How the AMC period drama coaxes deeper scares from heightened realism—rather than hiding “a zombie behind every tree.”
Any series with a title like The Terror has certain expectations baked in: dissonant music, jump scares, a monster of the week, perhaps. Remarkably, AMC’s new series has none of the above—yet it’s still perhaps the most terrifying show to air in recent memory. “When you think about good horror, it’s not fueled by fear,” says David Kajganich, creator of the show, and co-show-runner alongside Soo Hugh. “Really good horror is either fueled by anger, or it’s fueled by sadness. Once you get fear off the table, you have a better shot at creating it.”
Of course, we shouldn’t discount the inherent strangeness of the source material itself. In May of 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin led the H.M.S. Erebus and the H.M.S. Terror—yes, that was really the ship’s name—on a voyage to discover the Northwest Passage. The ships were last seen in late July, waiting for good conditions to cross into Lancaster Sound. They were never seen again.
The TV series is adapted from Dan Simmons’s eponymous 2007 novel, a fictionalized account of the lost expedition. It has been augmented by copious amounts of research, as well as the stunning discoveries of the wrecks of the Erebus and the Terror, which occurred respectively in 2014 and 2016, as writing and production were underway.
“We suddenly had the benefit of all of this information that Dan didn’t know when he wrote the book,” Kajganich says. “We were tweaking the scripts down to the day we shot them, to try and keep them as up-to-date with what was being discovered as possible.” Hardcore fans of the book will likely notice a few changes to the story and characters, but the biggest set pieces remain.
So, too, remains the huge cast of characters. Jared Harris, Ciarán Hinds, and Tobias Menzies star as the three captains of the expedition, but as the crew travels further into the Arctic tundra and all sense of hierarchy begins to break down, figures who were all but invisible in earlier episodes begin to come to the forefront. Pulling off this balancing act was a struggle, and getting it done fell to the cast as much as it did the crew.
“In terms of the position that Tobias, Ciarán, and myself were in . . . it was our job to make sure that everyone else’s story got protected and served well,” says Harris. “When you’re at the end of a 13-hour day and they start to go, ‘Do we really need coverage on so-and-so?’ We go, ‘Yeah, you do. You have to get that. We’re not leaving until you get that.’”
It’s ultimately this devotion to character, rather than genre, that makes The Terror as affecting as it is. The death of a character won’t have any effect if an audience isn’t emotionally invested in them, especially given Hugh and Kajganich’s approach to cooking up scares.
“Dave and I have an allergy to horror that writes for the audience, where it’s clear that the setup and unraveling of a horror set piece or moment is clearly just geared towards scaring the audience,” Hugh says. “We wanted to make sure that the source of horror was always subjective, that we were experiencing it from a character’s very subjective point of view. And that informed the conversation about genre differently, because we don’t walk around thinking that we’re going to be in a horror movie all the time.”
To drive the point home, Kajganich and Hugh made sure to hire people whose backgrounds weren’t in horror when assembling their writers’ room. The films they screened to set a tone for the series ranged from Come and See, a Soviet war drama, to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? When speaking about tonal touchstones, both show-runners refer to science fiction and Westerns as much as—if not more than—horror.
The effect of those diverse influences is tangible throughout the series, as is the fact that much of what’s on screen was shot practically. The ships, though confined to sound stages, were fully built out, and caused some havoc on set as they were angled to mimic the effects of the ice on the actual ships. According to Harris, “There were several colorful curse words, because when they tilt the deck, they actually shifted the whole ship, and you just went flying. You couldn’t get a good perch, so there were a lot of people face-planting into doors. Sometimes you’d be talking to somebody on an incline, and they’d slowly lose their grip, and they’d start sliding totally out of the shot.”
The scenes on the ice, meanwhile, were shot in Croatia and Budapest. Switching countries midway through the shoot was a risk, one further complicated by nature, which doesn’t keep to a shooting schedule—but the results speak for themselves. The world of The Terror is entrancing, with horror coaxed out of heightened realism and the slow dissolution of the psyche rather than forced scares and, in Kajganich’s words, “a zombie behind every tree.”
“I think people will be surprised by how much they cry and laugh” at The Terror, says Hugh. “They already know they’re going to be scared with a title like The Terror, but what’s surprising is how much more emotional the show is beyond the genre tropes.”
“Soo and I just rolled the dice that people were smarter than we give them credit for,” Kajganich adds. “And if you build something that rewards people for watching and thinking closely about what’s happening, they will respond to that.”
This interview was originally published by Vanity Fair. It has been reposted here for posterity.