Television

How 'Channel Zero: Butcher's Block' Slices a New Path for Horror

The first few minutes of Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block involve a character named Nathan (Aaron Merke) telling series lead Alice (Olivia Luccardi) a story, specifically one of the many urban legends from the town. The camera pulls into an old factory with “Peach’s Meats” imprinted on the side. It also shows off some horrifying graffiti about a “butcher” who makes people disappear. Nathan elaborates on one specific tale, telling her not to go into the park because people tend to vanish. There have also been rumors of a set of detached stairs that lead up into the sky, but nothing good can come from climbing them or even looking at them.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because you might have read Search and Rescue Woods by Kerry Hammond, an internet creepypasta that catalogs the many traumatic experiences of an SAR officer who works to find missing people in something like a national park. The Syfy anthology series adapts a popular creepypasta for each of its installments, but with Butcher’s Block, showrunner Nick Antosca and director Arkasha Stevenson deviated quite a bit from the source material (hence, the name change). Instead of taking place in a large swath of nature, for example, Butcher’s Block is set in a rundown and discarded city with an overgrown park that people tend to avoid.

Nonetheless, the episode’s first few minutes capture the appeal of creepypasta. It’s like a local urban legend, only with the added benefit of the internet’s international and accessible audience.

Creepypasta is a bit hard to define, but essentially it’s internet horror fiction in the style of campfire tales or urban legends. They’re less about traditional story structure—a beginning, middle and end—and more about creating something that sounds like it could be true.

"Each season of the show should feel like some kind of nightmare that you had after reading the original story and half-remembering it."
“It’s a very amorphous medium,” Antosca tells Playboy ahead of Butcher’s Block’s premiere. “It feels like the difference between urban legends and literature that's canonized in an anthology. I love both, but one thing that’s particularly attractive about the creepypasta genre is that it feels like a living thing, just like what urban legends do.” The most successful creepypasta stories—Slender Man, all the rumors about secret episodes of popular children’s shows, Candle Cove—sound like modern-day folktales and are often coupled with “evidence” passed around the internet.

For example, people have doctored old photos with Slender Man lurking in the background. Candle Cove, a children’s cartoon with disturbing imagery, actually exists now in visual form apart from Channel Zero’s adaptation. Fans create videos or audio files that not only seek to add credence to internet rumors as if they were true, but to add more detail and scares. Creepypasta then becomes a community experience. While Channel Zero has to get the rights from the original creators when adapting the stories, they belong to the internet more than the author.


It makes sense then that Butcher’s Block is the show’s most deviated season. Over the first two installments, Antosca and his team have formed straight adaptations of famous creepypasta—Candle Cove and No-End House. With Butcher’s Block, the writers create their own legend, one involving an elite family with a dark secret, cannibalism and the personal effects of mental illness—all of which are absent from the original story. Antosca calls this third series “fanfiction,” and in a way, it’s the closest Channel Zero has come to honoring the internet-based genre.

“We found that by taking stories we loved and then expanding pretty substantially, we go in interesting directions, and the stuff that we come up with tends to be fanfiction and a variation of the original material,” he says.

A lot of creepypastas also evoke this feeling of déjà vu, or that you’re remembering something you’ve forgotten. Part of the appeal of Candle Cove is that it first appeared in a forum as somebody trying to remember a show they watched as a child. Then, people added to it with their own “memories.” It gives the story an added layer of realism and terror. The idea that something might be true only makes it scarier.

Antosca says he wanted to recreate that feeling with the show, and it’s most apparent in Butcher’s Block. “Each season of the show should feel like some kind of nightmare that you had after reading the original story and half-remembering it,” he explains in regards to why it deviates so much from the source material. “It evolved pretty wildly [from Search and Rescue Woods].”

For one, this is because Search and Rescue Woods doesn’t explain the magic behind the staircases or its mysterious deaths, so the team had to come up with its own mythology. Without spoiling much, Butcher’s Block wastes no time getting into the secrets behind the staircase, and viewers will have a pretty good idea where the story’s lore is headed by episode 2. Then, by creating characters that would fit into its scenario, they crafted a story based on madness induced by familial and genetic trauma, along with mental illness—specifically schizophrenia—and dissociation.

The writing team also added a lot of horror influences separate from the source. Antosca says they sat down and thought about what styles they wanted to evoke this season, and names like Dario Argento (Suspiria), Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now) and Bernard Rose (Candyman) came up. Watching Butcher’s Block, the inspirations are obvious. (There’s a dwarf in a red cloak, for instance, which became an iconic image from Don’t Look Now.)

Also, like Argento, the installment is surprisingly bright and colorful, so it goes along well with the humorous, surreal and campy aspects of the story, which range from horrifying imagery to laugh-out-loud uncomfortable moments. Again, that's nothing like Search and Rescue Woods, a modern tale with a Gothic, subtle feel that feels less like a full narrative and more like a train of thoughts spilling out of the writer.

These differences may seem strange, considering Channel Zero’s mission to adapt some of the internet’s most famous creepypasta stories, but it gets at the genre’s core component. Because they exist on the internet and are easily accessible to millions of international readers, there are plenty of opportunities to expand their worlds. Some participate by moving away from the horror genre (it's not recommended to look up Slender Man fanfiction, but there are a lot of people who want to have sex with the beast and have even created a whole hierarchical, BDSM-inspired system). Others simply add detail or doctor images or audio to make the story seem more real. Then, people are inspired to write their own stories—sometimes even sequels to their favorites—which only grows the medium and gives Antosca more inspiration for his show.

The crew is already on track for the fourth installment, which Antosca describes as “Hitchcock meets Cronenberg.” Like Butcher’s Block, No. 4 will deviate from the source material, which is a horrifying one-shot story without a mythology or distinct characters. If Channel Zero gets picked up for more seasons, Antosca hopes to move away from some of the more popular creepypastas.

“There are some that are really well-known that I would love to do. There are others that are great horror ideas that aren't as familiar,” he explains. “I would love to do the Russian Sleep Experiment [about a World War II-era experiment that goes horribly wrong]”

Even if Channel Zero ends, creepypastas will still be a well of inspiration for creators looking to adapt to television, film or video games. There are new ones popping up every week over on the subreddit r/nosleep and on the official Creepypasta wiki. There’s the SCP Foundation, an online organization full of thousands of stories about mythological and sometimes nightmare-inducing objects. There are podcasts such as The NoSleep Podcast and Creepy that produce audio dramas based on horror stories, and ones including Limetown and The Black Tapes that create their own. Even with Butcher’s Block being the first mainstream adaptation of Search and Rescue Woods, it isn’t the definitive adaptation. Antosca theorizes that somebody else will make it, though.

"It’s impossible to read enough of them," Antosca says, adding that even after completing a season, he’ll still hit up the internet to read another person’s interpretation of No-End House, for example. “People are constantly writing.”


 

Channel Zero: Butcher's Block premieres Wednesday at 10/9c on Syfy.

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