Picture it: You’re in your home. Soldiers march up your driveway and take you to a penal camp in the interior of the country, where you will live for years with no hope of escape. Your crime? Being Japanese American at a time when the United States was at war with Imperial Japan.
It sounds like a horror story. In The Terror: Infamy, out August 12, it becomes one. At 10 episodes, The Terror: Infamy is one of the most major works of pop culture wholly devoted to depicting Japanese internment, a shameful — and unfortunately, timely — period in American history.
Showrunner Alexander Woo felt pressure to get it right. “We have a responsibility not just to the people whose families were in camps to be faithful to their experience, but also have a responsibility for people who don’t know anything about Japanese internment,” Woo tells Refinery29.
The Terror: Infamy is the second season of AMC’s horror anthology series, which infuses an actual historical event with the supernatural. The first season of The Terror, which premiered last summer, offered another explanation as to why an 1845 Arctic expedition went so drastically awry. In the show’s version of events, the British crew insults an Inuit guide and is subsequently stalked and picked off by an ice monster.
The Terror: Infamy weaves in elements of kaidan, or Japanese ghost stories that inspired seminal works of horror like The Ring and The Grudge. Our instantly likable protagonist, Chester (Derek Mio), and his family are confronted with a nefarious and unstoppable spirit — on top of a complete removal of civil liberties.
"There’s always a bit of a danger when you’re doing a period piece for it to feel like a museum piece," Woo says. "I didn’t want the viewer to feel at a safe remove. I wanted the viewer to feel very present. That’s where we deployed the genre toolbox."
The yurei, or the ghost, only heightens the feeling of entrapment that Chester experiences in the barracks. Chester and his family are among the 125,000 men, women, and children interned between the years 1941 and 1945.
“Unlike the first season of The Terror, which had a thousand-page novel as source material, our source material was 125,000 Japanese Americans and their lives,” Woo says.
But the roundups actually started two days after Pearl Harbor in December 1941. John DeWitt, the Army general in charge of the West Coast, suspected Japanese American citizens of sabotage. Essentially, Roosevelt’s executive order gave DeWitt permission to carry out the relocations on a larger scale. Parts of California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Canada, Mexico, and South America were all emptied of their Japanese populations.
For the duration of the war, Japanese Americans — or anyone with 1/16th Japanese blood — were removed from American society. The mission of the War Relocation Committee, formed in 1942, was to “take all people of Japanese descent into custody, surround them with troops, prevent them from buying land, and return them to their former homes at the close of the war.”
Beginning March 31, 1942, Japanese Americans were expected to register their families at control stations. People were divided into three categories: Issei, or Japanese immigrants excluded from citizen; Nissei, or their American-born children; and kibei, American citizens educated in Japan. In total, two-thirds of the detainees were American citizens.
After registering, they had a short amount of time to pack their two suitcases. On an assigned date, they reported to assembly centers near their homes — some of which were converted tables or cow sheds, not fit for human habitation. Then, they were transported to relocation centers located farther inland in California, Utah, Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, and Wyoming.
Conditions in these remote “War Relocation Centers” were hardly better than prisons. Families lived in barracks with no running water. They ate in mess halls. They were forever aware of the snipers in the watchtowers.
The Terror: Infamy captures the detainees’ resilience. In the show, the horrible barracks become homier; the sparse garden sprouts flowers. “A lot of the stories that were told gave us a much greater emotional spectrum than you might expect from reading the history, where you might think it was just an experience of monotonous misery,” Woo says. “There great strength and heroism in the people who were incarcerated during this time. We wanted to make sure that that was portrayed as well.”
For the all-Asian cast and crew of The Terror: Infamy, recreating the camps was uncanny. The Terror filmed a sequence in Hastings Park, Vancouver, where Japanese-Canadians had been interned during WWII. ”An associate director told us,’ My parents were held in Stable 7 and 8’. It was deeply emotional,” Woo says.
But it was Takei’s reaction to the mess hall stunned everyone. Takei, the son of Japanese immigrants, was just 5 when his family relocated to a detention center in Arkansas.
“George walked into the mess hall and felt the same thing he felt as a child 75 years ago. That’s when he knew he got it right,” Woo says. “But the things he felt as a kid were feelings of wonderment. He thought it was a big adventure. Now he understands it was a horrific experience for his parents, who tried to shield him from what they were experiencing.”
It was a full circle moment for Takei, and for the show itself. Twenty years ago, creator Max Bornstein heard Takei talking about his childhood in an internment camp; from that one lecture, the idea for The Terror's second season took root. In addition to acting in the show, Takei served as a consultant.
For detained Japanese Americans, the struggles would continue after the camps closed in 1945. While they were away, many Japanese Americans lost their homes, cars, businesses, and lands. They had to start over entirely.
And what was point of so much upheaval? Justification for the camps was to thwart espionage. But ultimately, no person of Japanese ancestry was convicted of espionage during the war. In 1988, Congress issued restitution payments of $20,000 to all survivors.
The Terror: Infamy is devastatingly timely. A logic-driven viewer can deny the existence of The Terror's revenge-bent ghost. But it's impossible to deny the United States' history of prejudiced policies against immigrants, reflected both in the internment camps in 1941 and detention centers on the Mexican border today.
"We didn’t have to draw the line that hard," Woo says. "We told the most compassionate story we could. It doesn’t take much of a leap to connect that to a compassion for the immigrant experience all the way up to the present day."