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  • Eloise Barclay

Dark Tourism… and our macabre fascination with horror

Nuclear disaster, suicide and massacre sites… they’re all places on my bucket list!... not!

Whereas I would naturally picture myself on holiday in Santorini, basking in the Grecian heat, it turns out there are a significant number of people around the globe who would rather spend their time exploring the deep, dark and deathly places of the world. Does the name, ‘dark tourism’, ring a bell? It didn’t to me until two weeks ago! Netflix recently released an eye-opening series called Dark Tourist. Naturally intrigued and having never heard of dark tourism before, I began watching the series, only to have the below expression stuck on my face for the following 24 hours of binge watching.

Thanatourism’, more commonly known as ‘dark tourism’, involves the act of visitation to tourist sites of death and disaster, that commodify anxiety and doubt. Places like Chernobyl, Auschwitz and Fukushima are considered to be “hot” dark tourist spots. Being an avid modern history lover myself, the idea of visiting sites of death and destruction has always intrigued me, however I have a feeling that if I actually pulled through and went, my travels might resemble that of a Monty Python scene…

So what compels someone to become a dark tourist? Dr. Stone, the Director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research, and past dark tourist enthusiast himself, says, “[dark tourism] calls a compulsion [for people] to face their own mortality in a secular pilgrimage. People feel anxious before – and then better when they leave, glad that it’s not them”. Other sources say it may be more of a fascination with the macabre and yet for others, a need to take part in a communal sense of loss - to be part of the tragedy. So as the name appropriately implies, the underlying psychological need being met is rather dark itself.

Believe it or not, dark tourism has been around for decades, however, with the globalization of technology and the internet, it appears that the motivations behind dark tourism have changed. National Geographic author, Robert Reid, argues that people’s intentions towards traveling to dark tourist destinations have changed as a result of how they are being marketed. Visitors to the Cu Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City, for example, are promised to shoot AK-47s in the famous Viet Cong guerrilla maze, effectively diluting the horrors of the Vietnam War by turning it into a “fun” marketing ploy.

Dark Tourist Netflix Journalist, David Farrier, visited this same place and was shocked to find they were also allowed to shoot live cows for a price. Robert Reid asks a good question;

Are we traveling to a place to heighten our understanding, or simply to show off or indulge some morbid curiosity?

In the case above, I definitely don’t think it is to heighten the understanding of the Vietnam War… Another dark tourist destination explored by David Farrier was the Aokigahara forest in Japan, otherwise commonly known as the suicide forest. The forest captures the essence of what it feels like to be scared, anxious and in doubt. It has become a dark tourist spot as a result, with legends saying the area is haunted by ghosts.

Farrier experienced this in his visit but carried a high level of respect and sympathy for the people the area had directly impacted. This is the kind of dark tourism that is accepted by society at large.

So what do you think the natural reaction of society would be when someone with over 16 million social media followers goes to Aokigahara, films a dead body, publicises and makes-fun-of an area where hundreds of people have taken their own lives? As you can imagine, not very well… This is the case of social-media menace Logan Paul. As I personally don’t want to give the… fool (for use of a nicer word)… any more limelight, you can read a good overview by Robinson Meyer here. Paul’s story clearly highlights the changing motivations behind dark tourism and how it can be misused to “show off”.

Despite the changing motivations behind dark tourism, it is a market worth investigating for many reasons. After learning about dark tourism, I now realise that I have actually taken a few dark tourist trips myself, such as visiting Pompeii in Italy, Hiroshima in Japan and the Jewish memorial in Berlin. I look back on these experiences with new-found respect and appreciate how visiting them enriched my understanding of culture and personal tragedy. I do have to admit though that I question planning a holiday to solely travel to places like those.

All this talk about dark tourism in countries all over the world got me thinking… what places in Australia would be considered “dark tourist” locations? Turns out we have a lot! The Australian dark tourism scene ranges from creepy former mental-asylums, Port Arthur Massacre, Hanging Rock, Wolf Creek, to nuclear test sites in the Montebello Islands. As I said before, whilst I wouldn’t dedicate an entire trip to exploring one of these places, the more I research dark tourism, the more interested I am to get out of my comfort zone and maybe add in a dark tourist destination on my next trip somewhere. Where would you go if you could?

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