Is dark tourism as grim as the name suggests?

Is dark tourism as grim as the name suggests?

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

Whenever we get visitors, I’m proud to show them around the handsome wine village I now call home. First mentioned in a document dating back to 765, my adopted town has more than its fair share of landmarks and history. One place that never fails to impress our guests is a chapel in which rest the mortal remains of some 20,000 citizens who lived, loved and died here between 1400 and 1750. The skulls and femurs of men, women and children are neatly stacked to the height of the chamber’s vaulted ceiling. Various thoughts run through my mind as I look at what was once living and breathing human beings with feelings, needs and emotions identical to my own. I try to imagine what daily life might have been like for my fellow townsmen born centuries ago, particularly women. As I pull away, I remind myself to make the most of every day I am granted here on this earth.

There’s a name for the type of tourism that involves taking in sights with a grim side to them: dark tourism, also known as thanatourism or grief tourism. While there’s no single, exact definition as to what the practice involves, a scholar by the name of A.V. Seaton suggests it involves travel to the following: places where death will occur (a public execution); places where death has occurred already; internment sites and memorials; places where reenactments of battles are staged; and travel to non-organic sites at which evidence of the dead has been assembled (museums, castles).

It’s easy to rattle off a number of popular sights and events in Europe that seem to fit each of these definitions—The Tower of London, Chernobyl, The Auschwitz or Dachau concentration camps. The catacombs of Paris. The Battle of the Bulge reenactment in Bastogne, Belgium. The Colosseum in Rome. Museums devoted to torture in Amsterdam or Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Germany. Halloween parties held at castles and amusement parks everywhere.

While traveling to places where a public execution is scheduled to take place isn’t something most of us would choose to do nowadays, the notion of tourism’s darker side called to mind an article I read concerning an activity once popular just outside Naples, Italy. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a popular stop on The Grand Tour was the Grotta del Cane, or Cave of Dogs, a shallow cavern filled with carbon dioxide in its lower depths. While people could stand in the cavern in safety, a dog, due to his much shorter stature, would soon suffocate amidst the fatal fumes. Once the poor animal lost consciousness, it would be tossed into a lake in hopes that the cold water would revive it. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexandre Dumas and Mark Twain are all known to have visited the grotto. Thankfully, mores do change, and any of today’s heroes, literary or otherwise, caught taking in such an act of animal cruelty would be scorned.

This begs the question, is a tourist interested in learning of the grisly ways in which castles once repelled invaders, one who takes part in a ghost tour or a spectator to the reenactment of a brutal battle somehow morally lacking? Contemporary scholars studying the phenomenon of dark tourism increasingly delve into the question of personal motivation.  Most visitors to a Holocaust memorial, mass grave or scene of a natural disaster would state they are there to remember and honor the victims, and surely a silent prayer of “never again” passes through many lips on the way out. And even if a tourist is motivated by the desire for an actual or symbolic encounter with death, is it really so bad to confront one’s own mortality every once in a while?

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