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The Terror: Infamy turns American history into supernatural horror. Its showrunner explains how.

“It’s a cautionary tale for anyone who embraces America and embraces Americanness, and expects to be embraced back.”

George Takei (left) and Shingo Usami star in The Terror: Infamy, which blends the real story of America’s Japanese internment camps during World War II with a ghost story.
AMC

AMC’s The Terror was one of the best TV shows of 2018, an ice-bound, eerie tale of men trapped above the Arctic Circle, turning on each other and trying to escape a malevolent monster (or possibly god) who wanted nothing more than to tear them to shreds. It was simultaneously a scary monster movie, a metaphorical treatise on climate change, a small-town soap set on board an 1840s sailing vessel, and a historical document of a very real disappeared expedition.

For the anthology show’s second season, the network turned to writers Alexander Woo and Max Borenstein, who have wedded the story of Japanese internment during World War II to an eerie, unsettling, and eventually horrifying ghost story. Season two — dubbed The Terror: Infamy — is, like all good ghost stories, about the ways we are haunted by history, the ways we cannot escape pasts both personal and political.

Woo, who has written for everything from Wonderfalls to True Blood, served as showrunner for Infamy, which follows the story of one family’s detention in a fictional internment camp, the son’s efforts fighting for the US Army in the war, and a ghost named Yuko who stalks the family’s members on both sides of the Pacific and causes those who stand in her way to do themselves harm.

It’s a worthy follow-up to season one, a story rich with resonances to the present moment but also timeless in the way it depicts America’s constant struggle to claim itself as a country for more than just the in-group of the historical moment.

Woo recently sat down with me to talk about cramming such an expansive story into 10 episodes, the J-horror roots of Infamy’s particular ghost, and how it felt to be working on this season of television at a point in time when family separation and ICE detention centers at the border were making major headlines.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Alexander Woo speaks with George Takei on the set of The Terror: Infamy.
AMC

Emily VanDerWerff

I want to talk about how you use time. In the first half of The Terror: Infamy, one of the characters is pregnant, so I know roughly how much time is passing. But within all of that time, moments might stretch on forever, or you might cut between episodes and whole months will have passed. How did you plot out the time element of your story?

Alexander Woo

That was a challenge. We’re mapping these 10 episodes over the entire period of the internment and then after, so it’s several years and you have to do some time jumps from one episode to the next. We didn’t want to feel like we pressed pause on everything. So some of the episodes, we tried to as quickly as possible catch everyone up. Like, they’ve been in the camps for a couple of months.

Our episode three opener sort of situates us in the camp, and our episode four opener situates that Chester’s been deployed now, to Guadalcanal. So we tried emotionally to keep the throughline as clear as possible without having to like, whoa, wait a second. They broke up? Wait a second. So the emotional character story hopefully carries through from one episode to the next, even as we jump, in some cases, months from one episode to another.

Emily VanDerWerff

This is maybe me thinking too much about it, but it’s a little like being a ghost — just seeing snatches of people’s lives.

Alexander Woo

It’s interesting. Something very weird happens with time in episode six, which is specifically Yuko’s story. It’s an opportunity that we had to turn one of these J-horror conventions on its head. Usually in a two-hour movie, the monster is a monster. She crawls out of the television set and that’s about it. You don’t really get to spend any more time understanding who she is.

For this show, we tried to give the audience a bit of an entry into the skin of the monster as well as the characters who are haunted by the monster. And I think that adds a dimension to it where this character who is feared and vilified for so long, suddenly you’re in her shoes for a period of time, and maybe it changes your mind a bit.

Emily VanDerWerff

I’ve seen a fair amount of J-horror, but I’m not an expert by any means. What do you think sets that subgenre of horror apart, beyond its origin in Japan?

Alexander Woo

I think of it as the subset of horror movies made in Japan that are descended from the traditional Japanese ghost stories, which are based in folklore but often they’re lovely and poetic and haunting.

It’s the things that have descended from those kaidan [ghost stories], or the [Masaki] Kobayashi movie Kwaidan, which is the same word, that tell stories that are somewhere deep in the past. There’s a little fable tucked in the center of it, but there’s also something really, really unsettling and creepy about it. Think of The Ring and The Grudge and Dark Water, those kinds of movies.

There’s also a subset of Japanese horror movies that’s the slice-and-dice really gory ones. That’s less of what we’re going for. It’s the things that really get under your skin. And I think there’s real value in doing that in a television medium because the way we consume television is growing increasingly intimate. You’re watching it less and less on the television sets. I watched Chernobyl, which was scary as all hell, on a tablet six inches from my face in bed with the lights turned out. Boy did it feel scary.

One of the very strengths of television is that it’s so intimate it comes to you. I think Texas Chainsaw Massacre is great for a big screen because it’s you and 200 other people, like, “Don’t go in there!” But for the kind of thing that really worms under your skin, I think television is ideal because it is so intimate, psychological.

Yuko peeks through a window.
Yuko the ghost lurks at the edges of The Terror: Infamy.
AMC

Emily VanDerWerff

You mentioned folktales, and Yuko feels like she’s trying to teach everybody a lesson, like in a folktale. But when you’re in a world where everybody of a certain race can be rounded up and imprisoned, what lesson can you possibly impart there? It’s like a world that folklore is no longer built to comprehend.

Alexander Woo

Well, she makes a comment about restitution and restoration. I don’t know if she is consciously trying to teach people a lesson, but her existence reminds people of a past that they wanted to bury. And here it is literally becoming unburied on our show, which is a nice metaphor for what’s historically going on at the very same time.

Emily VanDerWerff

From other interviews you’ve given, it sounds like you were working on The Terror: Infamy as separation at the border policies and detention camps became prominent in the news. How did that inform the way you thought about the season?

Alexander Woo

To be honest, we didn’t have to hit it that hard. We wanted to very simply tell the story of what happened during World War II. Audiences are sophisticated. It doesn’t take a whole lot to connect the line between what happened 75 years ago, and the plight of immigrants in the present day.

For so many people, this is the story of their families. This is the story of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. But there came a realization among everyone, Japanese or non-Japanese, that also this was a story that would be really valuable to be part of the dialogue now. It fueled a real commitment in our cast and crew. It really was a special, special production that I truly don’t think I will ever get to experience again, where everyone felt like we really need to get this right. And I hope it shows in the results.

Emily VanDerWerff

I knew the high-level history of Japanese internment. I had read little snippets about it, but I had never done a deep dive. So I learned a lot from this. Were there moments when you were researching when the sheer facts of what happened became staggering to you?

Alexander Woo

We barely scratched the surface even on our show. I thought I knew a fair amount, but I knew nothing of the Japanese Canadian internment. I thought this was exclusively something the United States did. But Canada interned its Japanese Canadians until 1949.

Why? It is still a mystery to me that, for another four years after the end of the war, [Japanese Canadians were interned]. For what possible reason? The other thing that was a great shock to me — though it shouldn’t have been — was how traumatic the resettlement into the United States was after the internment. I had sort of assumed that after the camps were closed, it was over, but of course it’s not.

The Japanese Americans were released into a country that was still very hostile to Japanese Americans, and who had everything taken away from them. So they were homeless and penniless, and many of them had built fortunes that were gone. And they were living, like George [Takei, who is a cast member] has talked about, in a boarding house on Skid Row with nothing.

There was an ongoing trauma from that period that different families coped with in different ways. Many families said, “We will never speak of it again.” And that was very, very common. Another very common thing was, “We will not impart much of the [Japanese] culture or the language on our children. We just want to completely assimilate them into American culture.”

That ironically had an effect on our casting process. It was very tricky to find Japanese American actors who spoke Japanese. As I discovered when I talked to the artistic director of the North American Asian theater company, which is up in Seattle, she said, “We do things about the internment all the time, and every time we have to cast Vietnamese, Korean, Filipinos,” because there’s not that many Japanese Americans who speak Japanese and are part of a community because it became fractured after the internment.

There was also a lot of marrying outside of the culture. So, we had a lot of mixed-race Japanese Americans, which if you’re doing something set in the ’40s, isn’t going to make sense because it was illegal. So that became a challenge for casting. Our cast is from Japan and Australia and the UK and Canada and the US, because it necessitated a worldwide search to find the people we did.

Americans of Japanese descent are rounded up and sent to camps.
The Terror: Infamy depicts the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s with stark accuracy.
AMC

Emily VanDerWerff

George has spoken about his experiences with this many times. That gives the show a sense of authenticity to viewers, but what benefit did you get from having him on set?

Alexander Woo

This was no stroke of genius on my part. George has notably said it is his life’s work to make people aware of this ghastly chapter in American history, so that people don’t commit these acts again.

What ended up happening, which I had hoped for but I wasn’t necessarily expecting, was that his passion for telling the story really spread throughout the entire cast and crew, who recognized it as not exclusively a Japanese American story. It’s the story of the Japanese Americans, but is not necessarily a story for Japanese Americans. This is how I plugged into it because I’m Chinese American, not Japanese American.

I plugged into the story as an immigrant story. I started in theater, so all my playwriting was about notions of what it means to be American, what Americanness is from an Asian-American perspective, and I had never had a chance to do that in television. It’s been 15 years! Here was an opportunity because I recognized that this was a story of Japanese American history, but also for anyone whose life has been touched or shaped by the immigrant experience, which frankly is just about anyone in the United States.

Emily VanDerWerff

I’m of German descent, and I’ve read about how Germans were treated when they first moved here, and they were treated horribly, and forced often to move out to the middle of nowhere, which is where I’m from.

Alexander Woo

It is a constant cycle. There was the era of No Irish Need Apply. No dogs and Chinamen allowed. This happens again and again and again. It’s relevant to this particular moment, yes, but it’s relevant at any moment in our history because it has happened so many times, and yet we keep doing it again and again and again.

Emily VanDerWerff

In writing about the immigrant experience and what that means for being an American — how does the internment camp fit into that story?

Alexander Woo

It’s a cautionary tale for anyone who embraces America and embraces Americanness, and expects to be embraced back. Chester [the family’s son] represents that second generation to which I belong. I’m a child of immigrants, and I really put my own personal story into it. [Like Chester], you naturally kind of distance yourself from your parents. They have the old-fashioned ways of thinking and the old beliefs. In the case of our show, we concretely draw the old beliefs in ghosts and spirits and all that old-country nonsense, until Chester realizes maybe he has no choice but to think that they might be right about that.

In my case, it’s to embrace fully an American culture and try to distance myself from my parents’ generation. And then expecting that your country is going to see it the same way, until they don’t. And then, it’s an assumption that we take for granted that your own country will have your back.

The Terror
Jared Harris stars in the first installment of The Terror.
AMC

Emily VanDerWerff

Did you watch the first installment of The Terror?

Alexander Woo

Yes. It was fantastic.

Emily VanDerWerff

I feel like there are echoes of that show in this one. History is almost the monster in both, and then there’s another supernatural monster haunting the edges of a historical horror.

Alexander Woo

Yeah. I had spoken with [the season one showrunners], and spent some time with them, and having admired and studied the first, inevitably there will be something that is shared in the DNA. Now obviously, the subject matter is totally different. The story is totally different, and the tone is different as well.

But there was something about how what was really terrifying is what these men did to each other. That was the real horror. Mr. Hickey was as terrifying as the Tuunbaq, if not more so. It applied so much to this story: This is about what human beings in a panic in the United States did to their fellow human beings, their fellow citizens. And that is as horrifying as any supernatural creature I could come up with. So, there definitely is shared DNA between the two. And hopefully if there are future seasons of The Terror, those as well.

Emily VanDerWerff

Yuko reflects that, too. She is such an intimate monster. How she gets to people is very close-up, in a way that isn’t always true in horror.

Alexander Woo

Because the medium is so intimate, I wanted her to be right there and present and have a human being play her, and allow viewers to get into her skin because the kind of ghost she is, she is not born supernatural. Ghosts are, by definition, at some point human. They’re spirits of real human beings who had real traumas and real pain and real dreams. And we will see that. I felt like it was important for us to get into her psyche and get into her skin. And then, leave you with the sort of uncomfortable question of, “How do you feel about her monstrosity now?”

Chester and Luz embrace just before everything falls apart.
Chester and Luz share a tender moment.
AMC

Emily VanDerWerff

In that first episode, you reveal Chester and his father sitting underneath a giant calendar that reveals the date as December 7, 1941. That’s a really different challenge from season one, where everything happened in the 1840s, and we don’t really have a firm understanding of the events. World War II, though, most people know the broad strokes. Which is another question about time, I suppose, and how you work with it when the audience knows a lot of what’s coming in fairly specific detail.

Alexander Woo

Chester’s all wrapped up in this thing with his girlfriend in the first episode, and the idea of an impending war is not really on his radar, even though people are talking about it. They’re looking for spies, and tensions with Japan are reaching new heights. Asako mentions war happening all over the world, so it’s safer for [Chester] to be here. But Chester’s all in his head, and like a ghost, the reminder of time is looming over him.

There’s a moment in episode one where quite literally we planted Yuko just deep in the background there as a little nod. It’s a little bit of an homage to those great J-horror movies where the camera isn’t focused on that, but it’s there to freak you out if you see it. If you don’t, it’s fine.

And in that sense, they have no idea, December 7, 1941, is right above them, and they are talking about like, “Who is she? Who is this girl you got pregnant?” And there it is, the ghost of time haunting us. That’s one of the most beautiful shots. You look at that clock, that’s the moment when Pearl Harbor is happening, and they have no idea.

Emily VanDerWerff

Luz, Chester’s pregnant girlfriend, is the one major non-Japanese character in every episode. But she’s also pointedly Latina, and I wanted to ask about bringing in this outsider who enters this close-knit group and witnesses their dynamics, but then also having her be part of a group where there’s lots of horrible things happening to them in the US right now.

Alexander Woo

She is, in our story, an enemy alien [to this family] in a camp full of enemy aliens [to the country], which puts her at an even farther remove. It helps remind us that this is not just like, “Oh, I’m not Japanese American, I don’t have anything to worry about.” This story is one that speaks to so many people.

It creates a really interesting dynamic. She’s made a great sacrifice to be there, and then she suffers as much as anyone else. And a lot of the heart of the show comes from Luz and her sacrifice and her perseverance too.

When we talked to a man who is maybe the leading archivist of the internment, he came to the writers’ room and we asked him like, is there something people get wrong a lot when they show the interment onscreen? And he said, much to our shock, “Yeah, they always make it too miserable.” But really? “Yeah, because they always make it look like it was nothing but misery.” The internment certainly was miserable, but it’s also the story of the resilience and resourcefulness of the people who were in prison. So you see kids playing baseball, and that horrible little garden at the beginning becomes nicer and nicer and nicer.

It was important for us to show characters persevering rather than just beaten down. Because that’ll also get to be a drag, too, if that’s all they do. The thing that was really remarkable and makes them heroic is the strength that came out of them under the circumstances.

The Terror: Infamy airs Mondays on AMC at 9 pm Eastern. Previous episodes are available to stream with a cable login on AMC’s website.