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Can we change the title to “Master and Commander: The Far Side of John Carpenter’s The Thing“?
Disclaimer: I have seen the entirety of The Terror, but there are only minor historical spoilers.
The worst part of living in Norway is slowly seeing the numbers on the thermometer go down, putting all your t-shirts and shorts in the closet, and having to start wearing more and more layers to go outside. There’s also the creeping darkness that starts to arrive earlier and earlier each day, with your energy and mood slowly decreasing until you are surrounded by nothing but darkness and the occasional blizzard. Stepping into the cold darkness of winter, unable to see anything beyond the end of your nose, makes for some great horror scenarios. Combine that with the gruesomeness of impromptu medical procedures in period dramas and lots of Victorian costumes and you get The Terror, a show as gory and creepy as it is beautiful.
Based on Dan Simmons’ best-selling novel of the same name, The Terror follows Franklin’s lost expedition, in which two ships set sail for the Arctic in 1845 in hopes of finding the Northwest Passage but got trapped in the ice and later abandoned. While the ships – The Erebus and The Terror (really) – were recently discovered in pristine conditions under the hellish arctic ice cap, the entire crew of 129 men was never to be seen again. And the Northern Passage? It was traversed 60 years later by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Though there are reports on the fate of the crew from interviews with local Inuit people, the details are vague enough that Simmons and later AMC could just go to town and add as much mythology as they wanted. The Terror follows a long tradition of gothic stories of reckless men daring to mess with nature and paid the ultimate price, the crew of HMS The Terror have to face frostbite, scurvy, poisoning, mistrust, paranoia and maybe even a supernatural and indestructible monster.
While a show executive produced by Sir Ridley Scott immediately makes people compare this to Alien, the truth is that The Terror is much closer in story, themes and aesthetic to John Carpenter’s The Thing. You have an ensemble of great character actors in larger-than-life roles, all in a confined space surrounded by nothing but snow and ice for miles and miles and throw in a monster for good measure. When I was a kid, I hated The Thing. While the effects were cool, I thought it was boring and not really scary. Having moved to Norway and experienced winter every year, I now understand that the true horror of the film came from the elements. Yes, the monster is still cool, and the effects are great, but what scares me is the thought of being trapped somewhere during winter, not knowing whom to trust or how to survive. Just like Carpenter’s masterpiece, The Terror is a masterclass in atmospheric horror. While 10 episodes may feel like too much (the book is certainly long), it’s a slow burn that little by little tortures you with the best in survival horror. Aided by some beautiful cinematography, and some wizard-level CGI capable of replicating the arctic in a soundstage, the show lets the location do most of the heavy lifting at first. Yes, the monster’s presence lurks in every episode, but it’s the immediate danger of the vast frozen wilderness showing the enormous ships as nothing but insignificant twigs that create horror bigger than any alien could. You can hear the constant creaking of the ships, the blowing of the icy wind, the crunching of snow and ice by human feet and who knows what else. After a few episodes, you will start wearing hoodies while watching the show, the cold and darkness will creep up on you and cloud your mind until you become as mad as the shipwrecked crew of The Terror.
Being surrounded by total darkness for most of the day, the freezing temperatures and the fear of scurvy (at least in the past) can make any person go mad. This is the reason we have folktales and vampires, werewolf and the like. Isolation combined with a fear for the unknown can turn ordinary things into anything. Just as sailors (including Christopher Columbus!) confused a manatee with a mermaid, a shipwrecked crew can turn a polar bear into an unkillable supernatural creature.
Cabin fever is a claustrophobic reaction caused by spending too much time indoors, especially during the winter – which can lead to hysteria, so what’s simpler than a blizzard trapping a group of people in an enclosed location to just let the horror come naturally. There’s even a condition known as “Piblokto” which is common among the Inuit people in winter that causes irrational or dangerous acts followed by amnesia. Hallucinations caused by these conditions in addition to the insane boredom of being trapped somewhere with nothing to do can easily translate to tales of monsters and mythical creatures.
There’s a reason we are obsessed with tales of horrors that come with winter: the Abominable Snowman, Frozen (not to be confused with the Disney film), 30 Days of Night, John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Shining. Winter is so easily associated with horror because just the idea of it evokes something beautiful like snow, and something horrible like frostbite. Thick coats, icy exteriors, and shivering actors make for great horror stories. It’s really no surprise that the ninth circle of hell is covered in ice
One last tidbit: after Franklin’s expedition was lost, the British Government sent a few ships in search of them. Four of the five ships sent in 1852 were also trapped in ice, but one of them was later recovered by an American whaler and returned to the U.K., and timbers from the ship were used to manufacture three desks. One of the desk was given by Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes and named the Resolute desk, which we all know contains a clue to the location of a treasure found by none other than Nicolas Cage.