Selfies at Chernobyl: Why We Love Dark Tourism
HBO's miniseries has had an unexpected consequence: a nuclear disaster zone is now a hot tourist destination.
When the RBMK nuclear power reactor exploded in the Chernobyl Power Plant's 4th unit, triggering a flood of radioactivity that would devastate the areas surrounding the site beyond repair, it's unlikely that anyone who heard about the disaster imagined that the site would become a tourist trap.
But that's exactly what has happened, following the release of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. The five-part series amassed a total of six million viewers, scoring high ratings and enthralling viewers with its unsparing depiction of the catastrophe. Its release led to a surprising consequence: Tourism to the Chernobyl site exploded. "Most of the people say they decided to book after seeing this show," said Victor Korol, director of the tour company SoloEast, which reportedly experienced a 35% increase in visitors since the HBO series' premiere.
A Gloomy Destination
A trip to Chernobyl offers a smorgasbord of melancholic views. There's the city of Pripyat's abandoned amusement park, its rusty, moss-covered Ferris wheel looking like the patron saint of failed dreams. There's the remains of the reactor itself, covered with a shell of thick steel. There's a drained pool and a soccer field reclaimed by vines. Over the years, the forest has been creeping back in. With it have come wild dogs, wolves, bears, lynxes, birds, and of course, the supermassive (albeit not radiation-grown) catfish that patrol the plant's cooling pond.
With tourists creeping in fifty years after the disaster, they bring acts of typical touristy disrespect. Among the most incendiary is an image one woman named Veronika Rocheva posted on Instagram of herself in a thong, geotagged at the disaster site. Rocheva also posted a photo of herself wearing a gas mask, illuminated by violet and pink lights, and both images generated significant backlash. Rocheva later apologized and revealed that the photos hadn't actually been taken in Pripyat; they'd been taken thousands of miles away, and she'd only geotagged the location as a tribute to the TV series.
Despite the fact that Rocheva's selfies weren't taken at the disaster zone, many other selfies that were actually taken at the site are currently swirling around the internet. In response to a deluge of images, the Chernobyl series' creator Craig Mazin tweeted, "Yes, I've seen the photos. If you visit, please remember that a terrible tragedy occurred there. Comport yourselves with respect for all who suffered and sacrificed." His comment came in the wake of a thread of images compiled by Twitter user Bruno Zupan, along with the caption "Meanwhile in Chernobyl: Instagram influencers flocking to the site of the disaster."
In response to the criticism, The Atlantic published a piece by Taylor Lorenz which argued that most of the Chernobyl visitors aren't Instagram influencers at all. They're ordinary people, and in this day and age, ordinary people use photos and social media to document their feelings and experiences. "While some critics might still view the posts as distasteful and insensitive, most of these users are all trying to say the same thing: I was here," Lorenz wrote. Through this lens, Chernobyl selfies are ways of documenting and processing tragedy and of sharing one's experiences with others. Perhaps, these images are ways of keeping memories alive.
Chernobyl: Narnia for Fucked-Up Adults?
Whether or not selfies at Chernobyl are acts of self-expression or disrespect, there's another, darker question underlying all this. Behind the images of smiling faces in hard hats against a backdrop of radiation-flattened infrastructure lies the question: why? Why do we feel drawn to these kinds of sites and these kinds of TV series, drawn so strongly that we pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to visit them, and we gather together to watch them in the millions?
The answer may not be so different from the oft-discussed question of why we're so obsessed with serial killers and true crime. Though serial killers are relatively rare phenomenons, as far as causes of death go, they saturate our media landscape, generating obsession, reverence, and even lust among fans (be it the girls who attended Ted Bundy's trial in 1979 or fangirled over him in 2019 after the Netflix documentary, Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes). Though many psychologists have offered a variety of theories on why we love cold-blooded murderers, one consensus theorizes that the actions of these criminals are so incomprehensible, so distant from the every day, that they inevitably pique our curiosity, conjuring adrenaline rushes of shock that can even be addictive.
According to James Hoare, editor of the magazine Real Crime, serial killers "represent something larger than life, something truly cartoonishly monstrous, like the horror stories you're told as a child. Everybody responds to the idea that there's something nasty out there." Serial killers, he says, are sort of "fairytales for grownups. There's something in our psyche where we have this need to tell stories about being pursued by monsters."
If serial killer narratives are fairytales for grownups, lodged in archaic hierarchies and old fears, then Chernobyl is Narnia—a larger-than-life arena where visitors can gaze out over the remnants of otherworldly drama without stepping too close to the edge. The catch is that what happened in these places, though distant enough to allow for a safe level of detachment, still really happened, and this lurking truth can also serve as a reminder of how fragile human life is in the end.
The Shadow Side of Travel
Though Chernobyl may be one of the more extreme destinations around, there's a whole field of travel called "dark tourism" dedicated to exploring the world's sordid, destitute wonderlands. Interestingly, the term "dark tourism" was coined by another streaming service—Netflix—via its 2018 series, Dark Tourist. That show featured host David Farrier traveling to eerie destinations, including a walking tour of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's murder sites and the remnants of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Dark tourism has been gaining traction under different names since the 2000s, though, and popular destinations include Auschwitz, the September 11 memorial, and the ashen remains of Pompeii, Italy. Of course, dark tourism destinations don't have to be famous; the haunted house in the town over, the desert ghost towns off Route 66, or the ossuaries and catacombs of subterranean Paris all qualify.
Of course, dark tourism can be disrespectful or extremely dangerous, both for travelers and the inhabitants of the destination in question. To avoid negative consequences, National Geographic writer Robert Reid advises visitors to examine their intentions before embarking on a trip to places with sensitive histories. "The first thing we should ask ourselves?" he writes. "Are we traveling to a place to heighten our understanding, or simply to show off or indulge some morbid curiosity?" After all, he continues, almost every destination in the world could be seen as dark tourism if you look at its history, and sometimes, "turning your back on reality can be the ugliest travel of all."
In the end, dark tourism might be a way of embracing the world's twisted history and distorted present, instead of trying to escape them by running away to plastic paradises. Through this lens, dark tourism actually offers a viable alternative to traditionally overcrowded, super-commodified destinations that capitalism thrives on selling us. In a way, it's about appreciating a different sort of beauty, one less based on instant gratification and sterile lavishness and more in reflection, history, and perspective. Since many of us know that traditional tourism—and the excessive consumption and environmental destruction that often accompanies it—can be harmful, visiting abandoned, historically macabre, or otherwise gloomy places (especially if they're local) might just be a positive departure from the well-traveled path.
Dark tourism is part of popular culture, and it fits there, just as Chernobyl fits neatly into the TV landscape, right alongside war dramas and the daily news, which a disaster zone of its own. After all, it's hard to pay attention to the headlines (depending on what publications you choose to read) without realizing that we're kind of living in the end times, considering on the consequences that climate change will wreak on our world. If we're living in an era of ecological disaster, being able to find the beauty in scenes of destruction, contamination, and natural reclamation—for example, in cities overcome by pine trees and reservoirs full of massive catfish—might just be a blessing in disguise, a way of living with the consequences of the weight of our human lives on earth.
So go ahead: put on your gas mask and smile for the camera.
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