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How The Terror Became One of TV's Best Horror Series

The creators explain the ending and how they constructed tension over 10 scary episodes

Tim Surette

AMC's The Terror, based on Dan Simmons' novel of the same name, plays with familiar genres but mashes them together into a unique experience. It's a historical drama detailing the real lost expedition led by John Franklin in the 1840s as the British Royal Navy attempted to find the Northwest Passage north of Canada. It's also a supernatural horror series, as it intertwines Inuit spiritualism and folklore into its story, resulting in a monster that hunts down the crew.

A dark tale of survival and nature's wrath, The Terror wrapped up its first season slightly different from the book, which concluded with a happier ending for Francis Crozier (Jared Harris). In the show the last survivor of the expedition went to live among the Inuit people, while Silna/Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen) was banished after the Tuunbaq -- the massive creature that was killing Crozier's men -- was killed in one final battle while trying to eat Hickey (Adam Nagaitis). In the final shot, Crozier is seen on the ice, with a young Inuit boy beside him, hunting seals as he avoids the search parties that come to bring him back to London.

The Terror is a welcome sight for AMC as it's the network's best original in years, and has a real shot at getting some love come awards season, particularly for Harris' performance. To talk about the show's unique experience, the ending and the Tuunbaq, TV Guide spoke to showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh.

Jared Harris, The Terror

Jared Harris, The Terror

Jared Harris, The Terror

The Terror was horrifying on so many levels, but what was unique about the show was its ability to create a sense of horror throughout all the episodes despite vast changes in scenery and situation. Was there a common baseline you established to make the show's sense of horror consistent throughout the 10 episodes?
David Kajganich: Well yeah, the first rule being no jump scares, and I think once you embrace the idea that you can give the audience a frightening experience or a tense experience without needing to startle them, I think so many options open up. I think people have been trained over the last couple of decades with horror to confuse being startled with being frightened, and they're two completely different things. We never wanted to be a show that trafficked in those easy jump scares, we wanted to earn everything. And you earn it the hard way, by working out character and working out the psychological insights.
Soo Hugh: Horror is one of those things that means something different to everyone, it's the most flexible genre because it's so undefinable. Everyone is scared of their own unique things. What was interesting to explore in the show was, in addition to what Dave was saying about having specific rules of what not to do, but once we got that off the ground we really wanted to explore all the ways horror could be surprising, especially what Dave was saying from a character's point of view, each person is in a different type of horror show.
Kajganich: We also wanted to embrace all the different kinds of horror out there. We have some great love of some fantastic B-movies, and we have some great love of some very sophisticated literary horror and everything in between, and we wanted the show to be a sort of sampler of all the different ways people have transmitted horror.
Hugh: We watched so many movies in the writers room, but we didn't watch any horror movies.
Kajganich: Yeah, we watched Westerns and war films and documentaries, and tried to learn some lessons and take tension and maintain it and release it at the right moment.

I'd love to talk about the ending, and how it differs from the book. What went into the decision to take what was arguably a happy ending in the book -- Francis Crozier is accepted by the Inuits and he and Lady Silence end up together and have children as a couple -- and make it more solemn, where Lady Silence was banished and Francis lived alone with the natives?
Kajganich: There's a version of the ending of the story that would be very reassuring, which is that Crozier, this character we've come to love, is able to jump from his own culture to this native culture and thrive. There's a danger to that ending, at least there's a danger to misunderstand that ending. By taking Silna as his wife and them having children, it just feels like it was a kind of reassurance that we weren't sure the show was going to earn. In trying to build a different character for Silna, one that exists on her own terms, with her own arc, her own concerns, with her own methods for dealing with them, a big part of that when we started to do some research on our own in terms of shamanism and Netsilik culture and all of that, we understood that the inevitable conclusion here was that, in the same way that Crozier as captain of the expedition loses his ships and has a steep price to pay for that, she as a second-in-command shaman who loses her Tunnbaq also should pay a price if we're really going to be honest about what the consequences of this story are. So to have the pay the full bill for what happened, to the disruption of the equilibrium that these ships bring with them when they enter this territory. We knew it was the right ending and it would leave Crozier in his own different ending from the book, which is that he decides not to go back to Britain, but instead he's chosen what's going to be a very difficult life, but at least it's a life with people who are more honest about their motivations and have more of a sense of community than he'd go back to if he went back to London.
Hugh: Nor does he want to go back to London after all that he's been through. He can't go back to that place any more. We hope that at the end of our show the audience understands that as well.

The Terror Could Return for a Season 2

One of the biggest questions viewers had is what is Tuunbaq? How did you hash it out behind scenes?
Hugh: I know it seems to be a very simple question, it's actually a question that took up a lot of real estate time in our writers room. In our show, he is a real physical creature. We did not want to play that game as to whether he existed or not, whether the men were imagining him. He is a corporeal, physical being. But in terms of allegories, he's the creature who keeps the balance for this island, for this landscape and for the Inuit people. So when our men become trapped in this ice and venture upon King William Land, what they're doing is coming upon an island that wants no part of them. He is both myth and physical being, in some ways he services almost everything for our show. He's definitely misunderstood by our men, and it isn't until the very, very end when Crozier is in the tent with Silna and the Inuit hunter asks him, "Were you there when he died? Were you there when the souls came out?" And he hears the reference with which [the hunter] asks this question, does Crozier fully understand what this creature fully meant to these people.

I loved the final confrontation between Hickey and the Tuunbaq. It's like the Tuunbaq literally choked on Hickey, because he couldn't absorb his soul.
Kajganich: Yes, absolutely. And we wanted it to feel like after a long string of attacks on the Tuunbaq -- the cannon that launched at it, the rockets, the consumption of all these men with lead in their system and scurvy, and also Blanky and all those crazy forks -- by the time the Tuunbaq gets to that hill, all it's going to take is one final blow and that ends up being Hickey's soul, Hickey's curdled, toxic soul.

Visually, The Terror was also a treat, and one of the ways you subtly increased the idea of horror in the early episodes was when we could see the Erebus and The Terror were tilted as the ice formed beneath the ships, which added to the claustrophobia. I always wondered this: were the sets crooked or did you just turn the camera for that effect?
Kajganich: The sets were crooked, they were on huge gimbals that we cranked at whatever angle we needed, so they were able to cant to the point where actors were sliding around. [Laughs.]
Hugh: But I remember at one point someone did suggest canting the camera, and we were like, "That's not going to work." That would have really helped set production along though.

Ciarin Hinds, The Terror

Ciarin Hinds, The Terror

Aidan Monaghan/AMC

As much as the show was full of death and dreariness, there were these gorgeous shots that captured the beauty of the land that was slowly killing them.
Kajganich: We never wanted to lose sight of the general feeling of an expedition like this, which would have been a sense of wonder. They were constantly seeing things that "Western" eyes hadn't seen yet, so we wanted to make sure that even if we were in a scene about being threatened or survival that the environment still carried that sense of wonder.
Hugh: It was also important for Dave and I from where we stand now in the 21st Century, we wanted to create a visual look for what 1865, 1868 and 1870 would look like, that world doesn't exist anymore, and that is of our doing. We don't state it explicitly, but we hope some of our audience understands that unfortunately our trespassing continues to this day, we wish that beautiful landscape existed. It doesn't.

Season 1 of The Terror is available on-demand or via AMC's subscription service. A second season has not yet been announced, but there are plans to continue the show as an anthology.