Over the last five to ten years there’s been a movement away from classical cinematic suspense. As a teacher who has co-ordinated units on horror cinema, I’ve noticed that students have become adept at predicting and rating jump-scares, and that they are unlikely to be affected by anything other than the most sudden and extreme jump-scares. At the same time, young people have tended to turn to compilations of jump-scares on YouTube, Vimeo and other streaming services in lieu of horror films themselves, to the point where watching horror films has quickly come to feel like a camp and even comic process of registering and rating jump scares. Of course, that has always been a part of the ambivalent pleasures of horror, but it seems to have taken on a new iteration for the next generation, who seem less and less capable of being genuinely scared by cinematic suspense.
If classical cinematic horror feels a bit exhausted, then that can be even more evident in television series that aim to create a classically cinematic approach to horror. Not only does that brand of horror often depend upon the primality of the theatrical experience, but the longform – and still, in many cases, weekly – format of television series makes it very hard to maintain horror in any kind of conventionally suspenseful way. As a result, virtually all the “horror” television series that I have watched have been eerie, surreal or unsettling, rather than frightening in a visceral and vital way. Of course, there are series like Scream, Bates Motel or Hannibal in which the quotation and continuation of an older cinematic horror lexicon is the point, but for the most part televisual horror has been content to rest upon a more grotesque and gruesome aesthetic rather than something designed to prevent you getting to sleep.
From the outset, Syfy’s Channel Zero marks a break from that model, since Nick Antosca and Craig Macneill’s series is based on a mode of horror that’s fundamentally non-cinematic and non-televisual – the vast swathe of creepypastas that have proliferated over the internet since their first appearances on 4chan in the mid-00s. Essentially, creepypastas are a digital update of the urban legend, taking the form of user-generated content that is then adumbrated and expanded across multiple websites and web platforms. Less about sudden shock than evocative glimpses and flickers of a wider horror narrative, creepypastas relinquish the singularity of the cinematic image in favour of images that have been divested of any single source of agency and authorship as they circulate around the internet. Of course, you could say that the circulation of cinematic images in VHS, DVD and online technologies does a similar thing, but the key difference with creepypastas is that the very process of circulation is generally worked into the narrative in some way as an index of its supernatural power. While creepypastas may start off being about supernatural entities, they gradually evolve so as to frame themselves as supernatural entities, as if digital technology itself had a power to imbue any image that circulated for long enough with the supernatural agency that these creepypastas start off by merely describing.
Where classical suspense depends upon relatively strict categories of space and time – even or especially when it bends and distends them – creeypastas are dispersed in space and time by their very nature, evoking a palimpsest of voices and influences rather than any single horrific event. While this is clearly a different kind of horror from that afforded by cinema, it just as clearly has its cinematic precedents and corollaries. Going back twenty years, it’s clear that the slasher revival of the 90s was already heading in this direction. Granted, films like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend were throwbacks to the slasher classics of the 70s and 80s, but they were also driven by a new kind of interest in urban folklore and anonymous narratives, often conceiving of their genre forbears as one urban legend among others. Similarly, recent digital horror, from Paranormal Activity to Sinister, has focused on this idea of images that gain an irreducible agency from the sheer process of circulation, making for a generation of horror films that are arguably more terrifying when watched on a laptop than when experienced in a cinema.
For all those analogies, however, a television adaptation of creepypastas would seem to be a step backwards. After all, the real creepypasta adaptations of 2016 were the clown sightings that proliferated across the United States, part of a growing tendency towards enacting and embodying creepypasta mythologies that was the subject of this year’s telemovie Beware the Slenderman. And, to be fair, the fact that Channel Zero has set out to anthologise the creepypasta phenomenon – each season will focus on a different creepypasta – does suggest that the movement peaked around the early 2010s, as several commentators have noticed. Yet Channel Zero also does such an amazing job of adapting this first creepypasta – the Candle Cove mythos, initiated by web cartoonist Kris Straub – that this really does feel like a blueprint for a new kind of televisual and cinematic horror as well. Certainly, it makes a better case for creepypasta horror than Stranger Things, which, for all its nostalgic references, often seemed interested in exploring the same kind of aesthetic.
Like Stranger Things, Candle Cove is fixated with the 80s, revolving around an 80s television program that was only visible to certain children, who committed horrific crimes after watching it. Unlike Stranger Things, however, Candle Cove is set in the present, following Mike Painter (Paul Schneider) who returns to his home town of Iron Hill, Ohio as the television program starts to be visible once again. In many ways, what ensues follows Straub’s web images, but this not really an “adaptation” of his narrative so much as a palimpsest of the various iterations of the Candle Cove narrative that other users have built around his work. In other words, this is an adaptation of a mythos – an occult mythos – as well as an attempt to think through a new iteration of television that might be commensurate to the mythos. At moments, that recalls the occult regionalism of the first season of True Detective, with the critical difference that Channel Zero is much more content to leave things open than Nic Pizzolatto. If anything, Candle Cove made me realise how much the first season of True Detective was torn between totalising auteurism and creepypasta emergence, building an extraordinarily dispersed and evocative sense of evil that was suddenly, awkwardly and arbitrarily resolved at the last minute.
No such resolution occurs in Candle Cove, which never manages to cordon off or contain the central terror of the children’s television program which gives the series its title. This series is driven by a series of puppet figures, all of whom revolve around a skeleton puppet, and they’re all utterly terrifying. In part, that’s because there are so many iterations of these puppets throughout the series – both on and off the program – many of them only glimpsed for just a moment or two, and each just different enough to make us feel as if we’re discovering the horror of the mythos anew. For all that repetition, however, the series never feels repetitive, since the effect is more of a series of different users or contributors presenting their own sketches or visualisations of an entity that defies direct representation or comprehension, in what often feels like a kind of visual hearsay, since it’s only the children in the series who can see these puppet figures in anything like their real incarnation. In that sense, the puppets on the television program operate much like creepypastas themselves, gaining a certain occult traction simply by virtue of being circulated and shared, until they accrue an autonomy and agency that exceeds that of any single creator. As a result, the search for whoever or whatever is broadcasting Candle Cove turns out to be a bit of a red herring, since it’s the circulation itself that gives the images their power. Against the extravagant flourishes of most other televisual horror, then, Channel Zero establishes creepypasta horror as a distinctly anti-auteurist gesture, less invested in the originator of images and ideas than in the way in which those images and ideas depart from their originator across a digital landscape and topography.
As the series proceeds, that collapses any clear distinction between real or imagined life, or between events and the speculations and representations that occur around these events. The closest I’ve seen to this kind of televisual horror is probably Australia’s The Kettering Incident, yet even that doesn’t disperse space and time as radically as occurs here, which incidentally also allows Channel Zero to bypass the problem of how to maintain terror from one episode to the next. Not only is the series devoid of jump scares, but it never even settles on any one summative or singular image of horror, with each spectacle instead feeling repurposed, recycled and syncretically fused with the other components of the Candle Cove mythos. As a result, the episodes don’t proceed so much as accrue and accumulate towards a finale that is certainly denser than the beginning in its web of associations and possibilities but not necessarily any more cathartic or conclusive. Along the way, Candle Cove continually favours long, uncanny, eerie pans that feel lateral as much as horizontal, as if shifting us from one part of the mythos to another as much as reorienting us in actual physical space.
Yet none of that is to say that this is necessarily an ethereal brand of horror either, since Candle Cove is quite unforgiving and unremitting in terms of violence, especially when it is perpetrated by and towards children. Rather, it’s as if the series discovers something digitally visceral about the way in which its images gradually accumulate while refusing to cohere either. At moments, that almost makes it feel as if some of the images have bled in from another creeypasta, or a hybrid creepypasta, creating an inchoate shared horror universe that is nevertheless utterly devoid of the corporate, executive efficiency that usually characterises universe-building. For that reason, the most viscerally terrifying images tend to be those that feel incomplete, or that are waiting for the digital palimpsest to accrue on top of them. Often these are shot to look like digital sketches, especially whenever the characters wander into the local woods, which shroud them in exactly the kind of half-obscurity that characterises the most eerie and resonant creepypasta images. At these moments, it feels as if the series is laying out the groundwork for the future of horror, creating a visceral sense of everything that can still be achieved if the subsequent seasons managed to be as dexterous and evasive as Candle Cove.