Posts Tagged ‘chernobyl’

So, now that normalcy is back, I can address the second part of my blog post I started way back here on the Horror genre.

Funny, that word “normalcy”. See, that’s where real horror rears its ugly head. When blessed normalcy is destroyed, it opens tiny breaches in the walls of our lives that let the horrors in. Anyone can tell a gross-out story that’s more like a wrecking ball smashing into the house–yes, it hurts, but unless you’re blind, you can see it coming (and if you are blind, you can probably hear it coming). REAL horror is slow, the cracks in the foundation where water seeps in and undermines the wall that will bring it down without warning. We’re left picking through the pieces, trying to make sense of what happened and not being able to reassemble even a fraction to recreate the life as it was “before” the horror.

Some post-apoc stories address this in a way that embraces Horror – a future of no-holds-barred version of humanity, where civilization and the things we take for granted are memories. Only those willing and able to exert force against others stand a chance for survival, and even then it’s the slimmest line between who wears the white hat, and who wears the black. Anarchy descends, confrontations become brutal and bloody over the dwindling resources. The lucky ones die first.

There’s another kind of aspect with that concept of “normalcy” that has a very odd highlighting event: Chernobyl. While I grew up with it in the news from half a globe away, others faced it as their horrifying reality. Chernobyl still sits among the world’s concerns after decades, not just because of the extensive political corruption, cover-ups, incompetency and lies. No, the real horror ran a lot deeper, faced by those who responded to the disaster and those who lived in what is now known as the “Exclusion Zone”.

For the first responders, they were just doing their jobs, putting out the fires caused by the explosion, all the while being assaulted by a ghost – incapable of being seen, being heard, being felt – that had very real teeth. The bodies of these men began to betray them with that insidious poison, robbing these strong men of their ability, their dignity, even the comfort of human touch, exchanging it all for intense pain and suffering only death can remove it. THAT is horror.

And the normalcy of the people who lived around there, who may or may not have known about the explosion that rendered the countryside unlivable. Those in Pripyat were forced to leave, and leave everything behind, being reassured that they would return in a little while. Others, the people who only knew their farms and patches of land found themselves approached by the soldiers either ripping them from their homes, unable to even take their pets (to be razed, hauled away and buried, with literally nothing but the underlayer of dirt left behind. I will not mention what happened to the pets.) or who warned them of that invisible threat. They couldn’t understand why they couldn’t drink their cow’s milk, eat their hens’ eggs, or the potatoes grown in their gardens. A scientific concept becomes a beast, a vampire that drains the blood of normalcy from a people innocent of any involvement in its cause.

HBO’s Chernobyl has gotten incredibly high ratings for its depiction of the events surrounding the disaster, and while it wasn’t a “horror” show (like that horrid other movie that tried to capitalize on the creepiness of an entirely empty city) it captured that helplessness in the face of such a threat, as innocent people paid for the sins of their government’s corruption and lies. Wolves, politicians, soldiers – all these things the people could see coming, but the threat of radiation… Few armors could keep such a beast at bay, and no weapon – except time – can remove its threat.

THAT is real horror.

When the term “post-apocalypse” arises, most people’s minds conjure the degraded, barren landscapes, ravaged by wars, zombies, plagues, etc. We tend to think in terms of a future yet-to-come, or the present or future of an alternate reality. Few stop to wonder about present-day apocalypse settings in our own world, but they exist.

Most everyone even moderately interested in the PA genre has heard of the Chernobyl and it’s effect on the nearby Pripyat, a once-thriving town rendered completely inhospitable by the disaster that saturated the area with radiation.

Few people think of the towns in America. For one, there was Centralia, smack in the (rough) center of my home state of Pennsylvania, which is coal-mining central (see the theme there?). When ordered to “keep the home fires burning” someone took that quite literal. Coal beneath the town caught fire due to some trash burning that got out of control (still under debate as to whether firefighters lit it up in what was supposed to be a controlled burn, or hot ash being –oops– accidentally dumped into a place that had direct access to the underground veins) and the place has been burning. Since 1962. Yes. 52 years with little sign of letting up. A few resilient residents remain after many legal battles, but officials closed the state highway that ran through it due to heat damage, and the town has ceased to exist according to the Almighty US Postal Service since 2002. Like I said, resilient people. The homes are pretty much gone, either deconstructed or reclaimed by the surrounding flora (take that, civilization!) and the remainder of the occupied homes will remain so until the death of their residents.

When it comes to Mother Nature protesting an unwitting exfoliation, no town is a better example of her wrath than Pilcher, Oklahoma. That town got smacked down with not one not two, but a triple play of toxic and dangerous situations that forced the town to strike out and go home (somewhere else). The town’s initial boom (and downfall, ironically enough) came from mining operations (see the theme here?) to remove zinc and lead from the earth, in the meantime leaving these massive poisonous mountains of “chat” which the plains winds would whip up and over the town and scatter the particles of lead all over the place. There was even a picnic area and ball field situated in the shadow of one of these toxic constructs. (“How about a little lead and mayo on your sandwich, Jimmy?”) You would have thought that back when they declared lead-based paint to be too dangerous to use in homes because of the possibility of ingestion (1978, by the way) that someone would have pointed out “Hey, we live right at the foot of Lead Peak… Say… Think it’s dangerous too?” They didn’t schedule the town for “closure” until 2006. Meaning after the sinkholes started to open up and swallow the world around them. And those same metals they scooped out as treasure poisoned the water supplies. Three strikes, people, and you’re out.

Outside of the US, two other places that come to mind are Hashima in Japan, and Wittenoom in Australia. Both were the sites of major mining operations (I REALLY hope you’re seeing the theme here).

Hashima is an island just off of Nagasaki, built up to accommodate the miners who worked beneath the islands. A whole community in its own right, it relied on its coal production but when petroleum took over and the country shut down coal-mining facilities, the miners moved out and the place has been uninhabited since 1974. It’s also known as Ghost Island.

Wittenoom produced asbestos by mining (need I say anything more?) and would have continued to do so except for the growing health concerns surrounding the use of the mineral. The town enjoyed its name officially for only 56 years and change (even less if you consider that the word “Gorge” had been affixed for 31 of those) and has since been struck from maps, road signs and official registers, if not from the hearts and minds of the three remaining residents.

I’m certain there are many, many more of towns hit with their own apocalypses, laying not simply in ruins but with daily reminders of what life used to be like, left in their places like a crumbling pastiche to the era from which it came.