The cultural mechanics of mystery: structures of emotional attraction in competing interpretations of the Dyatlov pass tragedy


Mystery plays a fundamental though not fully acknowledged role in modernity, serving as an important means for the re-enchantment of social life. Thus, under certain conditions, seemingly unimportant events can attract enormous attention and emotional involvement. One of those cases is the Dyatlov Pass Tragedy that occurred in 1959 in the Northern Urals, where nine hikers died under mysterious and still unknown circumstances. Nowadays, a half-century later, there are thousands of lay researchers searching for the truth and constructing competing explanatory accounts. In this paper, I propose the ‘trigger-narrative model,’ explaining the relation between mystery, governing narratives, and forms of sacrality, and apply it to the Dyatlov case. I argue that mystery is a ‘complex emotional attractor’—a symbolic mechanism shaped by the configuration of ‘elementary attractors’—‘strange’ things, symbols, or events, challenging commonsense narratives, which eventually maintains uncertainty and emotional tension. Every pattern of perception concerning mystery can be characterized by the tie between a trigger and its corresponding narrative; this tie is based on the transgression of the narrative by a trigger event. This 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.

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  1. 1.

    There is a connection between fictional and real-life mysteries both at the fundamental and empirical levels. Thus, Paul Ricoeur shows that the interweaving reference between history and fiction makes historical narratives borrow the imaginative power from fictional narratives, and fictional narratives borrow referential dynamics from historical narratives (Ricoeur 1984, p. 82). Empirically, these interpenetrations are sometimes truly impressive. Thus, for example, the plot of the Agatha Christie novel, ‘The A.B.C. Murders,’ has most likely influenced both an American serial killer in the 1970 s, who killed several girls with their names, surnames, and the location where the corpse had been found started with the same letter, and official and lay investigators of the so called ‘Alphabet Murders’ case.

  2. 2.

    The Mary Celeste was a ship found in 1872 in the ocean 400 miles from the shore with no people on board and the cargo undisturbed. There are arguably no exhaustive plausible explanations of what might have happened.

  3. 3.

    The effect of the emotional attractor is fundamentally coupled with the narrative it challenges, in the same way as clues are coupled with the genres they trigger in Philip Smith’s model of ‘genre guess’ (Smith 2006). I will develop this parallel in more detail below.

  4. 4.

    ‘The Devil’s Pass’ is a 2013 US–Russian–British movie by Renny Harlin.

  5. 5.

    In the cited work, I constructed a model of the ambivalent sacred and transgression, mainly based on the works of Girard, Douglas, Caillois, and Turner, which aimed to reinforce the Durkheimian cultural sociological approach developed by Alexander, Smith, and others.

  6. 6.

    Literary criticism provides a wide scope of literature highly relevant for cultural sociology, from Northrop Frye’s ‘Anatomy of Criticism’ (Frye 2000), to the already-mentioned radical approach of Rene Girard (Girard 2008). The works on the sociological and cultural construction of explanation, such as Charles Tilly’s ‘Why?’ (Tilly 2006), Carlo Ginzburg’s ‘Clues, Myths and the Historical Method’ (Ginzburg 1992), studies of ‘forbidden science,’ and STS exercises, though dealing with other segments of rationality than mystery, nevertheless might be partly relevant. Last, but not least, parts of the widening field of conspiracy theories are closely related to this case.

  7. 7.

    Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia, was a graduate of this university.

  8. 8.

    Following tradition, every hiker carried a diary in addition to one common diary. Almost all of the diaries were found after the tragedy, except for one, which had evidently existed but disappeared.

  9. 9.

    The official investigation materials report that four cameras were found in March, 1959. However, there seems to be a fifth one, which is clearly seen in the photo of one of the corpses found later, in May. It is not mentioned, however, in the published parts of the official materials. Some researchers argue that there may have been up to six cameras in the group, some of which disappeared.

  10. 10.

    Similarly, Eduard Nadtochiy shows how the figure of mystery creates the dimension of internal life and autonomous personality in literature (Надточий 2014, pp. 92–93). He even goes so far as to assert that the early Soviet anthropological construction of childhood, created by means of literature based on mystery, became the ‘prosthesis’ of social solidarity and an island of human dignity in the symbolic universe of the Stalin era (Надточий 2014, p. 96).

  11. 11.

    Following the argument of Boltanski about the close relationship between a worldview and the suitable construction of a challenge to this worldview, I do not share his belief that mystery can only challenge the rational sci-tech paradigm.

  12. 12.

    As an aside, the prison was previously a part of the Gulag system.

  13. 13.

    Thus, an avalanche is not itself likely in that area, and, most importantly, this interpretation cannot plausibly explain the injuries and spatial distribution of the corpses; local hunters or escaped convicts would arguably have taken the money and the spirits from the tent.

  14. 14.

    As Clifford Geertz wrote, ‘We are concerned not with solving problems, but with clarifying feelings’ (Geertz 1973, p. 81), and further ‘… the point is that in man neither regnant fields nor mental sets can be formed with sufficient precision in the absence of guidance from symbolic models of emotion. In order to make up our minds we must know how we feel about things; and to know how we feel about things we need the public images of sentiment that only ritual, myth, and art can provide’ (Geertz 1973, p. 82).

  15. 15.

    I use the term ‘absolute event’ here, following the theory of social events developed by Alexander Filippov (Филиппов 2005), in which absolute events are events that abolish the arbitrariness of the observer. In Durkheim’s theory, sacred objects and events play the same role: the sacred transcends itself above the profane because every particular participant of the ritual (the observer) is doomed to perceive the object or event, collectively turned to sacred, as the sacred.

  16. 16.

    An important difference between my approach and Boltanski's theory is that he limits himself to this level of the narrative structure, obviously out of his historiosophic theses, whereas I see it as only one of the basic narratives.

  17. 17.

    These specific narratives, challenged within mystery, often reveal the most dominant cultural structures for a given time and place. Thus, we can see the most socially important themes of Russian discourse represented in the most popular versions of the Dyatlov case. The KGB, the GULAG, the CIA, the echo of World War II, culpable Soviet authorities and an authoritarian state neglecting the lives of the people, the test of a secret weapon of unprecedented power, super-agents and their extraordinary abilities, not to mention UFOs and other esoteric miracles, are all invoked. Although it is not a focus of the current research, the analysis of this and similar cases can reveal the most important cultural codes of national discourses.

  18. 18.

    As it follows from the theory of genres, it is the relationship and the distance between heroes and the audience of the story that emphasize certain of these levels of narratives and defuse the others. Thus, too close a distance between the heroes/victims and the audience would probably substitute curiosity with despair. It is an important question for future research, if the center of the gravity must be distributed in a certain way between the mentioned levels of narratives to keep it a mystery. It seems clear, however, that the Dyatlov tragedy is only partly a tragedy, because otherwise, it could not be a mystery.

  19. 19.

    As I mentioned earlier, the mechanism of challenging of cultural structures can be characterized as a form of transgression, the basic symbolic mechanism of violating the prescribed boundaries that ostensibly keep the sacred and profane separated (Kurakin 2015). As Mary Douglas has exhaustively demonstrated, this mechanism in fact can take many particular forms that can be analytically distinguished, such as getting out of a place, confusing existing structures, providing ambiguity concerning the placement of elements into a structure, etc. (Douglas 1966). However, all of these forms are forms of transgression, as they operate in respect to the basic opposition of the sacred and the profane.

  20. 20.

    It is important to stress that the term ‘mythical’ does not mean ‘untrue’; quite the opposite, it refers to a ‘collective representation,’ a socially defined truth.

  21. 21.

    There are at least two debates in cultural sociology that provide clues for taking the next steps in solving this problem. The first is Isaac Reed’s work on causal explanation in the interpretive social sciences (Reed 2011). Reed shows that the relations between theory and evidence (which in our case, correspond to the narrative-trigger relations) take different forms depending on the epistemic regime. The second is the debate concerning iconicity (Alexander, Giesen, and Bartmanski 2012). Should an iconic object, as an elementary emotional attractor, be seen as the origin of meaning (which in our case, corresponds to the ‘respectful to the facts investigator’ mindset) or its mere representation (which corresponds to the ‘triggers, colonized by strongly believed narratives’ vision).


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I would like to thank Philip Smith, for his insight and encouragement, and Jeffrey Alexander, for his suggestions, which helped me to advance this research forward. I am also grateful to Werner Binder, Eleanor Townsley, Daria Khlevnyuk, and all the members of the Fall 2015 Yale Center for Cultural Sociology Workshop where this paper was first discussed. Most importantly, I am grateful to Ronald Jacobs and the anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful, detailed, and supportive comments, which made for an immeasurably stronger paper.


Support from the Basic Research Program of the National Research University Higher School of Economics is gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Dmitry Kurakin.

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Kurakin, D. The cultural mechanics of mystery: structures of emotional attraction in competing interpretations of the Dyatlov pass tragedy. Am J Cult Sociol 7, 101–127 (2019).

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  • Mystery
  • The sacred
  • Narrative
  • Hierarchy of narratives
  • Transgression
  • Uncertainty
  • Interpretation
  • Emotional attractor
  • Trigger-narrative model
  • Dyatlov pass tragedy