment threads; they’re directed with cold, spine-tingling precision and confidence by up-and-coming indie filmmakers like Arkasha Stevenson (Vessels) and E.L. Katz (Cheap Thrills), making them feel more a part of the Hereditary/Get Out/It Follows/The Witch/The Babadook/Under the Skin cinematic continuum than the grimdark faux-prestige of The Walking Dead or the American Horror Story’s camp grabbag; and each miniseries season is so accomplished at their goal — telling a moving story about interestingly damaged people while scaring the living shit out of you — that they belong on any list of year-end TV superlatives.
In this wide-ranging interview, Antosca takes us on a deep dive into all four seasons, particularly this year’s: the imagery, the ideas, the actors and directors, and of course, the monsters. He also reveals what he knows about the show’s uncertain future, talks about his new Hulu show The Act, a true-crime anthology, and explains how good horror peels away much more than flesh and bone.
[Ed. note: this interview contains spoilers for all four seasons of Channel Zero]
Polygon: The first scene of the first episode of the first season of your show scared me more than other horror shows have during their entire runs.
Nick Antosca: You mean the interview at the beginning of Candle Cove? Sooo frequently, we were told to cut that scene. I’m not going to disparage, at all, the people who’d give us notes; we have a really supportive network and studio. But every round of notes on that, we were told “Cut that scene, cut that scene, it’s bad!” I knew that we were going to be asked to do that when I wrote it, so I put all of the exposition that would be necessary to understand the show in that scene so you couldn’t cut it.
The scene is like the opening of David Cronenberg’s The Brood, when Oliver Reed is having that weird therapy session onstage. Everything is dark and you have no idea what’s going on.
Antosca: You know, our show references The Brood in multiple seasons in other places, but that was not a deliberate reference to it. In the script, that was written as being interviewed by Dr. Phil at one point, then it was written as being interviewed by Charlie Rose and then Matt Lauer. We asked them both to do it and they wouldn’t do it. Thank God.
As frightening as that first scene was, the series basically never lets up.
Antosca: The idea of the show was always to capture a sense of dread, and we felt it was very important to establish that in the first scene, in a way that was different from other horror shows that I’m familiar with.
That sense of dread you describe seems like visual through-line for the series: the takes are long, the camera movements are slow, and the close-ups linger. Was that part of your initial conception for the show, or did it emerge over time from working with your directors?
Antosca: The atmosphere of patient dread is part of the conception for the beginning, and each season I hired directors who had a different intelligence about that kind of thing, something special and unique. We obviously sought out directors whose particular voices or styles or pitches for the season meshed with what our intention was in the script. One of the really exciting things about doing the show is getting to work with young indie directors who I’m just a stan of anyway and want to see more of their stuff.
But the idea always was that it can’t be a show based on jump scares. It shouldn’t feel like you went to see a slasher movie or a more conventional horror movie. If you’re going to sustain an atmosphere of dread for six episodes, it has to feel like something is wrong under the surface of the world, a sticky dread that lingers with you. The only show that I’ve ever seen do that is, of course, Twin Peaks, which is an influence on the show. We didn’t want to be too influenced by it, but that’s the template for how to do horror on TV to me.
Channel Zero and Twin Peaks also use the suburbs as a locus of horror. But where David Lynch contrasts the quiet, conformist placidity of small-town life with what’s goes on behind closed doors, Channel Zero makes the actual suburban space feel menacing: block after block of huge tomb-like houses, unfinished developments, empty schools, and hospitals. It’s like you’re shooting a corpse.
Antosca: Negative space is so important to horror, and it’s what the greatest horror directors, like Kubrick and Polanski, really appreciate visually. That’s what you don’t see used effectively in more conventional horror movies. We all have our things that mean something to us, or spaces that come up again and again, and the suburbs are a fertile negative space for me, I guess.
The other night I was sitting with some of the directors from the show I’m doing now [The Act], and one of them was Steven Piet, who did No-End House. We were talking about, “If you could shoot anywhere, any location, without logistical restrictions, where would you want to go shoot?” Somebody said Venice. Somebody said Antarctica. I was like, “Actually? The New Jersey suburbs.” That landscape, or the suburbs anywhere in kind of a nondescript America, feels like there’s so much unspoken and so much under the surface. I didn’t set out to do that in Channel Zero, but in exploring a landscape full of dread we ended up going back to the suburbs a couple times. It reflects where I grew up a little bit.
Which was where?
Antosca: I grew up, in large part, in the suburbs in Maryland. I’m originally from New Orleans. In a way, No-End House and Dream Door feel like a certain part of the suburbs of my adolescence, and Butcher’s Block feels like New Orleans before I moved to the suburbs, the New Orleans where I grew up.
Speaking of negative space, doors are another image that recur quite frequently in Channel Zero. Obviously in Dream Door, but they also feature prominently in Butcher’s Block and No-End House. Coincidence or choice?
Antosca: It’s interesting, I’ve had such an amazing amount of freedom doing the show, and I’ve been able to see patterns emerge as we did each season. It wasn’t like we set out saying these are going to be the motifs. But I did set out with a conceptual roadmap, and an idea that in every season we would explore concepts of identity, and that the horror would always be deeply personal, and that we would have a sense, a suggestion, of a hidden world underneath the reality that we know. It’s been a surprisingly fruitful in terms of learning things about myself, honestly.
Each season involves characters learning things about themselves, too, and very directly at that — facing memories that they’ve either suppressed or simply tried to forget. Was that part of your original conception of the show?
Antosca: Not explicitly, but the desire to always make the horror come from a place of character was part of what we set out to do. When you’re adapting creepypastas, you have so much freedom—I mean if you allow yourself to have it—because they’re seeds. They’re so compact that it’s kinda like, just add your own demon, add your own water, and then they expand into something personal.
We had a small, very passionate writer’s room, and everybody in it brought their own fears to each story. And we just we had certain guidelines: Keep it personal. Draw from character. If something feels right then explore it, even if you don’t know what it means right away. That, to me, is what great horror does. It makes you dig deeper, makes you explore the parts of yourself that you’re afraid of, that you’re traumatized by.
The two seasons that aired this year felt very different from one another. Butcher’s Block was the largest in scope — infinitely so, at times — and Dream Door was the most —
It wasn’t about discovering some new realm of reality that the characters would enter into. It was just these three people — and a couple of monsters.
Antosca: A part of that is purely logistical. Our budget did not really increase season to season, so every season we’re using the same resources. By TV standards we’re on a micro-budget, and doing Butcher’s Block was pretty challenging. So setting out to do Season four, I was like, “Okay, we’re going to contain this a little bit more.”
That said, from the creative point of view, I really, really, really wanted to do a love story, effectively a horror love story. A story about the horror of intimacy, the sacrifice that intimacy requires, the vulnerability. How when you connect with somebody else and commit to somebody else, you have to accept their demons as well. You have to join forces with them. That kind of a story required intimacy of scope, and it came from the conception of the story.
Angel Varyk-Igler, who is one of the writers on the show, showed me the creepypasta it’s based on. Reading it, I was a lured in by the Freudian aspect of it, but also the narrator mentions having a spouse. I was like, “Wait. What does she think about this? What does the situation in their basement mean to their marriage? What does it say about them?” There’s virtually no mention of the marriage at all, but I found that so compelling that I wanted to explore their lives and see what happens to their relationship because of this living secret in their basement.
It’s also the first season that really dealt with sex in a major, overt way. The sexual content was more graphic than the two or three sex scenes from previous seasons, and it was way more central to the narrative.
Antosca: That was a choice, too. It comes organically out of the nature of the story, of course. You want to feel this couple’s connection in every way. They’re drawn to each other very strongly and they don’t know each other as intimately as they want to, so they’re expressing it physically.
But we want every season to feel qualitatively different, even while they have connecting themes and ideas. I’m very aware that the first couple of seasons were not focused on sex and romance, and to a degree that was intentional, because I didn’t want to fall into horror clichés. After doing three seasons where we explicitly didn’t have a sexy or romantic story, we were craving some of that in the show.
Also, we’re on SYFY, basic cable, so it’s hard to realistically portray sex and do sex scenes. The standards have relaxed a little bit over the couple of years we’ve been on SYFY, just because of changing basic cable broadcast standards and practices. For example, when we did Candle Cove, we couldn’t say “fuck.” They bleeped it out. Even now on Shudder, because they only did one cut of it. they still bleep it out, which is maddening. By the time we did Dream Door, we were told “You only get ten fucks an episode.” [Laughs] So we were able to show a little bit more, do a little bit more.
In Candle Cove, the friends at the center of the story all remember the show from which the season gets its name, and some guy who knows about it is recreating it in the local television station basement. In No-End House, there’s literally a viral video that spreads the word of the house to people. The characters in Butcher’s Block share the kind of local scary urban legend that a lot of places that used to be controlled by one rich family often have about their murderous, inbred descendants. Why was Dream Door the first season that didn’t involve a creepypasta-style urban-legend element within the story itself?
Antosca: I would say that Dream Door does have something of that nature — it’s just much smaller, in keeping with the intimate scope of that story. In the scene where they’re sitting around with their friends having dinner early in the first episode they bring it up, like “Oh yeah, I used to play with this imaginary friend, Pretzel Jack.” It’s not an urban legend, but it’s remembering a thing from childhood, just for the two of them. I never really thought about it in the terms that you’re describing. It’s a really interesting point. Actually, when we were doing that scene I worried that that was a little bit too close to the dinner scene in Candle Cove where they’re sitting around saying, “Oh, do you remember this show we watched when we were kids?” But I think for the reasons that we’re discussing right now, it didn’t trip.
Actually, the guy who plays their friend Jason — he was in You’re Next, and Evan Katz, the director [of Dream Door], suggested him — was one of my college roommates. I’d been wanting to work with him since college but kinda lost track of him a little bit. Then Evan suggested him and I was like, “Holy shit, that’s a great idea.” I asked him, “Do you want to come and get your face demolished with a screwdriver by a killer clown?” I knew he would love that.
From the killer clown, Pretzel Jack, right on down the line to the The Tooth Child, the monsters of Channel Zero are so effective — consistently original and surprising and gross and hard to look and frightening — which is a real achievement.
Antosca: The Tooth Child and Pretzel Jack were both things where in the writer’s room it’s like, “Man, is this going to look stupid?” I mean, you could imagine. “It’s a little boy, he’s covered in teeth….” It could look really stupid. Or this bendy clown? It could look bad.
But I had wanted to do the Tooth Child for a really long time. It was something I tried to get on Hannibal when I was on staff, but it didn’t quite make the cut. When Channel Zero got going, it just felt right. I was like, “Oh, this is the place for it. We’re in this story about children and innocence lost, and it’s covered in baby teeth.”
Greg Nicotero did the initial concept art for it, but then he was so busy with The Walking Dead that he couldn’t build it, so he sold me the concept art for a dollar. Then François Dagenais redid it and built it and did such amazing job. This guy’s a genius. He also did Pretzel Jack, along with some concept art help from Sam Wolfe Connelly, who’s a wonderful artist, and Sarah Sitkin, who did a bunch of sculptures for No-End House. In addition to working with all these directors I love, working with artists like those folks, and like Olivier de Sagazan, who played the Skin Taker [in Candle Cove], and Guy Maddin, who did some of the weird footage, has been one of the great pleasures of doing the show.
Pretzel Jack came about because of Troy James, who had a very small part in Butcher’s Block. I just saw him doing that and was like, “Fuck, he’s gotta come back. Let me make this imaginary friend a contortionist because then we get Troy back.” When we finally, months and months later, got to casting that role, we did the protocol and put out a casting call to see a bunch of contortionists, and it was like, “No, it’s going to be Troy. Nobody else can quite do what he does.” Because it’s a performance too. It’s not just bending. he puts a playful innocence into the insane stuff that he does.
His movements in that role are so different from his movements as the spider-like version of Father Time from Butcher’s Block that I was shocked they were the same performer underneath.
Antosca: He and and Evan Katz and our choreographer Sofia Costantini and I all talked a great deal about what Pretzel Jack is all about psychologically, what he represents for [Jillian, the young woman who dreamed him up as a child], and what he’s trying to do, which is cheer her up and make her happy. So he’s going to move in a performative way, and tune himself toward her in certain ways. There’s a lot of thought on Troy’s part that goes into achieving that.
You were able to get compelling and unpredictable performances out of such a range of actors, not just the monsters. I don’t know if a day’s gone by since I watched Butcher’s Block that I didn’t think of specific things Olivia Luccardi and Holland Roden did as the sisters who were that season’s main characters, for instance.
Antosca: They’re really good, right? I had never met Holland, but I wrote for Teen Wolf, so I knew of her. And I knew that writers on that show wanted to write scenes for her, like, “Man, she’ll just fully connect.” So Olivia and Holland came in and auditioned like everyone else, and they just seemed like sisters. They look different enough that you feel their different personalities, but they also looked like sisters. They feel like that. And you know, working with Rutger Hauer, which we did on that season, was such a pleasure. Every season has been fucking cool in terms of the experience we’ve had with our cast. Having worked on a bunch of TV, this is a special thing to say: It’s a drama-free show behind the scenes. It’s been a family every season.
Nearly all of your leads are women. Butcher’s Block in particular is about almost entirely women. People of color anchored the fourth season in particular and play protagonists throughout. Older women are given really meaty, multidimensional parts, where it’s not just like, “Oh, this person’s an older woman, and therefore we know all about what this person is like.” They’re treated like people.
Antosca: There isn’t a manifesto that we set out to write or cast it this way or that way; we just cast people who are right for the roles. There was an intention early on to make it about different age groups every time. It’s a show based on creepypasta. It could be campy, or it could be silly, or it could be kind of YA, which — there’s nothing wrong with that, but we wanted to make it clear right from the get-go that it wasn’t quite what you were expecting. Having the first season be about a guy in his forties and his sixtyish mother and their relationship, and there’s no romance — we felt that was in keeping with wanting the show to take itself seriously, and to be about adults. Because we did that, we felt like, “Okay, there’s a second season? Yeah, there can be college students. The third season they were a little older. The fourth season, it’s a married couple We just wanted to be able to go anywhere and tell stories about anybody.
One thing that makes me really happy about how people respond to the show is that, even among big fans of the show, people have strikingly different preferences as to which seasons they love. Some people hate Butcher’s Block and love No-End House, and some people it’s the reverse. I’m really proud of that, because I wanted to make a different movie every season. There’s a thematic continuity, but they feel like a different flavors of horror.
There’s also a seriousness to the show that is not necessarily in vogue with horror on television.
Antosca: I think there’s a reason for that, which is that over many episodes or many seasons, it’s hard to keep a straight face, right? You can’t make Hereditary for four or five seasons with eight or ten episodes per season. You just can’t maintain that.
One of the great things about doing a seasonal anthology is that we can change up the tone every season. The first season is pretty serious. The second season [No-End House] there’s a deep emotional seriousness to it, but the tone is different. The third season [Butcher’s Block], to me it’s very comedic, actually. It pushes into deliberately into Argento-style absurdity sometimes. And Clive Barker was a huge influence on me — huge. Obviously, that season has some explicit references. Then the fourth season [The Dream Door] is mixed. It’s emotionally intimate, but also it’s funny and absurd, especially in the back half of when Pretzel Jack is running wild and kind of becomes an ally. I feel like we got to make four indie movies in two years, and it’s a freedom that I never expected to have. It’s a rare thing.
The decision to have short seasons seems very good for the show — even just the fact that it airs on a commercial network, so the episodes are shorter than the full-hour or hour-plus episodes that you get on HBO or Netflix. They don’t overstay their welcome.
Antosca: Yeah! Six episodes on Shudder, and they’re like, forty-four, forty-two minutes long? I like that you can do that in an afternoon or a weekend. It’s enough to immerse into the atmosphere of dread and the particular flavor of that season, but not so long that, from a storytelling perspective, you have to create all kinds of new avenues and tangents. Each season is like a six-act movie.
Usually there’s some major new development that happens towards the middle of each season that keeps it fresh, but it’s not a constant onslaught of “Everything you thought you knew is wrong!” the way that longer shows can be.
Antosca: Yeah, I hate that stuff. I’m really glad to be working in TV in the age where there are six and eight and 10 episode orders as the norm rather than 15 years ago. You’re working on 24, and 12 or 13 episodes into 24 episodes, you’ve killed the bad guy or set the nuclear bomb off. Now you have to reset for the next twelve hours or whatever. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a 24 fan, but I would not know how to write that show.
It’s a great thing for horror, for the sustainability reasons you cited. It worked great for The Terror this year as well.
Antosca: I loved, loooooooved, The Terror. That was a great show. I watched that while we were shooting Dream Door.
Those are intense days and nights for you, then.
Antosca: To unwind I went home and watched The Terror. [Laughs] I mean, I was shocked. I really liked the book and I did not think it could be effectively made into a TV show. I was so impressed with what they did. That’s probably my favorite modern horror TV show, unless you count Mindhunter, which I also loved.
Or Twin Peaks season three. That was airing while we were shooting Butcher’s Block, but I couldn’t even bring myself to watch it. The first two episodes aired right before we started shooting, and [the director] Arkasha and I were obviously both big Lynch fans, but we didn’t watch it while we were shooting because it’s just like, how are you going to focus on that? I was also nervous because this epic of the surreal is on the air as we’re making our horror show. When we finished shooting, it was up to episode 16 or something. I just locked myself in my apartment in Winnipeg before I came home and watched sixteen episodes straight, so I could home to watch the last two as they aired in L.A. That was one of the great TV experiences of the last 10, 20 years.
Now a question I’ve been putting off because I’m nervous about the answer: Is there going to be a Channel Zero season five?
Antosca: I have no idea. It’s possible, I would love it, but we haven’t heard anything, so I dunno. Right now I’m shooting another show for Hulu in Georgia, and so I guess if we did another season of Channel Zero it would have to come out probably a year from now. I do know what the next two seasons would be. It’s entirely up to SYFY, and I would assume that they’ll tell us in the next couple of months. Maybe much sooner.
Tell me about the show you’re working on now, The Act.
Antosca: It’s a true crime anthology, and the first season is based on the story of Dee Dee and Gypsy Blanchard — a mother with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, and her daughter, who eventually escaped by killing her. It starts with a murder, but it’s not a story about a murder. It’s about the people behind the murder. It’s a psychological horror story, and a mother-daughter love story, and I’m really excited for people to see it.
Has it been a big gear-shift from working on something like Channel Zero to working on something based on true stories?
Antosca: No. It’s a similar process of exploring a very strange psychological landscape.
Lack of a supernatural element aside, the way you describe it sounds a bit like how you’ve talked about Channel Zero, in that it’s rooted in a close personal relationship like that show tends to be — mother and son, best friends, father and daughter, sisters, husband and wife.
Antosca: Yeah, and that’s exactly why I was drawn to the story. They’re complicated interesting, relatable human beings, but in some cases they do monstrous things. It’s one of the strangest coming-of-age stories that I’d ever heard. I’m looking forward to putting it out there.
The shift to streaming and in particular the rise of Netflix have left things very unsettled in terms of where eyeballs go. Channel Zero airs on both SYFY and Shudder, and The Act is for Hulu, so you have a foot in both worlds. What is it like to be a showrunner in this current moment, as opposed to when you were working on Hannibal or even Teen Wolf?
Antosca: A lot has changed in a couple years. I remember House of Cards coming out and being like, “What is this thing on Netflix? I guess I’ll watch it because David Fincher directed it?” And that was only, what, four or five years ago? It was not long ago. And now they are the beast that they are, and it’s a lot of content.
The way I look at it is, 10 years ago I would not have been able to make Channel Zero, and now I can, because there is an openness to experimentation. There is an eagerness to experiment with new financial models. I think that’s why Channel Zero got made, because there was a desire to look at this micro-budget, straight-to-series order, and we were lucky enough to be in development at the time. That’s kinda the way it works in this industry: Sometimes you get your shot because you’re in the right place at the right time and the money clicks. All I can say is I’m grateful. I get to make a show because I’m in a really exciting, healthy industry at the right time.
You’ve made me feel more optimistic about the industry, I have to admit.
Antosca: I’m a lucky, grateful showrunner. And it’s also all the people that I was saying before, Olivier de Sagazan and Sarah Sitkin, and the directors who did all the seasons, like Arkasha Stevenson or Evan Katz. They might not be getting to do, or even want to do, a whole season of TV otherwise. It’s new territory. It’s really exciting.
You know, I started out as a novelist in the world of indie literature, in which you don’t make any money and nobody reads your books. So I’m in a place that I never expected myself to be, which is having a lot of creative freedom — and getting to make a show where I literally have nightmares and put them on screen.
Sean T. Collins has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Esquire, and Vulture. He and his partner, the cartoonist Julia Gfrörer, are the co-editors of the art and comics anthology Mirror Mirror II. They live with their children on Long Island.