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Psychological horror and polar exploration: where one story fails and another succeeds

Art by Mia Walker

In March of 2018, AMC aired the first episode of their new psychological horror series The Terror. The show followed the disastrous real-life Franklin Expedition of 1845, which ended in two ships mysteriously disappearing while searching for the Northwest Passage. The show was well-received and was praised for its excellent acting, presentation, and special effects. Three years later, Julian Sancton published his book, Madhouse at the End of the Earth. The book followed a similar expedition to one of the Earth’s poles, this time to the South Pole. Similarly to The Terror, the expedition featured in the book got stuck in the winter pack ice and was forced to stay for the winter. Unlike The Terror, the expedition in the book actually survived to tell the tale, resulting in a well-researched, riveting, and overall better story than the one shown in The Terror.

The Terror
Photo credit: AMC

Despite all the praise, the show left some feeling disappointed with its second half. After the two ships, HMS Erebus and Terror get caught in the polar pack ice, the leading officers of the ships begin preparations to spend the winter in the ice. Up until this point, the show builds tension and fills the audience with dread of what is to come. Unfortunately, the show missteps in Episode 5, when it reveals that the main threat the crew will have to face isn’t the impending winter or their own growing paranoia, but instead, a massive polar bear monster called Tuunbaq. This choice always confused me, especially because the show already had a brilliant antagonist in the form of Cornelius Hickey, a dangerous and selfish man that was already posing a threat to the crew of both ships.

Photo credit: AMC

After the introduction of Tuunbaq, the show still has its moments, but overall goes downhill. The crew discovers that the monster is actually an Inuit spirit that is haunting them, and the show leans much more into fight-and-chase scenes with the monster, which get repetitive and tiring after the first 3. The finale of the season is a final battle with the monster which ends in the violent death of Mr. Hickey and his accomplices, and the escape of the protagonist and Captain of HMS Terror, Francis Crozier. While the idea of including a creature inspired by Inuit mythology is interesting, it doesn’t fit well with the tone of the show and is an awkward addition to a show that is attempting to give an accurate portrayal of a real-life disaster. Overall, The Terror is a fun show with great acting, but its second half fails to keep the tension built in the first half.

Madhouse at the End of the Earth
Photo credit: De Gerlache family collection

First published during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Julian Sancton’s Madhouse at the End of the Earth seems like a fitting book to read during quarantine. Unlike its more popular counterpart, it focuses on the feelings of isolation and hopelessness felt by the crew and offers up much more detail about what happened (mainly because this expedition actually escaped with entire books full of notes and photos). The book recounts the story of the Belgica, a Belgian ship that set sail from Antwerp, Belgium, in August 1897 and was led by Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery with the goal of locating the magnetic south pole or, if that proved impossible, trekking as far south as possible to set a new record.

At the time, Belgium was still a fairly new and small country with no previous expeditions to similar climates, making it difficult for de Gerlache to find funding and crew. In the end, he assembled an unsteady crew of scientists and sailors from all around the world and managed to raise enough funds to purchase the ship and supplies they would need for the journey. The expedition was a disaster before it even really began. While on their way out of the port, one of the crew became enraged with the seasickness-inducing waves and threw one of their pet cats overboard. Later, the ship faces a mutiny led by drunken crew members and gets severely damaged when it runs aground in South America. Even before they reached the dangerous part of their journey, one crew member had died and several others had abandoned the ship.

Part of what makes this story so much more compelling than The Terror is the significantly smaller crew. Each crew member’s writings are featured heavily in the book, and each one has a unique perspective on what is happening. This is especially true once the ship gets trapped in the polar sea ice. The book ramps up the psychological horror slowly, but gets really intense in the later chapters. The crew go through the initial phase of panic as they realize they are trapped, but slowly become more and more depressed as the realization of how long they will be there sets in. One crew member starts to hallucinate and tries to shoot one of his best friends. Another dies of a strange illness. Even the remaining cat loses its mind and starts attacking people.

The book’s story is presented in a much more effective manner because instead of a large, well-equipped crew facing off against a big polar bear monster, the crew of the Belgica is a small, divided, and underprepared group of terrified people desperately trying to survive in a place that is almost impossible to live in. Ironically, it’s The Terror that sums up this idea best in its first episode, when Captian Crozier says about the Arctic: “This place wants us dead.” It’s disappointing how close the show was to greatness, especially when there are so many places to draw inspiration from.

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