History as Horror: HBO’s Chernobyl

As we watched the final season of Game of Thrones during the late spring of 2019 (or rather, as Bryan watched and Heather made occasional sarcastic comments in between crossword puzzles), we began seeing commercials for a curious new show on HBO. A new miniseries, it promised a dramatic telling of the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl. Neither of us were very familiar with the event, other than general knowledge of location and legacy, but something about the commercials looked intriguing. Bryan asked Heather if she was interested, Heather replied that she’d be willing to give it a shot, and so we tuned in to the first episode. Little did we know the saga we were about to become invested in.

By now, you’ve likely heard of this miniseries. It was all the rage that May and June, both for its accessible format and its timely message of the necessity of facts over the obfuscation of a self-interested political elite. As we were sucked into that first episode, though, we had different things on our minds. The pilot of Chernobyl is one of the most riveting pieces of media we have consumed in a long while. Beginning from the moment of the reactor explosion, the episode covers the first night of the disaster as businessmen, plant workers, firemen, and townspeople respond. As events unfold, and we the audience of 2019 proceeded to observe the reactions of the people of 1986, we realized that what we were watching was one of the finest episodes of horror we’d ever seen. Historical horror is not unknown, but most of it, like The Terror (reviewed here and here on Concerning History) involve some kind of artistic license or fantastical element. Here, all was true, and all was terrifying. With radiation as the ‘monster,’ – a monster that the audience knows is deadly and the characters believe to be just an irritant – the initial hours following the disaster feel as terrifying and high stakes as you can imagine. You find yourself begging those on screen not to follow orders, don’t go into the core, don’t play in that ash like it’s a snowfall.

As the rest of the miniseries unfolded, we soon realized that Chernobyl was also a historical experience like no other. Not only was its 1980s Soviet material culture outstanding (and attested to by former Soviet citizens of the era), but actual audio recordings from the event are incorporated into the narrative, as are stories from the oral history Voices of Chernobyl. Heather then discovered that showrunner Craig Mazin had launched a parallel podcast, talking for over an hour on the history, production, and storytelling choices of each episode after it aired. Such issues as respect over spectacle (especially in regards to the radiation injuries of hospitalized plant personnel), the lack of Russian accents (they were distracting and were preventing the actors from giving their most compelling performances), and the decision to combine certain historical actors or insert fictional scenes in order to explain concepts to the audience are discussed. Taken together, Chernobyl feels more like the best unit of a 20th Century History seminar than a television series.

By the time we had finished all six episodes and all six podcasts, we were both far more fascinated with the history of this seminal nuclear disaster than we had ever thought we would be. Heather even ordered two books on the topic to use with students, including Voices of Chernobyl. We highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of what history you usually consume. The story told within is necessary viewing for any person of the modern age, and the lessons we must learn from it are as pressing as ever.  

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