Eating Grief in Channel Zero’s No-End House

In No-End House, the second season of Nick Antosca’s horror anthology series Channel Zero, memories feed on each other. Visitors to the titular house are preyed upon by parasites in the likenesses of their lost loved ones, idealized selves, and other, more mysterious incarnations of their inner lives. These “cannibals,” as the show refers to them, extract their hosts’ other memories in the form of motionless simulacra filled with pomegranate seeds, the same fruit that bound Persephone forever to the underworld in Ancient Greek mythology. The metaphor that emerges is one for the intoxicating comfort of depression.

Centered on Margot Sleator’s (Amy Forsyth) relationship with the house’s reproduction of her father John (John Carroll Lynch), the series dwells at length on the ways in which grief and misery drag us back again and again to wounds that can’t be healed, things that can’t be changed. When, after her first escape from the house, Margot willingly returns, she’s making a conscious choice to hurl herself into the void of her grief. The idea of being eaten from the inside out by her father’s double is less frightening to her than facing her anguish over his death.

The bargain the house offers Margot and its other victims is all the more horrifying for its undeniable appeal. The things we’ve lost, the things we’ve never had — these are the empty sockets we tongue when our minds wander, when we wish late at night with the brokenhearted certainty of failure for what cannot be. If we could soothe that ache — even if it meant the erosion of our minds and personhood — would we be able to refuse? Margot’s hesitation to leave the House after meeting her father’s double feels painfully understandable, as does her friend Jules’ willingness to submit to annihilation. They’ve been primed by lifetimes of longing and disappointment, by explosions of grief, and by the House itself.

Open Wounds

No-End House’s early episodes are almost unbearably tense, full of suffocating spaces, inescapable rooms, and graphic images of crisis and trauma. Perhaps the show’s most harrowing scene is set during Margot’s first trip through the House. In the fifth of six rooms, she comes face to face with her father’s blue and bloated corpse, swollen as he was when she found him dead of an allergic reaction in their home. On the family television, home movies of her childhood churn in a hellishly normal loop. When the father-thing stands and drags her into a embrace, patting her back in an obscene parody of parental comfort, it’s like watching someone’s face get forced against a hot stove.

The night my grandfather died, his mouth was sunken. It’s a detail I fixated on for months after I shrouded his body for burial with my father and uncle. He wore false teeth, and without them his lips sagged into the cavity of his mouth. I hated remembering him like that, small and shrunken and toothless, fingers gnarled, his thick blond hair — just like mine — white and limp after multiple rounds of chemotherapy. No-End House presses us face to face not just with the images we most fear — the bodies of our loved ones deformed and ruined — but with our revulsion at those images, our terrified rejection of the people we most love at their most abject.   

In the context of the House’s predation, this horror is weaponized, softening victims up for the comforting illusion of their own cannibal memories. And the perfect reproduction of Margot’s father offered up in the washed-out suburban belly of the house isn’t just an antidote to her guilt, shame, and grief over his death. It’s a sedative, a tranquilizer, a vaccine against any future grief or discomfort. With its groaning homunculi and arthouse spectacles of self-destruction the house is, after all, only showing her what she already feels.

The Hollow People

The House’s interior labyrinth is peopled not just by the cannibals, but by their hollowed-out victims. Margot’s boyfriend Seth — who chooses to live in the House due to his rootless past in the foster system and discomfort with life in the outside world — provides a fascinating foil to the show’s white-hot images of grief and self-loathing. Seth keeps his own cannibal family locked in a cage in a drab cul-de-sac, claiming he’s already fed them everything he didn’t want to remember. While his life appears carefree at first glance, Jules eventually discovers that Margot is only the latest in a long line of vulnerable young women he’s abducted and played house with, unbothered by the slow collapse of their personalities.

Abusers often gravitate toward the psychologically defenseless, making room for themselves inside the lives of people unbalanced by grief, trauma, or mental illness. Seth is a typical emotional predator in this regard, choosing weak, exposed women to exploit before discarding them for new ones as their higher functions decay. He’s a natural symbiote for the House, finding it new sustenance and feeding with it on the spoils. Jules, by contrast, faces down and destroys the House’s lures after succumbing to them on her first visit. By committing herself to giving Margot the support she had previously withheld out of discomfort with the depth of her friend’s emotions, she illustrates the crucial role of community in recovering from grief.

The six-episode series is bookended by images of a young Margot plunging into dark water, a plume of gold-limned bubbles rising up around her, and by her father’s double going willingly to his death in the same fashion. By returning in grief and pain to that place of innocent childhood joy — just as the House itself did with the horror of its fifth room — the show looks with deep empathy at the life-altering anguish of integrating loss into our daily existence — of accepting that some wounds will never heal.