From the Donner party to the Andes flight disaster, the world is full of real life stories of people that got trapped in the wilderness and had to do the unthinkable to survive. There are also numerous accounts of expeditions gone terribly wrong, leaving no survivors to tell the tale, only raw materials for more or less credible theories about what might have happened. These types of stories draw us in with a mixture of horror, hope, and morbid curiosity, much like a car crash on the side of the road from which we can’t look away. They are told time and time again in documentaries, podcasts, and history magazines, and exhaustively debated by academics and groups of friends with a penchant for the macabre alike. In the realm of fiction, they inspire works as varied as Johann David Wyss’ Swiss Family Robinson, William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, ABC’s Lost, and, most recently, Showtime’s Yellowjackets.
Created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, the coming-of-age thriller series about a ’90s high school girls’ soccer team that is left for dead in the wild after a terrible plane crash kicked off its pilot episode with hints of cultish activity, murder, and cannibalism. After ten enthralling episodes split between the tragedy itself and the lives of four survivors haunted by their past, the show finished its first season with a cliffhanger that points to a plot much more intricate than anyone could have imagined. And, for those that got used to waiting a mere week for the next chapter of the Yellowjackets’ saga, an entire year not knowing what is going on in the woods and what exactly has Lottie been up to may prove to be too much to handle. Unfortunately, there’s no way to fill up the hole the Yellowjackets season finale has left in our hearts and TV schedules. However, there are a few options to help you cope with the symptoms of teen survival drama withdrawal. The best of them is AMC’s 2018 horror series The Terror.
Based on the novel of the same name by Dan Simmons and developed by David Kajganich, The Terror is a fictionalized account of the doomed Arctic expedition led by Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) in 1845. Alongside Hinds, Jared Harris stars as Francis Crozier, the captain of the eponymous HMS Terror, and Tobias Menzies plays James Fitzjames, second-in-command of the HMS Erebus. The cast also has Paul Ready as surgeon Harry Goodsir, Adam Nagaitis as the ambitious officer Cornelius Hickey, and Nive Nielsen as the mysterious Netsilik woman referred to only as Lady Silence.
Franklin’s expedition left England to search for a Northwestern passage for the Pacific with two ships, 129 men, and supplies for a two-year journey. In 1848, after three years with no word from Sir John, the first of many search parties was launched to retrieve the two vessels and locate possible survivors. Even though the searchers did manage to gather information about the missing men, they found no sign of them. Data gathered over the course of 160 years, from messages signed by the expedition’s commanders to human bodies mummified by the cold, helped put together a tale of starvation, hypothermia, disease, and cannibalism. Still, some mysteries remain unsolved. In 2016, the remains of the Terror were finally found. However, works on the sunken vessel were halted in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Apart from featuring weathered Victorian seamen instead of late 20th century high school girls, The Terror has a lot in common with Yellowjackets, and not just because of its survival in the wilderness theme. Both shows are slow burn mysteries with a large cast characters that deal with matters such as skepticism in the face of the unknown and what happens to societal structures once society is out of the picture. And, perhaps most importantly, both already begin with the certainty of doom.
Ten episodes long, The Terror informs us right in its first few seconds that Sir John Franklin’s expedition had no survivors. Due to the real life status of the story, trying to preserve the mystery of who lives and who dies would be disingenuous to say the least. Though Yellowjackets doesn’t have such commitments with reality, Lyle, Nickerson, and director Karyn Kusama make it clear from the very first episode that the girls don’t have anything good to look forward to. Though their trip did have some survivors, those that didn’t die on the crash have a world of hardships ahead of them, and those that manage to live through the whole experience will be forever traumatized by what they did to survive. Viewers of both shows have no encouragement to keep their hopes up, at least not regarding the safety of their faves. All there is left for us to do is wait for the worst and hope it can still entertain us.
And, much like in Yellowjackets, the worst in The Terror comes slowly. Even before the ships are beached for good, it is clear that something is amiss. The signs are just as obvious as Allie’s (Pearl Amanda Dickson) exposed bone in the soccer field. And, after the ships become trapped in the snow, problems begin to accumulate, coming from all fronts. Akin to young Shauna’s (Sophie Nélisse) pregnancy, Van’s (Liv Hewson) disfigurement, and teen Misty (Samantha Hanratty) smashing the plane’s black box for her own personal gain, the men in the Terror and the Erebus are attacked by nature, by their comrades, and even by their own bodies in a sequence of tragedies that have no sole culprit. In The Terror, as in Yellowjackets, it’s impossible to tell what the actual danger is: the wilderness, the surrounding people, or something else entirely.
The supernatural first makes its appearance in Yellowjackets in Episode 3, “The Doll House”, in which a young Taissa (Bailey Burr) sees a man with no eyes in the mirror on her grandma’s bedside. The same man appears on the show’s opening credits, in Sammy’s (Aiden Stoxx) drawings, and in the woods, suggesting that there might be something else in the forest besides bears and wolves. In Episode 5, “Blood Hive”, Lottie (Courtney Eaton) acts possessed and speaks in French after a séance, and, last but not least, there’s the mysterious man credited as “hunter” in Jackie’s (Ella Purnell) hypothermia vision. Signs of a world beyond our own are present all over the show, but, so far, the series has offered nothing concrete as to whether there are supernatural forces involved in the story. The man in the mirror could be just a hallucination, Lottie’s “possession” can just as well be attributed to her unmedicated schizophrenia, and as for the hunter… Well, the mind does weird things when a person is dying of hypothermia. Even if it is very unlikely that there is no paranormal activity taking place in that cabin, nothing has been confirmed yet.
But Yellowjackets was pitched as a five-season show while The Terror was conceived as a miniseries. The AMC naval drama doesn’t have time on its side, and thus it can’t play with the uncertainty surrounding what’s real and what’s not for very long. Without spoiling the show, let’s just say the plot moves faster when it comes to confirming the existence of a supernatural threat, even if the show runners still leave us wondering for an episode or two. What The Terror most has in common with Yellowjackets in this aspect is how the supernatural is first received by the characters and the consequences it has. Though things may change in the future, right now, the rules of the Yellowjackets universe seem quite simple: if you want things to go your way, play along with Lottie. This is what Taissa has apparently learned, considering the altar Simone (Rukiya Bernard) discovers in the finale. And while Van survived a vicious wolf attack with Lottie’s amulet around her neck, Jackie died almost immediately after refusing to say thanks to the bear killed by the future cult-leader. In The Terror, it is the lack of respect dispensed by the English – particularly Sir John and Dr. Stanley (Alistair Petrie) – to the Netsilik and their beliefs that ultimately causes the supernatural creature known as Tuunbaq to come after the crew. Both shows deal with the tension between skepticism and spirituality, but each one comes to its own conclusion: Season 1 of Yellowjackets seems to imply that there are evil forces we cannot control and must abide to in some capacity, while The Terror uses its otherworldly creature to discuss the costs of colonialism and ethnocentrism.
Another social dynamic that is present both in The Terror and in Yellowjackets is hierarchy and how it can be upturned in unforeseen circumstances. Formerly the queen of the school and the captain of the soccer team, Jackie loses her standing with the other girls due to her inability to adapt to their new life in the wild. The fact that no one stops her from going out nor bothers to call her back when the snow begins to fall is just one last reminder that, as Lottie put it during the girls’ mushroom high, she doesn’t matter anymore. Likewise, Coach Ben (Steven Krueger) loses his control over the team as it becomes clear that he doesn’t know what to do and that his recent amputation makes him unable of carrying his own weight. It’s not that hierarchy doesn’t matter in the wilderness. It’s simply a different kingdom that requires a new king – or queen.
The Victorian military power dynamic followed by the men aboard the Terror and the Erebus isn’t as frail as that of a high school sports team, but the hierarchy on both ships slowly loses its importance, specially after the death of Sir John. John Franklin wasn’t the Admiralty’s first choice to lead the expedition. Both Crozier and Fitzjames were considered better choices. However, Crozier’s Irish origin and Fitzjames’ youth and status as an illegitimate child made them undesirable. With Sir John out of the picture, Crozier and Fitzjames become responsible for the entire expedition against the Admiralty’s wishes. Meanwhile, mutinies and insubordination arise below deck due to the stress, the lack of proper food, and the uncertainty about what to do next.
Crozier’s relationship with Sir John is an uneasy one, based on both kinship and prejudice, that is explored in scenes both on and off the ship. Despite not being split into two timelines, like Yellowjackets, The Terror has frequent flashbacks that help illuminate the origins of its characters and the way their lives came together. As for the way in which the survival part of the story is structured, both shows seem to follow the same blueprint. Winter presents itself as a terrifying force in the cold of the Arctic just as it does on the Canadian woods of 1996. Minor expeditions like the one led by Taissa are sent out by Captain Crozier to look for help only to come back empty-handed or end up lost for good. The Terror even has its own Doomcoming in the form of Captain Fitzjames’ carnival, a day of celebration that devolves into utter madness.
Originally a miniseries, The Terror did spawn a second season, released in 2019. Titled The Terror: Infamy, the series tells the story of Japanese community in California that is haunted by a spirit during World War II. Though quite interesting in its own right, Infamy isn’t related to the tale of the Franklin expedition. But who knows? If The Terror does end up quenching your Yellowjackets thirst, perhaps the show’s second season can help you take your mind off of Biscuit and Lottie’s cult for another couple of weeks.
The Terror and The Terror: Infamy are both available on Hulu.