Monday, September 25, 2017

CHANNEL ZERO: A First Look at "No-End House"

My wide-eyed morbid-ass self was likely far more hyped about Candle Cove, the first run of SyFy's creepypasta anthology series Channel Zero, than most anyone else. While I can admit a lack of Abject Perfection were I required to put on my editor hat, it satisfied me, and it did a good job of adapting a short-form story into a long-form (or at least mid-length-form) story. Nick Antosca had a hard job, but ultimately one I'm glad someone did.

So here comes the issue. Candle Cove was my first venture into the world of written creepypasta (with BEN Drowned being my first venture into it as a whole). No-End House, unsurprisingly, was soon after. They're two of the biggest titles in the art form. Candle Cove hit all my fear points: ruined childhood, seriously uncanny shit, and that liminal nightmarish imagery that's often very hard to describe but populated your worst dreams when you were five years old.

The original short story of Candle Cove did that. The TV adaptation, with a few slips and stumbles, also did that. No-End House... well. It kind of did that. But there was something about the original that seemed forced in places. As though, instead of poking around gently for those strange images that everyone inexplicably remembers from their nightmares, it was going straight for formula off-putting.

(You can read the original version here, by the way. It's probably fair to do that, seeing as you might disagree with me.)

Of the prize-winning features of Candle Cove for me was that gore and jumpscares were used as tools rather than punctuation. I was concerned that in this second season, which uses gore as the entire scare tactic of one scene, we'd lose that careful hand on the steering wheel.


The Original NoEnd House

In case you're not up for reading it, a short run-down.

Brian Russell's original NoEnd House (styled as two words) was told from the point of view of David, a friend of drug addict Peter Terry. Peter convinced David to go to the NoEnd House -- a house on the outskirts of town -- that was offering $500 to anyone who could get through all nine rooms.

David takes the challenge, thinking there's nothing anyone could put in nine rooms of a house that wouldn't be worth $500. But the house is massive on the inside, with his trip through it leading him through a series of numbered doors. Walking through different rooms forces him to face possessed children, forests filled with bloodthirsty insects, his parents' dead and dismembered corpses, and his own doppelganger, whom he must kill to proceed.

After the ninth room, he receives an envelope of cash and makes his way home. But when he arrives, he sees a "10" etched in the wood.

A second and third installment were written by Russell, which was both a positive and a negative. The positive was that they demonstrated that the NoEnd House was different for everyone: not a set of specific rooms, but a genuine changing psychological playground. On the down side (depending on your point of view), the later installments began attempting to create a backstory for the house. I love me some backstory, but... with all due respect to Russell, it didn't really feel as though it delivered. There were glimpses of some very interesting canon to be built upon, but then it went left into a whole other style, and left off there.

Going forward, I'll be curious to see if this series picks up on those glimpses.

Digging In

What made Antosca's Candle Cove treatment successful was how he approached the relatively limited source material. The content of the original creepypasta became the content of the first episode. And that was his springboard.

The same goes for No-End House, though our hero is no longer a man named David (potentially -- more on that in a bit). We follow Margot, a young woman whose father died a year prior due a theoretically preventable allergic reaction. Our scant memories of young Margot and her father together show what looks to be a happy family life. And she seems to be recovering as well as can be expected.

One night, she's invited out by her one friend to mingle, and this new friend circle brings up the No-End House: an interactive attraction that pops up randomly around the world. The only warnings of it are vague trailers popping up on people's phones, followed by "commercials" that reveal where it will be. Margot and company get both indications, and decide to go check it out.

They're met by people leaving in panic, shaken and throwing up and clearly affected. When the friends enter (reminiscent of being escorted into an interactive theatre performance), their group includes a rough-looking man who says he's been looking for the house.

Within the first few rooms, it's become clear that the No-End House of the series is not going to be copying that of the story. Nor should it -- Margot isn't David. The first room drives a few out with symbolism that reflects the house's knowledge of who they are and what it will enjoy doing to them (all except one, that is), and the second confronts both Margot and a nameless woman with something psychologically jarring. For the nameless woman, we get no answers. But by the end of the first episode, we know what's so scary about Margot's experience in Room 2.

As with Candle Cove, the first episode of the season ends on the same stomach-drop as its source material. It's probably no surprise that No-End House would go the same route, especially as there are still five more episodes to go. I won't say what about Margot's return to her house makes her realize that she hasn't escaped... but given the house's intense focus on her father's death, you can probably guess.

A Work of Art

There's been a major change in the world between the writing of NoEnd House and now. That is, it's now common -- extremely common -- to go to haunts, plays, and installations where you become part of the performance piece. Most will move to Sleep No More as an immediate example, but Third Rail's Then She Fell -- with every single member of the tiny audience getting a unique experience based largely around observations made about them -- seems to be a far apter comparison.

For those who missed my TSF review, it's right here. Go and enjoy should you choose to.

In short, though, the retelling of Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell's relationship through the lens of Alice in Wonderland -- or your view of it -- is steered primarily by your interests and your reactions. What do you investigate in the waiting room? What doors do you unlock when the cast's backs are turned? Do you drink the potions the Queen gives you? Do you play along at the Tea Party? Every step of the performance is influenced by you, which means that our group of three had vastly different stories to tell when we left.

Performances like these, even (sometimes especially) if they prey upon you psychologically, are sought out and even craved. The supernatural elements of the house are -- thankfully -- impossible to achieve, but the suspension of disbelief is something theatre troupes in the year 2017 strive to emulate.

What I noticed in this first episode is that this is taken into account in a lot of ways. We're signaled to it very heavily by the title card on the front of the house: an art installation utilizing wood, nails, copper, caulk, and you. The first stop, an impossible display of busts of the newly-arrived attendees, reminded me of the London Dungeon's row of heads -- although admittedly, you get your photo taken before and are confronted with it after. But the similarity still stands, and the majority of the visitors are ready to puzzle apart how it was done or go "Wow, these escape rooms, am I right?" with very few acknowledging that this should not be a thing. Even the later rooms, with Margot spotting her friend at a distance, are reminiscent of other such attractions.

Tapping directly into the subculture of escape rooms and interactive theatre is one of the smartest things Antosca could have done going into this, turning it from a terrifying house where the scarers can shove you (because those exist already if you really want them) to a variant on a spreading art form where the experience is way more personalized than any of us could ever want.

But What Does It Mean?

What interest me most, though, are the implications behind that card. At first glance, it seems like little more than a signal of the eeriness to come. But this small visual was a big choice. It never occurred in the book, and the camera lingers notably on it. It's not a throwaway.

Cards exist on works of art for one reason: to educate the viewer as to its background. So what can we take away from the card? Well, obviously, no one knows who made it or how long it's been around (or someone prefers to keep those facts hidden). We also know that the attendees make up part of the materials. But there is one massive takeaway from this card:

The No-End House exists specifically for the people who go through it.

The fact that there's a card there tells us that, and the fact that "you" are listed as a material. If it existed for someone else's pleasure, "you" would not be listed as a component of the card. "Visitors" or "victims" would be. And, with that in mind, you probably wouldn't see a card at all because something existing solely as a component within a work of art doesn't need to be told that it's there.

So the No-End House -- or whoever runs it -- presents itself as art for its visitors. And this leads us to a really awful question: what is art?


I had a professor who said art is anything, whether created intentionally as art or not, that evokes an emotion within you. By his definition, the gyro I ate yesterday is art because it gave me diarrhea and I'm sad. So I don't really go by his definition.

"Art" has about seven billion definitions at present, because everyone sees it a little different. For some, it's escapism. For others, it's a show of skill in a medium. Education. Peaceful protest. Catharsis. Introspection. Just Something Pretty. All these are valid definitions of the purpose of art, because they're all things that art does. I think the fairest I'm going to get is that Art, in its deepest and least corporate form, is something created with the intent of evoking an emotional or intellectual reaction within the people engaging with it.

That's imperfect. But it'll do for now.

That means that the No-End House exists for the benefit of its visitors. That rather than being some sort of torture chamber for someone else's enjoyment, it's the people themselves who are meant to come away with something. But what are they meant to gain? Understanding of themselves? Growth? Truth? Is it some being who doesn't understand the human mind going HAM on fear because they know humans like to be scared but honestly not that much?

And we haven't even addressed the nameless drifter who seems immune to the house's weirdness.

There's a lot to be taken in, but I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes from here.

CHANNEL ZERO: No-End House airs Wednesdays at 10 pm on SyFy. Check out the website for more information.