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Chernobyl is the new face of cosmic horror

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What historical fiction can teach us about Lovecraftian terror

HBO

Cosmic horror is extremely hard to communicate in visual mediums. The sense that there is something unknowable, ancient, and all-powerful right below the shell of our world can be evoked through the written word, but it’s an extremely tricky concept to show someone.

But HBO’s five-part Chernobyl series is perhaps one of the best examples of cosmic horror that has ever been filmed, and that feat is made more impressive by the fact that the show is based on real-world events. While many filmmakers have struggled with how to convey the mind-shattering awe inspired by Lovecraft’s ancient gods, the creative team behind Chernobyl struck the same tone by summoning a limitless amount of dread out of even banal objects, such as small chunks of graphite.

Chernobyl is interesting as a dramatic take on a historical event, but it’s nearly as good as a spin-off of Lovecraft’s ideas about the unlimited power of arcane gods who can never be imagined, much less controlled, by human minds. And cosmic horror may be the best lens through which to view the show, which offers a dire warning about the dangers facing humanity today.

Why Chernobyl is such a great fit for cosmic horror

How do you show the audience something that is described as too large, and too horrible, for our minds to understand? What can be so horrible that it can strip the sanity from those who experience it, that can then be shown to the viewer as some sort of special effect?

That’s the challenge of translating Lovecraftian horror to the screen, and different films have tackled the idea in different ways, with varying levels of success.

Chernobyl deals with the 1986 nuclear disaster that took place at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet Ukraine, an incident that happened because of a cascading failure of government oversight and an inability of those who worked at the plant to understand just how bad things could get, and how quickly.

The Soviet Union wanted gigantic, inexpensive nuclear reactors that were run by individuals loyal to the party above all else, and an accident of this magnitude seemed nearly unavoidable in retrospect — and thought of as nearly impossible at the time. Even if a meltdown might happen, how do you say no to the person above you in the chain of the command when doing so meant that you would disappear, and the next person in line would be all too happy to say yes?

As HBO’s mini-series explains, inconvenient truths were hidden, and impossible tasks were ordered through the implicit threat of exile or murder. If these men couldn’t turn the Soviet Union into a nation that lead the way with cheap, plentiful nuclear power, the KGB would find people who could. That attitude continued after the explosion, too, when the most effective means of combating the biblical fallout of unleashed nuclear waste was pretending it wasn’t happening at all.

“It isn’t alarmist if it’s a fact!” Professor Legasov, a character who passes for a hero in this story, tries to tell a gathering of Soviet leaders, including Gorbachev, after they’ve dismissed the issue. And his facts sound hard to believe, even today.

“Every atom of [Uranium] 235 is like a bullet,” he explains, discussing Chernobyl’s uranium fuel that was blasted free from the reactor during the accident. “Traveling at nearly the speed of light, penetrating everything in its path: woods, metal, concrete, flesh. Every gram of U-235 holds over a billion trillion of these bullets. That’s in one gram. Now, Chernobyl holds over three million grams and, right now, it is on fire.”

The wind means that those particles are kicked up. The rain means that those particles are brought back down onto them. Every breath brings death closer, and no one wanted to believe what was happening. One terrifying scene shows two workers leaning over the pit to see what’s going on at the base. They see a swirl of white and orange light. Nuclear power itself, exposed to the air. Annihilation.

You might not be able to feel it directly, smell it, or taste it, but it means death, and it does not care what your government thinks may or may not be happening.

When the radiation destroys a machine designed to run on the moon, the government feel it has no choice but to send men working in 90 second shifts to clear the radioactive graphite by hand. What ensues is a scene in which men in protective gear move rocks, set to the eerie, clicking sound of a dosimeter reminding you that they are working in one of the most punishing and dangerous environments our planet has ever seen. It’s a scene of banal, but unimaginable, dread.

There are many scenes like this, in which seemingly ordinary people do relatively normal things in the middle of a catastrophe that has already claimed their lives, even if the physical symptoms had yet to make themselves known. Each monologue, each moment of anger, is punctuated by terrible numbers that reveal the scope of what’s at stake. Thousands of square miles. Tens of millions of people. Hundreds of thousands of years. Untold cost. None of it seems real; nothing this powerful would ever be controlled by people who thought they could just turn their backs and wish it away. Right?

That intersection of remarkable power, the brutality of radiation, and the bland ambivalence of those in power that makes Chernobyl feel so vital, yet frightening. The accident would not have happened were it not for Soviet hubris, and yet it might not have been so successfully contained without the sacrifice of the workaday folks who either volunteered for the job out of a sense of duty or were told they had no choice but to give up their own lives to try to contain an endlessly destructive force they barely understood.

Human nature caused the accident, and it was the best and worst of human nature that limited the damage done. It’s hard to believe that we’ve learned anything since, especially as politicians in so many many parts of the world openly ignore science and the warnings of those who know better. The power of radiation is almost impossible to comprehend, which makes it such a good topic for cosmic horror. But it’s the shortsighted nature of the human condition that brings the real dread to shows like Chernobyl, as they repeat the warning that the mistakes we make can’t be fixed by ignoring the insurmountable odds of overcoming them.

The real tension of cosmic horror isn’t that the cost to stop an existential threat might be too high, but that the danger it poses may seem so all-encompassing that we’re comfortable doing nothing at all.