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Friday, November 18, 2016

CHANNEL ZERO SEASON 1: "Candle Cove" ~ The Modern Horror of Creepypasta


Up until I got into the final leg of my move back to my family home, I was able to keep up with a weekly retrospective of Channel Zero's first season, a retelling of Kris Straub's creepypasta 'Candle Cove.' While I did watch the last two episodes very close to their air dates, arranging the move-out clean and getting the last few boxes moved meant that I had to choose between doing my actual job and writing about brainwashed child violence. For once, responsibility won out.

But I think it's almost for the best, because with the first season behind us, I can take a better look at what we've seen, what it takes to convert this relatively new genre to film, and whether or not Channel Zero pulled it off.

Just a warning -- this is going to be rife with spoilers. So if you've not finished 'Candle Cove,' please do so. I'm spoiling right up to the bitter end.

What sets creepypasta apart from what modern horror has become is the use of imagery and dread over abject gore and jump-scares. The term 'creepypasta' was derived from 'copypasta,' a derogatory term for obvious untrue copy-pasted stories that people tried to pass off as original. The 'creepy' aspect came in when posters started using the format to present unsettling short stories, making them more immersive in the process.

Some of the best examples of this are CosbyDaf's NES Godzilla Creepypasta (a very long read but worth it) and Michael Lutz's My Father's Long, Long Legs. The YouTube aspect of the 'Ben Drowned' ARG also played with this concept -- the first-person story that descends slowly but surely into insanity.

The original 'Candle Cove,' as I mentioned before, was short and sweet: a snippet of forum discussion. Expanding this into a six-episode series was going to be a challenge, especially considering this was based solely on Straub's original story and not the masses and masses of additional material contributed by fans. (That said, there were plenty of hat-tips to fans, including and especially the designs of the puppets.)

The decision to make 'Candle Cove' the launch pad for a story rather than padding it out was probably one of the wisest decisions of the series. The creepy nonexistent children's show featuring uncanny screaming puppets turned out to be just an aspect of the season's real centerpiece: the relationship between twins Mike and Eddie Painter.

Our answers were pretty much what we all began to figure. Eddie was a Special Kid. He had powers, the shining, whatever the heck you want. It doesn't really matter what or how or why, though someone demanding realism in surreal horror might think otherwise. And he used his powers to overpower his oppressors, to make sure the people who bullied him and his beloved twin suffered.



The Tooth Child? Him. There's a lot of tooth imagery surrounding Eddie, from his demand for teeth as a 'toll' to Candle Cove, to the Tooth Child manifestation, to the extra tooth he has (and that Mike finds growing in his own mouth as a sign of Eddie's return). It's appropriate for Eddie -- the twin using his powers as a show of strength over their abusers -- to be so associated with teeth, a symbol of strength and primal elements.

It answers, too, why the Skin-Taker of the original series was renamed Jawbone (other than the obvious skeletal build of the character). Eddie is both: Jawbone, as Ms. Booth keeps his spirit alive for decades by feeding him the teeth of victims, and the Skin-Taker, as he looks to step into his brother's body and steal his life. That... oh, that killed me. Because if you'll recall, in the original story the Skin-Taker literally just skinned people. But the tweaking of the name, and the saving of it for the end, was a clever twist.

'Candle Cove' the show was, in the context of the adaptation, a manifestation of Eddie's desires. There he was, Jawbone/the Skin-Taker, the one in control, visibly horrid but still welcome aboard the Laughingstock. Pirate Percy, a baby-doll-headed puppet who was afraid of everything and had to be coaxed into adventure -- our friend Mike, obviously. Just the two of them together on the high seas, like in their storybooks.

The ending was tough. Tough, but appropriate. Because, just as Mike said in the back of the cop car, the twins could switch and they'd never even know. As children, all Mike wanted was life, and all Eddie wanted was full claim of his brother -- just the two of them. By the end, their end goals flipped, and we saw Eddie scrambling for life in any way he could gain it and Mike trapping them together in their personal limbo.



Which leads me to a little selfish desire that was never fulfilled. As an aside, I would love to have seen Paul Schneider go full Eddie. His performance as Mike borders on threatening plenty of times as we wonder early on about his motivations. Seeing him as Eddie released on the world again would have been amazing... but also would have turned episode 6 into a boss battle rather than a resolution, so I'm not too sad at it not happening.

On a final point --  a final useful point -- this season was an excellent exercise in the pacing of long-form creepypasta. It's the first time a story of this genre has been committed to screen in any professional capacity (we could count the Holy Trinity of the Slenderverse, but they're an interactive multimedia experience, and the Marble Hornets movie is rubbish). Maintenance of the mood across the span of the story is key, and deciding where and how heavily to introduce uncanny elements would make or break the show.

The puppet show itself was always a bit odd, but early clips were never more than mildly upsetting. By episode 5, we finally saw the infamous 'Screaming Episode,' which was just as unsettling as I'd always imagined (if not more so). Life-sized characters moved in and out, but were more creepy by their mere existence than anything else. But by the end, we see odd, pale, vaguely human creatures scattered around. Plunging sticks into their blank faces in a frenzy. Catching fire. All those border-of-Nightmareland, jerky, amygdala-free actions that give creepypasta its flavour. That was the last episode. And it was handled extremely well.

That's what it's about, really. Introducing the undertone of dread. Letting you know something's not right. The thump in the apartment upstairs at exactly 1:03 AM every night. The odd smell that started creeping from the kitchen on the day your sister's best friend 'moved away.' The smile on your aunt's face that's just a little wider each day. The terror simmers quietly, unseen in the next room, forgotten in the midst of other things, until you turn around and your aunt's face is nothing but teeth.

That's creepypasta. And that was 'Candle Cove.' And the adherence to the feel of the genre was what kept this from being a potential failed experiment.

Next year, we get 'No-End House,' which descends into genuine gore at several points. It will be interesting to see how far they go, how much plot is built up before and after the meat of the original story. But I hope it will be as daring, as broad, and as chilling as the first season. I want Channel Zero to stay. And I want it to become a home for the new, inventive horror writers of the 21st century who know there are more scares to be had in nightmare fuel than a banging screen door.

> Official Channel Zero website