Hey, do you guys remember Candle Cove? It was that weird show that was on when we were kids, on some public access station. There were a bunch of pirate-type puppets, and it all looked cheap and fake, but there was something really creepy about it, too. Especially the villain—that skeleton with the cape and glass eyes that were too big for his skull. And he had some really horrible name that they’d never let you use on a kid’s show these days, like … oh yeah, the Skin Taker.
If you don’t remember watching this show, that’s probably because it never existed. Regardless of what you may have read on some wiki page or seen on YouTube, Candle Cove was not real.
In reality, the TV show Candle Cove was the invention of writer and Internet cartoonist Kris Straub, who built a horror tale of the same name in 2009. The format of the extremely short story—it’s presented as a series of postings to an online message board populated by users trying to make sense of their fuzzy childhood memories, which then take a turn for the nightmarish—was already a clever blur of reality and fiction. But never underestimate the Internet’s power to make things a whole lot crazier. As the story went viral, some fans began to argue that the show had really existed, and even went so far as to create YouTube videos that supposedly contained footage from it.
So maybe that willingness to belive shouldn’t have been a surprise to Nick Antosca, who chose to adapt Straub’s Candle Cove story for the first season of his new horror anthology show Channel Zero, which debuts tonight on Syfy. Even some of the people he hired to help him make a real TV show about the fake TV show weren’t sure.
“There are lots of members of our crew who have said, ‘Wait a second, Candle Cove wasn’t a real show?’” Antosca says. Known for dark novels like Fires and Midnight Picnic, as well as for his work as writer and co-producer on the third season of Hannibal, Antosca stepped into the world of Candle Cove after Max Landis (son of director John Landis, and writer of films like Chronicle and American Ultra) optioned the short story from Straub. Landis asked Antosca to adapt it, but Antosca had an even more ambitious idea: an anthology series in which every season would be based on a different tale from the online horror subgenre known as creepypasta.
Creepypasta: an Internet phenomenon that, like so many things on the Internet, good and bad, started on 4chan. In the mid-2000s, it was considered good fun to stuff everyone’s inbox with memes that had been copy-and-pasted, chain-letter style. “Copy and pasted” morphed into the term “copypasta,” which became known for useless, obnoxious but sometimes pretty entertaining blocks of text that started with sentences like “I sexually identify as an attack helicopter.” Gradually, some of these evolved into horror fiction or images presented like urban legends in an attempt to make them seem true: creepypasta.
The best description of creepypasta I’ve ever heard was on the podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind, where co-host Christian Sager called it “the found footage of the Internet.” I asked Sager and co-host Robert Lamb what’s made creepypasta such a cultural force, to the point where it has breakout characters like Slender Man and Jeff the Killer. Lamb says a lot of the stories’ staying power comes from the fact that most are anonymously written. The most convincing creepypasta, he says, “has no identity. It just seems to emerge from the collective unconsciousness of the Internet.”
Everybody remembers a creepy show they watched that they can’t quite remember the name of, and what channel was it on, and was that real?
“The thing about creepypasta, as opposed to literary horror prose, is they’re basically just plot summaries,” says Sager. “They work at their best when they have some kind of format trick to them that makes them feel like they’re real.”
That, of course, describes Candle Cove, but ironically enough, Straub originally published the story under his own name and never intended it to be creepypasta.
“Somebody copied it and pasted it and put it online; he didn’t get credit for it at first,” says Antcosta. “Then it went viral and somebody identified it as his, and now it’s just kind of the iconic creepypasta.”
For Craig William Macneill, who directed all six episodes of Channel Zero’s first season, Candle Cove was his introduction to creepypasta several years ago, and it made an impression.
“A while back a friend of mine sent me the story, and I don’t know if he was messing with me, but he asked me if I remembered the show,” says Macneill. “I remember reading it and of course not remembering it, but I did have these half-remembered shows from my childhood that it brought up. Then I googled ‘Candle Cove’ and started reading about it, and it actually took me a little bit of time before I realized it was fake.”
“Everybody has this thing in their past,” adds Antosca. “Everybody remembers a creepy show they watched that they can’t quite remember the name of, and what channel was it on, and was that real?” They wanted to toy with that twilight zone, but first Antosca had the challenge of adapting a story that he admits was “not even a narrative … just a concept and a brief experience.”
“Our job was to build out full rich characters with an interesting story from that concept, while honoring and preserving what was so cool about the concept to begin with,” he says. “The characters in the story are just message-board handles. There’s one character whose handle is Mike Painter, and that’s the main character of our story. Briefly at the end of the message board thread, he talks about this moment where he talked to his mother and she told him the disturbing revelation about the show when he was a kid. So we built a six-episode character story not just around the show, but around this character and his relationship with his mother, and this dark, creepy story about their past.”
What fans of the original tale will be most eager to see, though, is Channel Zero’s vision of Pirate Percy, the talking ship Laughingstock, the caped skeleton and all the other weird elements of the bizarre Candle Cove puppet show at the center of the story. Figuring out exactly how much to show of it, though, was tricky.
“You see the show a little bit at first, but we kind of tease it. You don’t see it too much in the pilot. You hear descriptions of it, you see it over somebody’s shoulder,” says Antosca. “We know that’s one of the things that the audience comes to the show to see, but it’s a very delicate balance between showing too much and not showing it enough.”
Having seen the first couple of episodes, I can say that the story Channel Zero wraps around the sinister kid’s show has a throwback feel, as well. It’s inspired far more by Twin Peaks than by current horror trendsetters like American Horror Story. In fact, I can’t remember a show since that masterful first season of David Lynch’s series that’s so effectively captured the feeling of a near-constant dream state. Several scenes are shot almost like tableaux, with even the slightest movement suddenly shattering the stillness, and the horror builds with a series of chills rather than jump scares.
“We set out to create an atmosphere that was infused with a real sense of unease, and to always have an escalating feeling of dread,” says Macneill. “Our approach to it was not much different than shooting a film. Because it was six episodes, it really allowed us to do that. We shot it all in 46 days, on a very small budget.”
As the first season debuts, Antosca is already at work on the second, with Syfy ordering six more episodes. Season two of Channel Zero will be based on the creepypasta The No-End House, by Brian Russell, and will air in the fall of 2017.
Antosca’s got a list of other creepypasta he’d love to adapt if Syfy orders more seasons. That could have its challenges, especially if he has to somehow track down the author of an anonymous story, but for him, the power of creepypasta and the potential of the show are tightly connected.
“The way I think of it,” he says, “is each season of Channel Zero should be the nightmare you have after you read the story.”
Channel Zero: Candle Cove debuts Oct. 11 on Syfy.