You may have heard the term “dark tourism” before. Its popularity has been growing, at least in the eyes of the media, over the past few years. Dark tourism is the act of visiting sites associated with death or suffering. Auschwitz, Chernobyl, Gettysburg, and the Catacombs of Paris are all examples of dark tourist destinations.
Dark tourism gets a bad rap. With so many horror stories about selfies at holocaust sites, stolen items from Chernobyl, and the unforgettable video that Logan Paul put out into the world, there’s no shortage of reasons for those seeking the darker side of travel to be seen as disrespectful, damaging, and offensive.
But when done properly and respectfully, dark tourism certainly has its place in bringing the worst parts of history to light to avoid repeating tragedies. History isn’t always sunny, and remembering the worst moments in history serves as a stark reminder of this. Dismissing dark tourism can easily lead to these relics of our tragic past being forgotten.
It’s also important to understand why terrible things happen, especially at the hands of others. Without looking deeper into the mindset of the perpetrators, how will we know what led up to these events and how to avoid history repeating itself?
I’ve had an interest in true crime, the paranormal, and the history surrounding some of the most gut-wrenching locations our planet has to offer since childhood. While this may sound morbid, there’s a reason all this appeals to me. And it isn’t about the thrill, necessarily: it is about empathy and understanding.
When I was a teenager living in Pennsylvania, I got the chance to visit some pretty impressive historical locations with a dark history. Gettysburg was so close to where I lived, it seemed to be the obligatory annual field trip. But one thing that stood out to me as a child was Eastern State Penitentiary.
If anyone has been to Eastern State Penitentiary, you will note that there is nothing glamorous behind those walls. Eastern State is dark, dingy, and cramped. The walls are crumbling, many of the remaining artifacts are in a state of decay and water drips from the ceilings.
There is no warmth or light in Eastern State. It’s dark, cold, wet, and the feeling of someone watching you is ever-present. Still, these places are popular attractions. But why?
When touring the prison, you can peer through the cells, imagining the skeletal figures curled up with their thin blankets trying desperately to keep warm. Visiting places like this allow us to put ourselves in the shoes of those who were there: who suffered through living there. Few will ever know what it was like to be locked in one of those cells, or to be forced into Auschwitz and tortured just for being who we are. But we can take a moment to envision it, to empathize with the people who were there. It offers a glimpse into the struggles that those trapped behind the bars once suffered.
While the previous inhabitants of Eastern State Penitentiary may have done some horrific things to get themselves locked behind those bars –After all, it once famously held notorious gangster Al Capone, whose cell is one of their permanent displays–there are also places which were filled with horrific conditions suffered by the innocent.
The Holocaust sites are common tourist destinations as well. They hold some of recent history’s most tragic events and also hold some of the most notorious cases of disrespect displayed by dark tourists simply for the thrill. Photos smiling or posing in front of the sites of such tragedies are extremely distasteful. But the people who do such things, while they are the loudest, are not the majority of visitors to these sites. Many others go to pay respects to those who lost their lives. Some even go to see where their ancestors spent their final moments or the place where their grandparents narrowly escaped.
According to Jose Magano’s research on Auschwitz tourism, “interest in death was the least common reason for visiting and the main reasons were the desire to ‘see it to believe it’, learning and understanding, showing empathy for the victims, and a desire for a connection with one’s heritage.”2 Do these reasons mean that those who visit sites like this are not dark tourists, or does it mean that the concept of dark tourism in itself is more complex than a simple fascination with death? I would argue for the latter.
Magano also takes a look at the educational aspect of most dark tourist sites of historic significance. There’s typically an education element to these locations, unlike those he refers to as “fun Factories,”2 Which are more manufactured sites more focused on the element of entertainment than education and empathy.
I feel that Joelle Soulgard’s statement on the concept of dark tourism really sums up just why these tragic places capture our attention so well:
When we visit these sites, we become acutely aware of just how truly finite life can be. We can see where loss happened. We can visualize the last thing some people saw in their final moments of life. And in this way, we can truly put ourselves in their shoes in a way. While most of us will never experience the horrors that happened during the holocaust, or know the way those whose shadows still mark the ground of Hiroshima felt as they looked death in the eye, standing in the same place they once stood connects us to those who are gone. For a brief moment, we share an experience with them as we occupy their same space.
It Could Have Been Anyone
June 12th, 2016 – A day before my 25th birthday. I was still putting myself through school at the University of Central Florida at the time; the chronology of what took place almost felt personal.
While I’m not one to leave my house for social events, my neighbors and friends were. They had plans on June 12th. Plans to go to a well-known LGBTQ+ hotspot in town known as Pulse. The night before, they fell ill, and they wound up canceling their plans with their friends.
If you kept up with the news, you may know exactly what I’m talking about. June 12, 2016 was the night a gunman entered the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and opened fire on the crowd, killing 49 patrons of the venue and forever leaving a scar on the city. I was lucky: I didn’t know anyone who was killed that night. But two of my close friends came dangerously close to being potential victims.
You don’t know what might happen in life. Tributes like the Pulse Memorial and Museum–which is still under development–serve as both places to honor and mourn our loved ones and to remind us that the people that were there that night never saw this nightmare coming. Events, schools, and clubs are filled with people going about their lives. Nobody thinks that this type of event could happen to them, but neither did the victims whose lives were taken.
When tragedy strikes, we become more aware of our surroundings. When we visit these sites, we are reminded of how important that is to keep with us even when the smoke has settled. It is important to be reminded of our own mortality every so often. You are not invincible, and you don’t know what is going to happen to you next year, next month, tomorrow, or even an hour from now.
Visiting dark tourism sites can be a stark reminder of what could happen. Philip Stone acknowledges that “it can mediate our sense of mortality through the fatality of others where the dead act as warnings from the history of our fights, follies, and misfortunes.”4
Sometimes these sobering moments are what we need to remind us that the precious moments we have should not be wasted. When you read about a mother being taken away from her child, never to be seen again, do you not feel the urge to call your parents, just to let them know that you are thinking of them? Reflecting on tragedy gives some the push they need to make amends with an old friend, reconnect with family, or apologize for something said ten years ago that hurt someone special.
Life is finite. What are the last memories you want people to have of you?
Finding the Humanity in Darkness
When I was little, and my fascination with the darker side of the world began to spring up, my mother took me to Salem, Massachusetts. Salem is more of a suburban town than a city, and it is just across the river from Boston. This quaint little town holds a rather dark past, one that has made it a popular destination for dark tourists for decades. The Salem Witch Trials are a black stain on early American history that serves as a reminder of the effects of mass hysteria.
I remembered learning about this event in school, but being in the wake of the place where it all happened was a completely different experience. I remember being left alone in the wax museum, reading the plaques about the atrocities committed and wondering just how a seemingly peaceful community could so rapidly unfold into chaos and death simply by the fear associated with the unknown. I could feel a pain in my heart for these girls who were taken out of the world far too young, all while the dead-eyed replica of their prosecutor loomed over me (my fear of non-sentient human forms may have made this a bit more terrifying).
Perhaps the most eye-opening experience when we visited Salem was seeing the cemetery. I’ve always seen a sort of tragic beauty in the way we honor our loved ones when they pass: beautiful sculptures or etched words of love mark the importance that person once served. But Salem is different. The Old Burying Point Cemetery is a far cry from a place to honor the dead. It is crowded with stones, all moss-covered and illegible from years of neglect.
Respectful monuments were not added until later. Newer walls have been erected around the cemetery, which offer more insight into the fate of those who were stripped of their lives: the names and methods of execution of many victims, as well as some last words, are etched into stones which, to this day, visitors lay flowers upon to honor their memories.
Many were not given proper burials at first, thrown in shallow graves known as “Witch Pits.”5 Their loved ones would retrieve their remains from these shallow graves later to bury them properly with family.
The atrocities committed upon the victims of the Salem Witch Trials seem on the surface to be inhuman acts executed by monsters. But the more you learn about this event, the more complicated the issue becomes. This was a terrible episode, and avoidable when rational thought is placed onto the court. But the fact is, this was an extended period of panic brought on by a series of events beginning with two young girls acting erratically. There are hundreds of ways we can rationalize these events today. Still, before modern medicine and the hundreds of years of research since the tragedy of Salem, and in a religiously-motivated community who lived and died by their faith, the only explanation was the work of the devil.
What we know now stems from such events. Most of society shuns antisemitic behavior now because of the persecution of Jewish communities during World War II. Racism creates social pariahs because of the hardships endured by slaves and later the freed black communities as well as other racially-motivated prosecutions such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The mistakes of the past can be avoided by those who understand and learn from them.
The mass hysteria surrounding the devil made a second appearance in the Western world in the 80s and 90s as the Satanic Panic spread, but for the most part, the world has done away with blaming the devil for the atrocities of man. And while some may have been wrongly convicted and suffered years behind bars or worse–such as the case with Damien Eckles–the witch hunt fell short of publicly executing the accused.
We cannot understand these events without seeing where they occurred. Without the memory of the tragedies of the world, how can we learn and grow as a society? How do we avoid another Witch Hunt or Holocaust besides reflecting on our past?
In the wake of horrific events, it is easy to lose sight of the people who have taken part. Their actions are unforgivable, and the pain they have inflicted upon another can never be overshadowed, but understanding helps us as a society make the right decisions in the future. After all, it is easy to look back on the beginning of racial desegregation in the United States in the 60s and say “I would never have done that,” but the mindset and narrative has drastically changed over the past 60 years. The idea of the color of one’s skin determining their worth has long since been abandoned by society as a whole (I obviously cannot speak for individuals).
The human mind is susceptible to the environment around it. If we lose sight of how we have evolved into an accepting society, how do we continue down our current path and avoid moving backward toward prejudice? I would argue that visiting these historic sites–Auschwitz, Salem, Hiroshima, Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, the Town of Savannah, Georgia, and so on–give a glimpse into the capacity of the human psyche to rationalize and justify atrocious acts. It is easier to avoid becoming something horrible when you know what we as humans are truly capable of with a bit of rationalization.
This aspect of dark tourism as a phenomenon seems to be less talked about, but it comes up frequently when we look at true crime. Perhaps because there is distance placed between events that are committed by a group acting together for a common goal and the seemingly meaningless life-taking of serial killers, mass murderers, and killers on any level. But I would argue that the application is the same: we still want to understand what is going through the minds of those committing these heinous acts. At least, I do. It is why true crime interests me, and it is also why I’m drawn to places of tragedy. What happened, what did people go through, and why?
In looking at true crime interest studies, the idea of an interest in the psychological aspect is frequently referenced. There is a need for understanding which drives us to look for meaning behind acts that seemingly have none. Jess Scherman brings up a fantastic quote from Author Janice Booth Holly:
In true crime, the aspect of dehumanizing a murderer makes it easier to digest that they committed such atrocities, but it also dismisses any of the psychological factors that may have contributed to the cause. By no means does anyone who acts with such disregard for human life deserve sympathy, compassion, or comfort. Rather, looking into why a horrific attack was carried out allows us as well as important figures to know what they should be looking out for. Patterns of behavior–such as killing animals in childhood, head injuries, and abuse–which appear across the history of those who become serial killers or enact violent crimes were discovered due to the study of those convicted of said acts of violence. Likewise, in the case of places of societal violence, we will also see patterns of fear, hatred, and paranoia which build to create an environment for people to act in ways that seem inhuman.
I don’t think that dehumanizing the inflictors of these monstrous acts is the correct approach: It’s just how human they truly were that makes these events all the more terrifying, and all the more eye-opening. Some people – Like John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, and Richard Ramirez–hurt people for the sake of it. But in many of these historic sights, the perpetrators thought they were doing the right thing for the greater good. In that way, those with the best intentions can sometimes become the most feared monsters.
Curiosity is Okay
This is the part of dark tourism that has everyone up in arms about the concept, but hear me out: Curiosity is healthy. In fact, curiosity about death is part of being human, and it has been pretty much since the dawn of man.
It was not all too long ago that public execution was an exhibition displayed in town squares, with entire families coming out to see the accused be hanged for his crimes. Hanging, guillotine executions, and burnings–all of these are immensely violent atrocious acts that brought huge crowds and dominated the talk around town. If a hundred years ago people were lining up to watch a live death, there’s no reason that an interest in such things would be so horrific to us today.
Horror as a genre has been around in the Western World since the Greeks and Romans wrote about death and the afterlife.7 In Japan, horror, violence, and creatures of horror are deeply ingrained in Shinto lore. While interest in fiction is not the same as a curiosity regarding real-life tragedy, it still makes the point that the concept of death, loss, and the macabre has drawn humans in for the majority of their time on this earth.
It’s interesting to look back at the spectacle of death and violence in our history to see that this macabre interest seems to have been tamed over the years, and yet the outrage surrounding it continues to grow. Claims of this morbid fascination with death getting out of hand when we have gone from Gladiators being torn apart in arenas viewed by a full house of cheering patrons to touring places of tragedy on a guided tour and learning about the horrific events that took place there.
The truth is, a majority of us have some sort of interest in the horrors of the world. Some more than others, and some are more open about their interests than their counterparts. It sounds wrong to say that death fascinates us, but on some level it does. As Amanda Kendle writes, “Like rubberneckers at a car crash, it’s somehow human nature to want to be an eye-witness to suffering. A morbid curiosity grips many of us and although we might outwardly say we don’t want to visit the site of a natural disaster or a mass murder, a lot of us, secretly, really do.”8
Really, a lot of my prior entries here stem from a sort of curiosity for the macabre. Whether you are wanting a glimpse into the hardships of your ancestors or looking for a life-altering experience that brings your own mortality into the limelight, it all comes from a curiosity about the events which unfolded behind the concrete walls of that crumbling prison, the fence separating the concentration camps from the outside world, or the cold, dead eyes of that wax-modeled executioner.
The main point I want to drive home is that dark tourism has a presence in our world. It has a reason for existing, and I don’t think that dark tourism in itself is a systemic problem within our society. I find that it is important to be reminded of our history, to explore our curiosities healthily and productively, and to reconnect with our past. The issue with dark tourism isn’t stemming from the industry or society as a whole. The issue in dark tourism is the few individuals who choose to make a spectacle of what should be a powerful experience.
Reading the Room
When I was in high school, my Junior class went on a trip to Savannah, Georgia. I love this city: it’s like stepping back in time with its cobblestone and brick streets, old row houses, and its rich history. But as beautiful as Savannah is, it was also a place of tragedy. If you walk down the street, you might see that many of these houses have two entrances: one goes up, and the other is on the ground level or below ground. That is because below the feet of the main household were the slaves’ quarters, where humans viewed as property were kept, forced to do whatever was asked just for enough mercy to keep them alive.
Savannah has seen its fair share of tragedy and cruelty. As a result, it has become known as the most haunted city in the United States, which means Savannah sees a great deal of tourism both from the historian and the dark tourist.
There is a lot to learn in Savannah. Museums and historic sites are everywhere. But there is also a lot one can exploit about the dark history surrounding the town. And many do, from creepy souvenir shops to the bane of my existence: ghost tours.
When I was a kid living in Pennsylvania, I got a book on the ghost stories of Chester County. Many of the houses in that book had been turned into restaurants, hotels, and other businesses. Me being the odd child I was, I would ask my mom if we could go to these places, and I would ask the staff about sightings of strange happenings at night. In hearing this, one might think I love ghost tours of all kinds. That’s where you would be wrong.
Our class took one of Savannah’s famous ghost tours on our visit. The woman hosting this tour, a portly lady with a thick Georgia Peach drawl, spent the time waving her hands about and drawing out her words, making a performance of telling the dark tales of Savannah’s haunted homes and cemeteries. At the end of the tour, we end with a set of homes behind us, and the woman lets out a shrill screech of falsified horror as she looks up at the window to reveal the shadow of an almost offensive attempt at a person: stuffed pillow, plaid shirt, and all perched within the window as a final gag to end the evening with a bit of fun.
Some of the stories told on this tour were truly horrific. Savannah has several park squares, one of which is known for the big tree that stands at the center which was commonly used for lynchings. These stories of loss and tragedy, heinous acts committed against other people simply because of the color of their skin, and other horrific tales were juxtaposed by this caricature woman trying to drum up the creepy factor while simultaneously downplaying the real horrors that unfolded. This was the first proper ghost tour I had been on, and I haven’t been on one since due to my fear that they would all be handled as such a commodity.
This is where dark tourism gets a bad name: the downplaying and exploitation of horrific events is not something that goes unnoticed. And that’s not even to say that these tours are the worst of the bunch. I would even argue that if you need the tension relief from the darkness of these stories, by all means, take one of these spooky ghost tours if they make you happy. What I’m saying is they aren’t for me. For me, it is difficult for me to draw a line in the sand between the events that happened and the way they are presented. That’s a personal problem, but I felt it was important nonetheless because, while I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with these tours in themselves, I do think this sensationalization that takes place can sometimes contribute to the trivialization of the tragedies associated.
I’ve watched 20-30 videos on Aokigara, The Suicide Forest that lies at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan. These videos are popular and commonly present some of the history and tales associated with the forest as well as some of the stranger happenings within the forest itself. They have been made by vloggers in the Japan space since Japanese vloggers started making videos, but one video stands out amongst the others.
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who grew up in the millennial generation who did not hear of Logan Paul’s infamous filming of a dead body in Aokigahara. It was plastered across Youtube, talked about by just about every current events Youtuber on the platform, and even made international news. Why did this video create such waves when there were hundreds of videos filmed in this same forest? Because something horrific was found, rather than showing respect and offering privacy to the victim and his family, he exploited him to the world for the sake of views.
Most of us know where to draw the line between respect and commodity. In this case, that line was far crossed when a tragic victim of suicide was poked and laughed at for the entertainment of Paul’s following. We can learn, educate, and understand these places, but when we stop making our visits to these sites about understanding and view them strictly for their entertainment value, we lose all purpose for their existence.
Selfies taken smiling at Auschwitz, standing on the remains of carnival pieces in Chernobyl, and carelessly snapping photos while learning of the terrible events that happened where you stand are only a few behaviors witnessed and reported upon when it comes to dark tourism. This is why the industry has been reduced to selfish tourists who are unable to grasp the gravity of where they are and what people have gone through.
In the Netflix documentary series Dark Tourist, David Farrier visits Tomioka, the evacuation area after the Fukushima Nuclear disaster following the massive tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011. Among the various locations associated with the disaster, the group go to the shoreline where 210 people lost their lives. As their tour guide speaks on the horrific events that tore the shore apart, one member of the group takes time to capture some glamor shots for his social media.9 It’s a disheartening moment, showing just how little some people can be fazed by the world around them. 2011 was not that long ago. In 2011, I was sitting in my dorm room with my roommate, scrolling through videos of the devastation. We watched some of our favorite content creators run donation campaigns for Japan’s recovery. We may not have been there physically, but we watched this tragedy unfold in real-time. So much was lost that day, but for this one guy on the tour, all he saw was an opportunity to boost his following.
Where is the Line?
There’s a fine line between showing interest in death and creating a commodity out of it. When dealing with any sensitive subject, it is important to approach it with compassion and respect.
I’ve seen many say that taking photos in these locations in general is in bad taste. I disagree. Capture those moments in time, but do with the thought of where you are in mind. Photos should be thought-provoking and show an understanding of where you are. They should capture the gravity of where you are, and show that you respect the place. There are a million places you can visit to smile for a selfie, but places of devastation are not the places. Save those photos for your next lighthearted day out.
If you are on a tour, guides will typically give you time to look around. Do not ignore them for a photo opportunity. They are sharing the background with you. They are teaching you about the tragic events that once took place on the soil you stand on. Take in what they are saying, and try to find understanding.
Asylums, Chernobyl, and similar locations are often scoured for souvenirs to bring home. Do not do this. It’s disrespectful and takes part of the history away from the place. In the case of disaster areas, it can also be dangerous for you. Objects and dust from radiated areas are like sponges for radiation, and you are bringing that radiation home with you. There’s a saying coined by the National Speleological Society which is just as relevant to dark tourism: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.”10
The most important thing to remember is that your experience came at the cost of at least one life. Always go into these places knowing that fact. Your tour was another’s loss. When you travel, always show respect for where you are. This goes for anywhere, but especially for dark tourist hotspots.
Make sure you leave with a better understanding. Don’t take anything physical, as I said that is ill-advised. But really take the opportunity to reflect on the events, learn from the tragedy, and take that back with you. Dark tourism can lead to life-changing experiences if they are allowed.
This article was a bit different from what I’ve written about in the past. I’ve been writing about locations, companies, and personal stories, but the darker side of culture is a huge interest for me as well. I’d love to eventually bring some of this into my writing, perhaps on a separate page specifically dedicated to darker content that may not be for everyone.
I’d be interested to know your thoughts on dark tourism and its rather recent presence in the media. Let me know what you think.