Opening Chernobyl Diaries: the truth is scarier than the film

by Kristi Petersen Schoonover

May 29, 2012

Zuni Fetish Doll - Trilogy of Terror

I was standing in the advance ticket purchase line for the midnight showing of Chernobyl Diaries, and the female half of the much younger couple in front of me turned to the male half and said, “I don’t think this is going to be scary. It’s such a not-scary name.”

For those of us who were alive at the time, the first word, Chernobyl—which at its essence means wormwood, fitting for a place which poisoned itself for centuries to come—is scary all on its own. I was fifteen at the time of the accident, and stories of what happened to you when you were exposed to too much radiation were rendered in gory detail around the school cafeteria. After all, images from ABC’s graphic The Day After, which had aired only two and half years before, had branded our minds.

It struck me that this couple’s partners not only weren’t born at the time of the accident, they might not have even heard of that night in 1986 in which a Ukrainian nuclear reactor blew open and spewed clouds of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. It ruined thousands of acres and sentenced people closest to it to shockingly fast but agonizing deaths, and those in nearby communities who survived to every kind of strange cancer you’ve never heard of for generations to come.

On that fateful weekend, the neighboring, almost-instantly radioactive city of Pripyat, in which Chernobyl is set, wasn’t told of the danger due to the then-USSR’s secretive Cold War way of life. It went about its weddings, birthday parties, and walks in the sunshine, with only a few suddenly vomiting up their insides and collapsing. When Pripyat was finally evacuated an inexcusable couple of days later, residents, told they wouldn’t be gone long, literally left dishes in the sink, food in their refrigerators, family photos on their walls, televisions on.

Thousands sickened and died, and Pripyat was never deemed anything but uninhabitable from that point forward. No one returned—except looters. But after awhile, there came urban explorers, photographers, extreme tourists, and those who have a casual fascination with all things abandoned. It’s hard to resist a good haunting, and twenty-six years later, this city’s ghosts include broken dolls, water-logged books, warping pianos, rotting campaign posters and a rusting amusement park that was due to open just four days after the accident. It’s downright creepy.

No surprise, then, that Oren Peli chose Pripyat as the backdrop for what some have described as The Hills Have Eyes meets Paranormal Activity, and others, like the Friends of Chernobyl Centers U.S., have called an insult to the disaster’s victims.¹

The film certainly seems to contain all the usual tropes—the clichéd set-up (good-timing kids ignore warnings and discover they’re suddenly in trouble), run-of-the-mill dialogue (“We should go now, it’s going to be dark soon”), jump scares, and you know exactly what’s happening right away; it’s never really a surprise the city is full of mutated flesh-eating beings (in fact, I figured that out from the trailer just because I knew what Chernobyl was all about). Yes, it’s all been done before, and yes, it might seem a little insensitive to suggest that some of the blast’s disfigured/mutated victims never left the city and stalk its cold halls awaiting their next meal of unsuspecting tourists.

But a film like that has never been done in this ruined city that has captured the imaginations of so many people. The real reason I suspect many will see this film despite its popcorn status and its subject, and the real reason anyone should see this film, is to capture the unsettling feeling of being in Pripyat—even if what we see in the movie isn’t the real Pripyat but stand-ins located in Serbia and Hungary. A terrible tragedy happened there; the land, atmosphere, and remaining objects are scarred in more ways than one. Standing in Pripyat is a reminder of how easily we could bring on an apocalypse. It’s a reminder of how fragile we are. It’s a reminder of how close we are to destroying ourselves every single day. And it’s an introduction, for those who aren’t aware—like those kids in front of me in line who had obviously no knowledge of the accident—to how much terrible suffering was inflicted upon innocents because of bad management, carelessness, and politics.

Whether or not people embrace Chernobyl as genuinely scary or even an appropriate film, then, really doesn’t matter. It’s the real story of Chernobyl that’s horrifying—and with hundreds of operating nuclear reactors all over the world (yes, there’s almost one in every single state in the U.S.) and some rather vulnerable to natural disaster (think 2011’s Fukushima meltdown), we’re always at risk of history repeating itself.

If you would like to know more about the real horror of Chernobyl and the dead city of Pripyat, I strongly recommend the BBC’s hour-long, chilling Surviving Disaster: Chernobyl, so click on the link (be warned: some visuals and descriptions are extremely graphic. Do not watch this if you don’t have a strong stomach).

If you’d like to see footage from the city as it looks today, urban explorer Arkadiusz Podniesinski has done a haunting job in his “Chernobyl Exploration”, and Village of Joy has some beautiful still photographs. You can also watch a feature on touring the area on “Vacation in Chernobyl” on the Time magazine site.

¹ “Chernobyl Diaries Horror Flick RIPPED by Victim Support Group,” TMZ, (accessed May 24, 2012).