Over three seasons, Syfy anthology show Channel Zero — which takes its inspiration from Creepypasta stories — has explored some extremely dark nightmares. Season four, The Dream Door, begins a terrifying new chapter tonight, so we caught up with creator Nick Antosca to get the spooky scoop.
We've seen the entire six-part season but won't be spoiling anything here, since there are some horrifying twists that must be experienced firsthand. The Dream Door is loosely based on Charlotte Bywater's short story (read it here), and this season's director is EL Katz (Small Crimes, The ABCs of Death 2). It's about newlywed couple Jillian and Tom (played by Maria Sten and Brandon Scott).
As The Dream Door begins, they've just moved into their first house — which happens to be Tom's childhood home, gifted to them as a wedding present. The pair were best friends as kids, then reconnected as adults and quickly got hitched, though it soon becomes clear that they really don't know each other as well as they think they do.
Tom's hiding some sticky personal stuff, but Jillian's secrets are way more malevolent, due to the sudden re-appearance of an "imaginary" friend she thought she'd long since outgrown. Let's just say that "Pretzel Jack" — a rubber-limbed clown — rivals the "Tooth Child," from season one's Candle Cove, as one of Channel Zero's most freakishly alarming characters. And that's saying a lot.
Gizmodo: First of all, congratulations on coming up with a character that takes the whole "scary clown" thing to an entirely new level.
Nick Antosca: He's a clown, a contortionist, and a childhood friend... and a homicidal maniac.
Gizmodo: It's all kinds of awful, really. And of course, congratulations on season four. What would you say are the big themes this season?
Antosca: The demons that we carry with us into relationships, and how we have to deal with the demons that other people carry into relationships with us. And like Dr. Carnacki [Jillian's therapist, played by Steven Weber] says, trust and jealousy — it's a vicious circle. I wanted to explore that and to use a genre to do it.
Gizmodo: What specific elements set The Dream Door apart from previous seasons?
Antosca: It's a much more romantic season. That's one thing we've never done before, and that was something that was really interesting to me to explore. I feel like when we get into relationships we take a huge leap of faith. We make ourselves really vulnerable, and it's a scary thing.
That's something that horror can explore very well. It doesn't necessarily always do it, but some of the great horror films that we know and love do. Rosemary's Baby, for example, is really about trust and infidelity, and I wanted to take the show in that direction.
Gizmodo: One of the themes I've noticed that runs throughout all four seasons is the power of memory — how things that happened in your childhood can control you and confuse you even years later. Why do you think that's so fundamental to the kind of horror that Channel Zero is exploring?
Antosca: I think the goal has been to make personal horror, and to make psychological horror, and it sort of naturally turns towards themes of identity, escaping our past, embracing our past. That's the kind of horror that I find really sticks to my ribs.
Gizmodo: Stylistically speaking, last season — the lush, gory Butcher's Block — was heavily influenced by the works of Dario Argento and David Lynch. Which directors or works did you look to when you were coming up with The Dream Door's tone and production design?
Antosca: There's a lot of different ones, but I think the main ones are De Palma and Hitchcock. It's always a kind of stew of horror influences every season, but De Palma was the big one for us. We wanted the season to feel very composed, very sinister, and at the same time beautiful. There's a little bit of Cronenberg in there, too. Actually, there's a little Cronenberg in almost every season, but in this one, The Brood was an influence.
Gizmodo: How do you think the show has evolved over its four seasons?
Antosca: I feel like I've learned more about myself as I've made the show every season, because every season is about some different personal thing. Some of them are more explicitly personal — [season two], No-End House, was for me a little bit about the loss of a close friend.
This season is about a relationship and I wrote it as I was getting engaged and about to enter into that kind of a lifelong bond — which is scary and exciting and you sort of deal with questions, like the questions that the characters deal with in a much more supernatural sense.
Gizmodo: Hopefully you haven't, like, found a door in your basement...
Antosca: You know, there is a trunk in my parents' basement filled with all kinds of crazy things that I invented when I was a kid, and long stories with really disturbing stuff that I wrote as like a five and six-year-old. Honestly, that wasn't consciously an influence on the season, but I'm sure it was poking around somewhere in my head.
Gizmodo: What do you think sets Channel Zero apart from the other horror anthology shows that are out there now?
Antosca: I think it is that focus on personal horror, on psychological horror. I also think it's the format — there's no other show that does six episodes each season as a showcase for a single director, so they're tied together thematically, but each one has a really distinctive feel. And honestly I think we have the best monsters.
Gizmodo: Have you had a favourite monster over the four seasons?
Antosca: I think it's a toss-up between the Tooth Child and Pretzel Jack. I love them both because they're both terrifying and homicidal, but also kind of adorable.
Gizmodo: I don't know how much we want to reveal about the character, but is the actor who plays Pretzel Jack a real contortionist?
Antosca: Yeah! His name is Troy James, and I first saw him on Instagram. We hired him for one episode of Butcher's Block. He's the schizophrenia demon, the illusion that chases [Olivia Luccardi's character, Alice] down the hallway, bent over backwards and crab-walking. I saw what he was capable of, and honestly we wrote the whole [fourth] season around it. That's why I made Pretzel Jack a contortionist as well as a clown, because I knew what Troy could do. Now, people have discovered him and he's going to be in a number of movies coming up, but I think this just a perfect, perfect role for him. He's doing all that stuff with no assistance from technology.
Gizmodo: How many more seasons do you hope to be able to do? Can you tease anything about what may be coming in the future?
Antosca: I know what two more seasons would be. I have no idea and won't know for at least a month or two whether we're getting more seasons. If we get to do the two more that I want to do, then continuity among seasons might become a little bit clearer. You might see the return of certain iconic characters that people love from earlier seasons.
Gizmodo: Are we talking crossover? Cameos?
Antosca: Not exactly a crossover. I think it would be a familiar character integrated in a new and unprecedented way.
Gizmodo: So should we assume that these stories are all taking place in the same universe, or is that too much of a reach?
Antosca: Um... no comment. No comment.
Channel Zero: The Dream Door premieres tonight on Syfy, and will run over six consecutive nights through Halloween.