On the surface, AMC's new series The Terror is about a mysterious monster hunting and devouring the crews of two massive ships lost in an icy abyss with little hope of survival. However, as horrifying as the series -- and the Dan Simmons novel it's based on -- may be, it's the true story buried this monstrous fable that might be the most intriguing piece of the puzzle.
In the 1840s, the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus were lost in the Northwest Passage (the route between the Pacific and the Atlantic through the Arctic Ocean) when the ships became lodged in thick ice, with both crews disappearing, never to be seen or heard from again. While it was well over a century before the ships' true fates were discovered (it's believed the crews died from exposure, starvation or botulism, and there was some evidence of cannibalism among the remains), The Terror has gone into incredible detail when it comes to setting the scene as best it can, with as much historical accuracy as possible. And it all started with a blog.
Dr. Matthew Betts, a curator at the Canadian Museum of History, had been working on a model of the HMS Terror for five years -- something he says was "melding my hobby with my career" -- and keeping track of his progress on his blog when it was discovered by the show's producers, who soon brought him on as a historical advisor.
"The first thing they told me about it was they saw the two ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, as characters in this show," he explains during a presentation for the new series. "I thought that was great because I know from the history that the capabilities of the ships, the spaces inside the ships, and their technology helped drive the history of polar exploration that involved these two ships and also drives the narrative of The Terror."
That history is, in and of itself, as scary as anything you'll see on-screen in The Terror. Both HMS Terror and HMS Erebus got their starts as bomb ships for the Royal Navy, with Terror playing a major role in American history during the War of 1812. "In 1814, it bombed the United States in the Battle of Baltimore and Fort McHenry," Betts says. "This is the battle that Francis Scott Key observed, and so every time you guys go to a baseball game and they start singing the Star Spangled Banner, the bombs bursting in air were actually lobbed at the United States in anger from the HMS Terror."
Somehow, though, it wasn't until after the war that these two ships faced their most harrowing moments. Whether it was the sternpost rudder on the Terror being shattered after being pushed up against ice in the Arctic in 1836 -- leading the ship to voyage back across the Atlantic Ocean with water pouring into its hull -- or an 1842 incident in which the ships collided with each other, causing Terror's anchor to become lodged in the body of the Erebus, they might be the most storied ships of all time. And that's before, of course, they found their final resting place off the shore of King William Island in the Canadian Arctic.
The Terror has painstakingly recreated both ships for the series, accounting for everything from the locomotive steam engines they were outfitted with to the water desalination devices that kept the men aboard the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus hydrated -- not to mention the double planking treatment given to the hulls, making them stronger than most other ships of that time. It's those details that were so important to production designer Jonathan McKinstry and his team as they began building one massive ship set, which serves as both vessels on screen.
Having room for only one ship might have been the greatest challenge for the crew, as all too often both ships are seen on screen simultaneously.
"I made a quick plan of how the boats get stuck in the ice for working out the geography. We actually only built one set, which had to be both ships. So, in different configurations, during different episodes, the boats had to tilt," McKinstry remembers. "Each boat tilted in a different way and our one set had to serve both things. So we wanted to set up geography and make sure when we shot one scene on one boat, people were looking off the right side of the ship to where the other ship was, and so on."
Still, even with all of their planning and historical records, there was one piece of the puzzle that McKinstry and his team were lacking -- information about the condition of the ships after they became stuck in ice. Thankfully, researchers were able to solve that particular mystery for them.
While the wreckage of the HMS Erebus was found in 2014, it wasn't until shortly before production started in September 2016 that the Terror was found in pristine condition at the bottom of an arctic bay. That discovery, McKinstry says, caused a substantial change in the show's plot.
"There was a storyline where about the mid-part of the series, the ship got torn apart by our creature," he says. "Around September, I think ... which was a month or so before we started shooting, they discovered the Terror and it was completely intact. So it meant rewriting some of the storylines, so the knowledge of finding the ship intact didn't seem to contradict our story in any way."
It's this attention to detail that helps The Terror stand out. While this is a fictional story about a mythological monster preying on the weak, the people and settings that populate it were very real. As a viewer, when you lay eyes on the HMS Terror for the first time, you can do so knowing these ships meeting their doom are historically accurate representations of two massive vessels that survived war, collisions, and some of the worst possible circumstances before they wound up dead in the water, with histories every bit as fascinating as the men on board.
The Terror premieres on AMC on March 26 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. For more about the series, check out this inside look at what makes it so scary, and read our review of the series premiere.