Dark Tourism: No thanks.

After about a year of people asking me if my research was “Dark Tourism,” or asserting that it was (“OH, Like Dark Tourism?!”) I decided to read all the articles about “Dark Tourism” I could get my hands on. Having done that, I conclude that what I do is not “Dark Tourism,” and that I don’t like “Dark Tourism.”

My two assessments, that my research is not “Dark Tourism,” and that I don’t like “Dark Tourism” come from separate places. While I admit it is easy for me to not like things that are similar to my research, but not enough like my research to make me feel right, those feelings never last long, and this is different. So I will begin by telling you why what I do is not “Dark Tourism.”

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Denny Hall, 2015. I did some tourism in the dark in Seattle, but it is not “Dark Tourism.”

Why My Research Is not “Dark Tourism”

My research looks at how people in Virginia have used ghost stories and rumors of hauntings to understand the historical significance of buildings, landscapes, and ruins in Virginia. What I have found is that people like going on ghost tours because of the historical information shared through the stories, and they enjoy the eery feeling that the past is present. These people enjoy, not the death associated with hauntings, but the life and possibility of afterlife. According to Philip Stone “Dark Tourism” “alludes to a sense of apparent disturbing practice and morbid products (and experiences) within the tourism domain.”[1] He gives examples like Ground Zero in New York, the ruins in New Orleans, Auschwitz-Birkenaue, and the killing fields of Cambodia, execution sites, prisons, graveyards, slavery-heritage sites, celebrity death sites, and battlefield sites. These places are certainly “dark” in that negative things happened there, but I am uncertain that they are intentionally “dark” for the sake of tourism.

He lists types of “Dark Tourism” including

  • Exhibits that “blend the product design to reflect education and potential learning opportunities,” like the “Body Worlds.” He calls “Body World” a library of corpses, which I don’t agree with because corpses are dead bodies and the ones on display there were crafted to look very much alive.
  • Places that showcase past penal systems (like prisons, think Town of London)
  • Cemeteries, because there are dead people there.
  • “Dark Shrines” are constructed formally or informally after deaths. Things that Erika Doss would call “temporary memorials.”
  • “Dark Conflict Sites” like battlefields
  • “Dark Camps of Genocide,” which are self-explanatory.

My work is decidedly not “Dark Tourism” because my subjects are not looking at ghost stories and rumors of hauntings as a way to get off on death. In my research, I have found that the people who don’t directly link ghosts with a study of history like being spooked with the idea that death is not final, they enjoy the challenge to their natural assumption, it is an uncanny feeling, not a macabre one. There experience is more like looking at a magic eye poster rather than at a photo of a bludgeoned soldier.

Why I don’t like “Dark Tourism”

My main issue with “Dark Tourism” is that it is too broadly applied. While many researchers have admitted that the field suffers under its lack of visitor research, (asking people why they came to site pre-labeled as “macabre” or “dark”) the field pushes on, and people continue to label sites as “Dark Tourism.”

Burton Parish Church, 2015. A student of mine took this photo at night in Colonial Williamsburg. It too is tourism after dark, but not

Burton Parish Church, 2015. A student of mine took this photo at night in Colonial Williamsburg. It too is tourism after dark, but not “Dark Tourism”

Thankfully there are other researchers willing and actively able to take the concept apart. These people assert that “Dark tourism” is more of a label researchers assign to places, than a value tourist feel while visiting. Stephan Miles of the U. of Glasgow published a piece in 2013 revealing that when asked visitors showed “no evidence of a considered appreciation of the sites’ ‘darker’ aspects.”[2] He argues that visitors express a “lighter set of values” and asserts that the commercial aspect of the sites, in this case English battle sites, keeps the darkness at bay. In a similar way Michael S. Bowman and Phaedra Pezzullo, argued in their 2010 article that, among other things, calling tourist practices ‘dark’ contributes to “the already-formidable body of criticism and popular opinion that attributes only vulgar, base, and superficial motives to tourism.”[3] They go on to ask that “If we jettison historical tragedies as not part of the boarder desire for heritage tours, don’t we continue to marginalize stories of subaltern, emergent, and counterpublic voice by marking ‘their’ sites as ‘dark’ and privilege the sites of those in power and ‘heritage’?” Lastly, I want to point Avital Biran, Yaniv Poria, and Gila Oren’s 2011 article that argues that “Dark Tourism’s” ignorance of tourists’ motivation allows the field to ignore the centrality of death in various societies, and its symbolic meaning. Their research looks at Auschwitz, which they point out Stone calls ‘the darkest edges of the dark tourism spectrum.”[4] Their research rejects “Dark Tourism’s” assumption that the site in question is dark because of the visitors’ fascination with death, and assert that guests have varied reasons for visiting, most of which are based on emotions, historical understanding, and heritage.

VA Abandoned Ren Fest. I am not sure where

VA Abandoned Ren Fest. I am not sure where “Dark Tourism” and ruin porn meet.

Considering all that, it is easy for me to say that I don’t like “Dark Tourism” because it assumes too much. It assumes an authority to label sites “dark” without having done research to understand how visitors understand the site. It assumes that death is macabre, and that contemporary people are not familiar with or have not been introduced to death. It assumes that people who want to gawk at sites of death are not just ass holes on tour. It assumes that there is a strong and impermeable divide between life and death, and that death, dying, and suffering are not apart of the human condition and life.

“Dark Tourism” is useful for describing tourism that takes people to the front lines of contemporary murder and war. Both of these are completely unacceptable place for tourism and debase the suffering of human beings to entertainment. It is worth noting that these sites are different from sites of past war and murder, like a battle field, because they can be contextualized for educational and social purposes.

The following things are only macabre if you make it macabre; Grave yards,Ghost tours, Haunted Houses, Sites of Slavery, Battle Fields, Prison camps, Hospitals, and Death spots.

The concept of “Dark Tourism” as applied by scholars is subjective and does not depend on how places are interpreted by the tourism body who runs them or people who experiences them. If “Dark Tourism” wants to be helpful it needs to recognize that its label is negative, and at times disrespectful, and begin to study site interpretation, and ask how death, dying, and suffering are presented to the world of living and leisure.

[1] Philip R.Stone, “A Dark Tourism Spectrum” Towards A Typology of Death and Macabre Related Tourists Sites, Attractions and Exhibitions,” Tourism 54. No.2. (2006), 146. Philip R. Stone, “Dark Tourism and Significant Other Death: Towards a Model of Mortality Mediation,” Annals of Tourism Research 39. No3. (2012),1565-1587. Philip R. Stone, “Dark Tourism: Towards A New Post-Disciplinary Research Agenda,” International Journal Tourism Anthropology 1. No.3/4, (2011). I use Stone a lot here; because he has published a lot on this, and each time he includes a detailed description of the field, so if you want to start looking at “DT,” check Stone out. He also has a web page and database out of England, http://dark-tourism.org.uk

[2] Stephan Miles, “ Battlefield Sites as Dark Tourism Attractions: An Analysis of Experiences” in Journal of Heritage Tourism 9. No.2. (2014) 134.

[3] Michael S. Bowman and Phaedra C. Pezzullo, “What is so “Dark’ about “dark Tourism’?” Death, Tours, and Performance,” Tourist Studies 9.no.3. (2010), 190.

[4] Avital Biran, Yaniv Poria, and Gila Oren, “Sought Experiences at (Dark) Heritage Sites” Annals of Tourism Research 38. No.3. (2011), 820-841.

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