When you think about “travel” there is a specific image that pops into your head. Maybe a memory of the last trip you took; perhaps the one you’re planning now, even if it’s still just a dream. For me somehow it’s sunshine and lots of walking. Something that probably doesn’t crop up is the tragic side of history: the parts of exploration that expose the traveler to stories of individual heartache or mass grief. From the rolling head of unlucky monarchs to the ghostly echoes of a thousand footsteps over an ancient battlefield – these places attract attention as well as tourists just as surely as the romance of Paris or the symbol of hope of New York’s Statue of Liberty.
In fact, in the same city of Lady Liberty you’ll scratch the surface of what “Dark Tourism” is. Those who take a silent moment at Ground Zero are not only those who lost a loved one there, people from all over the world go there to commemorate and commiserate. For the same reason Auschwitz and Tienanmen Square are popular; in visiting and keeping these places and events in our collective memory, we may ward off the potential of it ever happening again. “We do not forget, so it doesn’t happen again” – as in the words of the group “No More Torture” (Tortura Nunca Mais) who protested during the fall of the Brazilian dictatorship. We are stewarding our human narrative and guarding our actions and hopefully the actions of our leaders from going so far astray again.
However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg of what dark tourism means. Digging deeper, we find the popularity of haunted houses and abandoned theme parks with all of their accompanying stories of horror (whether real or fabricated). Ok… chalk these up to thrills and adrenaline; file these in the same category as roller coasters and bungee jumping. People have an illogical love of the extreme and inexplicable, because (ironically) it makes us feel alive. Even I peek into the dark windows of an empty, abandoned hospital on my way back from work every day.
Let’s examine this closer under the magnifying glass one more time and look at these places that truly carry the word “dark”. There are hundreds of Youtube videos about the “creepiest” places to visit as well as articles telling the sordid, bloody histories of anomalies of nature – serial killers. Far from leaving people only with the willies or a cold chill up the nape of your neck, there are hordes of travelers who pursue these places where the worst things have happened. Tourists enjoy Japan’s Aokigahara forest not only for it’s beautiful, verdant forestiness… this is where hundreds of people come each year to commit suicide in privacy and solitude (in 2003, official stats put the number at 105, according to the Aokigahara Forest website). Nothing altruistic is served by going to these places, in fact the Japanese have stopped releasing official numbers for how many people die in the forest for fear of encouraging others (according to the VICE special from 2012). I am not saying it’s not good visiting these places, or that people shouldn’t! If I had the chance, I would be there too… maybe not taking smiling selfies, but to check out a place with such a reputation? Sure. Other similar sites include the Czech Republic’s Sedlec Ossuary which is a World Heritage Site, and for what? The chapel is built out of 40 000 – 70 000 people’s skeletons and receives about 200 000 visitors annually. Then there’s the pre-Colombian city of Chichen Itza with its bloody history, built by the Mayans and where human sacrifice took place regularly at the Sacred Cenote, together with offerings of gold, just like in Disney’s Road to El Dorado (Chichen Itza receives 1.2 million visitors a year).
Traveling is a joy in and of itself and needs no justification, but I would think that people would choose to visit sunny beaches and high, green mountains over musty catacombs and dry, chalky chapels, but too each his own. It is interesting for me to see what other people find fascinating and it’s striking how people are riveted to the weird, the macabre and what’s on the periphery of disturbing sometimes.