The first season of Channel Zero, Syfy’s horror anthology series, had some aesthetically cool and creepy elements—not surprising for a series based on creepypasta—but it failed to connect emotionally. (A “handsome disappointment,” said the headline of The A.V. Club’s review.) But in its third installment, which concludes tonight, the show packs a powerful and unsettling punch. What changed? It got brutally relatable.
Subtitled Butcher’s Block, and based on Kerry Hammond’s creepypasta Search And Rescue Woods, the latest edition of Channel Zero deals with two young sisters and their experience with mental illness, and that all-too-real human element has taken the campfire-story narrative and turned it into a genuinely nervy and compelling story. It’s one of the best TV depictions of the fear about the potential onset of mental illness, and it’s because the show treats it the way it’s experienced for many: as a goddamn nightmare.
This isn’t to say the series is some gritty indie drama. Far from it: There’s also a family of cannibals who live in a portal between worlds, little creatures murdering people in the woods at night, and some weirdly sprawling subplots about working-class families, corrupt cops, and magical stairways that appear and disappear by chance. If you’re looking for grounded, coherent narratives that play by rules of logic and/or sanity, turn elsewhere. (There are times when the show makes American Horror Story look like The Wire, structurally speaking.) But in this new season, what used to be weaknesses have become strengths. The series is so uninterested in telling a conventional, coherent story that it has allowed the surrealist nature of its scripts to accrue the potency of genuine bad dreams. It has sacrificed storytelling for sensation, but it works wonders—because in the case of this plot, feeling is more important than caring about what could actually happen in any of the show’s ghastly situations.
And that feeling revolves around the turbulent inner lives of Alice and Zoe Woods (Olivia Luccardi and Holland Roden), siblings whose mother was committed to a mental health facility after she suffered an episode and attacked her daughters. To make matters worse, Zoe also suffers from schizophrenia, and is experimenting with refusing her medication. But Alice might have it the worst: Thanks to that genetic lottery, her odds of developing the illness are much, much higher—and she’s right at the age when it would start to manifest.
For all the absurdist horror elements and wacky interludes of near-comic ghoulishness, the show makes Alice’s struggle painfully real and relatable. Many of us either know someone dealing with mental illness or struggle with it ourselves, and the threat of her incipient affliction is represented in frightening and honest terms: She has a semi-human monster stalking her, sometimes bearing her own, distorted face. It’s an intimate part of Alice, and yet it feels like an alien creature hunting her down in a bid to destroy her. It’s watch-through-your-fingers scary, even as it feels like a true representation of the existential horror of a near-universal issue.
“I tried watching the first episode of the first season, and was like, ‘Nope, it’s too scary! I can’t do this!” laughs Luccardi, who portrays Alice as someone desperately afraid what her own mind might hold—the key to the free-floating dread of Butcher’s Block. Speaking with me during SXSW, Luccardi was happy to open up about her own way into the character and the harrowing fear at the heart of her journey. Despite being someone who would plug her fingers in her ears when confronted with scary movies growing up (not that it’s kept her from amassing a résumé that includes It Follows and Feral alongside Butcher’s Block), she immediately connected with the drama of coping with mental illness.
“I have several friends who have mental illness,” Luccardi said. “There was someone close [to me] who was highly schizophrenic.” Luccardi researched other cases of schizophrenia as well. “There’s this one girl who sees these creatures and she illustrates them. It’s so amazing to think she knows they’re not really there, but she draws them—this little girl who sees these insane creatures you’d see in, like, the Sandman graphic novels. Then other people just hear voices, or whatever. The fear that it’s coming, the fear of ‘Am I gonna get it?’ is just really powerful.”
I’ve had several several friends mention the accuracy of Butcher’s Block’s depiction and the power of seeing it represented on TV—that despite the need to normalize the illnesses and remove stigmas, none of that changes the crippling fear and anxiety that still accompanies the disease. It’s scary as hell, and to see a show not shy away from the fact of that emotional journey is cathartic, in a way. The show depicts it as being both you and not you—something people who grapple with mental illness know all too well, and something those who know loved ones dealing with it see play out in real life.
Luccardi finds the uncanny element of it to be the most potent, as well. “The thing that makes the [character] so scary is that Alice sees it, she knows it’s there, but it’s almost a weird comforting feeling—[Zoe] takes it and accepts it. Alice doesn’t accept it. It’s not until you lose it that you can accept it as part of you, in a way. Hopefully we’re not eating humans to realize that [Laughs], but, you know.”
There are scenes from Butcher’s Block depicting that refusal to engage and accept, and they’re among the scariest in Channel Zero’s brief history. The creature is portrayed by a contortionist at one point; at another, it’s a tall, skinny man wearing an oversized cartoon head of Alice, her own blankly glazed eyes staring back at her. In both cases, the sense of unending flight—that there’s no escape from this creature—is what makes it so powerful. “The contortion crab-walking, I think that also plays off your knowledge—that classic fear from The Exorcist and elsewhere, a tradition of classic horror,” Luccardi says. “Plus, it’s just a scary idea. You’re in a half-abandoned hospital, being chased? That’s just scary on its own.”
This powerful central element has elevated the other aspects of the story, raising the whole season and making even the weirder parts of Butcher’s Block take on meaning and gravity. “Alice, her whole life, she’s just been looking for love,” Luccardi says. “Taking care of her sister, she never had a childhood. [Meeting the season’s villains] there’s an intrigue to them, they hold out the promise of family. [Alice] thinks I can have a family, I can be loved. You know when you’re sick, and you’re like, ‘I just want my mommy? I just want someone to take care of me? [Laughs.] It’s like that, but on a much grander scale.”
Channel Zero has finally come into its own with Butcher’s Block, delivering on the promise of hallucinatory imagery combined with the dreamlike fables of the narrative, yielding a product that may not always make sense, but which frankly no longer needs to. Nightmares rarely make sense. They just stick with you. And now that it’s found a powerful way to connect that fear to a deeply human and everyday aspect of the universal experience of our lives, Channel Zero has a way to haunt you.