“Whatever is going on here, we should be terrified of it,” says Aisha Dee as Jules, one of the main characters in tonight’s episode of Channel Zero: No-End House. “I am terrified.”
Maybe that’s not an unusual thing for someone to say in a horror series like Channel Zero, the Syfy anthology show that has returned for a second season-long story, this one based on Brian Russell's Internet “creepypasta” tale about a mysterious house filled with ever-more-maddening rooms from which no one, legend has it, ever escapes.
So, no, it’s not what she says about being terrified that takes you by surprise; it’s the way she says it. Calmly. Methodically. Almost hushed. It’s not how you expect those particular words to come out of someone’s mouth.
It’s certainly not how they’d come out of anyone’s mouth on this season of American Horror Story. Cult was possibly the most hyped season yet of the long-running Ryan Murphy show, largely thanks to its genius hook that the story arc begins on election night of 2016, as the news that Donald Trump has been elected president leaves a liberal lesbian couple (Sarah Paulson and Allison Pill) pulling their hair out, while an unhinged young man in the same town (Evan Peters, playing the best Joker Not Actually Named Joker ever) sees Trump’s victory as a call to chaos, which he immediately begins spreading with the help of various associates.
While No-End House builds its dread with an eerie, dream-like quiet, Cult has Sarah Paulson screaming, constant clown attacks, more Sarah Paulson screaming, grocery-store clown orgies, the denouncing of cisnormative pet names and, of course, even more Sarah Paulson screaming. Cult is certainly American Horror Story’s loudest season, and its most over the top—which would be saying something even without last season’s descent into Ryan-Murphy-has-lost-his-goddamn-mind territory with Roanoke.
And yet, these concurrent arcs of American Horror Story and Channel Zero have some downright bizarre parallels. They’re already similar in format, both being anthologies that stretch out one story over a single season. But they also seem to have tapped into the same cultural anxieties at exactly the same time. In both, the world has gone crazy. Not in the heart of America’s urban centers, or in the rural outskirts, but on the perfectly square streets of the suburbia in between. They are both about the family-home apocalypse, the unraveling of the protected middle-class, terror on perfectly manicured lawns.
And let’s not forget the freakiest parallel of all: John Carroll Lynch, who returns to AHS this season as Twisty the Clown, introduced in the Freak Show season and by far the scariest thing the show has ever come up with, also appears in No-End House. Here, he’s John Sleator, the doting father of main character Margot (Amy Forsyth); while the story begins a year after his death, he appears to have magically returned at the end of episode 1, after Margot enters the No-End House. They are polar opposite roles, and Lynch is incredible in both.
American Horror Story might seem to be the clear frontrunner for depicting this shared theme of personal and societal breakdowns, with its bigger budget, proven talent pool and fever pitch. The violent polarization of Trump’s America is a damn fine backdrop for an examination of individual phobias and neighborhood paranoia ripped straight from the caches of the Nextdoor app. But a few episodes in, Cult has been as divisive as the election itself among AHS fans. Some are appreciating its none-too-subtle message that the Trump era has opened the door to anarchy, while others just want Paulson to stop screaming.
A family is locked up in a cage at the end of a cul-de-sac, residents stand and stare silently and the visitors are warned to ‘beware the cannibals.’
Channel Zero, meanwhile, is the dark horse. The central idea of the series is that each six-episode season is based on a different creepypasta—the internet urban-legend-type horror fiction originally written not only to scare readers, but also to make them think the stories might be real. Its first season, Candle Cove, proved that in the hands of showrunner Nick Antosca, this could be a powerful premise. It got all kinds of “best horror series you’re not watching” mentions from critics and became something of a cult hit. (Read a full review of the Candle Cove season here.)
Because Antosca is committed to bringing in a different indie director for each season, No-End House has a different look than the bright surrealism Craig William Macneill brought to Candle Cove. Macneill knew that seeing that season’s creepy characters, like the Tooth Child, against a lush, naturalistic setting would make them even more unsettling, and in creating that juxtaposition he set up a template that No-End House director Steven Piet has built upon. In outdoor scenes, you can still hear the wind blowing the grass and the characters’ feet crunching loose gravel as they walk. It’s a spot-on style for adapting creepypasta, because it recreates the eerie, muted feel that permeates these stories. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we tend to read them at night, alone, on our computers, but the world of creepypasta seems hauntingly, frighteningly empty, and Channel Zero has captured that again in No-End House.
What Piet has added this season is texture and scale, opening the lonely silence up into a world that at times is Kubrickesque. When Margot and her friends get tangled up in the No-End House, they face a twisted version of their suburban landscape that is sprawling and seething at the same time. A family is locked up in a cage at the end of a cul-de-sac; residents stand and stare silently; and the visitors are warned to “beware the cannibals.”
Here’s the thing, though: None of it means what it first seems like it means. I’ve previewed all six episodes, and I’m stunned at the depth No-End House gets to in its examination of what lies beneath fear. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it lacks for shocking moments—the ending of episode two, for instance, might just be the craziest thing you see on TV all year.
What Antosca (who also writes many of the episodes) and Piet have also added are vicious moments of Cronenberg-like body horror, which sometimes come with no warning out of the quiet and lead to lines like:
“Don’t you want to find some way where we can still be a family?”
“Not if you have to feed on me.”
Again, while this sounds like some kind of Santa Clarita Diet-type zombie stuff, it isn’t. What is actually going on is too good to spoil, but it shouldn’t be missed. In a year when American Horror Story is pulling out all the stops to capture the horror zeitgeist with clowns and Trump masks and jump scares, No-End House is a reminder that sometimes our deepest, most destructive fears barely make a sound.