Climate Anxiety and the Return of Arctic HorrorRoundup
tags: literature, exploration, Arctic, horror, popular culture, 19th century
Bathsheba Demuth is the author of Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait. She teaches history and environmental studies at Brown University.
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.
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