Are you ready to hear this story? Because once you hear it, and the visuals start flooding your mind — two ships, trapped in the Arctic seas without any hope of rescue — it will be difficult to undo the damage. Imagine the cold. The agonizing realization that help will not be arriving, and that your goal of traversing the Northwest Passage was misguided at best, dangerous at worst. The sheer terror of it all.
Ridley Scott's new drama, The Terror, premiered last night on AMC. The show stars Ciarán Hinds (aka Aberforth Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies) as Captain John Franklin, the leader of the entire expedition, and Tobias Menzies (aka Claire's husband in Outlander) as Franklin's right-hand man. The Terror is being lauded as the scariest show on TV, but the story upon which it's based is pretty darn scary, too.
In 1845, Captain John Franklin led a British Royal Navy expedition to the Arctic, with the intention of finding passage to the West Indies around the American land barrier – a concept known as the Northwest passage. This would be the 59-year-old Franklin's fourth Arctic expedition. One year later, in September 1846, disaster struck. Franklin's two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, became trapped in ice off Canada's King William Island, and never moved again.
By this point, Jane, Lady Franklin, Franklin's wife, knew she should be worried. The last time anyone had seen Franklin's expedition was in July of 1845. Jane tirelessly campaigned to rouse up a search for her missing husband. She regularly visited the Admiralty —in fact, she moved nearby, so she could keep tabs on the officers' comings and goings. She held meetings with former Arctic explorers in her living room to track where the ships could have possibly gone. She wrote the Zachary Tyler, the president of the United States, to drum up support. Thanks to Jane's campaign, this became a matter of national concern in Britain.
The Admiralty's response? “They have enough food for three years. So we don’t need to worry until at least 1848," reports Paul Watson, author of the book Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition. The Admiralty did eventually launch a rescue mission in 1848, and later offered 20,000 pounds to "to any Party or Parties, of any country, who shall render assistance to the crews of the Discovery Ships under the command of Sir John Franklin." Rescue missions continued for 33 years.
But by 1848, the time of the first rescue expedition, it was too late. Franklin died in June 1847, and 23 other men died before 1848. The rest stayed on the boats, alive, for two full winters, and eventually abandoned the boats in 1848 to walk toward an outpost. They all died during the trek. As archaeologist Simon Mays notes for Live Science, there were few Arctic birds and poor fishing options in the area.
In 1853, explorer John Rae encountered stories of what occurred to the crew members who left the ships. Rae spoke to Inuit that had encountered the straggling survivors — eating one another. For proof, they sold Rae silver spoons and forks that matched the officers' sets. “From the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource – cannibalism – as a means of prolonging existence," Rae wrote to the Secretary of the Admiralty in 1854.
Forensics back up this gruesome turn of events. In the 1980s and 1990s, bones of the crew members were found in the Arctic. Anthropologists Simon Mays and Owen Beattie analyzed 35 of these bone and found signs of heating and breakage, indicating that survivors had cut flesh from bones, and then cracked bones open to obtain the fat-rich marrow inside. Many bones were made smooth from being cooked over a flame. In one case, a bone that had been extracted for marrow was later used as a spoon. Essentially, Mays and Beattie encountered undeniable evidence of cannibalism. "It is very rare that bioarchaeologists encounter such a well-informed context such as this," bioarchaeologist Sarah Schrader told Forbes. "In addition to skeletal evidence of cannibalism, Mays and Beattie have Inuit reports, written documentation, and artifacts."
The sailors' fates were confirmed in the '80s and '90s, but there was still the question of where the ships disappeared to. In 2014, the HMS Erebus was found; two years later, in 2016, the HMS Terror was uncovered in the Arctic, and was preserved almost perfectly. The discovery of the Terror in 2016 actually forced the TV show to change its trajectory. "There was a storyline where about the mid-part of the series, the ship got torn apart by our creature," Matthew Betts, a historical advisor for The Terror, told IGN. "They discovered the Terror and it was completely intact. So it meant rewriting some of the storylines."
Stories have persisted about Franklin's doomed trek for nearly 200 years. In The Terror, the story will come to life — plus, of course, some fantasy. The Terror adds in an element not present in the historical account (ostensibly). In the show, and the book upon which it's based, a mysterious monster is to blame for the men's deaths and decision to abandon the ships. Monster or no monster, the very thought of this Arctic trek gives us nightmares. So can you handle a 10-episode show about it? Get on your parkas and hope for the best.
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