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The Terror and the deep chill of horror

Contributed by
Apr 23, 2018

The Terror, currently airing on AMC, is more than aptly named. But unlike most horror fare, which strives to frighten us with well-timed jump scares and killers on a tear for vengeance, The Terror’s scares are more haunting — gradual in a way that creeps up on us much like the winter that the show’s twin ships and their ill-equipped crewmen find themselves trapped inside. The cold seeps in, the temperatures plummet to devastating degrees, and all the while dangers persist for these Arctic explorers. 

Anyone familiar with the true story of the H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror knows of the mysteries surrounding their disappearance back in 1845. The missing wrecks of these ships were only recently discovered in 2014 and 2016, respectively, but the speculation that persisted in the decades prior gave rise to legends about what could have led to their downfall. The Terror, for the most part, is adapted from a fictionalized version of actual events (written by Dan Simmons), and pairs the very real horrors of starvation, crew mutiny, and paranoia driven by close quarters with a more supernatural threat lurking beyond the safety of a ship’s hull. This new series is a prime example of why the horror genre can be especially chilling when the story is set in the midst of a deep freeze. 

Make no mistake — this is a show that feels cold, creating a shivery viewing experience even if you’re watching it in a more tepid environment. The Terror’s color palette is dominated by varying shades of blue, which shift to obsidian each time the sun goes down. When the sunrise disappears completely in the dead of an Arctic winter, some moments are lit only by a candle or a lantern, making the flickering of pitch-black shadows on the walls behind that much more unsettling, contributing to the sense of overall dread. Outside the confines of the hull, the scene isn’t improved. Whiteout conditions and brutal winds lead to disorientation for both characters and audience, with no horizon to see by. We learn to fear what lurks in the darkness when the darkness is all around, unrelenting and constant — and like the crews of the Erebus and the Terror, we’re stuck in one place, unable to go forward or back, stranded as a result of the frozen sea.

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The harrowing situation of these crewmen in is a glacial prison of their leader’s making. Whether from misplaced optimism or willful naivety, Erebus Captain John Franklin (Game of Thrones’ Ciaran Hinds) decides to ignore the warnings of Terror’s captain Francis Crozier (Mad Men’s Jared Harris) about the fate they’re sailing into — but he becomes one of the first sailors to pay the price for his own poor judgment, which leads to an unexpected ascension for Franklin’s second-in-command, James Fitzjames (Outlander’s Tobias Menzies). Grounded on the ice, the ships become easy targets for a frightening creature known only as Tuunbaq, which picks off unaccompanied sailors without pattern or reason. Possibly one of the scariest things about this monster is that it appears to operate both within the limits of human understanding and outside it, killing senselessly but also skillfully. The only individual who possesses any kind of knowledge of Tuunbaq is more prepared than the men in command but seems just as ill-equipped to confront it head-on — an enigmatic Inuit (Nive Nielsen) dubbed “Lady Silence” by the seamen around her, a name that becomes more apropos as time goes on. 

Like The Thing or the place beyond the Wall in Game of Thrones, the frigid and claustrophobic surroundings only serve to emphasize tensions that may already be brewing amidst men, as well as amplify the dubious qualities of their inner natures. Young petty officer Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) is unquestionably an opportunist, but his padded flattery belies his sly smiles, not to mention his desire to achieve inroads with Captain Franklin, which winds up backfiring terribly when his mission to curry favor with his superiors crosses the line of insubordination. In one of the show's first truly disquieting scenes, Henry Collins (Trystan Gravelle) comes face-to-face with the corpse of a fellow shipmate beneath the frigid Arctic waters — an image that continues to loom in his mind's eye throughout several winters. Dr. Stephan Stanley (Rogue One’s Alistair Petrie) is a brilliant surgeon, but lets his prejudices get in the way of administering aid to those in need, leaving it up to the wide-eyed and rather aptly-named Henry Goodsir (Paul Ready), a benevolent foil to the rest of the men who not only takes the lead in caring for the sick and injured in several instances, but becomes a tentative ally to Lady Silence out of the desire to communicate with the mysterious native woman.

When it comes to what will be responsible for the fate of these nautical explorers, the possibilities are myriad. There’s a greater mythology surrounding Tuunbaq that has yet to be unearthed, and the anticipation of waiting for another attack on the stranded ships serves up just as much thrill for viewers as the heart-pounding moments when the monster actually strikes. But The Terror posits that this crew would be doomed even if the reasons for their demise weren’t necessarily linked to the supernatural, and that bleak undercurrent is the eeriest realization of all. Man can be just as great a threat as beast, and there’s no reckoning with the cruelty of Mother Nature. The only real mystery that lies ahead is what, ultimately, will be the final nail in the coffin for these poor souls.

The Terror airs Mondays at 9 on AMC.