The Terror: Creating A Horror Series

Dan Simmons’ compelling novel, The Terror, about the disappearance of The Franklin Expedition British Naval ships The HMS Erebus and The HMS Terror and their crews of over 120 men comes to life in a dark and thrilling new horror/supernatural series from AMC television. Executive Produced by Ridley Scott, the series takes the audience on a fictional journey based on historical evidence and conjecture over 170 years since the entire expedition disappeared with little trace.

At a recent press event, series star Jared Harris, and Executive Producers and Showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh gave reporters a taste of what audiences can expect from The Terror.

“We wanted to start from a place of wonder, and build in the dread,” says Kajganich. Before diving into the horror and suspense, The Terror begins by giving the audience a sense of the Arctic expanse facing the two ships, and an introduction to the hierarchy on board a British Naval vessel of the mid nineteenth century. A place where though society is limited, the social order is maintained, even as these men look out on a vast wasteland.

But don’t worry, the dread does come quick, as the ships are caught in the ice and the crew are forced to travel far and wide in a vain attempt to find a way out of their predicament. As they search, they quickly realize they are not alone, and some terror is hunting them on the ice.

While the horror element in The Terror is certainly a major selling point that AMC is banking on attracting audiences, it’s just one small part of a larger story. “It’s about people in a hierarchy who are being kept from connecting to one another because of rank, background, gender, class, all of those things, and this disaster renders those things increasingly irrelevant,” says Kajganich. “It’s about those characters putting those things aside in order to help one another”

“This isn’t the story about how humanity turns on one other in the worst of times,” adds Hugh. “It’s actually the story of how brotherhood helps one another in the worst of times.”

Though Kajganich and Hugh promise there will be surprises even for those who are familiar the story from Simmons book, the building blocks for the series come straight from the novel, and Kajganich and Hugh are clearly grateful for what the author developed on the page. “He’s smart enough to understand that the genre elements that he’s sort of trafficing in, they can’t be the main force, it really has to be characters. You’re either going to fall in love with characters or you’re not,” explains Kajganich.

“For us adapting a book like this it just makes our job so much easier because you have a whole psychology in front of you that’s been built out of little moments and when you can pull those moments in you can sort of triangulate them the same way, but when you have to introduce moments it’s a lot of fun to kind of re-calibrate everything and you do come up with a slightly different take on a character. But we owe Dan a whole lot because the foundation for the show, even though we depart by a lot, they don’t share a lot of dialogue because of the way we had to change the scenes around, but the bones are certainly there and the souls of these men are certainly there.”

One major change from page to screen is the character of Lady Silence, an Inuit woman played by Nive Nielsen.

“We wanted that character to not be relegated to the normal set of options for female characters in genre-being someone’s wife, someone’s girlfriend, being enigmatic, having boobs-those things we just were not interested in at all,” says Kajganich. “So we wanted to make sure that at the end of the day, before we started writing the script, we knew she had as vibrant, complicated, and ambiguous an arc as any of our major male characters, and that didn’t include having to be subservient as a character to another character, and once we sort of found our way through what that would be it was quite of exciting because it meant some departures from Dan’s book.”

Adds Hugh, “In a show that questions the patriarchy, and questions the hierarchy, you could not have had a character that had no agency. That was just off the table. So then once we realized we had to rebuild her into someone new what we really looked at was just the landscape. If you grew up in this kind of hostile environment with the Inuit history, what kind of person would you be, and she just kind of organically formed.”

One benefit the series claims that Simmons was not so fortunate to have when he published his book is that in 2014 and 2016, respectively, the wreckage of The HMS Erebus and The HMS Terror were found. Hey look, we found a bright side to global warming!

Luckily, the historical record had been pretty accurate as pertains the actual structure of the ships, and some little is known about when the ships were abandoned thanks to a note left in a cairn on King William Island and what The Terror historical advisor Matthew Betts calls the “Human carnage of artifacts down the west coast of King William Island.” But one big change that came after the discovery of The HMS Terror and thanks to Kajganich and Hugh’s commitment to making their fictionalized version of the story fit as closely as possible into the historical narrative set by the artifacts was that an original concept of the monster somehow forcing The HMS Terror to be torn in two was cut when the ship was found in tact, which meant a little less work for production designer Jonathan McKinstry and Post-Production Effects Supervisor Viktor Muller, and their teams.

Though the series promises much suspense, fear, and a great deal of hardship for the characters you may want to make sure you don’t get too connected to, Hugh was quick to tell us that “our last few episodes are really hopeful, actually.”

You can be the judge of that yourself as The Terror premieres on AMC in the US on 26th March, and in the UK on 24th April.

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