Whether it’s concentration camps, the 9/11 memorial, or sites of executions, the sites of the world’s atrocities are epicenters for a particular brand of traveler that, rather than white sands and mai tais, prefers hanging out with death. Dark tourism is vacationing with suffering.
The phenomenon is strange enough that it’s now academic, thanks to the recently-founded "Institute for Dark Tourism Research," or the iDTR, at University of Central Lancashire, England. According to its homepage, "dark tourism is travel to sites of death, disaster, or the seemingly macabre." It's like rubbernecking with a hotel. Examples of dark tourism, according to the iDTR, range from the 9/11 memorial to "early" dark tourism such as, "Roman gladiatorial games, spectator events at medieval executions, morgue tours of 19th century Europe, or early visits to battlefields such as Waterloo or Gettysburg."
The iDTR was founded by professors Richard Sharpley and Phillip Stone. Stone spent over a decade in the tourism industry before becoming an academic and Sharpley has published numerous books on the role of tourism in society, though recently he turned to the "dark" side. Now they conduct research into dark tourism, looking at the business, politics, morality, and psychology of it.
So why do we love visiting scenes of mass tragedy? Are we just a bunch of death-obsessed creeps? In recent comments to the BBC, Stone described our proclivity for dark tourism, saying that “People feel anxious before – and then better when they leave, glad that it’s not them…It’s a way for a secular society to reconnect with death.”
In Stone's view, our obsession with stories and scenes of death comes from a desire to soothe our fears. This line of thought implies that while our obsession with death is an unavoidable result of our innate aversion to, and fear of, dying (which exists for obvious reasons), confronting it through something like dark tourism can reaffirm that we are, at that moment, alive. It's schadenfreude light.
Psychologist Bruce Hood, of the University of Bristol, isn't sure of the neatness of this theory. In a recent post about the iDTR on his website, Hood wrote:
There is a psychological theory called 'Terror Management Theory' (TMT) that shows that when people are made aware of their own mortality, they become more punitive and aggressive towards others who could potentially threaten their world view and self-esteem… TMT, developed over 20 years ago by social psychologists, explains how humans come to cope with death anxiety by developing self-esteem and attributing purpose to life. However, we do this by shoring up our own cultural identities, self-esteem, and frankly become more conservative in the way that we view others who might threaten our world view. So while Dark Tourism might make us feel all the better about being alive, it may make us less tolerant of others which just seems so counter-intuitive.
Interesting. There's a conflict here – does dark tourism make us feel nice and connected to our sense of humanity, or does it make us feel cagey and hostile? If it is more often the later, why are millions of people dark tourists? And what if is merely an extension of our interest in the drama of death – an exceptional curiosity with no stereotypical effect on our mood?
I'm going to try a little DIY experiment next time I get the mass-grave bug: insistently chat up a bunch of other dark tourists at a dark tourism site and see if they're in a good or bad mood. My guess: a mix of cautious enjoyment for being alive, empathy toward humanity, and a strong urge to tell a bothering stranger to "fuck off." That sounds about right.