Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
I don’t consider myself an especially “dark” person. Other than the occasional Halloween costume, I’ve never been one for dressing in black. My music collection tends to lean more toward indie pop than death metal. But I do have an appreciation for the macabre, tragic and historic, which makes me the target audience for dark tourism.
Dark tourism—also sometimes known as “thanatourism,” based on the Greek word for death— is an emerging term for the act of visiting sites with some sort of connection to death and suffering. That includes everything from cemeteries to disaster memorials. You may recall that earlier this month I wrote about events at Shiloh National Military Park marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle. That is dark tourism in a nutshell.
Interest in the darker aspects tourism is growing, to the point that the University of Central Lancashire in England has established the Institute for Dark Tourism Research to provide a scientific understanding of the social, cultural, political, economic and ethical implications of the phenomenon. The ethics of promoting a site where people have died can get complicated quickly. Just look at the problems that Joplin Convention and Visitors Bureau in Joplin, Mo., encountered. Faced with an influx of inquisitive visitors who wanted to see the devastation wreaked by one of the deadliest tornadoes on record, the CVB created maps of the damaged area. Residents who had lost homes or family members felt the maps were an effort to profit off of their losses, and the CVB decided to stop printing them.
Of course, none of this is particularly new. As this recent CNN article on the subject points out, pilgrims have been visiting the places where saints were martyred for centuries. I don’t particularly think that the popularity of such sites means people are actively seeking out morbid thrills. Frankly, they can be hard to avoid. When I look back at the vacations I’ve taken, almost all of them involved some sort of dark tourism. Often it was one of the most memorable experiences I had during the trip:
–On a family trip to Massachusetts, we spent time searching cemeteries for ancestors and visited sites related to the Salem Witch Trials.
–During a high school class trip to Germany and Austria, we saw rooms full of bones in the catacombs beneath St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna and visited the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site outside Munich.
–In New York City, a few short months after 9/11, I stood in line with hundreds of others to stare into the hole where the World Trade Center towers had been.
–On my honeymoon in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a sign at Castillo San Felipe del Morro informed us that the huge, beautiful, green field in front of the fortress had in fact served as a wide-open death trap for attacking armies.
–With a few brief hours to spend in downtown Atlanta last month, my wife and I spent some time contemplating the Quilt of Remembrance plaza in Centennial Olympic Park, which honors the 111 people injured and one person killed by the bombing during the 1996 Olympics.
The fact is, death is all around us—not to get all dark on you.
Image: The esplanade in front of Castillo San Felipe del Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been preserved to remind visitors what it would have been like for invading soldiers trying to take the fort.