Save for the occasionally effective jump-scare, I don’t frighten easily. After decades of watching horror films, I tend to find them either thrilling or tedious, but I am rarely left shaken by them. At this point, I’ve seen it all: Clowns, porcelain dolls, creepy kids that can contort themselves or scamper across a ceiling like a spider. It’s all recycled tropes and images, some remixed better than others, but it’s seldom that a horror film can find new ways to hit upon a nerve.
SyFy’s new series Channel Zero, however, found a raw, exposed nerve that I didn’t even know I had. It managed to tease out all of my repressed childhood nightmares and turn them into a slow-burning horror mystery that left me terrified of walking around in my own home in the middle of the night. I don’t know how else to describe it except to compare it to the sensation of being a seven-year-old kid with the 103 degree fever drifting in and out of consciousness while watching Mr. Rogers’ creepy Neighborhood of Make-Believe and having those characters form the basis of terrifying nightmares about Lady Elaine Fairchilde demanding that I kill my siblings.
Don’t tell me, children of the 80s, that this creepy hand puppet character didn’t occasionally fuck up your dreams, that you didn’t run into your parents bed in the middle of the night crying that Lady Elaine Fairchilde was watching over you in your bed, whispering with a bloody gurgle, “Kill your sister. Kill your sister.”
That’s what watching Channel Zero feels like. It’s not the kind of show that will make you leap off your couch or cover your eyes. It’s not a bloody show or even a violent one. What it does have, however, is a small boy made of discarded human teeth that you’ll think about every time you close your eyes.
Paul Schneider (Mark Brendanawicz from Parks and Recreation) plays Mike Painter, a child therapist who recently left a voluntary stint in a mental hospital himself after memories from his childhood resurface. Nearly 30 years ago, Mike’s identical twin brother (because it’s always identical twins) disappeared along with a number of other children. The bodies of all the other kids besides Mike’s twin were discovered, but no one ever found out who was behind the killings.
Mike returns to his rural home town (because they’re always rural home towns) to investigate, and when he does, he finds that other children are committing the same kind of creepy acts that he and his friends once engaged in, like stabbing each other with hooks. The mystery all seems to revolve around a children’s show called “Castle Cove.” It only aired on dead channels, and adults could not see the show. Kids, however, were drawn to these eerie looking puppets based on Creepypastas. The show looks like a version of Mr. Rogers Make-Believe Land, only with the occasional pirate skeleton or Dali-inspired finger puppet.
Mike discovers from talking with other kids that the show is airing again, and the kids are being manipulated by the series into harming one another.
This is not American Horror Story, where they throw the kitchen sink at you until you’re numb from the stupidity of it all. Channel Zero is a slow-drip of terror, but the compelling mystery underneath will keep you glued to the series even when everything else in your brain is telling you to shut it off.