Warning: Spoilers for all of AMC’s The Terror follow…
Now that The Terror has run its course on AMC, and the series closed things out with a massive Tuunbaq rampage – along with Captain Crozier, despite being the sole survivor, deciding not to return to society when men from the rescue mission arrive to search for answers – we can now check in with what history tells us about the lost expedition.
Obviously, The Terror, based on Dan Simmons’ novel, is a work of historical fiction. It’s purpose is to fill in the gaps and create a gripping and horrific narrative around a real life mystery filled with ample unknowables.
Truth be told, there’s no way of concluding that many of the crew weren’t massacred by a soul-sucking snow demon, but there are a few hard and concrete facts we do know about those 129 poor unfortunate souls who were aboard the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror as part of Captain John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to the Northwest Passage.
Here’s a look at everything that went wrong on The Terror up until the series finale…
Thanks to melting ice, both ships were recently discovered – the Erebus in 2014 and the Terror in 2016. Unfortunately, despite both being quite intact and in pristine condition because of the ice that preserved them, they offered up little additional information to what researchers already presumed.
Here’s what’s on record.
On May 19th, Captains John Franklin and Francis Crozier (played by Ciarán Hinds and Jared Harris on the series) left England on a two-ship expedition to find the “Northwest Passage” in the Arctic, believed to link the North Atlantic and the Pacific.
Both vessels were stocked with years’ worth of food, flour, booze and books. A little more than two months later, near the end of July, both the Erebus and the Terror were spotted by whalers off the coast of Baffin Bay, west of Greenland. No signs of death, disease, or demons.
More than a year later, the wrong course of action, as most people believe, and which was dramatized on the show, was when Franklin made the call to sail down the west coast of King William Island. This caused both ships to get trapped in the ice during a great freeze and, beginning in September of 1846, that’s where both ships remained.
Naturally, we don’t know if Captain Crozier objected to Franklin’s decision like he did on the series, or if there was any debate among the crew. We just know the end result.
The only informative document to be salvaged from the ships tells us that there was good progress from 1845 to 1847, and that the ships were deserted in 1848. By then, nine officers – counting Sir John Franklin – and 15 others were dead.
Mauled to death by a Tuunbaq? Who can say for sure, right? We only know that Franklin died in June of 1847, after the crew had to wait out the winter aboard the two ice-locked vessels.
After spending a second brutal and devastating winter aboard the ships, the remaining crew abandoned their shelter and walked out, beginning a terrible trek across King William Island in April of 1848, pulling their supplies and a few boats behind them, in an attempt to enter the Canadian mainland.
Of course, in real life these men weren’t being stalked by a gargantuan mauling Tuunbaq, but they still had an impossible and agonizing task ahead of them. None would survive from here on out.
Throughout the series, as the years progress, the story leans into starvation, scurvy, madness, exposure, and lead poisoning (courtesy of tainted tins of meat). The true record holds – well – a mix of all of this.
In the 1980s, expeditions discovered the remains of some of the crew on King William Island and found evidence of scurvy and starvation. Scientists also found evidence of lead poisoning – either from the tins of meat the crew had been living on or due to the water filtration systems designed to work with the ship’s steam engines.
Now, it’s not known if the amount of lead in the men’s bodies was enough to truly poison them to the extent they suffered on the series, or drive them to madness, but it’s still an interesting find. You know, while we’re piling on to the long list of lethal misery they had to experience.
Sadly, as things gruesomely grew to an inescapable close, the crew resorted to cannibalism. Perhaps not in the way it was depicted on the series – with that miserable muppet Mr. Hickey devouring his mates with glee, or with Dr. Harry Goodsir poisoning himself so those who ate him would fall ill – but scenes of butchery were discovered by expedition research teams.
Archeologists a few decades back found “pot polish” on human bones – a smoothness caused from when bones are boiled down in a pot for their marrow. Also, nearly one-third of all the bones found had knife marks from flesh removal. To go along with all this, there were Inuit reports of cannibalism among the men as well.
Okay, so on the show one man makes it out of the ordeal alive. He doesn’t head home though, or take advantage of the rescue team that arrives in 1850. Captain Crozier decides to stay among the Inuit and live a life of frozen solitude and simplicity. Perhaps not wanting to return to the bulls*** of “back home” or perhaps because he’d never be able to recover from the horror of what he’d endured and the tough choices he had to make.
No one will ever be able to say with certainly that every member of Franklin’s expedition died – because of that expedition. We do know though that none came back. And that’s what the show is using here, for a little generous elbow room in the narrative.