American Journal of Cultural Sociology

, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp 101–127 | Cite as

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

  • Dmitry KurakinEmail author
Original Article


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.


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



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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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National Research University Higher School of EconomicsMoscowRussia

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