Maybe the Real Horror Was the Colonialism We Did Along the Way

Manor Vellum
7 min readMar 17, 2023

By Katie Gill

Art: George Grey

It’s tough to swap genres partway through a film or TV show. Sure, there are a few examples that come to mind that pull it off well. Psycho (1960) goes from a drama to a horror. Sunshine (2007) goes from science-fiction to a slasher movie. But what about subgenres? Is there a horror TV show that starts off as psychological horror but then ends up as a slasher show? What about a monster movie that kills off the monster halfway through? Those can be harder to craft, especially when trying to keep the two halves part of the same whole. But when a horror property pulls it off? It can be amazing.

The Terror is an anthology TV series that first premiered on AMC in 2018. The first season is an adaptation of the Dan Simmons book of the same name: a fictionalization of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, an 1840s attempt by the British navy to find the Northwest Passage. Led by Sir John Franklin, the expedition seemingly vanished into thin air, leaving behind no survivors, two missing ships, and an enduring mystery. The Terror takes advantage of that mystery to effortlessly pull off a subgenre swap halfway through the ten-episode runtime. After episode five, our monster show turns into survival horror.

The main thrust of the horror in the first five episodes is the large murderous polar bear, a half-beast, half-god creature named Tuunbaq. We first meet the creature in episode two as it attacks a small unit of sailors, tearing through their tents, shrugging off bullets, and cleaving them in half. For the next three episodes, Tuunbaq continues to pick off the crew, never seen, but leaving behind a trail of blood and bodies in its wake. Most chillingly, in episode three, the show executes a marvelous rug-pull, killing off Sir John Franklin himself.

Franklin’s death scene is a masterclass in monster horror. The monster strikes without the victims realizing it. As Tuunbaq attacks a group of Royal Marines out to kill it, Franklin is accompanying them. It tears through their canvas tent, killing and decapitating one of the soldiers in seconds. As Franklin runs towards safety, he’s pulled back by something unseen, accompanied only by a roar. There is a dizzying point-of-view shot as Franklin is dragged through the landscape. It is only when the camera pulls back that we see the extent of the carnage, realizing at the same time Franklin does, that he is bleeding profusely and has lost a leg. A few seconds of tension remain before the still unseen monster pushes him through a hole in the ice, into the frigid Arctic waters below, leaving only a leg and a trail of blood behind.

Ciarán Hinds as Sir John Franklin

The first five episodes focus on the various ways the crew deals with the monster and its carnage. The caulker’s mate Cornelius Hickey kidnaps an Inuit woman, Silna, whom he believes can control the monster. The second-in-command Francis Crozier grapples with how to take control now that the leader of the expedition is dead. Patrols are formed and plans are made. And more bodies show up as the monster keeps killing. In true monster movie fashion, the full scope of the beast is not revealed until the final climax, episode five. This is the first time we see Tuunbaq on-screen, viewing the physical monster instead of an invisible murderous force — we even see it bleed. Episode five is also when the monster is seemingly vanquished as the crew drives it off with cannon fire, driving the physicality home even further.

But as mentioned before, this is episode five, and The Terror is a ten-episode season. What now?

The latter half of the show shifts to a survival horror situation as the crew realizes that they are essentially dead men walking and they will need to do whatever it takes to simply live. To the show’s credit, it does a wonderful job setting up the seeds of this survival horror through multiple, subtle mentions in the first half. The ships are running out of supplies. Back in England, those at home start to worry about the lack of news. And Harry Goodsir, the ship’s surgeon, pieces out that the lead soldering of their canned food was improperly sealed and is slowly poisoning their rations — and also the men.

The driving question for the latter half of the series becomes ‘how do we survive.’ Crozier orders the crew to leave the ships and walk towards civilization, hoping the Inuit people could help. Hickey resorts to cannibalism, drawing together a group of like minds who would do anything to live. Goodsir stubbornly clings to his morals even as all seems lost. Tuunbaq shows up again, but it is downgraded from a major problem to a minor threat. Yes, the murderous polar bear just killed again, but we literally do not have anything to eat. Let’s focus on finding food instead of murdering the bear. Notably, a few of those actions of survival are also actions of colonialist violence.

As The Terror continues, the show takes great pains to show that the true villain isn’t the monster polar bear; the true villain is the forces of colonialism that drove the men into the Arctic in the first place. Crozier, our audience surrogate and most sympathetic character, is one of the few characters who suggests actually listening to the Inuit people. Goodsir outright says that they shouldn’t have come to the Arctic to begin with and that they don’t belong here. When Tuunbaq reappears, it is due to acts of overt colonialism: it attacks the crew in retaliation for the murder of an Inuit family and when Hickey leads the few remaining survivors in a taunting rendition of “God Save the Queen.” These acts of colonialism are also acts of survival. The sailors murder the Inuit family under the mistaken belief that they killed one of their own, and Hickey summons the Tuunbaq believing that he can obtain some of its supernatural power. Noticeably, the only two people left standing at the end of the show are the two people who are most in touch with the land: Silna and Crozier.

Nive Nielsen as Silna

The thread of colonialism ties all the way back to the first half of the series as well. When Tuunbaq first appears, it is after the sailors mistakenly shoot an Inuit man; it kills Franklin after they desecrate the Inuit man’s body. Not only does it kill the man the expedition is named after, but it kills a beacon of colonialism: the show goes out of its way to present Franklin as this crusading Christian, belittling those who are more interested in the land and its people. It’s a detail that’s easy enough to overlook at first glance but is illuminated when you look back on the series as a whole. And maybe that’s how the show navigates its swap between subgenres: the underlying theme — pervading both halves — that colonialism is dangerous to both the victims and the perpetrators. After all, the hubristic attempt to find the Northwest Passage for Queen and country is what kicked off all this misery in the first place. Maybe the true monster is the forces of colonialism themselves.

Though the murderous polar bear certainly doesn’t help. 🩸

About

Katie Gill is a librarian by day and a culture critic by night, who has strong opinions about dead explorers, the Eurovision Song Contest, and public domain works of literature. She has previously published at The Singles Jukebox, Anime Feminist, and Women Write About Comics. Her voice can be heard on various podcasts including PseudoPod and Stacks and Stories.

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Manor Vellum

A membrane of texts about the human condition and the horror genre. A MANOR feature. New 🩸 every Friday.