What kind of person names a ship “Terror?” That answer to that question helps explain the awful plight of the sailors aboard the eponymous ship in AMC’s new series. Someone who names a ship “Terror” assumes the aforementioned terror will be doled out by the ship, and not the other way around. That kind of hubris haunts The Terror, an adaptation of Dan Simmons 2007 novel about the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, two Royal Navy vessels that became stranded in the Arctic in 1846. The horror TV show was created in the wake of The Walking Dead to replicate its success, but The Terror is something far more impressive: a horror show that actually works, that is as chilling as it aims to be. Horror television has a poor record of delivering frights as effectively as films, but The Terror is an admirable exception.
The Erebus and Terror found themselves packed in Arctic ice thanks to the nineteenth century’s exploration fever — the ships were attempting to chart a way through the Northwest Passage, a route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific that traverses the Arctic. Though the ships were retrofitted with steam powered propellers and metal panels to protect against ice, they still fell victim to a rapid freeze and were encased in ice. Still, the crew members survived for multiple years. The final group of survivors started a march in 1848 toward the nearest civilized outpost, but all members perished hundreds of miles from their destination. The wrecks of the Erebus and the Terror were discovered in 2014 and 2016, respectively, and forensic analysis of crew members indicated that some resorted to cannibalism.
Simmons’s novel, from which the series is adapted, adds horror to an already terrifying situation. In his telling, the crew aren’t only victims of starvation and poisoning from lead cans, but are also pursued by some kind of supernatural monster. Showrunners David Kagjanich and Soo Hugh have adapted the novel with painstaking detail. The ships’ routines are minutely detailed, and the characters are all named after their historical bases.
In the show’s first episode, “Go for Broke,” the claustrophobic nature of the vessels is overwhelming. Although the officers (led by Ciarán Hinds, Jared Harris, and Tobias Menzies) dine on multicourse meals with wine in an elegant stateroom, the crew eat their meals in a packed mess hall, stuffed to the gills. A few men private rooms only slightly larger than their beds, but most are crammed together in communal areas. The larders are stocked with three years’ worth of food, plus some perishables. (One character laments that the Erebus has already run out of beef tongue in the first episode.)
The expedition is led by Sir John Franklin (Hinds), an explorer who has twice before explored northern Canada and the Arctic. His first expedition ended in disaster, with some of the crew forced eat their boots in the face of starvation. Sir John was not the first choice for the mission, but nonetheless attains the post when smarter or less deluded men refused. He’s supported on the Erebus by Captain James Fitzjames (Mendies) a blowhard who tells warmed over stories of his heroics at dinner and licks at Sir John’s boots. Harris plays Captain Francis Crozier, the Irish captain of the Terror and Sir John’s son-in-law. Crozier approaches his duty with a near-constant weary look, as if he’s picturing every possible disaster that could come of the expedition.
The Terror is executive produced by Ridley Scott, and it’s clear that Alien is a major inspiration, both on the series style and plot. There an incident at dinner early in the episode — the less said the better — that will instantly draw comparisons to Scott’s 1979 masterpiece. More importantly, though, Kagjanich and Hugh have opted to pace their show much in the style of Alien. Although there are some shocking developments before the first episode’s opening credits, much of the episode is quite slow. We see the machinations of disgruntled sailors and the derision that Crozier bears toward Fitzjames behind closed doors, but the moments of horror are initially few and far between. This won’t work for many viewers with short attention spans, but for those who can wait, or are entranced by the period details, the pacing can be sublime. When The Terror chooses to be, well, terrifying, it hits with a gut punch. Although it often uses suspense to great effect, these long periods of calm also make its horrific surprises all the more effective.
Even the moments that have nothing to do with supernatural arctic monsters are frightening. It was only after watching a scene where one sailor goes underwater in a primitive diving suit to fix a blocked propeller that I realized all of my muscles had been clenched. The idea of being all alone in the faint crepuscular light under the frigid water is even more terrifying than some carnivorous bear creature. This underlying fear of abandonment in unforgiven environs harkens back to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), another horror story of men terrorized by a creature in the Arctic cold.
“The show’s visuals, combined with its elegant pacing, make it one of the most effective horror shows ever created.”
It’s worth considering what makes The Terror so effective as a horror show. A common problem with horror shows, from American Horror Story to True Blood, is the lighting. Horror films tend to be quite dark, and it’s an essential part of setting the mood (sometimes unintentionally exacerbated by cheap theater chains using underlit projectors). But horror shows on television tend to be lit brighter, which diminishes the sense of dread. Sometimes that’s at the behest of a network (HBO) that worries its show (True Blood) will be too dark for viewers with poorly calibrated TV sets. It’s also an unfortunate side effect of the rushed speed with which a television episode is filmed. Great cinematography requires time, and TV episodes have to be shot much quicker. Without time to perfectly calibrate the lighting so that it’s neither too bright nor too dark and just moody enough, shows end up looking overly bright and washed out.
The Terror almost certainly had these same limitations, but its setting (Arctic ice packs) changes the lighting equation. The same lighting rules don’t apply when you’re shooting on white ice (or ice substitute). It creates a different, very forlorn atmosphere that perfectly suits the mood. The show’s visuals, combined with its elegant pacing, make it one of the most effective horror shows ever created.
AMC’s recent horror shows, The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, have stumbled in recent seasons. They lack a reason to keep existing (much like their characters) and any clear endgame. The Terror is different; from its opening scene we know that the men aboard have all perished. The mystery is what happened to them, and it’s worth finding out.
Find our weekly recaps of The Terror here