Cherenkovian Horror: Thoughts on CHERNOBYL (HBO, 2019) and MIDNIGHT IN CHERNOBYL by Adam Higginbotham

Image from Chernobyl on HBO
Chernobyl on HBO

As an older millennial, I grew up in a post-Chernobyl world. I’ve been aware of the incident for my entire life, without ever knowing the truth of it. I knew Pripyat from a few video games I’d played—its mystique as a ghost town overshadowing the reality that tens of thousands of people had their lives uprooted and never truly destroyed because of the disaster at the nearby nuclear power platn. An equal number of people have died (and continue to die) because of the accident. This happened in my life time, while I was toddling about my home, searching for crumbs and toys, but it always had the feeling of a far-off myth or something out of a storybook. Living in Canada, I had the privilege to know about it, but not know about it.

HBO’s Chernobyl was released earlier this year to rave reviews. I thought I knew about the Chernobyl incident because I was vaguely aware of how nuclear reactors operated (thanks to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011) and how government bureaucracy led to the disaster being worse than it should have been. I thought back to Call of Duty. I had no idea what I was in for when I sat down for watch Chernobyl—written by the guy who wrote Scary Movie 3 and The Hangover Part II, no less—but I walked away from the absolutely pitch perfect first episode reeling, unable to fall asleep. It was dark and bleak, angry, hopeless, terrifying.

Thanks to an absolutely tense haunting score by Hildur Guðnadóttir and brilliant camera work, this first episode reaches a level of anxiety and otherworldliness that almost feels like Cosmic Horror.

Cherenkovian Horror.

As someone with a squeamish stomach, many of the moments in Chernobyl showing the awful effects of radiation exposure—skin sloughing off muscle, weeping blood, horrific burns, many of them dead within seconds of exposure, but not knowing it for days—was difficult to watch. But perhaps the most horrifying moments are when the show takes a page out of The Blair Witch Project‘s books and doesn’t show the most damaged individuals, those with their toes on death’s doorstep—the viewer knows that no matter what they’ve seen previously, it’s not as bad as it can get.

No two episodes of the series are quite the same, but they each peel back the horrific circumstances that doomed the reactor and Pripyat’s people in the days leading up to the disaster and the resulting fallout—literal and political. Immediately upon finishing the show, I sought out more knowledge, which led me to Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl. As amazing as Mazin’s show was, it was, at the end of the day, a dramatic fictionalization of the Chernobyl disaster, and Higginbotham’s book works as a wonderful companion piece by filling in a lot of the holes that didn’t make it into the show, and providing an even richer tapestry of stories about the people affecting and affected by the incident.

They both centre their narrative around the human cost of the accident and the complete failure of the government to protect its people. They tell the stories of the men and women directly impacted by the accident, and illustrate their sacrifices—sometimes willingly and bravely, sometimes unwillingly and resulting from ignorance of the dangers of radiation exposure.

As it’s a dramatized mini-series, Chernobyl casts typical heroes, none more unlikely than Boris Scherbina, played to amazing effect by Stellan Skarsgaard, who enters the show as a prototypical company man, following the company line without wavering, but becomes someone much different by the show’s end. Opposite him is Jared Harris playing Valery Legasov—the clear sighted and altruistic chemist who fights tooth and nail to convince the government of the catastrophic nature of the Chernobyl accident. Higginbotham’s account is less focused on crafting brilliant characters arcs as it is unveiling the endless layers of complexity surrounding all aspects of the incident, but remains compulsive and readable, while retaining Mazin’s critical eye and sparing no heartbreak.

Mazin’s Chernobyl is rife with subtext and themes. It’s an indictment of the damage done by ignorant, selfish people who, out of cowardice or misplaced loyalty, or just pure bullying mentality, pull the party line and make poor, baseless decisions out of fear of punishment for failure. It’s about a failure of bureaucracy on a human level. Mazin touched on this on Twitter:

I went into Mazin’s Chernobyl thinking I knew what happened during the nuclear disaster outside Pripyat in the wee hours of April 26, 1986. I didn’t have the faintest clue. Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl is a detailed, readable account of the disaster that builds it story off the people who were there. As we cruise deeper into the Age of Misinformation, Chernobyl is must watch television. It’s tense, brilliantly written, exquisitely acted, and absolutely crucial in its critique of bureaucratic corruption. You won’t find a finer experience on television, and paired with Higginbotham’s book, you might just be surprised by how much you don’t know about Chernobyl.

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