The Creepy True Story Behind AMC’S Horror Series 'The Terror'

AMC's horror series The Terror followed in American Horror Story's footsteps as one of those ever-popular shows that are inspired on true stories, but provide a fictionalized twist. The Terror gives an account of a real 1845 expedition, led by John Franklin, to locate the long sought after Northwest Passage that's believed to link the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Before long, the two primary ships in this narrative, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, became frozen in the ice and the crews were forced to abandon their ships and set out on foot. They're never seen alive again.

Although the story behind the show certainly makes for an exciting and harrowing adventure in its own right, the producers chose to add in a few supernatural elements to really spice things up. For instance, the crews in the show are pursued by a massive monster that looks like a polar bear with an elongated neck. And it's this intoxicating blend of historical fact and supernatural fiction that promises to make The Terror the stuff of nightmares.

Did the crews actually resort to cannibalism? Were they pursued by a polar bear from hell? Could their boats really move at an eye-watering 4.6 miles per hour? Here's how it all really went down.

  • Strong Evidence Suggests The Crews Resorted To Cannibalism

    In the event that a group of individuals actually survives a devastating tragedy and resorts to cannibalism, the decision to actually start eating other humans typically comes about in stages. People don't just start gnawing on their dead friends from the feet up.

    Cannibalism typically begins with the cutting off of big, important muscle groups directly off the bones and then working away at the corpse until most of the meat has been eaten. But if the situation happens to be particularly desperate, survivors will often resort to "end-stage" cannibalism, which involves the cracking of bones in order to suck out the marrow inside. And this is exactly what happened to the crews of the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror.

    For decades, stories circulated among communities of Inuit people living in the area around King William Island telling of the mountains of human bones that appeared to have been cracked in half and left out in the snow. And it's those very same bones that were rediscovered in the 1980s and used by scientists to learn that things had indeed gotten particularly desperate for the stranded crew members.

  • The Ships Had Been Trapped In Ice For Years Before The Crews Finally Died

    During their attempt at discovering the Northwest Passage, the crews of the Erebus and the Terror eventually found that their ships had become frozen in the ice. Initially, this didn't appear to be a huge problem because they'd brought along tons and tons of food, including over 9,000 pounds of chocolate, 200 gallons of wine, and 36,487 pounds of biscuits, among other things. And despite the fact that the began the expedition fully anticipating that it would take a long time, their provisions eventually began to dwindle.

    Unfortunately, the ice that had stalled their progress didn't thaw by the next winter, nor the winter after that. And once one of the captains died - loathe to spend a third winter aboard those ships - the crews set off on their own across the ice in search of rescue.

  • The Ships Were Outfitted With Fancy Steam Engines That Likely Poisoned The Crews' Drinking Water

    Although the ships weren't originally designed for rigorous exploring, the Terror and Erebus were outfitted with fancy, state-of-the-art locomotive engines for their trek. The engines allowed the boats to move more swiftly in the water with the goal of speeding up the voyage. Unfortunately, it's since been discovered that those very engines may have contributed to an outbreak of lead poisoning among the crews.

    The ships were outfitted with water filtration systems that worked in conjunction with their new engines, in theory allowing the ships to filter their own water so that they could stay out at sea for longer. But it is now believed that there may have been an unknown issue with the system, as the filtration engines progressively became clogged with lead, which could have led to severe lead poisoning among the crew members.

  • Local Legends Described Ghost Ships Trapped Out On The Ice
    Photo: Back, G., (1838) / Wikimedia Commons

    Local Legends Described Ghost Ships Trapped Out On The Ice

    During the 150 years that it took to rediscover the Erebus and the Terror, European and American expeditioners had continually heard stories about "ghost ships" trapped out on the ice. Even in modern times, members of local Inuit communities have shared their stories about strange experiences and sightings near where the ships disappeared.

    A local Inuit man named Sammy Kogvik reported that he was once snowmobiling with a friend in the area when he spotted what appeared to be a mast sticking out of the ice. He took a few pictures with the strange object, but when he got back home he found that the camera had disappeared from his pocket. He took this as a bad omen and decided to keep the sighting a secret.

    Ultimately, stories like this are exactly what helped lead researchers to the ships.

  • A Gigantic Polar Bear Did Not Actually Stalk Them Through The Snow
    Photo: The Terror / AMC

    A Gigantic Polar Bear Did Not Actually Stalk Them Through The Snow

    Though The Terror includes a gigantic, long-necked polar bear that hunts the ships' crews across the tundra, as far as historians know, this isn't necessarily what happened. The polar bear creature that appears in the film is actually known as a Tuunbaq, and it plays a big part in Inuit folklore - which might be the reason why it made itself into the narrative surrounding the fate of the crews. The mythical creature had also been added to the fictionalized novel about the expedition, written by Dan Simmons and also called The Terror, as a pseudo-explanation for what could have happened to the missing crews.

  • John Franklin Eventually Died Aboard His Ship

    As horrifying as the journey off of the boats likely was, Captain John Franklin didn't have a chance to experience any of it. As the leader of the doomed expedition, he never even made it off of his boat. According to a letter left behind by one of the crew members, Franklin actually died in June of 1847 - nearly a year before the crews finally decided to abandon the safety of their ships and head out on their own.

    It isn't clear exactly how Franklin died, but the log does reveal just how long the expedition went on without their leader, and how difficult it must have been to just sit there, stranded in the ice while the man in charge died.