Pripyat, Ukraine. Population zero. Ground zero for the worst nuclear disaster in history.
Pripyat was evacuated within days of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster on April 26, 1986, turning a bustling city of just under 50,000 people into a veritable ghost town.
Since that date, the city has been abandoned, sitting right in the middle of the “Zone of Alienation”, a 260 square kilometer area surrounding the former power plant that extends into neighboring Belarus.
Some say this ghost town harbors actual ghosts.
Both tourists and official workers within the Zone, as well as those who illegally sneak into the area, have experienced strange things when visiting Pripyat and the area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Strange, shadowy figures are said to lurk among the urban decay.
Screams, shouts, and strange noises are sometimes heard from within the abandoned buildings, or even coming from within sealed off areas of the Chernobyl plant itself.
Moving shadows, mysterious lights, or figures of people appearing and disappearing from the many vacant windows of apartment blocks have been photographed.
The sensation of being watched is pervasive. It’s hard not to feel a deep, oppressive eeriness as I walk through a city where the crumbling evidence of its former life sit frozen in time, smothered by three-and-a-half decades of dust and debris. It’s impossible to walk through the city without feeling that it must be haunted.
And that is why the sudden sound of a door slamming shut behind my medium, Claire Heinz, sent a chill up my spine.
“Claire!” I shouted through the door. There was no sound. I grabbed the door handle but it didn’t turn. I shoved my shoulder against the door, forcing it open.
I lunged into the room to see Claire standing in the middle of the room looking at me wide eyed.
“Did you see it?” she asked. I looked around frantically with my full-spectrum camera, squinting into the viewfinder.
“No,” I said. “What was it?”
“Not a soul,” she said.
“Soul” is the term she uses for what the rest of us call “ghosts”.
“There’s something else here,” she continued.
“Where did it go?” I asked.
“Through that wall,” she said, indicating that it was heading back toward the kitchen.
“Hey, you kids okay?” Paul Nordstrom, our resident UFOlogist shouted over the radio. “I heard something loud up there!”
“We’re fine,” I radioed back. “Claire saw something. Something pulled a door shut behind her.”
“That’s awesome!” Paul said. “Please tell me you got that on video!”
I backtracked through the main room, making my way to the kitchen, keeping my eyes on the screen of my full spectrum camera.
The apartment was cluttered. Strips of paint hung from the ceiling. Wallpaper peeled back from the walls, slowly stripping away by time and neglect.
Nearly three decades of dust and debris covered the floor, making for one of the most eerie backdrops for any paranormal investigation that I have ever conducted.
I shuffled through the debris on my way through the living room. Furniture was all in its place. Books and nick knacks filled the shelves, photographs hung on the walls, and there were even toys on the floor.
With a gloved hand, Claire picked up a photograph of a young girl and held it up for me to see. She set it down gently in the exact spot she found it.
I carefully made my way into the kitchen, filming dusty, Soviet-era kitchen appliances, and cupboards full of dishes. A couple empty, crudely opened cans of food, their labels yellowed, rested on the floor in front of the sink. Perhaps they were the last meal of the former occupants, or a Stalker’s * lunch.
*Those who illegally sneak into the Zone of Alienation are often referred to as Stalkers, and an underground subculture of Ukrainian youth take daring trips within the zone (often documented on YouTube), dodging police, wild boar, wolves, and radiation.
A dust-caked kitchen table sat by a window that overlooked a courtyard. I could see the top of the infamous Ferris wheel rising above the opposite building. Dishes were set as if a family were about to sit down to dinner.
“Watch this,” Claire said walking up beside me and handing me her custom modified iPhone that could record images in the ultraviolet and infrared light spectrum. She tapped “Play”.
The video showed a slow pan of the bedroom she had just entered followed by a loud slam of the door behind her (off screen). The sound completely cut out. I couldn’t hear my shout, or my efforts to open the door. There was no sound. Then I saw a brief glimpse of a shadowy figure wipe across the wall and disappear into it as the camera followed its path.
I played back the video several times. It wasn’t a shadowy anomaly. It was definitely something moving with intention. She told me that she felt that whatever she had just encountered had left, and was no longer in the apartment.
We exited the apartment and walked down the hall. Claire stepped into each apartment entrance, but didn’t sense any energies. Certain apartments caused our dosimeters to beep, indicating that we shouldn’t enter.
Pripyat (and parts of the Chernobyl reactor) have been opened up to guided tourism, though it is still illegal to enter The Zone without permission. While radiation levels remain elevated, certain areas are safe to visit for short periods. Precautions still need to be made, however.
When I first entered the exclusion zone, I was anxious about radiation. Every time the Geiger counter or my dosimeter sounded an alarm, I could almost feel the radioactive particles tingling my skin, bombarding my internal organs.
I’d feel the symptoms of acute radiation sickness, knowing full well it is all psychosomatic — for now. It took a while for me to relax and focus my mind on other things.
The truth is, there are parts of Pripyat that have the same or even lower level of naturally occurring, ambient background radiation as any typical living room any other place in Europe.
However, in a typical European living room, you can walk 3 meters from your couch to the kitchen without fearing for your health. In Pripyat, the same distance may take you from a safe spot into a dangerous hot spot.
Our Ukranian guide, Misha, carries a map of radiation hot spots. We avoid areas outlined in red, but he tells us that there are many, many more areas that are not documented.
Both Dave Epping, my UK colleague, and Misha, carry Geiger counters, and every one of my team wear personal dosimeters clipped to their clothing. When the alarm sounds, we move on. The sudden, high-pitched alarms often frustrate our investigation.
Radiation isn’t the only danger in Pripyat. Thirty years of neglect has taken its toll on the city, and many of the buildings are not structurally sound.
It’s easy to trip over debris. Any cuts or scrapes here would allow radiation directly into your blood stream, not to mention any number of contaminants. The nearest hospital was a long drive away, too, so more serious injuries could potentially be fatal.
Claire and I exit the Soviet apartment building and join the rest of our crew outside.
The rest of my team, Lourdes Laguna and Paul Nordstom were engaged in a lively debate. Paul will talk anybody’s ear off about UFOs, and I can tell by Lourdes’ posture that she had heard this particularly wild theory from Paul before — too many times.
Dave Epping and Sheilagh McGlinn from our UK office had just radioed me to let me know that they wrapped up an EVP session by the Ferris wheel, and that is where the rest of us were headed next.
Paul played the video that Claire had captured less than a half hour ago over and over again as we walked to the Pripyat amusement park.
“Dude,” he finally said. “That’s a sweet bit of evidence you kids got right there! I can’t wait to see what else we get tonight!”
Pripyat, and Chernobyl, has a rather short paranormal history. Beginning just a few days before the nuclear reactor accident, there were reports of a dark, flying creature that some call The Black Bird of Chernobyl. It was said to fly over the city and the reactor in the days leading up to the accident.
Interestingly, this creature bears a startling resemblance to a famous North American cryptid — Mothman — whose sightings continued until the tragic collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, West Virginia on December 15, 1967.
As with most abandoned sites with disaster or human suffering in its history, there is a pervasive, haunted lore to the place, especially when bolstered by the eeriness of an abandoned, post-apocalyptic city devoid of occupants.
It is quiet. This place can literally kill you! It’s forbidden, and foreboding.
My dosimeter alarm sounds, jolting me out of my own thoughts yet again.
I turned my attention to the dilapidated Ferris wheel towering over my head.
Dave and Sheilagh were engaged in a lively discussion with South African cryptozoologist and my good friend, Pol Visser. Pol joined our Chernobyl expedition to investigate cryptids in The Zone, and to learn more about the so-called Black Bird of Chernobyl.
“That cart right up there,” Claire said pointing to one of the rusted cars on the Ferris wheel. She held up a printed photograph for comparison.
Two days ago, we interviewed an eyewitness in Vyshhorod who claimed to have seen and photographed a ghostly specter on the Pripyat Ferris wheel while “stalking” as a teenager.
The photo shows a cloudy anomaly that has a vaguely human form, perched on one of the cars. It is this photo that Claire held in her hand.
Lourdes came up next to us and snapped a few photos of the car with our full spectrum DSLR camera, then zoomed out to get a few wide shots of the the Ferris wheel and go carts. Dave’s Geiger counter indicated that we should keep our distance from the carts.
One of Misha’s favorite things to do was to shove a Geiger counter toward a mushroom to see the radiation meter nearly max out. He’d excitedly explain that mushrooms are one of the most radioactive, and therefore dangerous, organisms in The Zone, due to their vast underground network of mycelium, which absorbs radioactive particles in the soil and concentrate them into the fruiting body above ground.
I made my way around the decaying amusement park. There are many “creepy” spots in Pripyat, but a rusted, crumbling amusement park with an intact Ferris wheel creaking overhead, to me, tops the list. When I stop and listen, I can almost hear ghostly voices of children playing.
Misha told me that the amusement park was set to open on May 1, 1986, and was hurriedly pressed into service to keep children occupied during the evacuation — which actually took days and was not the sudden, overnight exodus that you would expect to happen after a nuclear power plant melts down, spewing tons of radiation into the surrounding area. The rapid beeps coming from my dosimeter warn me yet again that it’s time to move on.
Our next destination was Pripyat Hospital, one of the buildings in the city that is reportedly haunted. Our entire expedition climbed into two vans. I sat in the font seat next to Misha.
As we turned toward the vacant apartment block, I raised my full-spectrum camera, and peered into the pinkish glow of the LCD screen. (Cameras that are modified to record in full spectrum output an image with a distinctive pinkish/reddish hue.)
Looking through a full-spectrum camera gives everything an eerie tone and quality, and that was even more pronounced when viewing a crumbling ghost city like Pripyat this way. I didn’t see any luminous phenomenon, nor any shadowy figures through the windows. I craned my neck up toward the Ferris wheel one last time, but it, too, was vacant.
After a few minutes of driving through abandoned city streets, with cracked pavement slowly giving way to grasses, weeds, and even trees, Pripyat hospital loomed before us. It was slowly decaying like all the other buildings. The windows missing glass made it look as though dozens of gaunt eye sockets peered out over the broken, empty city.
Misha pulled up to the entrance and gestured with his hand. “Pripyat hospital. Here also are many ghost.”
I switched on my full spectrum camera and then stepped through the door and looked around. Pripyat hospital is the most notorious haunted spot in the city with numerous reports of people hearing screams, seeing strange specters, and phantom lights within its halls and decaying rooms.
While the individual apartments in Pripyat are unnerving, the hospital is even more so. Main attractions here include the maternity ward, where a collection of infant cribs are eerily shoved into one room.
Operating rooms with medical instruments still strewn about also add to the intrigue of the place.
We decided to split up. This time, my partner, Lourdes, and I wandered around the second floor while Claire and Paul went up to the third. Dave and Sheilagh walked around the first floor.
Misha stayed in a central location by the main entrance, while Pol Visser remained outside, training his binoculars on the local fauna, taking copious notes in his notebook.
Lourdes led the way, recording on her full spectrum camcorder.
“We got a hit,” Paul said over the radio. “EMF is off the charts.”
A few minutes passed. I radioed to Paul for an update. There was no answer. I radioed again. No answer. I radioed to Dave. No answer.
Lourdes turned around to face me with a puzzled look on her face.
“My camera just shut down,” she said.
The temperature suddenly felt cold — icy cold — and as instantly as I felt it, the chill passed.
“Did you see anything?” she asked.
“No,” I said, tapping my full spectrum camcorder that was not rebooting.
Lourdes held up her camera, which also was booting up. I radioed to Paul, who answered and said that they hadn’t seen anything. Sheilagh chimed in with a similar update.
We wrapped up our walk-through of the hospital. Misha was anxious to get us to the reactor before we lost daylight. We still had several hours of setup before our nighttime investigation could begin.
The pinkish glow of the monitors were the brightest light around. The sun had sunk below the horizon and the sky slowly darkened. Radioactive trees towered over our heads, black against the deep indigo sky.
We had spent a good part of the day walking around the ruins of the city of Pripyat and touring the reactor. Our efforts to explore were often frustrated by the rapid alarms from our personal dosimeters. I felt like we were constantly being chased by dangerous levels of radiation, and dodging hotspots that seemingly moved around as much as we did.
We had hustled to set up about a dozen full spectrum cameras around Pripyat before nightfall, including a few in the hospital and two in the apartment building that Claire and I had the encounter in earlier this afternoon.
We also monitored seven different buildings with wide-angle, super-high definition (4K) full spectrum cameras, hoping to catch some sign of something that might direct our investigation.
Right now, our two biggest leads were the hospital and the apartment building.
Claire, Lourdes, and I planned to enter the apartment building soon. We would be gone for about an hour and then Dave, Sheilagh, and Paul would check out the hospital.
We’d take turns all night, monitoring the area. If our cameras detected movement, it may not be paranormal. It could be Stalkers, or the other major danger in Prypiat besides radiation — vicious wild boar.
The exclusion zone has become a defacto wildlife sanctuary. The utter neglect of the area means that habitat destruction has been halted for over thirty years, and nature is wasting no time in reclaiming the city and surrounding areas.
It also means that we share these urban woods with potentially dangerous predators like wolves and bear.
“There!” Dave said excitedly, pointing at one of the monitors.
Lourdes and I huddled over the monitor to take a look while Claire stood up and looked at the building that the camera was pointing to. I strained my eyes but couldn’t see anything.
“It was a distinct shadow on the third floor,” he said. “Kinda shaped like a person, only small, a child’s shadow, perhaps.”
I looked over at Claire who stared at the building, the same apartment block that we had had the encounter in earlier this afternoon.
“Do you think it’s dangerous?” Dave asked Claire.
She turned to us and shrugged. “I don’t believe that what I encountered this afternoon was a human soul,” she said. “I could be wrong. But I’m not getting the same energy signature from it that I get from a soul.”
I decided that we should go into the apartment right now and do a walk around. We were confined to the first and second floors, unfortunately, due to the damage to the stairwell leading up to the third floors and beyond.
Claire grabbed her pendulum, as well as her satchel that held an assortment of crystals, cards, herbs, and other metaphysical stuff.
I grabbed my 4K full-spectrum camcorder and EMF detector. Lourdes picked up the thermal imaging camera.
We entered the building. Claire went first and I followed. Lourdes stayed close behind me. I wore a headlamp and Claire used a camera-mounted light. Our plan was to use the light sources to move around, and then shut them off and rely solely on infrared and ultraviolet illumination when we were stationary.
Of course, that meant that our field of vision was reduced to what displayed on 4-inch LCD screen since our eyes cannot see light in the UV/IR spectrum.
“Feel anything?” I asked.
“It’s in here,” Claire whispered. “I think it’s aware of us.”
That thought gave me chills. It’s easy to forget that quite often, what you are studying may be studying you as well. We walked slowly down the hallway, peeking our heads and cameras into every room.
“See anything?” Claire asked.
“Not yet,” I answered. Lourdes squinted into the small screen on the thermal imaging camera.
We finally made our way to the opposite end of the first floor hallway.
“Shall we go upstairs?” Claire asked.
“Let’s go,” I said. I radioed to Pol to check in. I told him that we were making our way upstairs and asked him if he or Misha had seen any activity.
“You guys are not on the second floor yet?” he asked, sounding surprised.
“What do you mean?” I prodded.
“There’s a whole lot of activity right above you,” he said. “We’re detecting a lot of movement on the second floor. I thought you guys were up there already!”
“Do you still see movement?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “I reckon coming from that same apartment you and Claire were in earlier.”
Claire, Lourdes and I made our way to the stairwell as quickly as we could, careful not to trip over debris or make too much noise. We stopped at the top of the first flight and peeked our heads into the hallway. I squinted into the pinkish glow of my camera monitor.
The three of us made our way down the hallway toward the apartment. It felt like we were in a completely different building than the one we were in this afternoon.
“Lights out!” I whispered to Claire and Lourdes. With the flick of a switch, the three of us were plunged into total darkness. Our only view as what we could see through the 4-inch screen of my full-spectrum camera, which could only “see” thanks to my super-bright infrared and ultraviolet LED flood light attached to it.
I could tell by the way Claire was breathing that she had picked up on some sort of energy. If there was any danger, I assumed she’d stop us. But she didn’t, and I didn’t ask for fear of disturbing whatever it was that was in that apartment.
We got to the door of the apartment and the three of us stopped. The door was shut tight.
“We did leave it open,” Claire said as if reading my question before I could ask it. She did that to me often.
I slowly pushed the door open. It creaked, loudly. Before I could, Lourdes ducked inside with the thermal camera. I quickly followed her in.
Claire, Lourdes, and I made our way through the apartment and into the bedroom. The bedroom door, that we had left wide open this afternoon, was also shut tight.
I reached out and grabbed the door knob. Claire grabbed my wrist, startling me. I pointed my camera at her so that I could see her face. She shook her head no. She looked deeply concerned. Not scared, but concerned. She kept her hand clenched around my wrist until I drew it back.
“This is a dangerous entity,” she finally whispered.
“How so?” I asked.
Suddenly, something big thumped against the door from the other side. I instinctively stepped back and kicked over a metal bucket that was inexplicably sitting in the middle of the hallway. It clanged and rolled across the hallway, shattering the silence.
“It’s not a soul, I’m sure of it,” Claire said with a tinge of panic in her voice. “I am not confident that we are dealing with a benevolent being. I think it’s capable of harming us.”
“Are you sure?” I said, surprised to see Claire scared for once. We have investigated hundreds of haunted places and not once was she scared of what we were investigating.
It’s also extremely rare to encounter an entity that is capable of inflicting bodily harm. I pointed my camera back up to her face. She nodded.
“It’s gone,” she said. “I don’t feel it anymore.”
I grabbed the bedroom door and swung it open. The room was still and quiet. Nothing was disturbed.
Claire quickly walked to the bedroom window and put her hands on her head. She squinted her eyes shut. “Something bad is going to happen,” she said. “I can’t see it, but I feel it.”
“What are we dealing with, here?” I asked Claire.
“These are not souls,” Claire said. “I believe that what we have encountered here is a reclusive entity, similar to, or related to, Shadow People who sometimes inhabit deserted buildings and ghost towns like this one. That is what I think is here. Unlike typical Shadow People, they don’t want anything to do with humans, and can become dangerous if provoked.”
“Do you think it feels provoked?” Lourdes asked.
“I don’t know,” Claire continued. “Almost nothing is known about them. But they are found all over the world. They are extremely rare, but occasional sightings of shadowy figures inhabiting ghost towns in the [American] southwest, as well as abandoned urban buildings are prevalent, though under-reported. These are not typical Shadow People…they are something else, something darker. They want to be isolated…”
I heard a crackle come over my radio. “Hey guys…we’re not alone down here!” It was Pol.
“What do you mean…” Lourdes answered.
“Something’s moving in the woods around us,” Pol said.
“That’s not boar!” Misha shouted in the background.
“Um…we…uh…you guys need to see this,” Pol said frantically.
Lourdes and I ran to the window overlooking where we had set up our base. I pointed my camera down at our colleagues and turned my IR/UV light up to the max, but couldn’t see much of anything in the woods beyond them.
“There are three, no four, nope…five…five figures in various positions around base,” Pol said, a tinge of uncertainty in his voice. “I reckon five or so meters from us.”
“Are all of you down there?” I asked.
“No, Dave, Sheilagh, and Paul just headed off to the hospital.”
“How long ago?” I asked.
“Less than ten minutes ago,” he answered. “And they aren’t answering their radios!”
Claire grabbed my shoulder. “Oh god, it’s happening!”
…To Be Continued…