The Terror Succeeds as an Anthology Because It Understands Humans Can Be Worse Than Monsters

TV Features The Terror
The Terror Succeeds as an Anthology Because It Understands Humans Can Be Worse Than Monsters

On the surface, AMC’s The Terror seems like something of an odd choice for an anthology series. Based on a best-selling novel by Dan Simmons, the series’ first season was a tense, claustrophobic story of creeping dread set in a very specific time and place. (With soul-destroying cold to go with it.) It was also a tale with a very definitive ending, and one that made little effort to expand into the sort of narrative world building that might naturally lead to a second run.

Yet, despite the fact that The Terror’s second season, Infamy, is set in a later historical period and embraces a very different style of horror than its predecessor did, the two share a thematic bond; one that makes the series feel much richer and more connected than if it had simply tried to make a sequel to its original tale. The Terror succeeds precisely because it’s so good at infusing specific places and time periods with universal questions and themes, while using horror as a lens to explore the worst aspects of the real world we all know.

Infamy is set in the Japanese interment camps of the 1940s, as U.S. citizens turn on and imprison their own countrymen in the name of security and national pride. This historical backdrop is so harrowing that it hardly needs supernatural elements to be terrifying, and the addition of ghosts to the story does more to illuminate the flaws of the humans involved than anything else. There are no jump scares for shock value or faceless killers lurking in shadows with hooks for hands here. Instead, the show uses its supernaturally-tinged setting to explore the darker issues of human psychology, including the apparently limitless evil that our species is willing to inflict upon one another. Though The Terror’s first two seasons include bloodthirsty creatures and vengeful ghosts, the true monsters at the heart of these tales wear much more familiar faces: they look a lot like us.

Season One told the (true) story of the doomed Franklin Expedition, two British ships that disappeared on a quest to find the Northwest Passage in the mid-nineteenth century. The series explores what might have happened to them in grisly and often terrifying detail, as the men of the H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror fall victim to everything from lead poisoning and paranoia to starvation and a bloodthirsty supernatural polar bear. But although the crew is ostensibly united against the mysterious and malevolent Tuunbaq, what ultimately brings them to their knees are their own weak and treacherous natures. The men mutiny, murder, and betray one another. Some ultimately turn to cannibalism as their struggle for survival becomes more and more desperate. By the end of their journey, the Tunbaaq is the least of the crew’s problems, and the supernatural element is the least compelling aspect of the show.

The Terror: Infamy tackles a completely different sort of narrative in terms of time period, setting and supernatural creatures involved than the series’ first season did. But at its heart, one very important thing remains the same: Whatever the monsters in this tale may be, they’re not—and have never been—the point of this story.

Season Two follows the Japanese-American residents of Southern California’s Terminal Island, rounded up in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack and forced to live in detention camps up and down the West Coast by order of the federal government. Infamy largely focuses on the Nakayamas, a family comprised of traditionalist father Henry, modern son Chester and peacekeeper mother Asako. The tensions within this family generally mirror the tensions within the Japanese-American experience at large, as these immigrants find themselves both punished for trying too hard to adopt American customs and looked down upon for silo-ing themselves among members of the culture they left behind.

The historical atrocity unfolding around these people would likely be enough to drive a season’s worth of story on its own, but there’s also the lurking specter of a yurei, a dark spirit wreaking havoc in the community. Yuko, a nightmare of creaking body horror who can possess others and must keep her desiccated corpse nearby at all times, is perhaps slightly more sympathetic than Season One’s Tuunbaq, as her very presence radiates grief as much as it does menace. Or that may be because she’s not actually the scariest thing in this story. That honor goes to regular, everyday people.

Five episodes into Season Two of The Terror, and we actually know very little about Yuko, why the spirit is so attached to the Nakayama family, or even precisely what she is. Because for all that this is technically a ghost story, Infamy is much more interested in everyday monsters—from the government agents who round up fellow citizens for possessing to the wrong ancestry to average people who suddenly treat friends with distrust simply because they are “other”—than supernatural ones.

A seemingly nice old woman calls the police after the first sign of a Japanese person in her neighborhood. Henry’s drunken boss threatens to report him as a spy if he doesn’t hand over the prized car he’s spent his life working for. Chester’s college classmates view him with open suspicion following Pearl Harbor, and it’s one of his old drinking buddies who stands watch as his family is forced to leave their home. The camp residents must live in squalid conditions, are brutally treated—several return from a work outing with frostbite—and asked to sign loyalty oaths that are basically designed for them to fail. Even when Chester attempts to prove his American bona fides by joining the army as a translator, his fellow soldiers distrust and dislike him, even going so far as to physically attack him. (He’s ultimately saved by what appears to be a possessed man with a flamethrower, not due to any sudden attack of conscience on the part of his peers.)

Over the course of the season thus far, the mounting mix of xenophobia, racism and straight up human cruelty has become nigh unbearable to watch, and is easily more horrifying than a ghost woman who can stitch pieces of skin back onto her face. And though the camp residents are no doubt the victims in this story, they are hardly immune from morally repugnant behavior themselves. After learning one of their fellow prisoners is a spy, they leave him trapped on an ice floe, to sink or swim—and presumably live or die—on his own.

The Terror: Infamy has rightly earned praise for the timely connection of its story to current events. And while it’s unlikely that its producers planned to release this series amid public outcry over another set of government-sponsored prison camps, it nevertheless reinforces the show’s message. We may never know if monsters like yurei have ever really existed, but we can open any newspaper today and see that man remains as capable of monstrous acts as he has ever been. How little we’ve learned from the past that’s gone before us. And that’s the true horror of this tale.

The Terror: Infamy airs Monday nights on AMC.

Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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