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Trip it up and start again: Dark tourism (revisited)

Last week, there were numerous stories in the British press about plans to display the car that Princess Diana was killed in a US museum. Much of this coverage described the plans as ‘sick’ and ‘distasteful’ but is the latest in a very long line of an example of ‘dark tourism’. In a previous blog I briefly examined ‘disaster tourism’, a form of ‘dark tourism’. Since writing that blog I came across an interesting book chapter by the Slovenian researcher Dr. Lea Kuznik entitled ‘Fifty shades of dark stories’ examining the many motivations for engaging in the seedier side of tourism. Dark tourism is something that I have been guilty of myself. For instance, as a Beatles fanatic, when I first went to New York, I went to the Dakota apartments where John Lennon had been shot by Mark David Chapman. In her chapter, Dr. Kuznik notes that:

“Dark tourism is a special type of tourism, which involves visits to tourist attractions and destinations that are associated with death, suffering, disasters and tragedies venues. Visiting dark tourist destinations in the world is the phenomenon of the twenty-first century, but also has a very long heritage. Number of visitors of war areas, scenes of accidents, tragedies, disasters, places connected with ghosts, paranormal activities, witches and witchhunt trials, cursed places, is rising steeply”.

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As I noted in my previous blog, the motivations for such behaviour is varied. Those working in the print and broadcast media often live by the maxim that ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ (meaning that death and disaster sell). Clearly whenever anything hits the front of newspapers or is the lead story on radio and television, it gains notoriety and infamy. This applies to bad things as well as good things and is one of the reasons why dark tourism has become so popular. Kuznik notes that although dark tourism has a long history, it has only become a topic for academic study since the mid-1990s. Dr. Kuznik observes that:

“The term dark tourism was coined by Foley and Lennon (1996) to describe the attraction of visitors to tourism sites associated with death, disaster, and depravity. Other notable definitions of dark tourism include the act of travel to sites associated with death, suffering and the seemingly macabre (Stone, 2006), and as visitations to places where tragedies or historically noteworthy death has occurred and that continue to impact our lives (Tarlow, 2005). Scholars have further developed and applied alternative terminology in dealing with such travel and visitation, including thanatourism (Seaton, 1996), black spot tourism (Rojek, 1993), atrocity heritage tourism (Tunbridge & Ashworth, 1996), and morbid tourism (Blom, 2000). In a context similar to ‘dark tourism’, terms like ‘macabre tourism’, ‘tourism of mourning’ and ‘dark heritage tourism’ are also in use. Among these terms, dark tourism remains the most widely applied in academic research (Sharpley, 2009)”.

Kuznik also notes that dark tourism has been referred to as “place-specific tourism”. Consequently, some researchers began to classify dark tourism sites based upon their defining characteristics. As Kuznik notes:

“Miles (2002) proposed a darker-lighter tourism paradigm in which there remains a distinction between dark and darker tourism according to the greater or lesser extent of the macabre and the morose. In this way, the sites of the holocaust, for example, can be divided into dark and darker tourism when it comes to their authenticity and scope of interpretation…On the basis of the dark tourism paradigm of Miles (2002), Stone (2006) proposed a spectrum of dark tourism supply which classifies sites according to their perceived features, and from these, the degree or shade of darkness (darkest to lightest) with which they can be characterised. This spectrum has seven types of dark tourism suppliers, ranging from Dark Fun Factories as the lightest, to Dark Camps of Genocide as the darkest. A specific example of the lightest suppliers would be dungeon attractions, such as London Dungeon, or planned ventures such as Dracula Park in Romania. In contrast, examples of the darkest sites include genocide sites in Rwanda, Cambodia, or Kosovo, as well as holocaust sites such as Auschwitz-Birkenau”.

In relation to the reasons for visiting dark tourism sites, Kuznik came up with seven main motivations for why we as humans seek out such experiences (i.e., curiosity, education, survivor guilt, remembrance, nostalgia, empathy, and horror) that are outlined below (please note that the descriptions are edited verbatim from Kuznik’s chapter)

  • Curiosity: “Many tourists are interested in the unusual and the unique, whether this be a natural phenomenon (e.g. Niagara Falls), an artistic or historical structure (e.g. the pyramids in Egypt), or spectacular events (e.g. a royal wedding). Importantly, the reasons why tourists are attracted to dark tourism sites derive, at least in part, from the same curiosity which motivates a visit to Niagara Falls. Visiting dark tourism sites is an out of the ordinary experience, and thus attractive for its uniqueness and as a means of satisfying human curiosity. So the main reason is the experience of the unusual”.
  • Empathy: “One of the reasons for visiting dark tourism sites may be empathy, which is an acceptable way of expressing a fascination with horror…In many respects, the interpretation of dark tourism sites can be difficult and sensitive, given the message of the site as forwarded by exhibition curators can at times conflict with the understandings of visitors”.
  • Horror: Horror is regarded as one of the key reasons for visiting dark tourism sites, and in particular, sites of atrocity…Relating atrocity as heritage at a site is thus as entertaining as any media depiction of a story, and for precisely the same reasons and with the same moral overtones. Such tourism products or examples are: Ghost Walks around sites of execution or murder (Ghost Tour of Prague), Murder Trails found in many cities like Jack the Ripper in London”.
  • Education: “In much tourism literature it has been claimed that one of the main motivations for travel is the gaining of knowledge, and the quest for authentic experiences. One of the core missions of cultural and heritage tourism in particular is to provide educational opportunities to visitors through guided tours and interpretation. Similarly, individual visits to dark tourism sites to gain knowledge, understanding, and educational opportunities, continue to have intrinsic educational value…many dark tourism attractions or sites are considered important destinations for school educational field trips, achieving education through experiential learning”.
  • Nostalgia: “Nostalgia can be broadly described as yearning for the past…or as a wistful mood that an object, a scene, a smell or a strain of music evokes…In this respect Smith (1996) examined war tourism sites and concluded that old soldiers do go back to the battlefields, to revisit and remember the days of their youth”.
  • Remembrance: “Remembrance is a vital human activity connecting us to our past…Remembrance helps people formulate an identity, allowing them to learn from past mistakes, and to go forward with a clear vision of the future. In the context of dark tourism, remembrance and memory are considered key elements in the importance of sites”.
  • Survivor’s guilt: “One of the distinctive characteristics of dark tourism is the type of visitors such sites attract, which include survivors and victim‘s families returning to the scene of death or disaster. These types of visitors are particularly prevalent at sites associated with Second World War and the holocaust. For many survivors returning to the scene of death and atrocity can achieve a therapeutic effect by resolving grief, and can build understanding of how terrible things came to have happened. This can be very emotional experience”.

Dr. Kuznik also developed a new typology of “dark places in nature”. The typology comprised 17 types of dark places and are briefly outlined below.

  • Disaster area tourism: Visiting places of natural disaster after hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic destructions, etc.
  • Grave tourism: Visiting famous cemeteries, or graves and mausoleums of famous individuals.
  • War or battlefield tourism: Visiting places where wars and battles took place.
  • Holocaust tourism: Visiting Nazi concentration camps, memorial sites, memorial museums, etc.
  • Genocide tourism: Visiting places where genocide took place such as the killing fields in Cambodia.
  • Prison tourism: Visiting former prisons such as Alcatraz.
  • Communism tourism: Visiting places like North Korea.
  • Cold war and iron curtain tourism: Visiting places and remains associated with the cold war such as the Berlin Wall.
  • Nuclear tourism: Visiting sites where nuclear disasters took place (e.g. Chernobyl in the Ukraine) or where nuclear bombs were exploded (e.g., Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan).
  • Murderers and murderous places tourism: Visiting sites where killers and serial killers murdered their victims (‘Jack the Ripper’ walks in London, where Lee Harvey Oswald killed J.F. Kennedy in Dallas)
  • Slum tourism: Visiting impoverished and slum areas in countries such as India and Brazil, Kenya.
  • Terrorist tourism: Visiting places such Ground Zero (where the Twin Towers used to be) in New York City
  • Paranormal tourism: Visiting crop circle sites, places where UFO sightings took place, haunted houses (e.g., Amityville), etc.
  • Witched tourism: Visiting towns or cities where witches congregated (e.g., Salem in Massachusetts).
  • Accident tourism: Visiting places where infamous accidents took place (e.g. the Paris tunnel where Princess Diana died in a car accident).
  • Icky medical tourism: Visiting medical museums and body exhibitions.
  • Dark amusement tourism: Visiting themed walks and amusement parks that are based on ghosts and horror figures (e.g., Dracula).

Looking at these different types quickly I reached the conclusion that I would class myself as a ‘dark tourist’ as I have engaged in many of these and no doubt reflects my own interest in the more extreme aspects of the lived human experience.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Ashworth, G., & Hartmann, R. (2005). Introduction: managing atrocity for tourism. In G. Ashworth & R. Hartmann (Eds.), Horror and human tragedy revisited: the management of sites of atrocities for tourism (pp. 1–14). Sydney: Cognizant Communication Corporation. 

Blom, T. (2000). Morbid tourism – a postmodern market niche with an example from Althorp. Norwegian Journal of Geography, 54(1), 29–36.

Dann, G. M., & Seaton, A. V. (2001). Slavery, contested heritage and thanatourism. International Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Administration, 2(3-4), 1-29.

Foley, M., & Lennon, J. (1996). JFK and dark tourism: A fascination with assassination. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2(4), 198–211.

Foley, M., & Lennon, J. (2000). Dark tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 19(1), 68-78.

Kuznik, L. (2018). Fifty shades of dark stories. In Mehdi Khosrow-Pour, D.B.A. (Ed.). Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology (Fourth Edition). (pp.4077-4087). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Miles, W.F. (2002). Auschwitz: Museum interpretation and darker tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 29(4), 1175-1178.

Podoshen, J. S. (2013). Dark tourism motivations: Simulation, emotional contagion and topographic comparison. Tourism Management, 35, 263-271.

Rojek, C. (1993). Ways of escape. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan.

Seaton, A. V. (1996). From thanatopsis to thanatourism: Guided by the dark. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2(4), 234–244.

Sharpley, R., & Stone, P. R. (Eds.). (2009). The darker side of travel: the theory and practice of dark tourism. Bristol: Channel View.

Smith, V. L. (1996). War and its tourist attractions. In A. Pizam & Y. Mansfeld (Eds.), Tourism, crime and international security issues (pp. 247–264). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Stone, P. R. (2006). A dark tourism spectrum: Towards a typology of death and macabre related tourist sites, attractions and exhibitions. Tourism, 54(2), 145–160.

Strange, C., & Kempa, M. (2003). Shades of dark tourism: Alcatraz and Robben Island. Annals of Tourism Research, 30(2), 386-405.

Tarlow, P.E. (2005). Dark tourism: the appealing dark side of tourism and more. In M. Novelli (Ed.), Niche tourism – Contemporary issues, trends and cases (pp. 47–58). Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Tunbridge, J.E., & Ashworth, G. (1996). Dissonant heritage: The management of the past as a resource in conflict. New York: John Wiley & Sons.