'The Terror' Creators Wrote a Dictionary to Recreate Franklin Expedition Lingo

The Terror, executive produced by David Kajganich and Soo Hugh and adapted from the Dan Simmons novel of the same name, is shadowed by inevitability from the first frame. Depicting the real Franklin Expedition, The Terror hews close to our best understanding of the true events (except for the voracious Inuit spirit, Tuunbaq, stalking them across the ice): after setting out from England to find the Northwest Passage in 1845, Sir John Franklin's expedition spent two winters trapped in ice before abandoning their ships, Terror and Erebus, and striking out across King William Island on foot. All 129 men on the expedition died.

Still, Hugh told Newsweek, "I hope that people leave our show not feeling battered. Dave and I don't feel like we made a bleak show in the end."

Over ten episodes—The Terror concluded Monday with finale episode "We Are Gone"—viewers witnessed the sailors' slow slide into delirium, haunted not just by the monster, but the mounting effects of exhaustion and lead poisoning from improperly tinned food stores. The men of the expedition revealed their character as death approached. There was desperation, terror and suffering, but also transformation. Conceited war heroes, like Sir James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), disavowed their former vanity. Captain Crozier purged his resentments, his regrets, his vengeful spirit, even his drinking, the suffering of the young men under his command stripping him of everything but incandescent compassion.

Over a wide-ranging post-mortem interview with The Terror's co-showrunners and executive producers, a single thread, running through disparate topics, soon revealed itself. Whether in the show's aesthetics, the writing process or the powerful hallucinations punctuating the concluding episode, Kajganich and Hugh tailored The Terror to pull us in, as close as possible, to the lives and thoughts of men at the absolute extremity of human experience.

"We spent a lot of time perfecting the language of the show," Kajganich told Newsweek. Research into how people talked in the 1840s began with period literature: William Thackeray, Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers, the Brontë sisters and Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers. They were especially interested in literature written a decade or two after the expedition, but set before, offering insight into how the authors understood the idioms and social mores of earlier times, and what society had distilled from that decade.

The goal was period dialogue that "didn't stretch too far into the orientation of the period," so that "modern psychologies" could still come through. The balance between period detail and present-day relatability produced moments simultaneously alien and intensely sympathetic. We may not understand the exact parameters of 1840s naval justice, but when Captain Crozier (Jared Harris) punishes Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) "as a boy"—delivering lashes to his exposed buttocks instead of his back—it's a kind of public shaming easy to relate to today.

"We wanted rhetoric from that period, so we built a dictionary full of words and phrases we thought were Victorian," Kajganich said. "Then we went through that dictionary and carefully crossed out anything too confusing, too irrelevant, too fussy."

That dictionary, full of sayings like "mind the grease," which means simply "be careful, I'm walking around you," grew to between 300 and 400 phrases during the writing of The Terror.

Finessing the dialogue wasn't the only way to bring audiences closer to the mental states of 19th century sailors. Several times throughout the series, and especially in the finale, The Terror jumps inside the mind of someone dying, subjective hallucinations drawing us closer to men 170 years gone, dead under circumstances we could hardly imagine. In the first episode, a young sailor dying of fever has a vision of an Inuit shaman the expedition has yet to meet, standing in a dim corner. But if hallucinations are foreshadowing omens early in the series, they're more like ecstatic insights by the time the story reaches its finale, which dramatizes Dr. Goodsir's (Paul Ready) dying thoughts with visions of natural order.

"The first episode kind of give the audience a primer in what the whole show will traffic in, in terms of tone. Everything that's coming has some sort of antecedent in the first episode," Kajganich said. "We knew that psychedelic bending of reality was coming and we wanted to let them know, even in a small way."

The creators wanted these rare dips into hallucinatory subjectivity to serve our intimacy with the characters, rather than ambiguity, with visions that draw us closer instead of challenging the veracity of depicted events. "We didn't want to veer into the territory of being coy whether all this is happening or not," Hugh said. "All hallucinations happen when the character is at death's door. It's at subjective times."

The result is a horrific, humanist masterpiece, heightening the magnitude of events by placing us in empathic touch with the doomed explorers. And the closer we feel to the characters, the more The Terror can stretch itself into surreal and unexpected new places. Kajganich likened the show's aesthetic approach to that of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. "You believe it's a real hotel, but it has this heightened quality, this unreal quality," he said.

"The first thing you come to understand about the Arctic as a place is you come expecting to find something monochromatic and it really isn’t," Kajganich told Newsweek. "Every color, whether the land or the sky or the sea, gets reflected in such interesting ways." AMC

The final effect is a synthesis of ethereal environments and intimate interiority so powerful it's easy to forget The Terror also belongs to one of the pulpiest of all horror subgenres: the creature feature.

"We wanted to be very bold about it," Hugh said, describing their efforts to separate The Terror from superficially similar period adventures like Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. "We wanted to be bold about our place in the cinematic universe," she said. "We wanted people to be able to take one frame, any frame of our show, and the audience would know this is The Terror."

Editor's Note: Representatives for AMC's The Terror have requested David Kajganich and Soo Hugh be credited as showrunners and executive producers for The Terror, not creators. This article has been updated to reflect those changes.