Tonight, Syfy's horror anthology series Channel Zero dips back into the creepypasta chest of frights for Butcher's Block. The third season of the show is just as unsettling as Candle Cove and No-End House - with the added distinction of being the goriest Channel Zero yet. We watched the first four episodes (although we won't be revealing any spoilers here!), and spoke with the show's creator and director to learn more.
All images: Syfy
As with the previous two Channel Zero installments, Butcher's Block brings a new director and cast to a fresh setting for a standalone, six-episode season. This time, Arkasha Stevenson, making her TV debut, is at the helm of a story adapted from (or at least loosely inspired by) Kerry Hammond's Reddit series "Search and Rescue Woods".
Butcher's Block is named for the neighbourhood where it takes place, once home to hundreds of workers at the nearby meat processing plant, now the most run-down section of a decaying city in generic Middle America. But there's more going on here than boarded-up buildings, scarce resources and hopeless poverty. Ask too many nosy questions, or dare to pass through the overgrown local park after hours, and you'll be confronted by dangerous supernatural forces.
If that red-cloaked figure brings to mind Nicolas Roeg's 1973 thriller Don't Look Now, you're the kind of horror fan who will especially appreciate the visual references sprinkled throughout Butcher's Block.
"We were influenced by a wealth of great horror," explains Channel Zero creator Nick Antosca, who's also one of the show's writers. "This season was influenced by Dario Argento, including some of his less familiar films - like Phenomena, also known as Creepers. Also, Bernard Rose, particularly Candyman; Don't Look Now; and David Lynch - [co-executive producer] Harley Peyton worked on Twin Peaks. When Arkasha came on the project, she [was] particularly influenced by Lynch, especially Fire Walk With Me."
Stevenson confirms that she's a huge Lynch fan. "I'm really interested in social realism - that's very much from my background as a journalist - but then, melding that with surrealism," she says. "That's exactly what I think David Lynch does; I think he's a social realist on some level. And that's also exactly what this season of Channel Zero does. You're taking problems that are very much rooted in our everyday reality, and then surrealism seeps in. You're creating this psychological terror naturally because you don't know whether to trust what you're seeing or not."
Anyone who's read the "Search and Rescue Woods" series may wonder how, exactly, these influences of horror and surrealism come into play. The source material is written from the point of view of a US Forest Service officer who's dealing with a rash of missing people, which seems to be connected to mysterious staircases that appear in the deep woods. Butcher's Block keeps the staircases and the missing people, but adds a lot of material beyond that. Its main characters are a pair of sisters who've moved to the city to make a fresh start after grappling with a family crisis involving mental illness. There's also a young police officer who realises his hometown is not the place he thought it was, an eccentric woman who befriends the girls when they rent a room in her house, and a strange family with a prominent role in the town's history.
"This is the season that departs the most from the original story, which is one reason we changed the title," Antosca notes. "But we followed the idea where it took us - and we allowed ourselves the freedom to chase our nightmares. We definitely go down some strange and sinister rabbit holes."
As it happens, the main character's name is Alice, which allows for some Alice in Wonderland references, as well as other fairy tales, especially Little Red Riding Hood. Butcher's Block also creates its own blend of dark, surreal fantasy that swirls around the Peach family - once the owners of Peach's Meats, the town's biggest employer, whose sudden disappearance in the 1950s brought about the town's decay in more ways than one. In what's probably the most interesting Channel Zero casting ever, Rutger Hauer plays an elderly man with an intimate connection to the Peach clan.
"When we wrote the role of Joseph Peach, we made a list - kind of dream casting," Antosca recalls. "Harley Peyton was like, 'What about Rutger Hauer? He would be perfect!' We figured we probably couldn't get him, but we might as well ask. And he said yes! He's a very, very collaborative, very enthusiastic guy. Certainly one of the many highlights of making Channel Zero was getting to hang out with Rutger Hauer."
Another key role is filled by Krisha Fairchild, who made a huge impression in Krisha, the 2015 indie breakout from Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night). In Channel Zero, she plays Alice's landlady, whose vast knowledge of Butcher's Block lore comes in very handy as the story progresses. "I saw Krisha when it came out and was just blown away by it," Antosca says. "I just thought she'd be incredible [on Channel Zero]. She has an incredible presence, an incredible face. So we wrote that role for her, and then we just got in touch with her. She lives in Mexico, and is a very, very cool, interesting person."
Without giving too much away - though the title and trailers certainly hint at it - a recurring image in Butcher's Block is meat. Fresh meat, dead meat, prepared meat, maggoty and fly-encrusted meat... there's literally a line where someone jokes, "I hope you're not vegan!" - and they might as well be directly addressing the audience. All the meatiness is the main reason why Butcher's Block is by far the goriest, most blood-drenched Channel Zero to date. Still, Antosca says, Syfy was fully supportive of this particularly... ah, gutsy season.
"We haven't gotten any pushback, content-wise, on any of the seasons," he says. "Their questions are always along the lines of, 'Does it serve the story? Is it a consistent aesthetic, or is it purely for shock value?' We didn't set out to make the goriest, the bloodiest season, but the nature of the subject material where we went kind of asked for it. And the style influences, Argento in particular, it felt appropriate. We did go into it knowing that red would be a very important colour."
Adds Stevenson: "Some of the violence and gore [in Butcher's Block] is more rooted in the tropes of the horror genre. But a lot of it is also definitely more on the emotional and psychological end. We tried to identify what each violent scene was rooted in - and then treat the ones that were rooted in realism and the psychology of the characters with a little bit more delicacy and nuance."
You will certainly see a lot of red, bloody and otherwise, in Butcher's Block. And you may also see something else that's kind of surprising, as Antosca explains. "I see this season as - other people people might have a different perspective, but I see it as somewhat comedic. This season has more darkly comic elements than the previous seasons, and with that comes a licence to be a little more extreme."
Stevenson agrees. "One of the things Nick and I really bonded over was having an off-kilter sense of humour. There were so many moments on set where we were just giggling - the surrealism almost gets wonderfully, eccentrically absurd, and so horrific at the same time, that laughing is kind of a natural reaction. I'm excited to see if this season makes other people giggle, too. I feel like this season is very much this quirky wild child that kind of adheres to our own logic, and I hope people enjoy that."
After Butcher's Block, Channel Zero has a fourth season in the works. Though he can't divulge too much about the next instalment, Antosca does hint that its main characters are a "relatively young married couple", and "as far as style goes, if season three is Argento, I think season four in a very preliminary way is kind of Hitchcock meets Cronenberg. Season four is much more restrained than season three. The most important part is that it's a love story. Creepypasta is not particularly a very sexy genre, but season four will be a bit sexier."
Every season of Channel Zero has been very different by design, but Antosca - who hopes to continue the show for many more years - points out that they do all share an underlying theme. "To me, the scariest thing is the loss of self. Losing your mind. Every season, though they're very different, deals with that fear."
Channel Zero: Butcher's Block premieres in Australia tonight on SYFY  at 7:30PM.