The Truth Behind The Doomed Historical Expedition On 'The Terror' Is Even Creepier Than Fiction


In 2007, Dan Simmons published The Terror, a novel based on true events that also serves as the basis for the AMC series of the same name. However, even Simmons at that time did not know everything there was to know about Captain John Franklin's doomed 1845 expedition to the Northwest Passage. What happened to the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus in real life? There may not have been a mysterious monster IRL, but it took scientists a long, long time to discover the two ships' wreckage and unearth all the gory details.

The AMC series details the Franklin expedition, in which an Arctic exploration went horribly wrong: Both the crew and the ships themselves — the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus — went missing. Searches, excavations, and expeditions in the area went on for well over a century, eventually piecing together the horrors that the men on board went through — horrors that became inspiration for the plot of the novel and AMC series.

Honestly, don't name ships "Terror" and "Erebus" (a Greek God of Darkness, born from Chaos, as well as the name of a mythological gateway to the Underworld) if you want your voyage to end well. Shouldn't that be obvious? That was their first mistake.

It wasn't until the Obama administration, and well after Simmons' novel was published, that the wrecks were ultimately discovered. According to The Washington Post, the Erebus was found in 2014, and the Terror was found in 2016. Thanks to melting ice, the Post notes, the once-treacherous area is now able to be traversed by cruise ships. Just like Captain America, when the Terror and Erebus were discovered in the ice, they were in pristine condition. You can also "thank" global warming for loosening the area and making these relic ships accessible today.


As for what happened to the Terror and the Erebus, they were military vessels chosen specifically to survive the icy conditions. They stocked rations for three years, believing that they would return to London in under two. However, it is believed that after ignoring Inuit native advice, the ships were caught in a storm and iced in to the water, where they remained trapped for two years. Those that did not die of disease abandoned ship. Evidence, including a hand-written note that was recovered on King William Island, suggests that they were trying to walk to the Canadian mainland. The Inuit told various search parties that the men of the Royal Navy had turned to cannibalism to survive — which was confirmed in the 1990s by hack marks found on recovered skeletons.

Though the story is sensational enough in real life, there are still plenty of gaps that the series can fill in with a bit of fiction and horror. Why were the two ships found so far apart? It seems unlikely that they would drift over time in ice. While the Inuit tales never mentioned anything about giant polar bears, they make more sense in this setting than they ever did in the first season of Lost.

"The first thing [the producers] told me about it was they saw the two ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, as characters in this show," Dr. Matthew Betts, an historical adviser for The Terror, told IGN. "I thought that was great because I know from the history that the capabilities of the ships, the spaces inside the ships, and their technology helped drive the history of polar exploration that involved these two ships and also drives the narrative of The Terror."

Betts noted in his presentation that before this tragic journey, the HMS Terror was a major factor in the War of 1812, and also that he was developing the series and had almost started filming in 2016 when the actual Terror was finally found. "There was a storyline where about the mid-part of the series, the ship got torn apart by our creature," he said. "They discovered the Terror and it was completely intact. So it meant rewriting some of the storylines."

How wild is that? Even when you add creatures, truth is stranger than fiction. The Terror may be a fictionalized version of these true events, but what really happened is a thrilling mystery as well.