‘Dark Tourism’ – Myth or Morbid?

Last October I attended a (very good) conflict archaeology conference at Glasgow University.  One of the speakers talked about ‘dark tourism’.  If, like me, this is a concept you’ve never heard of, it’s apparently the practice of visiting sites such as battlefields or graveyards “motivated by the desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death.”[1]  Intrigued by this new concept, I asked around and found that most there resented the negative association of ‘dark tourism’ as a morbid, ghoulish activity.  Many Americans there told me that they had been brought up visiting Civil War battlefields and that was what had inspired them to become conflict archaeologists.  Personally, I too pains to visit as many of the sites, battlefields and graveyards included, connected to PhD subject, not only for the historical insight this provided, but because, for events nearly 300 years ago (as my PhD was), such visits were the closest I could get to being in that time.  I found that, like the archaeologists I spoke to at the conference, I felt a little insulted that I would visit such sites out of morbid curiosity.  I like to think I have more appreciation for the discipline of history and that studying armies and conflict has given me a respect for soldiers that would make any kind of morbid motivation beneath me.  However, I did wonder about tourism that targets only the graves of VC recipients in the Commonwealth Cemeteries in Flanders, the display of bones in the Killing Fields of Cambodia and the addition of, admittedly necessary, cloakrooms, toilets and fire-escape signs to places such as Dachau and Auschwitz.

So, I’m posing the question – where does professional interest in sites associated with death end and morbid curiosity begin?  Is there a professional – public divide?  Is ‘dark tourism’ a myth because those whose profession involves graves and sites of death approach them with respect, while the display of Cambodian bones and sanitised facilities at former concentration camps, for example, create the disrespectful, ghoulish element that justifies the epithet of ‘dark tourism’?  Are the displays of piles of hair cut from the victims of concentration camps aiding education and understanding, or feeding a morbid need for horror?

I’d be interested in your thoughts.

By Dr Victoria Henshaw, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

[1]  A.V. Seaton, ‘Guided by the dark: From thanatopsis to thanatourism’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2:4, 1996, pp.234-244.

9 responses to “‘Dark Tourism’ – Myth or Morbid?

  1. I think this is a very interesting question – is it morbid fascination or plain curiosity that drives us to visit places of death. To separate out the threads of the vague discomfort I felt reading about ‘Dark Tourism’ I’ve tried to work through my own personal feelings on the subject. Visiting a battlefield to gain insight into terrain, this I deem acceptable, visiting a battlefield to show respect to those who fought there, again I feel no discomfort to about this. I visit the large First World War Cemetaries in France, for me they are places of pilgrimage and remembrance, this is totally acceptable by my and our society’s norms.

    I think for me the issue is more with the ‘Tourism’ than the ‘Dark’. Tourism is something I connect with leisure, relaxation, rest, pleasure, enjoyment. Not words I’d ever use in connection with Auschwitz or the Killing Fields. The word ‘Dark’ has many different meanings – not all negative. The ‘Dark Sky Campaign’ does not have negativity attached to it, nor do dark hair or eyes – so why in this context?

    When I walk the First World War battlefields in France I am paying my respects to those who lost their lives. I am a pilgrim, taking my journey following where the battles took place that won the war, where tens of thousands died – but where many more survived and fought on. There is something better about a fighting death than being a victim of an insane despot.

    Perhaps that’s the difference, tourism is good, it’s what you do with your leisure time. Spending this time seeing where millions of defenceless people died is not.

    • Elizabeth – thank you for leaving a comment. I also reached a similar conclusion when I examined my feelings. My visits to battlefields and graves are connected to people I have read about and know about, often from their own letters. I wondered if that’s what makes the difference – that a general visit means the ‘horror’ of a place is dominant, whereas specific knowledge means that that visit is more personal and therefore respectful.

  2. I have been on tours to Napoleonic, First World War and Second World War battlefields. The people on them were clearly there because of an interest in the strategy and tactics of the wars rather than any morbid curiosity. The 20th century tours included cemeteries, but these were visited in a respectful manner.

    I have also visited Dachau, in this case on my own. Nothing about the behaviour of other people at the camp or in the conversations that I overheard on the bus back to the railway station suggested that anybody had visited it with ghoulish motives.

    Several friends of mine have visited Auschwitz. They all commented on the impression left by the piles of hair, which demonstrates just how many people were murdered there.

    • Thank you for your comment Martin. Your experiences of battlefields and Auschwitz were similar to mine – a sober education at what humans can do to each other. I think it interesting that some clearly think that people would seek out places like Auschwitz as a cheap thrill almost, like it was a scary theme park ride or a horror film, where you haven’t got your monies worth unless it elicits a reaction.

  3. Vicky,

    An interesting concept, and certainly one we should all be aware of. While I agree with what you say I will play devils advocate for a moment.

    Is not what we do just a bit morbid? At the end of the day we study an activity, war, which leads to death. We may couch our interpretations and research interests in fancy terms such as stratetgic culture or military innovation, but when we get to the bottom of it all we are talking about a process that has but one purpose. Ok, I may stepping into Clausewitzian territory, and the difference between real and absolute war, and what the purpose of war is, but I think the concept is valid.

    Perhaps like any of these things it has been overstated, hence the ire is raises from people. However, we must be fascinated in the process to visit these places. It may be out of deference and respect but the underlying truth, and as a good postmodernest will say there is only truth, that we are interested in it. It may not be that we are interested in killing oursleves but we are interested in why it happens. Perhaps that is morbid too!

  4. I’m going to go all semantic and philosophical here, feel free to skip this comment:

    You’re still with me? Awesome. Well to my mind the big question is what is morbidity? And the answer isn’t an easy one, like any judgement it’s all relative to cultural background. Who decides at which point an interest becomes an unhealthy fascination? People have so many different responses to death (some mourn, some celebrate, some get angry, some go into quiet somber reflection, some drink) that I don’t think at all easy to make the call over what’s too far. What I find particularly interesting is how this range of emotions gets condensed down into a pretty strict set of social expectations at certain sites and in certain places. I say this perfectly without judgement, and generally I expect it’s a case of respecting the majority’s manner of reflection (e.g. quietly), but is this outward appearance really reflecting what people are thinking about internally? To get this back on to point, what I’m trying to say is that visiting sites like these alone is never enough to be labelled morbid, it’s too subjective. There are surely one or two, who perhaps go with unnatural fascination and relish, just as there are many who visit these places and wonder how they might react when faced with such tumultuous events; to blanket label it dark tourism washes over the complexity of emotion sparked at those hallowed locales.

  5. Hello Vicky,

    It can be difficult to know where professional interest in anything ends and the perverse takes over.

    In my half century plus (five as of yesterday) I have encountered a number of professionals, people who to my mind might well have a somewhat unhealthy attitude to certain aspects of their work.

    On a personal level, the passion displayed by some statisticians when encountering certain figure sequences can be quite disturbing.

    So possibly, if there is an answer, it may concern the eye of the beholder? There is more than likely an objectivity inherent in the viewpoint of a professional observer, at least one would so hope, whilst a number of those included in the public camp might have a more personal and perhaps more subjective agenda?

    Arguably both perspectives are valid, and as for ghoulish interest in matters mentioned in your opening, one might argue these are more in line with the perpetrators than their victims, or the survivors rather than the fallen, and are indeed required to maintain some sort of cosmic balance.

    I have not so far encountered any kind of ‘Holocaust groupie’ on one of my few, but still too often, visits to former concentration camps, but do know from personal experience that a recently vacated field of battle has room for both zombie and ghoul, but suspect these dissipate quite quickly and are almost unrepresented by the time the place is squared away and the scholars and interested members of the public arrive.

  6. I must say that I agree with Elizabeth Morris. I visit the WW1 and WW2 battlefields, as a pilgrimage. I don’t think an historian or a reader of a text can really understand the environmental conditions in which soldiers fought and died without actually being there – experiencing the quiet and seeing the headstones lined up smartly, although the landscape has changed considerably. I see it as a mark of respect and remembrance and not at all dark. I have also taken veterans of the Second World War on coach trips, who wanted to return to see where they fought and how it has changed with the passage of time.

    I am not sure about Dr Henshaw’s remarks regarding the concentration camps. I fully agree that seeing piles of hair would shock and disgust most people but there is no point in glossing over what happened in there – it would be ahistorical and disrespectful to pretend that certain events did not occur. I am not suggesting for one moment that she is being disrespectful, it is merely a response to her question. The people I know who study the Holocaust say that they have visited Auschwitz to ‘make it real’. There is only so much you can take away from books. Some people need to ‘feel’ a place. That may seem morbid in itself but I can understand their point of view. I am a medical historian and I often find myself taking trips to old hospitals, so I can experience the scale of the buildings and take in their layout, to try and visualise living and working conditions. I suppose this could be considered dark, as hospitals are where the sick and dying go – however, some view hospitals as the site of the patient-practitioner relationship and the site of the production of medical knowledge. I subscribe to the latter.

    I must admit though, the question regarding the professional and morbid curiosity has stumped me a bit. I believe, however, that it is in the human nature to try and make sense of the past and battlefields and cemeteries are the sites where they can try and do this. They mostly know the story: bad guys vs. good guys, who triumphs etc, I think many use these trips as a pilgrimage and a period of quiet reflection, where they can get a window to the past by being in the places that tragedies and battles happened. I think the professional and morbid curiosity question is superseded by this human rationality. (If that makes any sense).

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