Do You Taste Metal? Inevitability and the Emotions of HBO’s Chernobyl

Besides vaguely describing a scene in the first episode there are no spoilers present for the show. Unless you don’t actually know what happened in Chernobyl in the first place.

I got around to watching HBO’s 2019 miniseries Chernobyl, and of course I went about it like an absolute buffoon. My husband didn’t want to watch it, so I put on the first episode after he’d gone to bed. Around ten o’clock. And then immediately was supposed to go to sleep.

Yeah, that didn’t happen. I had to watch an episode of Community first. And when I did go to bed, I didn’t fall asleep for two hours. What sleep I did get was sketchy at best. I had to bring one of the cats to the vet the next morning for a check-up and the PetSmart people found me asleep on a pile of dog beds. They didn’t take it well.

I’ve done this to myself before, of course. The worst was definitely after seeing Hereditary, where even with all the lights on and reruns of Frasier on the television I still couldn’t close my eyes without freaking out. Hell, back in the early 2010s there were nights slept with the lights on from watching terrible Slender-Man YouTube channels. Scaring myself so badly I don’t sleep right is nothing new.

But the first episode of Chernobyl was different, and it’s all from the type of fear I was feeling. A type of fear I still can’t exactly pinpoint.

Terror vs Horror

Okay, anyone who writes horror, or even enjoys horror as genre, already knows what about to get into, but I’ll go over it anyway for anyone just joining in on the fun. While terror and horror can be used interchangeably, there’s actually a slight distinction between the two. First distinguished by gothic writer Anne Radcliffe and expanded upon by countless authors and writers since then, it goes like this:

Terror is the feeling of dread and anticipation that comes before something scary happening.

Horror is the feeling of revulsion that comes after something scary happened.

Let’s look at the opening scene of Scream. Even as the scene starts, when absolutely nothing out of the ordinary is really happening, you are already freaking out because you know exactly what kind of movie you walked into. The terror might not be there for Drew Barrymore’s character, but it’s there for you because you know what you signed up for. After a couple of minutes her character gets clued in and the terror only deepens. Even as she sees poor Steve out on the patio and then gutted, this is still terror. After all, it hasn’t happened to her yet.

The moment of horror isn’t until the knife enters her body. Us viewers gets a second moment of horror later, when her parents find her body.

The difference is in the related emotions. Terror is a buildup of those emotions, anticipating something to where it almost feels like excitement. Horror, in contrast, is almost a relief. Sure, something awful and life-scarring is happening, but at least now you know what it is. Terror constantly leaves you guessing, but at least with horror you have something tangible to actually react to. Even if that reaction is pissing yourself and/or uncontrolled vomiting.

Translation of Fear

Usually when some movie or show scares me enough to disrupt sleep, there’s a specific element of that could happen to me. Even with supernatural stuff. Especially with supernatural stuff, now that I think about it. I can lock my doors against a serial killer or not go with a random Swede to his middle-of-nowhere commune to save a dying and pointless relationship, but how the fuck do I keep a ghost or a demon out of my house? Like, I think I’d just have to live with it.

That’s the sort of fear that keeps me up at night after watching something like Hereditary or The Haunting of Hill House. That some supernatural entity is going to use me for target practice. That what happened to the characters on screen is going to happen to me. That’s why I use my phone flashlight to walk from my office to the bedroom in the dark. That’s why I leave lights on and jump at shadows. Because a part of my brain has decided that I will be starring in the movie’s sequel.

And Yet, Chernobyl

The first episode of the show doesn’t fit any of these emotional descriptions. Maybe my level of knowledge of the disaster at Chernobyl put me in a sort-of sweet spot, such at it was. I knew the broad strokes. Knew terms like ‘elephant’s foot’ and ‘the liquidators.’ Knew the ultimate fate of everyone involved but did not know specifics.

I couldn’t quite be terrified, because I knew what was coming.

I couldn’t quite be horrified, because I still had to see it play out.

And I never feared it would happen to me, because it was too specific and it’s not like a nuclear reactor core can materialize inside my bathroom.

But every second of the episode was still painful. Terrible and horrible all at once. Because I knew what would happen and could do nothing to stop it. I always yell at the television anyway, but this time was especially bad. “Leave, leave!” “Don’t go in there!” “Don’t fucking touch that are you out of your God damned mind?” The scene with the firefighters arriving is especially potent. The one firefighter goes to pick up a piece of debris, and even thought at this point I don’t even understand what it is I know enough that picking it up is a death sentence. I’m not terrified, because I’m not surprised when merely seconds after putting the piece down he begins shaking his hand like something is wrong, nor minutes later when he begins wailing in agony and reveals the sores all over his hand, nor a while later when he’s sitting on the ground, completely out of it. Dying. And I can’t be horrified, because it’s not over. It’s still happening. This particular firefighter will be dead within minutes, but I know all of the other firefighters will be dead within weeks.

The entire first episode of Chernobyl kept me in that space between terror and horror, always increasing the anticipation and the dread and never coming through with a release. And there’s really only one word for that.

Agony

After everything else is gone, it’s the only thing that fits. “Extreme physical or mental suffering.” The first episode of Chernobyl is an hour of agony. You know the end from the beginning. You know from the first shot of the men in the control room trying to figure out what happened that they’re all dead, but you have to watch it happen anyway. There’s no suspense, no surprise, only a trudging march through everything that must happen.

I don’t mean that in a bad way. If you haven’t seen Chernobyl, there’s a reason why it won so many awards. The agony is not because something in the show isn’t working (well, besides the reactor), but because everything is working. You’re supposed to be in agony. It’s on purpose. You’re watching the invisible deaths of men by something none of them understand enough and most of them don’t understand at all. Not exactly popcorn-worthy.

This isn’t really a review of the show or the episode, just me trying to figure out what the hell it made me feel for an hour. Whatever it was, it sucked, and I’ve already finished the series and rewatched the first episode twice.


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