I recently watched a Netflix docuseries called ‘The Dark Tourist’, a show dedicated to the modern phenomenon of dark tourism. The series follows journalist David Farrier as he visits unconventional tourist spots around the globe that have a grim or sinister history. ‘The Dark Tourist’ shines a light onto places and experiences that generally are not well known. Places off the beaten track, you could say. It made me wonder where the concept of dark tourism came from? What other dark tourist destinations are out there? How popular is dark tourism? In this blog, I hope to answer some of those questions.
Defining Dark Tourism
Dark Tourism is the name given to visiting any location that has a history of death, disaster or horror. For example, it could be the home of a natural disaster. Or perhaps a place where war, assassination, genocide or torture has occurred. The phrase was coined in 1996 by Lennon and Foley, two academics at Glasgow Caledonian University. In an article written in 2017, Lennon explained that there has always been a relationship between tourism and death. From crowds cheering at gladiator fights in Ancient Rome to attendance at public executions, death has always held a morbid fascination for people. So why do tourists choose to visit these places today?
For the majority, visiting a dark tourist destination allows them to emotionally digest the traumatic history that occurred there. It lets them reflect on the more adverse aspects of history and immerse themselves in the past and its culture. There are also the educational features of dark tourism to consider. Practically all dark tourist sites have tours/tour guides and information readily available for visitors. These allow tourists to educate themselves on the somber details of the past. So why don’t we take a look at some of the top dark tourist destinations across the globe?
In the late 18th century, the decision was made to relocate the remains of the city’s cemeteries to other locations. This was due mainly to overcrowding. The graves were slowly becoming shallower and, as a result, the decomposition of bodies became visible on the surface. Disease was also beginning to spread. The Paris authorities decided on an easily accessible site for this relocation, the Tombe-Issoire quarries. Removals began in 1785 and commenced with the largest cemetery in Paris, the Saints-Innocents cemetery. In April 1786, the new location was sanctified as the ‘Paris Municipal Ossuary’. From then on, it would become known as the Catacombs, in reference to the Roman Catacombs.
So what should you expect to see?
The Paris catacombs contain the remains of around six million people. The bones have been artistically stacked and laid. This adds a spooky and eerie feeling to the catacombs walls. The catacombs descend around 20 metres below the city of Paris. This is roughly equivalent to about five storeys. The first series of rooms that you encounter are exhibition rooms detailing the history of the catacombs. Once you have passed through these and negotiated your way along several winding corridors, you will eventually come to the entrance of the ossuary. The crypt stretches for at least half a mile and is filled with bones and skulls. Occasionally, these will be arranged in ‘barrels’, such as in the image above. The Paris Catacombs are well worth a visit and are a huge attraction in the well-known city.
‘The Killing Fields’, Cambodia
From 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia. Under their regime, they claimed the lives of up to two million people. Driven by their Marxist leader, Pol Pot, they attempted to send Cambodia back to the Middle Ages. Millions of people from the cities were forced to work on communal farms in the rural countryside. The Khmer Rouge had visions of an agrarian utopia: a place where people were self sufficient through living off the land and money had no function. But this immense attempt at social reconstruction had a terrible cost. Millions perished from starvation, disease, exhaustion and execution.
Pol Pot declared that society should start again at ‘Year Zero’ and isolated Cambodia from the rest of the world. Cities were emptied, money, private property and religion were eradicated and rural communities were assembled. Intellectuals were targeted and killed, including anyone who wore glasses or spoke a foreign language. Today, the focal point of the memorial site is a large stupa, or dome-shaped building. This holds the remains of over 8000 victims. Behind this building are the mass graves, where bone fragments can still be seen amongst the grass. There are informational plaques that retell the terrible history placed all over the grounds. The ‘Killing Fields’ are a surprisingly popular tourist attraction in Cambodia and allow visitors to pay their respects to the victims of a dark past.
Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands
Bikini Atoll is a series of limestone formations that make up part of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The United States military used the area to detonate several nuclear bombs between 1946 and 1958, devastating all wildlife in its wake. What used to be a tropical paradise became a toxic wasteland. The islands’ inhabitants were forced to relocate when the US took over and allocated the islands as a nuclear testing site. In March 1946, the Bikinians laid flowers on their ancestors’ graves, said their goodbyes and left their home with the hopes of returning one day soon. On June 1st 1946, over 42,000 US military corps watched the first Bikini Atoll nuclear test. It was described as “a terrifying pillar of water topped by an unfolding blossom of mist and radioactive debris” (jstor.org).
Many explosions followed, including the world’s first hydrogen bomb in 1954. Huge craters were blasted into the coral reefs, more than a mile in width. At 15 megatons, the Bravo hydrogen bomb completely destroyed three islands. It was 1,000 times the magnitude of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The devastation that occurred was easily visible, but the radioactive damage that lingered would take decades to examine. The islands were deemed safe to visit in 2016, as long as no food or water is consumed while there. The most popular attraction is scuba diving tours, as there are plenty of shipwrecks and craters to be seen on the ocean floor.
‘Day of the Dead’, Mexico
The Day of the Dead (or Dia de los Muertos), is a two-day celebration that takes place in Mexico and across other parts of Latin America. The Day of the Dead occurs on November 1st and 2nd, the same days as the Catholic holidays of ‘All Saints Day’ and ‘All Souls Day’. It is believed that at this time, the boundary between our world and the spirit world dissolves. People believe this means the souls of the dead can return to celebrate with their loved ones. Living family members thus see the deceased as honored guests and leave offerings for the spirits to enjoy. It is seen as an occasion for reminiscing and appreciating those who have passed, and depicting death in a much more positive light.
For dark tourists attending the Day of the Dead festivities, there is lots to do and see. Mexico City holds an enormous parade each year, with floats, costumed entertainers and dancing in the streets. Michoacan is known for their heavenly culinary treats, such as poblano peppers stuffed with cheese and pan de muerto. Pan de muerto is a traditional sweet bread smothered in sugar and is circular in shape to represent the circle of life. In Oaxaca, families decorate altars with photographs, decorative skulls and food and drink to remember their loved ones. Walking through the Panteon de Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan at night is a magnificent experience, allowing you to encounter first hand the traditional atmosphere amongst the tombs and altars.
Auschwitz Memorial and Museum, Oświęcim, Poland
Auschwitz is infamously known around the globe as the largest Nazi concentration and death camp. It is estimated that more than one million people lost their lives at Auschwitz during World War II. Originally a detention centre for political prisoners, it eventually became a chain of camps where Jewish people and other enemies were killed, often in gas chambers. In January 1945, the Soviet army headed for Auschwitz. Nazi officials commanded that the camp be abandoned and dispatched 60,000 prisoners to other locations by foot. These journeys became known as the Auschwitz death marches and countless prisoners died along the way.
Touring Auschwitz Memorial and Museum
Auschwitz is a massively popular dark tourist attraction. Today it is a memorial site, with its grounds open to visitors free of charge. Guided tours are also on offer, with the choice of taking them individually or as part of a group. There are two main parts, divided into Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II. Auschwitz I is the older, former concentration/prison camp. It is here that the main museum is located. This includes an exhibition showing the detritus of Auschwitz life, the leftover piles of shoes, suitcases and hair. Aushwitz II, or Auschwitz Birkenau, is the preserved living arrangements of the former camp.
The city of Pompeii is historically famous for being destroyed in 79 AD after the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The burial of the city in volcanic ash and debris left it preserved for centuries before it was later discovered in the 16th century. When a group of explorers arrived in Campania looking for ancient artifacts and began to dig, they discovered a whole city beneath the ashes. Buildings were still standing unbroken. Skeletons were suspended where they had fallen. Even loaves of bread and jars of preservatives were found, frozen in time. The artifacts that were discovered at Pompeii have been instrumental in educating historians on life in that ancient society.
Pompeii and Herculaneum
For dark tourists visiting Pompeii today, there are multiple choices of where to explore. The ruins of Pompeii cover around 44 hectares and allow you to experience the grandeur of an ancient Roman city firsthand. There are preserved temples, theatres, amphitheatres and public buildings still standing. Another option is the town of Herculaneum. This was a small resort town that covered just over 4 hectares. The difference between Herculaneum and Pompeii, however, is that Herculaneum is in a much better state of preservation. This is due to the fact that it experienced a different form of volcanic destruction to Pompeii. Where Pompeii was hit heavily by falling rocks and large blasts of hot air that destroyed most of the upper floors of buildings, Herculaneum was covered by deep layers of ash.
A trip to Mount Vesuvius is also a popular dark tourist attraction. Vesuvius National Park is well worth a visit, where wildlife and fauna are preserved alongside volcanic geological features. You can drive to the park and explore a network of trails whilst taking in the beautiful scenery that surrounds you. There are also tours of the area, as well as guided hikes to the summit of the volcano. Mount Vesuvius is still an active volcano today. However, with modern technology, an eruption could be predicted well in advance. The volcano’s last eruption was in 1944, and many scientists today say that Vesuvius is well overdue for another explosion.
Dark tourism is a phenomenon that sees thousands of tourists visit locations all over the globe that have a history of death and destruction. Tragic events in human history have always held a sense of morbid fascination, and the tourism that these locations receive is a testament to that. The six destinations this blog examined are just the tip of the dark tourist iceberg that exists worldwide. Although dark tourism may hold an eerie stigma, it is ultimately a way for people to pay their respects to victims of horrible atrocities, educate themselves on cultural pasts and connect on an empathic level.
I have tried to include different aspects of dark tourism in this blog, from some on the more light hearted end, such as Mexico’s Day of the Dead, to darker aspects of human history. Hopefully, this blog post has shed some light on what dark tourism is all about and provided insight into why it is such a popular movement in today’s modern world.