My high school students love horror movies. They are, of course, the target audience for the genre, films that require little in the way of acting skills, or fancy special effects, or well-written scripts, since the same plot tends to get ripped off time after time. Think the Halloween series – the eleventh version of which came out last fall – which repeatedly tells the same tale of deranged serial killer Michael Meyers doing his masked shtick, while dopey kids insist on going into dark places alone.
Hey! Call 911! Run away!
I have learned that teenage males are the main lovers of horror films mostly because the protagonists in these movies also tend to be young men. Which brings me to my point. I just watched the most frightening program I have ever seen, complete with unbearable tension, jump-in-your-seat fear, and the compulsion to hide behind your hands, because what’s on the screen is too awful to bear.
I’m talking about the HBO mini-series Chernobyl, the true story of the 1986 rupture of a Soviet nuclear power plant that spewed a radioactive release that was ten times larger than the fallout produced by the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. The accident – a combination of hubris and incompetence – caused 350,000 people to be evacuated from their homes. Today, the town of Pripyat, Ukraine stands abandoned, and the 19-mile radius around the reactor and the city – called the Exclusion Zone – could remain uninhabitable by humans for an estimated 100 thousand years.
Shockingly, it could have been so much worse. Sixty-million people might have died as a result of air-born radiation and contaminated ground water, had thousands of mostly young men not converged on the burning reactor, many giving their lives to contain the release. There are horrifying scenes of firefighters trying to put out the poisonous blaze, miners digging under the burning reactor in an effort to seal it off, and baby-faced boys given 90-seconds on the building’s rooftop to find radioactive lumps of graphite and dump them over the side.
Then there was the cover up. The Soviet hierarchy was so determined not to lose face in the international community that it lied repeatedly and refused to ask for help, leaving an estimated ten thousand of their own people to die miserable deaths. (Note that the actual death toll is hard to determine, as many who toiled at Chernobyl did not die until later, the victims of radiation-caused cancers.)
What will I tell my students? I will recommend they watch Chernobyl, should they want true horror. I will advise them to pay close attention to the hospital scenes where young men writhe as they die from the ghastly effects of radiation poisoning. And I will remind them that they live in a world of weaponized nuclear power, and that, sadly, there could be real-life sequels in the future.
Let’s see how scared they are then.
When compared to Chernobyl, Michael Myers might seem more like Mary Poppins.
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As a Vietnam veteran and former Special Forces sniper descends into the throes of mental illness, he latches onto a lonely pregnant teenager and a group of Pentecostal zealots – the Children of Light – who have been waiting over thirty years in the Arizona desert for Armageddon. When the Amtrak Sunset Limited, a passenger train en route to Los Angeles, is derailed in their midst in a deadly act of sabotage, their lives are thrown into turmoil. As the search for the saboteurs heats up, the authorities uncover more questions than answers. And then the girl vanishes. As the sniper struggles to maintain his sanity, a child is about to be born in the wilderness.