Chernobyl: Blurring Real and Cinematic Horror

A firefighter, responding to a fire at the number 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat, Russia, picks up a smooth piece of rubble. Moments later the skin on his hand melts away. Miles away, ash slowly rains down upon onlookers gathered in confusion. They huddle together on an overpass that would later gain the name “The Bridge of Death.” All of this happens within thirty minutes of the first episode of Chernobyl and the darkness deepens from there. 

2019 was an excellent year for horror with a wide variety of critically well received offerings such as Us, Midsommar, The Lighthouse, Crawl, and Doctor Sleep. However, HBO’s Chernobyl more than deserves a spot in the discussion in the years to come about the best recent horror. Created by Craig Mazin, the 5-episode drama series gives a grounded insight into the apocalyptic situation that occurred at the nuclear power plant in 1986. The horrors that the show depicts are both otherworldly and remorselessly human. Plenty of horror films stem from real world events but few hew as close to the uncomfortable truth of history.

The miniseries has numerous beats that would be comfortably familiar to horror fans but these are subverted by their real-world implications, making them hit much harder. Audiences watch as radiation is unknowingly spread, an unseen zombie bite, as nurses touch clothes of power plant workers, wives hug their firefighter husbands who had just responded to ground zero of the disaster; small holes in protective clothing are lingered on in dread. Some moments are almost Lovecraftian in nature even if the true horror extends beyond any sleeping elder gods. Animals are shown mutilated by the radiation. An overseer of the plant orders more bodies brought to the plant as though he is preparing a human sacrifice. Bodies, even pregnant ones, begin a slow and painful transformation as the air and land begin to undergo change by invisible forces. It is Annihilation without the beauty, Godzilla without the monster.

Perhaps the most prominent example would be the “ignored scientist” trope. Playing First Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy Valery Legasov, Jared Harris seemingly reprises his role as the saddest man in the world who knows too much from the criminally underappreciated 2018 horror series, The Terror. In a world burdened by government lies and double talk, Legasov is a man of scientific truth, one of the few who properly grasps the cosmic horror unleashed by the reactor explosion. Initially, his role is disposable; he is expected to be a “Yes Man.” He spends much of the first few episodes pounding on tables and pleading with those around him to realize the gravity of the situation. He is joined in his concerns by Emily Watson’s Ulana Khomyuk, a fictional composite character, who is at one point even arrested for her actions to bring light to the disaster. Their cause would have been hopeless if not for Stellan Skarsgård’s Council of Ministers’ deputy chairman Boris Shcherbina finally coming around to accepting the truth. The unlikely trio (as unlikely as Brody, Quint, and Hooper are in Jaws) are uneasy allies at first but quickly become brothers-in-arms as they face the threat of both the bleeding reactor as well as government suspicions and bureaucracy. 

Throughout the 5 episodes, there are numerous horrific moments and even set pieces. Helicopters disintegrate if they approach too close to the core, dropping out of the sky in showers of metal parts. Skin sloughs off of bodies in a degree of realism far beyond any Cronenberg body horror fascination. Death in Chernobyl is just as brutal as any horror antagonist, even more so because it is rooted in truth. It is the same strain of fear as carried by the xenomorph in Alien because death is not only inevitable but worse, unknowable. There is no reasoning or comprehending. Alien comes to mind numerous times throughout the series. Doomed workmen running through the bowels of the power plant which are as grimy and claustrophobic as the Nostromo, if not more so, are kindred spirits to the madness that Ellen Ripley endured. 

Everything in Chernobyl is designed to instill dread. The set design is filled with Soviet-era concrete brutalism and there is no escaping the sound design, especially Hildur Guðnadóttir’s ethereal and discomforting soundtrack, running through every episode like ice water. The 2017 movie Dunkirk used a stopwatch in its sound design to build anxiety in the viewers and Chernobyl achieves something similar with the sound of Gieger counters. In several moments, their shriek drowns out the world as the workers struggle in the shadow of the nuclear power plant. One of the purest horror set pieces lets the counters roar in a setting that makes The Descent feel roomy. Three men are selected for a suicide mission into the darkened depths in order to drain water from the lower levels of the plant. As they plunge into the darkness, the Gieger counter wailing in warning, the environment becomes increasingly claustrophobic as the water rises around them and their flashlights begin to fail. The phrase “belly of the beast” has never been more applicable. 

Because its imagery is bolstered by the terrible truth, Chernobyl is a hard watch, likely even by horror fan standards, but the series is nothing less than gripping through every episode. The show was immediately hailed by critics upon its release and even found a sizeable audience, resulting in memes and, worryingly, increased disaster tourism to the region. That latter reaction is surprising considering there are no punches pulled; episode 4 which depicts the efforts to sanitize the surrounding area will haunt most viewers long after it’s over. Perhaps part of the reason that people couldn’t look away is our innate fear and fascination with the unknown. This is perhaps mankind’s oldest fear, a horror beyond understanding, but in Chernobyl there is no creature looking out from the shadows, no jump scares, no serial killers. There is the horror of government speak and corruption of the truth but there is also the omnipresent reactor. The brief glimpses at the open reactor core defy comprehension and the body rebels against its existence, bursting apart at the seams when exposed to the radiation. It is a gaping wound in the very fabric of reality and Hell follows close behind. The only thing more frightening than that gateway is knowing that not everyone at the controls understands what they have tried to harness.

An MFA graduate from Oklahoma State University, Wyeth Leslie is a poet and author interested in the intersection between technology, the environment, and human relationships. His writings have been featured in publications such as The Vital Sparks, Lost Futures, and Haywire Magazine. He can be found staring into the abyss on Twitter: @Wyeth_was_here

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