31st October 2020

Words by Jules Peralta · Artwork by Lucy Comer

During the pandemic, a doomed Arctic expedition became my comfort media of choice


Earlier this year, the 2011 film “Contagion” entered the top movie rental charts of several countries, peaking at number ten in the United States. Around a dimly lit table in our university library, my classmates and I discussed whether the desire to watch horror films during an epidemic was grotesquely morbid or just an appropriate coping mechanism. It was a conversation left unfinished. By mid-March, my campus had shut down and I had moved back to my childhood home. Like many people whose lives were thrown into chaos, I turned to movies and television as an escape. I love goofy sitcoms and often seek out an indie romance film purely to have something to cry along to, but during the pandemic my solace came in the form of the horror series “The Terror”.


The first season of the anthology series, which originally aired on AMC back in 2018, is a fictionalized account of the 1845 expedition, led by Captain Sir John Franklin, to navigate the Northwest Passage, a route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through waterways in the Arctic Archipelago. For hundreds of years, Europeans sought it as a trade route to Asia, but it wasn’t until the twentieth century that a Norwegian expedition successfully completed it by sea. So history dictates the show’s ending: the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror become stuck in the ice and are abandoned three years after setting sail, their shipwrecks undiscovered until 2014 and 2016. None of the 129 men onboard return home alive. “The Terror” uses this history as a backdrop for a very bingeable drama where pride and ego—and a mythical bear—are as much of a threat to survival as the unforgiving environment itself.

I rewatched “The Terror” using a forgotten projector rescued from my parents’ basement, propped up on a stool to face the only bare wall in my bedroom. My room is still painted the cheerful, awful lime green that I picked out in sixth grade, so everything I projected had a strange tint to it: The deep blues of the Arctic ocean became a tropical green, and every windburned, mutton-chopped face looked extra ruddy. Even without the accidental filter, the setting felt otherworldly. It was easy to get lost in it, to find myself immersed in a desolate world of ice and stone. The sense of adventure that inspired the beginning of the show slowly gave way to horrors experienced with brutal intimacy—the drowned body of a crew mate, for instance, or the realization that the canned food the men were eating was actually poisonous. The awareness that they were all headed for disaster, regardless of their efforts, was omnipresent. “Funny to think of this place as home, isn’t it?” says Sir John at one point in the show, surveying the endless polar ice. The dialogue boomed and the music sounded tinny, so I tried to turn down the volume and found that it was already on the lowest setting, the built-in speakers meant for a space much larger than my childhood bedroom. Yes, funny to think of this place as home.

“The Terror” was a welcome distraction. When Canada started going into lockdown, there was a real possibility that my parents would be stuck overseas due to an ill-timed vacation. Those few uncertain days before they boarded an early return flight triggered the worst anxiety I’d experienced in years. I found it difficult to focus on anything. When classes ended, I still didn’t have a plan. I also didn’t know how to be okay doing “nothing”. So I rearranged the furniture in my bedroom. I perfected a chocolate chip cookie recipe and debated making bread using a 12-year-old jar of dry yeast I found in the pantry. I pushed mulch around the garden. I went on socially distanced walks with my best friend and rode my bike past my old elementary school, past the houses of people that I grew up with but no longer spoke to. I threw myself into learning about a doomed attempt to sail through the Arctic because I didn’t know how else to cope without the structure of academia or work that had dominated the last five years of my life.

I dubbed this all-encompassing fascination “TerrorWatch” (which sounds a lot more fun than “Please help, I’m in desperate need of mental stimulation”). I found myself watching underwater footage of the shipwrecks, reading Inuit testimonies and anthropological studies of the skeletal remains. I combed the online collections of the National Maritime Museum for personal effects recovered by expeditions that searched for signs of Franklin’s men. Some items were marked with names that could be matched to official records—a knife owned by a Cornelius Hickey, papers belonging to a Henry Peglar—and others were once cherished enough to be carried across oceans but now couldn’t be attributed to an individual, like a pair of knitted gloves, both left-handed, embroidered with hearts. “The Terror” weaves some of these artefacts into the story, but they’re only ever a starting point because underneath the uniforms and the styrofoam ice, it’s ultimately a story about empathy: How do we relate to each other in the face of common hardship? In isolation? Who are we at the end of the world? Maybe it’s not so different from my own life or many other peoples’ lives right now.

When it occurred to me how strange it was that such a haunting story could provide me with a sense of comfort, I was brought back to that afternoon in the library, and I think I finally know the answer to the question we posed: What do we look for when we watch horror? Is it morbid to do so during a crisis, or are we seeking reassurance about something we don’t yet understand? Horror allows us to experience “negative” emotions—fear, sadness, rage—in a space that is not forced on us but one that we seek out. We can allow ourselves to be scared if it’s from the safety of our own bedrooms. Throughout the many phases of lockdown, “The Terror” and the adjacent history of the Franklin expedition became an escape for me from everything that was out of my control. For the length of exactly one season of TV, I didn’t have to be afraid for my loved ones’ health, frustrated that a pandemic had to happen the year I graduated, or worried that I was somehow wasting time because I hadn’t achieved a state of total independence by my mid-twenties. The greatest thing about horror, however, is its impermanence: When it finally ends, catharsis can give way to clarity. I still feel lost and directionless at times, but I think there’s something beautiful about that freedom too. I know I’ll eventually find my way—just not to the Arctic!

Jules Peralta lives in Ontario, Canada. When she's not trying to convince someone to hire her as a research assistant, she collects ephemera from used books on her Instagram @dog_earedtwice

Lucy Comer is an illustrator based in Minneapolis. Her work focuses on stories of longing, intimacy, and heartache. She loves creating portraits, sequential illustrations, and zines. More work can be found on Instagram @loosey.comber