Up until The Terror’s fifth episode, viewers had no real idea what the monster that was hunting the crew of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus — and neither did those sailors. That worked, from a horror perspective, as the monster we imagine is almost always scarier than the monster we see (Jaws is such a successful horror movie because we don’t see much of the shark for most of the movie). However, Monday’s episode gave the creature a name, “Tuunbaq,” an unsettlingly human-like face. This monster came to the Arctic North straight from the bowels of the uncanny valley.
This post contains spoilers for Episode 5 of The Terror, “First Shot a Winner, Lads.”
Even without a quasi-mythological beast like the Tuunbaq hunting them, the Erebus and Terror’s mission to find the Northwest Passage was already scary enough. Much like The Descent, a movie about spelunking gone wrong that’s utterly horrifying before subterranean goblins start killing everybody, The Terror is set in a scary environment. The frozen wasteland and icy sea that trapped the two ships for a year is an alien, inhospitable place to be. It also doesn’t quite look real, an aesthetic that probably partially derives from the fact that this is a stylized television show, but also because the frozen, icy landscape does not look like a place that should be.
The Tuunbaq also does not look like it should be. It’s still largely obscured by howling winds and snow during it’s harrowing pursuit of Blankly (presumably a decision born of storytelling and a special effects budget, but it work). Even so, we’re able to see enough to know that this is not just a polar bear. It has clawed, thumbed hands and an eerily head that looks just enough like a human’s face to be really creepy.
That’s what’s so creepy about the Tuunbaq. If it were an eldritch abomination, the Tuunbaq would feel false. As a fucked-up polar bear, though, the Tuunbaq is just a manifestation of the real dangers of the Arctic North, uncannily dialed up to 11. It helps that its attack is scored not to some heart-pounding music, but moody, uneasy strings. Everything that’s happening on The Terror shouldn’t quite be happening, and it’s spooky to behold.
The Terror airs on Monday nights at 9 p.m. Eastern on AMC.