***Mild Spoilers for The Terror: Infamy***
During the second semester of my first year of law school, I took Constitutional Law. I remember feeling so excited about this course because of all the landmark cases I would study and how much more I would understand about my country. Our Constitution is a complex document—hell, the ink was barely dry on the Constitution before the Founding Fathers started fighting about what it all actually meant. Consequently, The Supreme Court has used the powerful tool of judicial review to shape this country by deciding on the most pressing issues of the day. I couldn’t wait to read Brown v. The Board of Education (1954) (racial segregation in schools is unconstitutional), Miranda v. Arizona (1966) (suspects in custody must be actively informed of their 5th amendment rights if their statements will be used against them at trial), and Texas v. Lawrence (2003) (laws prohibiting private homosexual acts between consenting adults are unconstitutional).
Any halfway decent attorney will tell you that America has done some shit in its past that we’ve never fully processed let alone apologized for. Supreme Court decisions are no exception. Some decisions are a black stain on our country and our ideals. Decisions like Korematsu v. United States (1944), which held that the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII was constitutional and integral to our national security.
What does all this have to with AMC’s horror television series, The Terror?
Well, Korematsu is one of the most shameful moments in the Supreme Court’s history, often rearing its ugly head to remind us of our past sins. While much effort has been expended to right this wrong, we seem unable to truly exorcise the legacy of Korematsu. That decision will forever haunt this country, refusing to let us forget that we are not as committed to our American values as we like to think. To many Americans, that thought poses a real existential threat.
Korematsu arose directly from the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and President Roosevelt’s subsequent Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the internment of Americans of Japanese descent, including American citizens. (Executive Order 9066 also resulted in the internment of German Americans and Italian Americans, though many more Japanese Americans were interned.) The “logic” went something like this: because the nation of Japan had attacked the U.S., every individual of Japanese descent within America’s borders was probably a spy for Japan, despite no proof, despite the fact that they were overwhelmingly law-abiding people who loved the U.S. Heritage was proof enough, due process be damned. As a result, over 100,000 Japanese Americans, 62% of whom were American citizens and owed the full protections of the Constitution, were forcibly relocated to concentration camps.
This ugly, racist chapter in our history demands to know who we really are as a nation. Which leads me to Season 2 of AMC’s criminally underrated horror series, The Terror.
The Terror: Infamy is the latest installment of The Terror, AMC’s prestige drama/horror anthology. Think American Horror Story, but with period pieces and much better writing. (Read my review of Season 1 here.) The Terror: Infamy centers on a small community of Japanese Americans living on Terminal Island, just off the coast of California. Though the community is very tight-knit, tensions exist between the older generations who immigrated from Japan and the younger generation of Japanese-Americans. Of course, every family has their secrets, some more volatile than others. Life is peaceful and comfortable until the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service attacks Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941. But the ensuing internment (a horror story in its own right) is not the only thing these people have to fear. A ghost haunts them for some as-of-yet-unrevealed reason, adopting the face of a beautiful but unsettling young woman. She is a yurei, a ghost driven by vengeance. She haunts the main character and terrorizes those around him. She has a terrifying way of making her victims maim and kill themselves in graphic ways. There’s no telling what she wants, but it is clear she will not be stopped.
Primetime television is enjoying a bit of a horror renaissance right now. Thanks to trailblazing series like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, horror audiences finally have a way to demonstrate not only that there is a robust market for horror TV, but it is also a starved market. On top of that, viewers crave horror stories of substance as much as they want to be scared.
So, the fact that a major network is producing a period piece, prestige drama/horror anthology is impressive and exciting and exactly what I want as a horror fan. And because The Terror: Infamy takes inspiration from Japanese horror films and aesthetic, the final product is impressive. It is beautifully shot, with poignant performances, an engaging story, and plenty of that signature J-Horror atmosphere and lurking dread. To see J-Horror infused in an impeccably produced show offers a new kind of horror experience. If you are a fan of J-Horror at all, The Terror: Infamy should be in your watchlist.
Thus far, The Terror: Infamy has been compelling, heartbreaking, and creepy as hell. For cable TV, it has also delivered plenty of scares. It may not be as violent as The Walking Dead or as disturbing as some of American Horror Story’s more messed up moments, but The Terror: Infamy sidesteps cheap gimmicks for horror that dovetails with and propels its plot.
On a grander scale, The Terror: Infamy represents a leap forward for the horror TV series. There’s so much discussion right now about diversity in entertainment, how the industry should make concerted efforts to hire a diverse array of talent at all levels of the industry. It’s 2019, right? Huge swaths of the TV-watching public do not wish to live in a world that looks the same and offers up the same old stories. The world simply does not and has never looked like an episode of Leave it To Beaver, and many people do not wish to see that version of the world on their screens.
Networks, always seeking an edge with audiences, have been listening. At their most altruistic, TV networks want to offer compelling stories from fresh voices; at their most calculating, TV networks want to pull in viewers from hard-to-capture demographics. They are beginning to feel that diverse talent and balanced storytelling are becoming more and more viable ways of accomplishing those goals. They’re not wrong: there is more and more evidence every year that “America’s increasingly diverse audiences prefer diverse film and television content.” Additionally, those “increasingly diverse audiences” reward diverse programming. But producing quality content takes a great deal of effort, especially when resurrecting such a painful part of American history.
As showrunner Alexander Woo told The Hollywood Reporter, both seasons of The Terror “are about a group of people who are in a land where they’re not welcome and that the horror is as much human-generated as it is supernaturally generated.” More specifically, The Terror: Infamy “is a story that holds great relevance for anyone whose life has been shaped or touched by the immigrant experience, which frankly in this country is just about everyone.” It is a story filled with uncomfortable truths and longstanding pain, yet hope for redemption.
To put it bluntly, A show like The Terror: Infamy is groundbreaking and, quite frankly, ballsy considering the toxic political miasma smothering the country. This prestige drama, with a majority Asian cast, set during WWII, with an original story, confronts one of the darkest times in our country’s history. In The Terror: Infamy, human evil is just as bad as supernatural evil, but the human perpetrators are often much more insidious than a ghost could ever be. As Justice Frank Murphy put it in his dissenting opinion for Korematsu, such actions “falls into the ugly abyss of racism” and become the same kind of “abhorrent and despicable treatment of minority groups by the dictatorial tyrannies which this nation is now pledged to destroy.”
When the federal government interned Japanese Americans, as a nation, we failed to adhere to our ideals. We gave into fear, and our countrymen paid the price. Still, no one wants to be told that they’ve done something wrong. No one wants to be reminded of how America kicked around and violated the rights of a vulnerable population. No one wants to hear that our present situation is beginning to bear more and more similarity to that dark time in our past, such that supporters of the president championed using the same shameful legal precedent to justify creating a registry of Muslim immigrants. At least Chief Justice Roberts officially overturned Korematsu in last year’s Trump vs. Hawaii (2018), so it no longer holds any sway over matters of law. It took 74 years, but at least we took one more step to correct this wrong.
Is that enough?
There comes a point in every scary story where the confrontation occurs. Where a catharsis, however violent, becomes inevitable. No one wants to be in the situation where the zombies finally break through the barrier, just like no one wants to come face to face with the vengeful spirit that’s been murdering people. It’s just a matter of time.
While no one wants to be reminded of our country’s sins, we need that confrontation to atone. Decisions like Korematsu function as our national yurei, a source of shame and sin that we have not yet made peace with, a transgression we are doomed to repeat if we fail to examine what we did in the first place. The Terror: Infamy asks its audience to consider those that have been wronged in the name of fear and pride, to ponder what leads to the inevitable confrontation between victim and perpetrator. After all, a person is only principled when they seek to correct and prevent their past wrongdoing. Nations are the same.