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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.

Mourning sickness? A brief look at disaster tourism

Last week I did an interview with the Daily Mail about disaster tourism and why people flock to see disaster areas. I briefly mentioned the topic in a previous blog that I wrote on people that collect murder memorabilia (‘murderabilia’) and argued that the psychology behind disaster tourism and murderabilia were very similar. According to the Wikipedia entry:

“Disaster tourism is the act of travelling to a disaster area as a matter of curiosity. Disaster tourism took hold in the Greater New Orleans Area in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There are now guided bus tours to neighbourhoods that were severely damaged and/or totally destroyed by the flooding”.

The same article also highlights the March and April 2010 eruptions of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. The article noted that disaster tourism quickly sprang up following the first eruption, with tour companies offering trips to see the volcano. Academically, disaster tourism is closely associated with ‘Dark Tourism’ and also has its own Wikipedia page:

“Dark tourism (also black tourism or grief tourism) has been defined as tourism involving travel to sites historically associated with death and tragedy. More recently it was suggested that the concept should also include reasons tourists visit that site, since the site’s attributes alone may not make a visitor a ‘dark tourist’. Thanatourism, derived from the ancient Greek word thanatos for the personification of death, refers more specifically to violent death; it is used in fewer contexts than the terms ‘dark tourism’ and ‘grief tourism’. The main draw to dark locations is their historical value rather than their associations with death and suffering”.

When I started researching this blog I was quite surprised by the amount of academic writing on the topic (although the vast majority of it is theorizing rather than the collection of empirical data). The academic field appears to have been kick-started by the publication of Malcolm Foley and John Lennon’s 2000 book Dark tourism: The attraction of death and disasters. Most of the papers I read speculated on the many motivations that people have for visiting places associated with death along with typologies of different kinds of dark tourism and what dark tourism means in a wider social and cultural context. In 2012, Dr. Maximiliano Korstanje speculated that “dark tourism could be a mechanism of resiliency helping society to recover after a disaster or catastrophe, a form of domesticating death in a secularized world”. However, many academics have different views and/or explanations. Before looking at some of the academic theorizing, I wanted to share some of the pros and cons of disaster tourism from an article on the WiseGeek site (‘What is disaster tourism?’) as non-academic articles seem to get straight to the point without the caveats and psychosocial babble:

“Disaster tourism is the practice of traveling to areas that have recently experienced natural or man-made disasters. Individuals who participate in this type of travel are typically curious to see the results of the disaster and often travel as part of an organized group. Many people have criticized disaster tourism as exploitation of human misery and a practice that demeans and humiliates local residents. Others argue that tourism to devastated areas can offer a boost to the local economy and raise awareness of the incident, both of which are often needed after a tragedy. When a geographical region suffers a major incident, the media may spend a great deal of time reporting on the situation and the plight of local residents…As a result, some people will actually visit the affected areas so they can experience the situation firsthand. These individuals are typically motivated by curiosity and do not necessarily plan to participate in relief efforts…In some cases, those who participate in disaster tourism will simply travel to an area on their own, while others will purchase a package tour from a travel business”.

Many of the more populist articles on disaster tourism and dark tourism would have readers believe that the phenomenon is new, but it isn’t. Throughout human history there are dozens of examples of people visiting places associated with death and destruction. As I argued in my interview with the Daily Mail, people are intrigued by death and the macabre (and was the subject of a previous blog I wrote on people’s fascination with death).

As a child I remember going on school trips to battlefields, visiting graveyards and cemeteries, and making brass rubbings from burial places in churches and cathedrals. As an adult I have visited Ground Zero in New York and Alcatraz prison island off San Francisco. Is this really that far removed from dark tourism? Many academic writers such as Dr. Philip Stone (who has written paper after paper on dark tourism and has his own ‘Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire, UK) note that war-tourism is a small subset “of the totality of tourist sites associated with death and suffering”. He makes reference to people visiting assassination sites (e.g., the building where President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas), Holocaust sites (such as the Auschwitz concentration camp), celebrity death sites (of Elvis Presley, James Dean, Buddy Holly, etc.), terrorism sites, major disaster sites (e.g., plane crash sites, tsunami sites), slavery heritage attractions, and ‘entertainment’ locations (such as Vienna’s Funeral Museum, Whitby’s ‘Dracula Experience’, the Tower of London). In short, he argues that a full categorisation of dark tourism is extremely complex. He also goes on to say that:

“Despite the diverse range of sites and tourist experiences, Tarlow (2005) identifies dark tourism as ‘visitations to places where tragedies or historically noteworthy death has occurred and that continue to impact our lives’ – a characterisation that aligns dark tourism somewhat narrowly to certain sites and that, perhaps, hints at particular motives. However, it excludes many shades of dark sites and attractions related to, but not necessarily the site of, death and disaster…Consequently, Cohen (2011) addresses location aspects of dark tourism through a paradigm of geographical authenticity and sense of victimhood. Meanwhile, Biran, Poria, and Oren (2011) examine sought benefits of dark tourism within a framework of dialogic meaning making…Jamal and Lelo (2011) also explore the conceptual and analytical framing of dark tourism, and suggest notions of darkness in dark tourism are socially constructed, rather than objective fact….dark tourism may be referred to more generally as the ‘act of travel to tourist sites associated with death, suffering or the seemingly macabre’ (Stone, 2006)”

I was also surprised to learn from Dr. Stone and other papers that dark tourism has been given lots of other names in the academic literature including ‘morbid tourism’, ‘fright tourism’, ‘horror tourism’, ‘black spot tourism’, ‘hardship tourism’, ‘grief tourism’, ‘tragedy tourism’, ‘[extreme] thanatourism’, ‘warfare tourism’ and ‘genocide tourism’ all of which concern “milking the macabre” and “dicing with death”.

Dr. Jeffrey Podoshen (2013) has noted that an interest in death is general, and not person-specific and leads to the conclusion that there are a wide variety of potential manifestations related to dark tourism consumption motivations. Various academics have speculated that the motivations for dark tourism include sensation seeking and voyeurism. Citing the work of Dr. Richard Sharpley, he notes that “schadenfreude sparks dark tourism interest and likens these tourists to rubber-neckers who gaze at the tragedy of others”. However, as Philip Stone and Richard Sharpley note in a 2008 issue of the Annals of Tourism:

“The question of why tourists seek out such dark sites has attracted limited attention. Generally, visitors are seen to be driven by differing intensities of interest or fascination in death, in the extreme hinting at tasteless, ghoulish motivations. More specific reasons vary from morbid fascination or ‘rubber-necking’, through empathy with the victims, to the need for a sense of survival/continuation, untested factors which, arguably, demand verification within a psychology context”.

A recent study by Dr Takalani Mudzanani published in a 2014 issue of the Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences examined why people visited the Hector Peterson Memorial and Museum in South Africa (named after one of the pupils who died during the Soweto riots). Via 15 in-depth interviews his study highlighted factors such as novelty, escapism, enhancement of kinship relations, nostalgia, education and the media played an important role in motivating visitors to visit the site. Finally, it’s worth noting that there are also those in the field that believe there are levels of dark tourism (such as Dr. William Miles in a 2002 issue of the Annals of Tourism Research) who talk of dark, darker, darkest tourism. Furthermore, most academics in the area would agree that dark tourism is not a single concept (something that with just a brief dip into this fascinating literature I totally agree with).

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

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. (2000). Dark tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 19(1), 68-78.

Lennon, J. & Foley, M. (2000). Dark tourism: The attraction of death and disasters. London: Thomson Learning.

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

Mudzanani, T. (2014). Why is Death so Attractive? An Analysis of Tourists’ Motives for Visiting the Hector Peterson Memorial and Museum in South Africa. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 5(15), 570-574.

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

Sharpley, R., & Stone, P.R. (Eds.). (2009). The darker side of travel. Channel View Publications.

Stone, P. (2005). Dark tourism consumption: a call for research. E-Review of Tourism Research (eRTR), 3(5), 109-117.

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

Stone, P. R. (2011). Dark tourism and the cadaveric carnival: mediating life and death narratives at Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds. Current Issues in Tourism, 14(7), 685-701.

Stone, P. & Sharpley, R (2008). Consuming dark-tourism a thanatological perspective. Annals of Tourism Research, 35, 574–595.

Korstanje, M. & Ivanov, S. (2012). Tourism as a form of new psychological resilience: The inception of dark tourism. Cultur: Revista de Cultura e Turismo, 6(4), 56-71.

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

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

Completing the ‘killection’: A brief look at ‘murderabilia’

In a previous blog, I examined the psychology of collecting and whether collecting can (in extreme cases) be classed as an addiction. Yesterday, the Daily Mail’s front page story was about collectors that buy ‘Holocaust memorabilia’ on eBay such as the striped pyjamas that prisoners were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps during Word War II. This type of collecting is closely related to collectors that buy ‘murderabilia’. Although the word ‘murderabilia’ is fairly new (and is an amalgam of ‘murder memorabilia’), the act itself has a long history and basically refers to collectibles that relate to murder, murderers and/or violent crimes (including such items as artwork produced by incarcerated serial killers, as well as houses, vehicles, clothes, and weapons used in crimes by mass murderers).

The fact that people collect such extreme memorabilia doesn’t surprise me in the least. To me, such behaviour is only one step removed from ‘disaster tourism’ where people pay money to see places, sites, and/or artefacts related to death and disaster. One recent example involved a travel company selling €10 tours to see the sunken cruise liner Costa Concordia off the Tuscan island of Giglio (Italy). Another related type of collecting are the thousands of people that collect Nazi memorabilia (including high profile cases such as the lead singer of Motörhead – Lemmy). As Lemmy’s Wikipedia entry notes:

“Lemmy collects German military regalia, and has an Iron Cross encrusted on his bass, which has led to accusations of Nazi sympathies. He has stated that he collects this memorabilia for aesthetic values only, and considers himself an anarchist or libertarian, and that he is ‘anti-communism, fascism, any extreme’ saying that ‘government causes more problems than it solves’. According to Keither Emerson’s autobiography, two of Lemmy’s Hitlerjugend knives were given to Emerson by Lemmy during his time as a roadie for The Nice. Emerson used these knives many times as keyholders when playing the Hammond Organ during concerts with The Nice and Emerson, Lake & Palmer”.

As I noted in my previous blog on collecting as an addiction, Dr. Ruth Formanek suggested five common motivations for collecting in a 1991 issue of the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality. These were: (i) extension of the self (e.g., acquiring knowledge, or in controlling one’s collection); (ii) social (finding, relating to, and sharing with, like-minded others); (iii) preserving history and creating a sense of continuity; (iv) financial investment; and (v), an addiction or compulsion. Formanek claimed that the commonality to all motivations to collect was a passion for the particular things collected. None of these motivations beyond passion appears to explain why people collect murderabilia (unless the collectors themselves identify with the person and/or actions of the murderabilia they collect). Crime writer Leigh Lundin claims such individuals may be interested in the macabre, and that many believe by collecting such items offers the collector power and control. My own opinion is that such collectors want to possess unique items that no-one else has and also believe that possess a piece of history (even if the item is connected with actions or people that are sadistic, depraved and/or deluded). Arguable this latter motivation may be related to the motivation of ‘preserving history’.

Back in May 2001, eBay banned the sale of murderabilia items but all this has done is move the murderabilia industry elsewhere (for instance, on websites like Supernaught.com that claims on its’ homepage that it is the first and longest running website providing true crime collectibles”; among the items they were selling were bricks from [Milwaulkee Cannibal] Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment at $300 a time). The Australian Caslon Analytics website also noted that:

“Contemporary murderabilia has included items owned or created by serial killers, including postcards from Charles Manson, what are claimed as his fingerprint cards, the license plate of the van used by John Wayne Gacy, a murder weapon used by Gary Gilmore, letters from the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ [Peter Sutcliffe] and the ‘Acid Bath Killer’ [John George Haigh] in the UK, drawings by Gacy and other US killers, the radiator cap from the Bonnie & Clyde ‘death car’, Heinrich Himmler’s limousine, earth supposedly from the house where Gacy buried some of his victims and the clothing of some killers. 2009 saw artworks by UK gang leaders Ronnie and Reggie Kray auctioned for £17,125, along with £3,105 for a canvas by poisoner Graham Young”.

The academic literature on murderabilia is mostly in the field of law and/or morality. However, I did unearth a few interesting academic pieces on the topic. There are also some interesting pieces written from a media studies perspective. For instance, Dr. Melinda Wilkins in her PhD ‘A Comfortable Evil’ noted that:

“The serial murder epidemic also generated within the popular media a lucrative moral controversy to negotiate via films, television movies, docu-dramas, true-crime accounts, novels, and memoirs. There were serial-killer comic books and serial killer trading cards to sell; there were serial-killer records to play, taped interviews with Edmund Kemper, Ted Bundy, Henry Lee Lucas, and Kenneth Bianchi billed as ‘honesty about violence’; and for a while during the early 2000s, there was even an eBay web site devoted to the sale of ‘Murderabilia’, memorabilia of one sort and another from various notorious murderers in prison. The epidemic provided American journalists with an apparently inexhaustible topic guaranteed to draw readers and viewers”.

One US academic – Professor David Schmid – has written a number of articles and books on the general public’s consumption of fame including murderabilia including one on this very topic in the M/C Journal (an academic journal concerning media and culture). As Professor Schmid observes:

“The sale of murderabilia is just a small part of the huge serial killer industry that has become a defining feature of American popular culture over the last twenty-five years. This industry is, in turn, a prime example of what Mark Seltzer has described as ‘wound culture,’ consisting of a ‘public fascination with torn and open bodies and torn and opened persons, a collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound’. According to Seltzer, the serial killer is ‘one of the superstars of our wound culture’ and his claim is confirmed by the constant stream of movies, books, magazines, television shows, websites, t-shirts, and a tsunami of ephemera that has given the figure of the serial murderer an unparalleled degree of visibility and fame in the contemporary American public sphere”

Schmid’s paper examined how the celebrity culture concerning serial killers has developed and the ethics of collecting such items. He provided examples of how collectors buy the hair and nail clippings of murderers as if they were religious icons. Citing from an old book chapter by US sociologist Leo Lowenthal (‘Biographies in Popular Magazines’), Lowenthal argued that magazine biographies underwent a striking change in the first half of the twentieth century with a new type of social biography emerging. His main argument was that biographies had changed from ‘idols of production’ (those in politics, science, sports, business, etc.) to ‘idols of consumption’ (those in film, music, literature, etc.). This latter group has also evolved to include the lives of infamous criminals. As Schmid then notes:

“With Lowenthal in mind, when one considers the fact that the serial killer is generally seen, in Richard Tithecott’s words, as ‘deserving of eternal fame, of media attention on a massive scale, of groupies’, one is tempted to describe the advent of celebrity serial killers as a further decline in the condition of American culture’s ‘mass idols’. The serial killer’s relationship to consumption, however, is too complex to allow for such a hasty judgment, as the murderabilia industry indicates”.

Schmid also discusses the 2000 US documentary Collectors (directed by Julian P. Hobbs) and discusses some of the multiple connections between serial killing and consumerism.

“Hobbs points out that the serial killer is connected with consumerism in the most basic sense that he has become a commodity, ‘a merchandising phenomenon that rivals Mickey Mouse. From movies to television, books to on-line, serial killers are packaged and consumed en-masse’…But as Hobbs goes on to argue, serial killers themselves can be seen as consumers, making any representations of them implicated in the same consumerist logic: ‘Serial killers come into being by fetishizing and collecting artifacts – usually body parts – in turn, the dedicated collector gathers scraps connected with the actual events and so, too, a documentary a collection of images’…Hobbs implies that no one can avoid being involved with consumerism in relation to serial murder, even if one’s reasons for getting involved are high-minded”.

Schmid then goes on to say:

“The reason why it is impossible to separate neatly ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ expressions of interest in famous serial killers is the same reason why the murderabilia industry is booming; in the words of a 1994 National Examiner headline: ‘Serial Killers Are as American as Apple Pie’. Christopher Sharrett has suggested that: ‘Perhaps the fetish status of the criminal psychopath…is about recognizing the serial killer/mass murderer not as social rebel or folk hero…but as the most genuine representative of American life’. The enormous resistance to recognizing the representativeness of serial killers in American culture is fundamental to the appeal of fetishizing serial killers and their artifacts”.

Even if the murderabilia market carries on ‘making a [financial] killing out of a killing’, it is unlikely to wane in popularity (unless the mass media stops reporting such behaviour). Furthermore, even if legislation outlaws such a practice, the activity will simply go (and likely burgeon) underground. There will always be individuals that are fascinated by the macabre (myself included) and no law will ever stop people collecting such items, however immoral, bizarre and/or depraved.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Chang, S. (2004). Prodigal son returns: An assessment of current Son of Sam laws and the reality of the online murderabilia marketplace. Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal, 31, 430.

Daily Mail (2012). ‘Disaster tourism’ boom for Giglio as day-trippers visit the Costa Concordia site. August 15. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/article-2188623/Costa-Concordia-tragedy-Disaster-tourism-boom-Giglio-day-trippers-visit-stricken-ship.html

Formanek, R. (1991). Why they collect: Collectors reveal their motivations. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(6), 275-286.

Jarvis, B. (2007). Monsters Inc.: Serial killers and consumer culture. Crime, Media, Culture, 3(3), 326-344.

Lowenthal, L. (1961). The Triumph of Mass Idols. Literature, Popular Culture and Society (pp.109-140). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Schmid, D. (2004). Murderabilia: Consuming fame. M/C Journal: A Journal of Media and Culture, 7(5). Located at: http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0411/10-schmid.php

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