Dark Tourism

Magnificent-Seven-London-Brompton-Cemetery-16-DRThe term Dark Tourism commonly denotes travel to – or the exploration of – places which are associated with tragedy, suffering or death.

Some of the better-known examples include sites such as the ‘Death Camp’ at Auschwitz, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and Ground Zero in New York.

In the reports featured here I will be looking to produce a phenomenological tour, as I actively engage with dark tourism sites around the world. In addition to explaining the context and history of each location, I’m interested in reporting the emotional atmosphere – so that the reader might, vicariously, experience deeper levels of meaning.

As often as not, the behaviour of other visitors to such dark tourism locations can prove just as interesting as a study of the site itself.

An Introduction to Dark Tourism

Dark tourism as a field of academic study was first defined in 1996; but as a leisure pursuit, this practice has been around for a good while longer [1].

Tomb of Confucius 30-DRHuman beings have a fascination with death. The awareness of our own mortality – or moreover, the fear of death – shapes both lives and cultures. Public executions in the Middle Ages were a popular social event, and even going back as far as the Roman Empire death was an entertainment commodity tailored for performance [2].

Academics have tried to pinpoint the nature of this interest in dark tourism, as well as analysing the social and moral repercussions. Dr Philip Stone, founder of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire, has posited that “dark tourism represents immorality so that morality may be communicated” [3]. Meanwhile, Latin American academic Maximiliano E. Korstanje has suggested that dark tourism serves as a method for “domesticating death in a secularized world” [4].

For many, the concept of dark tourism is perceived to have a very morbid quality. In Germany this perspective on travel is sometimes referred to as ‘Gruseltourismus’ (or ‘shudder tourism’); the term ‘Thanatourism’ has also been coined (in reference to ‘Thanatos’, the Ancient Greeks’ daemonic personification of death), and denotes tourism which dwells solely on the macabre, and sites associated with particularly violent death.

Perhaps more dubious still are those destinations which cater specifically to this kind of death-fetishism. Some commentators have labelled dark tourism a kind of exploitation, whereby heightened emotional responses are marketed as a selling point. The media also has a lot to answer for in this field; whether it’s a horror film reframing the victims of Chernobyl as radioactive mutant zombies, or even going back as far as Bram Stoker’s 1897 interpretation of Transylvanian folklore and history.

Buddhist Hell Garden - 36-DRDifficult ethical questions are raised by the presence of locals selling souvenirs on the site of the Nanjing massacre in China – or at the dilemma of putting money into the hands of the North Korean government before you can pay a visit to Pyongyang.

Not all perspectives on dark tourism paint it as such a morbid affair though.

It has been suggested that the process of grieving for strangers has a therapeutic effect, and moreover that the phenomenon raises awareness of instances of human suffering and injustice [5].

My motivations behind writing about the subject here on The Bohemian Blog were not to celebrate suffering; but rather to look more closely at a number of sites which play a significant role in human history, and yet humankind would perhaps rather forget.

Dark Tourism-Auschwitz-30

[1] Foley, M. and Lennon, J. (2000) “Dark Tourism (Tourism, Leisure & Recreation)”, Cengage Learning, Stamford.
[2] Stone, Dr P. (2013) “Deviance, Dark Tourism and ‘Dark Leisure’: Towards a (re)configuration of morality and the taboo in secular society”, Contemporary Perspectives in Leisure: Meanings, Motives and Lifelong Learning. Ed. S. Elkington and S. Gammon. Abington, Oxon: Routledge. Available here
[3] Stone, Dr P. (2011) Presentation given at Educational Travel – Expanding Horizons, Tallinn University, Estonia. Slides available here
[4] Korstanje, M. (2011) “Detaching the elementary forms of Dark Tourism”, Anatolia, an international Journal of Tourism and Hospitality Research. Vol 22 (3), pp. 424-427.
[5] Sharpley, R. and Stone, Dr P. (2009) “The Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism”, Aspects of Tourism (Book 41), Channel View Publications, Bristol.

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