Arctic Horror Is Having a Comeback

Today’s fictional North is defined by nostalgia for an icier time.

A small group of men walk across a snow-covered landscape toward the camera and away from an old ship.
The Terror stuck in ice (AMC)

This article contains spoilers for The Terror and The North Water.

Of all the horrors of a 19th-century European voyage to the Arctic—noses and cheeks turned necrotic by frostbite, snow blindness, sea madness, broken bones badly knit—perhaps most ghastly was scurvy. The disease often starts with stiff limbs and ulcerating skin. Gums bleed and blacken, then engorge and protrude over the teeth or their absent weeping sockets like a dark second set of lips. This tissue is actively rotting, so living men smell dead. Odors and sounds become agonizingly, even dangerously, intense; hearing a gunshot can kill. And because many sufferers hallucinate that they are among the foods and comforts of home, some doctors called the affliction “nostalgia.”

Perhaps Mary Shelley had such grotesque agonies in mind when she set the opening of Frankenstein on the Arctic Ocean, where a sailor named Robert Walton rescues the novel’s titular doctor and learns of his black-lipped, mottle-skinned creation. It was certainly a pointed location for a novel critiquing Promethean dreams: For much of the 19th century, English ships hazarded ice floes in search of glory, profit, and an open polar sea that did not exist.

Two hundred years later, that dream is no longer a chimera—routes north of Canada are navigable without an ice-breaking ship—and fiction is again turning to the Arctic for inspiration. In the past few years, the films Arctic and The Midnight Sky and the series Fortitude have been set in the region’s semi-present, while the sled dogs of the movies Togo and The Call of the Wild have evoked its past.

Two miniseries in particular—The Terror (Season 1 aired in 2018) and this year’s The North Water—are fully Arctic historical dramas. Shelley’s Walton dreamed of making the North accessible; this version of the 19th-century Arctic, populated with foundering ships and human wreckage, is nearly unreachable, a place that matters only to the explorers on its ice. But modern nostalgia is its own act of imagination. In summers of deadly heat and wildfires, The Terror and The North Water conjure an Arctic in which cold, bearded, scurvy-addled men commit grisly acts far beyond the reach of the Bechdel test or upward-creeping levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. In this new colonial noir, Arctic terrors stay in the Arctic, the movement of sea ice threatens men rather than the other way around, and absolution is always an Inuit-guided seal hunt away.

The Terror’s hero is Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), who drowns his romantic woes in whiskey on Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The historical voyage on which the series is based was, like Frankenstein’s monster, supposed to defy death with technology: the steam-powered, ice-hardy ships Erebus and—implausible but true—Terror. The miniseries opens in 1846, after Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) finds his choice of route blocked by frozen sea. When sailors searching for open water accidentally shoot an Inuk man (Apayata Kotierk) and bring his daughter, Silna (Nive Nielsen), back to the ships, they become the prey of a part-man, part-bear creature, its bloodthirstiness symbolic of an Arctic far beyond the rules of purported “civilization.”

Crozier—who speaks some Inuktitut—learns from Silna that the creature is called Tuunbaq, and that her father could control it. Silna says little else. The crew calls her Lady Silence. After Tuunbaq reduces Franklin to a single severed leg, Crozier is left in charge of the dwindling supplies—a lack of whiskey necessitates a detox—and the cracking vessels. He orders the surviving men and Silna to abandon ship.

As the men march inland, The Terror alternates between Tuunbaq’s jump scares and the body horror of scurvy, while a caulker named Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) foments mutiny. Hickey murders a passing Inuit family (who might have saved the crew), slips into delusions of controlling Tuunbaq, and begins eating people. When Tuunbaq finally devours him, the monster chokes on the man’s polluted soul. Silna rescues Crozier, the expedition’s lone survivor. The final scene shows him freed from both drink and suffering, hunting seals on the sea ice.

If The Terror’s ships were lost while seeking glory, The North Water crew is after money: The two shows operate like the ego and the id of the British empire. And the id, fittingly, is a nastier place. The monster here is no Tuunbaq but the very human Henry Drax (Colin Farrell), a harpooner on the whale ship Volunteer who murders a man for rum money in the opening scene. Drax schemes to steal an emerald ring from the ship’s new surgeon, Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell), who has returned from colonial India with a laudanum addiction and a guilty conscience. Ostensibly, the Volunteer is bound for the North Water, a bowhead-filled polynya between Greenland and Canada, but secretly the captain and the ship’s owner plan to wreck the whaler for the insurance payout.

As the Volunteer sails north in 1859, Drax’s rational, even methodical, violence intensifies. He clubs seals with blood-spattering relish. He rapes a cabin boy, murders him, then kills the captain in an attempt to avoid trial for his crimes. There are intimations that he has eaten people. The carnage makes the opiate-dazed Sumner hallucinate an Indian boy he caused to die in Delhi. The horror in The North Water is not supernatural; Arctic remoteness and punishing conditions act like a prism, refracting a concentrated beam of human brutality.

Jack O'Connell as Patrick Sumner, Roland Møller as Otto, Gary Lamont as Webster, Sam Spruell as Cavendish, Gerry Lynch as Cook and Philip Hill-Pearson as Mckendrick - The North Water _ Season 1, Episode 3
Sumner and his crew mates in The North Water (Nick Wall / BBC Studios / AMC+)

Grim as this is, it gets worse. The first mate carries out the fraudulent scuttling of the Volunteer, but the rescue ship and most of both crews are lost to shifting sea ice. The few survivors—Sumner and Drax among them—are unable to hunt. Sumner is in opium withdrawal. Winter looms.

The party is saved by two Inuit men (Natar Ungalaaq and Jerry Laisa), who agree to supply the sailors with food in exchange for Sumner’s ring. Drax, of course, murders them and escapes. Desperate for food, Sumner lures a polar bear with the men’s corpses, then tracks it so far into the ice fog that when he finally kills it, he must crawl into its eviscerated belly to stay warm. He is birthed from this gore by a priest (Peter Mullan) and a silent Inuk named Anna (also Nive Nielsen). Sumner and Inuit stalk seals in dreamily lit scenes. When spring comes, Sumner returns to England and kills Drax. His redemption is complete: The Arctic cured his addiction, absolved his haunted conscience, and turned him into a Great White Hunter.

Nostalgia is always a kind of distilled longing, an ideal, not a re-creation. The Arctic that The Terror and The North Water imagine has a hidden power to restore those white men who can survive its privations, their temperate-zone masculinity pared down to its essence. Crozier, a Protestant from Catholic Ireland, and Sumner, haunted by British India, are liberated from the responsibilities of power and the consequences of imperial violence. The Terror and The North Water are based on novels published almost a decade apart, but on-screen they echo each other like interpretations of a common myth—that by dint of climate and distance, the Arctic is a place of profound exception, an “altogether elsewhere,” as in W. H. Auden’s phrase. This can breed horror, yes, but also exoneration. The nostalgia in these shows is for a last frontier, a place to seek glory or profit that washes its survivors of any moral stain.

Two years ago, I was on a ship along the face of Svalbard’s Kronebreen glacier, a stunning arc of blue ice and reddish rocky hills; when I watched The North Water, I recognized it as the setting of a whale hunt, fast and violent. After harpooning the whale, Drax steps onto its arched back and, in perhaps the most intimate moment in the show, speaks to it as he lances its vital organs. What I saw also felt intimate, a witness to another kind of passing: The glacier was calving, huge walls of ice shearing off with a roar. A small moment in the larger phenomenon that climate change is bringing to northern ice.

I thought of the Kronebreen and its dissolution often while watching The North Water. Commercial whale slaughter and climate change seem like separate processes, the former awful but quaint—in the U.S., at least, we don’t do that anymore—while fossil fuels are of the world that is just emerging for Sumner. After all, 1859 was the year Edwin Drake struck oil in Pennsylvania. In the series, the Volunteer is sunk so that her value can be invested in manufacturing. Yet the disregard for life at a grand scale, driven by the desire for profits, connects whaling and fossil-fuel extraction. I have spent enough time with the logbooks of whalers and commercial seal hunters to know that they understood how their wanton killing risked these species’ extinction. Oil companies have been aware for longer than I’ve been alive that their product gambles with the stability of the climate. One gave us gore on the ice, the other the hottest July on record, a “Frankenstein month,” according to the climate scientist Michael Mann.

The North Water hints at this connection, not by bringing the story to the present but by turning its characters’ delirious quest for profit into the natural state of man. (Of women, I do not know; there is not one in these five hours who speaks or is not for sale.) Men relate to one another only while killing; friendships are based on finding ways to profit. These qualities are supposed to transcend culture, with Inuit characters written as blandly superstitious or fur-clad examples of Homo economicus. The common denominator of human experience is avarice. Endure enough Arctic horror, like Sumner, and it can be overcome.

Scurvy is an ailment of endurance: Three months without vitamin C and, along with developing bloody gums and aches, human bodies cannot produce neurotransmitters, slowing then ending connections in the brain. Drag privation out long enough, and scurvy’s victims are stripped of their ability to learn and feel and remember. Yet even while losing so much of what makes us human, the sufferer hallucinates home. Imperial nostalgia, as it comes to our televisions, is full of scurvy’s body horrors. What it lacks is that sense—of home. The nostalgia here is for the North as a place that kept its dangers far away from Europe, or caged them like the polar bear in the last image of The North Water. A place gone to, for adventure and redemption, then escaped.

But the Arctic is a home. Many beings live in its lands and waters, for one thing. The edge of the Kronebreen glacier I saw was deafeningly alive with seagulls and Arctic terns, diving for fish as the icefall roiled to the surface, amid bearded seals resting on glacial bergs. Even 100 years of colonial extraction could not make this sea barren. The North Water Polynya, or Pikialasorsuaq in Kalaallisut, is a real place, its ecological richness endangered by shrinking sea ice, so scarce that The North Water’s makers had difficulty finding any to film. Nor is the North fundamentally an elsewhere. Viewers sweltering through another heat wave are connected to it by ongoing extraction and the fact of a shared atmosphere. That same sea ice that shelters Pikialasorsuaq stabilizes the global climate. This Arctic does not need nostalgia. It needs us, as Frankenstein’s monster howls before disappearing among the bergs, to “be susceptible of love and sympathy.”

The Terror and The North Water give viewers little sustenance for such sentiments. A monster like Tuunbaq is, I suppose, less frightful than introspection: How do those who experienced Arctic colonization remember it? What did Anna think of the priest? Even the body horrors of nostalgia and starvation are the agonies of outsiders, of men who do not know enough about the North to live there without their bodies decaying. Neither series leaves much space for the Inuit and other peoples for whom the Arctic is not a myth. Imagine if these scripts gave their Inuit characters space for the things that make a place vital and cherished: laughter, anger, stories goofy or serious—in short, let them be more than foils for white protagonists. Inuit values and the horrifying possibilities of climate change are very real in films such as Angakusajaujuq: The Shaman’s Apprentice and Utuqaq: Field of Vision. If you want a survival tale that needs no Tuunbaq or nostalgia to thrill, see Ada Blackjack Rising. Give their makers the budget and platform of The North Water. At the very least, I beg: Write Nive Nielsen more dialogue.