The Draw of Dark Tourism

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By Kristin Crites | @KristinACrites

Walking up those tiny stairs there is an old, musty, familiar smell. One I have smelled before, and one I know I will smell again. It is the smell of age, sorrow, and a history many would soon rather forget.

I get strange looks when I talk about my travels around the world. Where I have been, where I long to go. Most people don’t understand why I would go to places like Dachau Concentration Camp, Anne Frank’s house, take a Jack the Ripper tour, or visit Salem, MA to see and learn more about the famous Witch Trials. Few understand my desire to go to places like Chernobyl, Eastern State Penitentiary, or down to the Titanic. Few understand the allure of dark tourism.

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In Beetlejuice (one of my favorite movies), Lydia Deetz, the teenage protagonist  says, “Live people ignore the strange and unusual. I myself am strange and unusual.” I love true crime, death, paranormal, and things people find a little disconcerting. So it should make sense then, that when I travel I search out the strange and unusual.

“Dark tourism” is a term first coined by professors Malcom Foley and J. John Lennon in “JFK and Dark Tourism: A Fascination with Assassination” in International Journal of Heritage Studies.  It is the travel to sites that are, in some way, connected to death and disaster. Some of the most famous dark tourist sites in the world are Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chernobyl, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum “Ground Zero,” the Catacombs of Paris (pictured in the cover photo), Pompeii, and Pearl Harbor.

Dark tourism isn’t as dreadful as it may sound, in fact there is a long tradition of visiting monuments and memorials, a long history of searching out and traveling to places that commemorate death.

The past 20 years, however, have seen a boom in the business of death. Is it because in the past two decades we have seen more death and destruction? Or because access to it is more readily available with the internet and mass media? We have more resources to visit these places than ever before, thus creating an environment wherein death is its own tourist attraction.  

Why do people travel to these dark tourist sites? There are as many reasons as there are people who visit them.

Some seek historical context. While there is plenty of history we would rather forget and sweep under the rug, dark tourism keeps historical context alive. With the physical reminder of historical atrocities via places like Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and Murambi Genocide Memorial, maybe we prevent the horrible from happening again.

For others, there is a need to connect to death. In our day and age, death has become such a sterile, taboo subject. People go to hospitals or hospice to die, we have significantly longer life spans, and our own mortality is something we don’t face on a regular basis. Dark tourism allows for people to experience the grief and death of these sites, and take it on as their own. To talk about mortality and try to understand something forbidding and unnerving.

Finally, some people go to these sites due to general human curiosity and interest. Airbnb ran promotions in 2015 and 2016 for overnight trips in the Paris Catacombs and Dracula’s Castle in Transylvania. There were over 88,000 entries to win the stay in Dracula’s Castle.

Why do I participate in dark tourism? I am not wholly sure. I do find these places to be intriguing all for different reasons.

I visited my sister in New York not even six months after 9/11 and visited Ground Zero. For me, that experience was about creating a connection to the event. I was living abroad at the time, and had a dramatically different experience on the day of the attacks and the months after. I wanted to feel what it was like to be an American in America at the time.

I have been to concentration camps, have photos of signs saying, “Arbeit macht frei.” All in an effort to make sure that those who lost their lives there would not also be lost to recollection.

My draw to dark tourism changes with each site I visit. I get to learn, to understand, to connect to the past, the present, and the future. My reasons change. My feelings change. I change. It is perhaps why any of us are tourists at all, including tourists of the dark. Being a dark tourist doesn’t make you a bad person, it just makes you a person looking to connect to history, a curious soul, or someone who wants to better understand humanity.

Or maybe, like Lydia Deetz--and admittedly, like me--you are strange and unusual.

LifestyleVirginia Santy