Inside the Agonizing Terror of 'Channel Zero: No End-House'
The SyFy anthology's creator explains bringing visions of horror and grief to life.
No End-House, the latest installment of Syfy's horror series Channel Zero, is agonizing. The title refers to a haunted house from which there's no exit, and the six-episode season often feels suffocating because of it.
Characters enter the titular haunted house and wander from room to room, but even when they think they've gotten through the last door, it turns out they’re right back where they started. The experience of watching Margot Sleator (Amy Forsyth) stumble on her dead father (John Carroll Lynch) over and over again is claustrophobic, oppressive, numbing. This is because No-End House uses the serialized format not to create a complicated, intricate narrative, but to capture the arresting experience of grief.
The horror genre presents inherent difficulties for serialized TV. As Channel Zero creator Nick Antosca told me by phone, "Horror's harder to maintain in a long story because suspense is one of the most difficult things to create—not just suspense, but the things that are the bread and butter of horror films: jolts and sequences of extreme tension."
There’s virtually no way to keep up an atmosphere of terror for ten—let alone six—episodes; you can feel the strain in Stranger Things, when the show sets aside its horror concerns for nostalgic nods, romantic subplots, and side adventures. Shows like Black Mirror work around the issue by utilizing the anthology format, and each season of Channel Zero tells a different narrative riffing on the internet urban legends known as creepypasta. The stories are long, but not too long, as the show produces less of a scream-out-loud terror than what Antosca called "a sustained feeling of queasy dread."
In Channel Zero, "queasy dread" takes the form of grief. The first season, Candle Cove, is about a child psychologist who returns to his hometown where his twin was killed by a puppet show that runs on a pirate TV station, and No-End House begins a year after Margot’s father died of an allergic reaction to medication. In its first episode, Margot and her friend Jules (Aisha Dee) visit a traveling haunted house shrouded in mystery; as they travel from room to room, the house creates individualized terrors for each visitor.
The house also literally has no end: Margot and Jules escape outdoors to find that they are still, eerily, inside the house—except in a duplicate, alternate world. Margot goes down her own street, to her own house, and finds her dead father alive inside. But it's not really him: It's a creature that feeds on her memories, materializing them as brittle bodies he raises from ink-like pools in the garage. He then snaps off their limbs and bloodily devours the pomegranate-like sustenance within.
There's more plot as the six-episode season develops, and some twists—but the power of the series lies less in its forward movement than in its slack, inevitable dread. Margot's father keeps dying, both in her memory and in the house; sometimes he asphyxiates, other times he's murdered. But he always comes back, stalking like a slasher, begging to be loved, or hovering like a bluff, bulky vampire waiting to devour her past. The final episode of the series starts where the first began: with Margot sitting in a house. One year has passed, and her home—and head—are hollowed out and haunted by her father.
"With a bigger canvas, you have more time to dig into the psychology of the characters," Antosca told me. In most serialized television, character development means greater nuance or subtlety or more background; you learn more about the people you're watching. That isn't exactly what happens in No-End House, though. You don't learn more about Margot. Instead, you dig into her psychology, in the sense that you go deeper into her skull until you find yourself buried.
Forsyth plays Margot with a low-key, blank despair. Her reactions—and most of the other characters’ reactions, for that matter—are all a beat too slow. Glances become too-long stares. Conversations unwind into silence. The horror isn't so much the fact that Margot's dead father is literally eating her soul as it is that she can't even tell that her soul’s being eaten. In a way, she was already in the No-End House before she entered it.
Antosca told me, with some hesitation, that he thought the season was about his own best friend, who had committed suicide a year or so before the first season of Channel Zero: "It wasn't conscious, but I did realize that, at a certain point in the writer's room, we were making two seasons back to back about [the] loss of a loved one. And there's no way to get around it."
The second season is based on Brian Russell's original creepypasta "NoEnd House," a gory, goofy tale about a haunted house with much more space inside it than there seems to be. It was Antosca and his team who figured out that grief—and the depression that comes with it—was their No-End House. You wander, opening door after door, but you can't get out. Year after year, mile after mile, you end up seated at the same table, with the memory of a loved one eating away you, being eaten away from you, or both.
Beyond dense, multilayered characters, serialization featuring multi-season plotlines is one of the most celebrated aspects of the Golden Age of Television, from Mad Men to Game of Thrones. No-End House, on the other hand, hasn't attracted quite as much attention, perhaps because it uses serialization very differently. Rather than taking you on a journey of growth, Channel Zero circles around the same murky whirlpool. What better way to reproduce and inhabit sorrow?