All images: Allen Fraser/Syfy

Syfy’s new anthology horror show, Channel Zero, kicks off its first six-episode arc tonight. It’s subtitled Candle Cove, and it takes inspiration from Kris Straub’s popular Creepypasta story about a very spooky children’s show. The whole thing oozes slow-burn eeriness, and we spoke with creator Nick Antosca and director Craig William Macneill about it.

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We also got to see the first four episodes—though you won’t find any spoilers here, only a reassurance that Channel Zero: Candle Cove is essential viewing if you dig stories like Stranger Things and It and Village of the Damned (or if you were ever secretly terrified by an episode of H.R. Pufnstuf). It’s about a troubled man named Mike Painter (Paul Schneider) who left his hometown after his twin brother vanished, along with several other children, when they were 12 years old. Now a prominent child psychologist, Mik finds himself drawn back to the town, where a mysterious, puppet-driven TV show that he remembers from his youth seems to have returned for another round of terror aimed at the local kids. His childhood friends, meanwhile, have their own questions about Candle Cove—and about Mike’s sudden return.

Candle Cove feels like an indie film—it’s gorgeously shot, slower-paced, and has an unsettling quiet to it, punctuated when needed by a delicately chilling soundscape. It’s also got a deeply creepy quality; you’re never quite sure if Mike’s frequent flashbacks, or even what he’s seeing in the present day, are entirely in line with reality.

Nick Antosca (Hannibal, Teen Wolf) explains that though Channel Zero will explore a different Creepypasta tale each season, Candle Cove is specifically what sparked the idea for the show. Co-producer Max Landis (Chronicle, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency) had initially eyed the story as feature-film material, Antosca says. But he had a different idea. “I was already a fan of Candle Cove, but I was like, ‘There are a million of these [stories]. Why don’t we do an anthology show, and every season could be different?”

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At the time, Antosca says, nobody was interested in picking up an anthology show. But when the pair circled back after working on other projects for a year or so, the stars aligned and Channel Zero found its home at Syfy. “We already knew what the first season would be, and we pitched an idea for a second season as well, which I’m now on-set shooting at this moment,” he says. (Season two will be The No-End House, directed by Steven Piet.) “Once we got the green light for two seasons, it was like, six episodes a season is just enough to have one director per season. And the show could be a showcase for really exciting, cool, talented directors who might not otherwise want, or be able to do, TV. Every season will have a distinct, cinematic directorial voice.” Antosca says he specifically sought out indie-film directors who’d make resourceful use of the show’s limited budget and shooting schedule.

Adapting the original source material was a challenge. “Not only is it an incredibly short story, but it’s not even written in the traditional narrative form. It’s sort of a modern epistolatory novel, in the sense that it’s written as message board posts,”explains Antosca. “So you have this brilliant core concept that Kris Straub came up with—but then you’re forced to build around it. To a certain degree, any Creepypasta that you choose is going to have that, because they’re all really short. I think of it as, every season is kind of the fever dream or the nightmare that you have after you read one of these things and go to sleep. It’s all these subconscious, strange, bizarre things that come out of the concept that’s in the original Creepypasta.”

Antosca says that what’s arguably the most famous Creepypasta creation—the Slender Man—won’t be in consideration for future Channel Zero seasons if the series continues. “I wasn’t really interested in doing that because it’s so popular,” he says, noting that there’s already a Slender Man movie in the works elsewhere in Hollywood. “I was more interested in doing ones that I loved personally. I’ve got a list of other ones that, if we’re so lucky to go beyond a season two, I think would be really fertile ground.”

A key component of Candle Cove is, of course, the puppet-show-within-the-show, also called Candle Cove. It’s about pirates and has the look of having been dreamed up by the Krofft Brothers, if they had half their usual budget and worshiped the Dark Lord in their spare time.

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Director Macneill explains the care that went into recreating it. “We had all the puppets built for us, and we really wanted it to feel like this could be a real public-access TV show, something that would be nostalgic that you could kind of half-remember from your childhood. It’s a universal experience: ‘Oh yeah I remember that thing I used to watch, when I got home from school, that would creep me out a little.’ The props were all deliberately amateurish-looking, but they also conveyed the menace and emotion that you see in the scripts.”

Antosca agrees. “The show-within-a-show had to be totally benign at first glance. But the more you watch it, the weirder it seems, and the more it sort of seeps into your reality.”

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That statement could also apply to the Channel Zero show as a whole, and Antosca points out that while Syfy has other horror programming, like zombie-action series Z Nation, Channel Zero is unique for the network in both content and tone. “This is the first show on Syfy that feels like this one,” he says. “There [could be] a version of this show that is the campy version, or the jump-scare horror version. That’s not where we wanted to go. It’s more about fostering an atmosphere of sinister dread and mystery. We’re going for an experience that’s different from a lot of the horror that you see on TV.”

Channel Zero: Candle Cove begins tonight on Syfy.