Cultural Mechanics of Mystery: Competing Interpretations of the Dyatlov Pass Tragedy

Friday, 20 July 2018: 18:15
Oral Presentation
Dmitry KURAKIN, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russian Federation
Mystery plays a fundamental though still not fully known and acknowledged role in modernity serving as important means of re-enchantment of social life. Thus, under certain conditions seemingly unimportant or irrelevant events can nevertheless attract enormous attention and emotional involvement. One of those cases is the Dyatlov Pass Tragedy that happened in 1959 in Northern Ural, where 9 hikers died under mysterious and still unknown circumstances. Nowadays, more than 50 years later, there are thousands of lay-researchers searching for the truth about the case and building competing explanatory accounts. I argue that mysteries of such a type reveal the hidden role of cultural structures and thus pave the way for a cultural explanation. In this paper, I propose a model explaining the relation between the mystery, governing narratives and forms of sacrality and transgression, and apply it to the Dyatlov case. I argue that the emotional effect of mystery is based on dominant cultural structures and narratives, challenged by ‘triggers’ – particular symbols attracting attention and emotional excitement. Every pattern of perception of mystery can be characterized by the tie between trigger and its corresponding narrative; this tie is based on the transgression of the narrative by a trigger-event. I argue further that the most important features and conditions of mystery are uncertainty and tension, and the emotional effect of the mystery in every particular case largely depends on the ways of establishing those conditions. Thus, in the Dyatlov case the effect of mystery is caused by a rare balance between the plausibility of competing versions of solving the puzzle. The proposed model allows us to understand the cultural construction of mystery which is crucially important for explaining how deep cultural structures energize people’s urges, concerns and fascinations.