Fear: 1

When I went to Pripyat in 2011, it had not yet been opened as a tourist destination. We had to do a bunch of paperwork and pay surcharges (bribes) and fees (official bribes) to get into the exclusion zone as a camera-crew doing a documentary.

Each of us arranged our own kit. One of the fellows, a nature photographer from Atlanta, had a hiker’s backpack that was absolutely jammed with camera gear of all sorts. Another fellow was a Brit from the hiking tradition, who was just there to wander about and take in the sights. I was there because I could be, that was about it. I had an old Vietnam-era alice pack, a couple of volund sweaters and a rainproof shell, layered gloves, camera (of course) GPS, rad meter, hat. All the stuff you’d expect to take.

When I got to Kiev on my inbound flight, I realized I had forgotten a flashlight. So I stopped at a shop in the market and bought a cheap LED flashlight that looked tactical enough for the job.

I’m reminded of all this stuff because last night I finally got into watching some of the Chernobyl series. Since I am on metered bandwidth, I can’t stream stuff, I have to wait for it to come out on DVD then buy it, rip it, and archive it. The show is really well done and I’m sure it’s going to win a zillion emmyscars, deservedly. Because of the cold I’m working on getting over, I have been taking good slugs of nyquil (dextromorpham + acetominophen) which makes me feel a bit detached and light-headed. Chernobyl was probably not the right thing to watch, come to think of it, but it’s what I hit upon.

“Morale Booster” – the hospital, Pripyat, 2011, mjr.

That reminded me of one of the scariest moments of my life. There have been 3, that I count – times when I’ve been overcome with fear so strong that I just freaked out and lost control of myself and did like the characters do in horror movies: get stupid and run around waving arms in the air with eyes bugging out, just trying to get away from the situation long enough for everything to be OK. I’ve had moments of existential dread, like the time I nearly drowned kayaking or the time I flipped my Honda del sol end-over-end and hit an oak tree, but in those situations my body/mind gestalt was occupied – busy with what was happening – so I felt no fear at all; it was like I was moving through glue in “bullet time” as I was trying to do what I could to survive. So far, so good, obviously.

The times I’ve really experienced fear are when my mind and imagination work against me and make the situation I am in vastly worse than it actually is. You know the old Bene Gesserit saying “fear is the mind-killer” – that kind of fear. I’m a creative person who thinks fast and when my creativity starts working against me, to create monsters out of mites, then I can jack myself up in no time at all. Usually, that does not happen, though, when it does, it’s memorable.

This is not a spoiler. This is a flash-back. If you’ve seen the Chernobyl show, there’s one moment in the first episode where the firemen are at the hospital and one of the nurses realizes their gear is dangerously radioactive. They take it off and dump it down in the basement. Whoever scripted that did a really good job cueing us to be afraid, using subtle moments like that to reveal the fear that would have been starting to creep into the edges of the characters’ reality. If you want to think about the Chernobyl show as a horror flick, it’s very well done – like in Ridley Scott’s ALIEN the monster is dimly glimpsed, at a distance, lethal if you look at it because it’s looking into you at the same time.

The third day of our exploring, we split up and wandered about Pripyat (the abandoned city 5 miles from the plant) on our own. There are endless apartment flats but they are not very interesting, mostly there are the usual landmarks: the ferris wheel, the concert hall, the department store, the hospital. Since there are no lines of tourists, or even doors, you can just flow through the buildings with your camera, grabbing whatever scenery seems interesting. So, I went through the hospital. The ground floor was trashed but the second floor was not as bad. The show gets the light in the hospital, and the furnishings, and the layout, and the general look and feel, absolutely perfect. It’s oppressive and eerie and sad.

“Saline Solution” – the hospital, Pripyat, 2011 mjr.

On the ground floor, there was a stairway down to the basement that had been deliberately blocked with concrete blocks and cement. But when I looked down the elevator shaft (as one does) I noticed it was possible to climb down, through the trapdoor in the top of the elevator car, and the doors appeared to be jammed open. As I was feeling adventurous, I dropped the alice pack and left my camera on it, grabbed my flashlight and put my leather gloves on, and clambered down. I left the camera because it was new and I didn’t want to bang it around, and besides it was pitch dark and I had made the decision not to bring a tripod on the trip. My climbing style is hardly nimble anymore but I made it down, with my flashlight clipped to my jacket, and went out into the hall.

It was dark and funky in the basement and my little flashlight was revealed to be pathetic. I could make little spots of light but if I adjusted the beam spreader on the front all it managed was a dim puddle of off-color illumination. Just about then, I heard a loud chirp. It was my radmeter; a really nice digital model I borrowed from Rick A., a notable nerd who had such things lying around. I took it out, shone the flashlight on it, and saw that it had a warning mode. I did not know that! Apparently it thought there was enough radiation in the area that I should know about it. Later that afternoon we briefly visited a piece of earth-moving machinery that was notably “hot” [nzherald] and I got more familiar with the radmeter’s various warning beeps. Anyhow, being in the dark, with just a pathetic little flashlight, the chirp of the radmeter really emphasized how alone I was. I kept going down the hall and the meter started to beep faster. There was an intersection in the hallway and, by now, I was feeling like I was playing Dungeons and Dragons for real. The game-master said, “you come to a T in the hallway, left or right?” I went the direction that made the radmeter chirp more, naturally.

I don’t know what this says or where I shot it. Lit by my pathetic flashlight, Pripyat, 2011, mjr.

The farther I went down the hall, the more excited the radmeter got. If you’ve seen the movie ALIENS, when they have the motion detector detecting inbound xenomorphs, beeping louder and faster – that’s exactly what it felt like. I’m walking down this stuff-cluttered dank hallway, and the nearest other human could never hear me scream if I called for help. Around then I started thinking “what the fuck and I doing this for?” and “curiousity is contra-indicated for feline wellness” and stuff like that. I decided I’d go to the end of the hall and then I’d declare honor satisfied and retreat. I was thinking all of this as I was slowly moving forward, of course, so just about then I passed an open door to a room on my right. The radmeter went batshit. I rotated my torso like a gunfighter being attacked and the flashlight tracked with my body, illuminating a small band through the room. In the middle of the room, on the floor, was a large pile of boots, clothing, helmets, gloves… The radmeter was going batshit and that was when my subconscious decided it was time to go.

I’m not really sure how I got out of there, to tell the truth. I believe that I must have relied on positional memory to do a broken-field run in and out of all of the junk blocking the hallway until I got to the elevator and did one great big chin-up. Or, perhaps I climbed it like Bruce Lee did in Enter the Dragon (if you know what I’m talking about, you know what I’m talking about). Either way, the next clear memory that I have is grabbing my camera and the alice pack and walking out into the relatively clean, fresh, air.

Up until that moment, I had never been so scared in my life, but in retrospect it always seems silly.

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I do not know if the production team for the Chernobyl show know about the pile of first responder gear in the basement, or not. But they put a specific reference into the show, about it, which is some high attention to detail.

My main take-away from my experience at Chernobyl was anger at the system of nationalism that had to have its stupid “cold war” and which led both sides to do dangerous things and play dangerous games with their people, in order to jockey for power and prestige. The people of Pripyat were perfectly ordinary human beings, a mix of this and that, let down by a system that didn’t care a rat’s ass what price they paid. From what I’d learned since then, the accident at the reactor was a control error that was not much worse than the non-error responses made by the nuclear plant operators at Three Mile Island. The engineers at Chernobyl were dealing with a mind-set that “RBMK reactors are very safe” when it turned out they were not. I suspect the engineers at Three Mile Island had similar feelings. It could be New Jersey and New York City that would be the wastelands; it’s just bad luck. The Chernobyl series is brilliant in how it (mostly accurately) evokes the lack of an effective government response – it tells us what a lie government is telling when it says “we’re here to help.” Mostly, it’s there to quiet things down. I know that none of you reading this are naive enough to imagine that the US government would respond as effectively as the Soviets did, should we have such an accident. The scene in which the party boss calls upon the workers to volunteer to go down into the bubble chamber, is some of the best drama I’ve seen in my life, and what happens when they do go down there gave me chills and made me write this posting.


  1. says

    Powerful story. I won’t watch the documentary, I wouldn’t be able to cope.

    The smaller writing says, written in Czech script “Palata invalidóv”, which means “Ward for invalids”
    The three letters that look like “BOB” read “VOV” in Latin script, but I have no clue what it means.
    The bigger letters in paler red look like they were added later??? They do not make sense. They read the word “Učastnikóv i” which means “Participants and”.

    So the whole script reads “Ward for participants and invalids, VOV” which does not make sense. Probably some context is missing.

  2. says

    Meaning of each word:
    “палата” — ward, room
    “инвалидов” — disabled people
    “и” — and
    “участников” — participants
    “вов” — uncertain, but this might be an abbreviation of “Великая Отечественная война” literally meaning “The Great Patriotic War,” this is how the Soviet propaganda machine referred to WWII.

    What I’m about to write next is speculation, I don’t really know. As Charly wrote @#1, this text doesn’t make sense without context, but I do have a theory.

    Anyway, “палата инвалидов,” meaning “ward for disabled people,” is written in the same font, so I guess that was what was initially written. So at first this was the room where disabled patients stayed. The rest of the words are added later. Alternatively, I might also assume that the initial text was “палата инвалидов вов,” meaning “ward for WWII disabled veterans.” After all “вов” is still the same font, just larger letters. In that case this would be the room for WWII veterans who were now disabled patients at the hospital.

    The text “и участников,” meaning “and participants” was added later. My guess is that this refers to “participants” who cleaned up all this radioactive mess after the reactor blew up.

    In this case the full text would mean “the ward for disabled WWII veterans and participants in the Chernobyl disaster cleanup.”

    Again, I shall emphasize that this is just a theory, I don’t really know. As for “вов,” there is no such a word in Russian, so this must be either an abbreviation or have some local/niche meaning. But “Великая Отечественная война” definitely was commonly abbreviated like this.

  3. Ridana says

    It looks to me like “Ward 10” is the only original script, since almost all the other lettering and the lower half of the star are bleeding. The exception is “disabled people” and the line and upper portion of the star (taken alone, could look like a vital signs tracing). So that part may also be original, if you look at how that centers with Ward 10. Otherwise, I think AA has the order of amendments right (with perhaps the lower portion of the star and BOB added together).

    Sounds like quite the adventure. Even without survey meters screaming at you, abandoned places, especially in the dark, seem to be inherently spooky to most people, regardless of rational belief. Hell, even just normal spaces can feel that way. When I was in the hospital, I asked some friends to drop by my house to water my plants, and they told me with nervous laughter that I had imprinted my apartment very strongly, because without me there, they had an overwhelming urge to do the job as quickly as possible and get out, since the whole place felt like it was telling them they did not belong there. :D Keeps me from getting robbed, I guess.

  4. cvoinescu says

    I think the text added later is “участников и”, that is, “participants and”. It was “ward for disabled veterans of WW2”, then it got changed to “ward for veterans and disabled veterans of WW2”.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    Andreas Avester @2: Off topic:

    Do most Latvians still understand/speak Russian? That was certainly the case when I visited in the early 1990s. In fact, around Daugavpils, many people of Latvian background didn’t even understand Latvian, and seemed to be identify more with Russian culture. Whereas in the west, the resentment of all things Russian was palpable. I’m sure my impression is overly simplistic.

  6. Jazzlet says

    Your amygdala took over Marcus, it’s a very strange feeling. The time I had it happen was not so terrifying, a group of us were at Cropredy together, camping and a friend had a cheap methylated spirit stove with a burner that sat inside a ‘pan’. It had run out of meths part way through boiling the kettle and she had spilt some of the meths into the pan when refilling the burner; as she was having trouble relighting the burner another friend had a go, succeeded and dropped the lighter he was using into the pool of meths, we all looked at it, thought ‘oh fuck’ and the next thing I know I and everyone else are twelve or so foot away watching the fireball caused by the lighter exploding. I have no idea how I moved so far so fast, but this is exactly what the amygdala does when you are in sudden danger requiring immediate action, all the sensation signals from the body ass through the amygdala before getting to the cortex, and if it assesses something so dangerous that there is no time to think about it is happening it doesn’t pass the nerve input to the cortex, it just takes action to get you to a safer place, so you have no memory of the action. The friend that dropped the lighter was a lab tech, he kept the lighter, which just had a small hole in, on his desk at work to remind himself not to be so fucking stupid and would show it to students who were being careless as a warning of the dangers of messing around with explosive or inflammable materials.

  7. says

    Rob Grigjanis @#6

    Do most Latvians still understand/speak Russian?

    Among Latvians born before 1980 everybody knows Russian. Among those born after 1990 very few know Russian. I’m born in 1992. I went to a Latvian school, we were 30 children in my class. Besides me, only two other children knew Russian. One was a girl who had two native languages, because she was from a mixed family. The other was a boy from a Latvian family that was financially well off, and his parents had hired a Russian nanny for him back when he was still very young with the expectation that this nanny will teach the child Russian. As for me, I’m just a polyglot. I speak lots of languages, Russian being just one of them. I never miss an opportunity to learn one more language. At my school French and English lessons were obligatory. Russian was optional, Russian lessons were at the end of the school day, and kids who wanted could stay and attend these lessons. Most of my classmates chose to go home sooner.

  8. says

    Speaking of situations where you act without thinking and don’t remember what exactly you did afterwards, I experience such situations only when I get surprised. For me this isn’t about being afraid.
    Here’s an example, an anal sex accident. I was enjoying myself and then very suddenly and with no warning I was in pain. The next thing I remember was me standing in the opposite corner of the room and threatening the guy in a harsh voice that I reserve for giving orders. I think I was saying something like, “What do you think you are doing, I’m in charge here, and I didn’t allow you to hurt me.” At that point my understanding about where I am and what I’m doing slowly returned, and I realized that my actions weren’t appropriate given the fact that the guy had hurt me accidentally. I deduced that I must have pushed him away and ran to the other side of the room, but I had no memories of doing that. My boyfriend confirmed that at least I didn’t hit him, but still my reaction was clearly not appropriate given the situation. Here’s the thing, I wasn’t scared at all, I knew that I wasn’t in danger. And it wasn’t even that painful, dentist appointments hurt more. The reason why my brain stopped working for a moment was because I got surprised.
    Anyway, what Marcus experienced wouldn’t possibly result in a similar reaction from me. If I were walking towards something radioactive, finding something that emits radiation would be the logical end result, thus that would be an expected event. Even if scary, that wouldn’t be surprising. For my brain to temporarily stop working I need to experience something unexpected, and I don’t need to be scared at all.

  9. says

    Your amygdala took over Marcus, it’s a very strange feeling

    Yes! And it’s as if it was so busy getting me out of there it didn’t have time to make continuous notes about what happened. It was almost like a black-out. One minute I was down in the basement getting really creeped out and the next, I was shouldering my pack and walking out into the sunlight.

    I wonder how often that sort of thing happens to people who get in fights, etc.; they say they aren’t sure what happened but they were standing over a corpse all of a sudden. It was really unsettling.

  10. says

    Andreas Avester@#10:
    Anyway, what Marcus experienced wouldn’t possibly result in a similar reaction from me. If I were walking towards something radioactive, finding something that emits radiation would be the logical end result, thus that would be an expected event. Even if scary, that wouldn’t be surprising. For my brain to temporarily stop working I need to experience something unexpected, and I don’t need to be scared at all.

    That’s a good analysis of what happened, and I think the surprise aspect of it is important. I was expecting radiation readings and beepings, but what made my brain pull the “EJECT” lever was the realization that I was looking at the gear that the first responders must have worn when they were running around in the burning rubble of an open reactor core. It was as if that realization made the entire disaster, which had seemed distant and comprehensible, turn immediate and terrifying.

  11. says

    wonder how often that sort of thing happens to people who get in fights, etc.; they say they aren’t sure what happened but they were standing over a corpse all of a sudden.

    Yeah, this makes sense.

    In Krav Maga lessons you will regularly practice moves for blocking punches aimed at your face. You practice the same arm movement a lot. About three months after I started practicing Krav Maga, I was playing volleyball at school. At one point a ball was about to hit my head in an angle similar to how a punch aimed at your head would hit you. At one point there was a ball about to crash into my head, the next moment I realized that I had deflected the ball by using the exact same arm movement I had practiced in Krav Maga lessons. I wasn’t consciously thinking about how I need to do something about that ball that was about to hit my face, instead I just used the same movements I had practiced beforehand without even thinking about what I was doing. And it worked perfectly. Before this incident I had no idea that Krav Maga techniques can be useful when playing volleyball, but it turned out that they sure are. By the way, my sport teacher was surprised about what I did, but she confirmed that the way how I moved to deflect the ball wasn’t against the rules in any way, so it worked perfectly.

  12. says

    I cannot say that this is a phenomenon I recall occurring to me ever, but based on descriptions above I find myself wondering if these can be applied to some episodes of cops shooting people.

    A fear response (not necessarily justified) triggering a trained response (empty your sidearm into the chest) with no real memory of what happened, followed by fabricating some story that seems to fit facts as your colleagues yell JOHN WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED HERE over and over. A story you come to believe, because there is no memory, just a void, a story which it turns out is contradicted by video footage.

    I mean, it’s just a theory, and it certainly fits at best a subset of cases, but it does seem to fit.

  13. Hatchetfish says

    On the horror film similarities: absolutely. I watched it having similar reactions of “fuck the system that allowed this continuing and eternal clusterfuck to occur” and an even present sense of foreboding and unease, at least through the early episodes through at least the portrayal of the ‘biorobots’.

    What’s particularly interesting to me is that it isn’t the first nuclear accident documentary I’ve seen that has that effect. The short film “Prompt Critical” is a similar reenactment-without- commentary of the 1961 SL-1 accident, and has the same dungeon crawling Eldritch horror feel at times. (It’s on YouTube, for the curious)

    What I find so odd about it is that, like Marcus, I’m fairly knowledgeable about radiation, have even worked with a research reactor. I don’t see it as some inscrutable deadly magic about to leap out of my phone and give me cancer. Yet Chernobyl and sl-1 have given me that same sense of horror for all long as I can remember knowing any detail of the stories. Perhaps it’s knowing that this isn’t the mostly harmless background radiation people freak about (or the truly harmless non-ionizing microwaves they still flip about). Is the rational knowledge that the Chernobyl Elephant’s Foot corium formation, or the view down into the open core from the roof, are or were about as close as reality gets to locking eyes with Medusa: to see is to die.

  14. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    HBO’s Chernobyl series did have a few over-the-top ridiculous scenes that greatly exaggerated the dangers of the accident, just like you did here when you used the word “wasteland”. The Chernobyl exclusion zone is not a wasteland. It’s a wildlife refuge.


    And if you want to go straight to the reliable, authoritative, scientific sources, see here:

    See also:

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