Dark tourism seems like the preferred vacation for Wednesday Addams or legions of goth kids exploring their disturbed, grotesque side. This may be true, but they are only part of the dark tourism phenomenon. Dark tourism, or tourism to sites of death, tragedy, or the supernatural, can range anywhere from the local haunted house to the sites associated with genocide. A study cited by the New York Times reveals 82% of people have visited a dark tourism site in their lifetime. This means your teachers, your best friend, even your grandmother has likely been a dark tourist. From the spooky thrill of the Winchester Mystery House to unbelievable horror of genocide sites like Auschwitz and the Cambodian Killing Fields, dark tourism sites attract billions of visitors every year. Dark tourism is found around the globe, in every culture, in every era of history.
Why are people interested in dark tourism?
Dark tourists connect with tragic sites for their own, very personal reasons. Some have a direct connection to a tragedy, like returning to Pripyat, Ukraine to see their abandoned childhood home. Perhaps they like the thrill of possibly seeing a specter during a ghost tour in New Orleans’ French Quarter. People go far out of their way to visit places like the rural Buddy Holly crash site in Clear Lake, Iowa to deepen their understanding of what happened and stand in the victim’s footsteps.
They might visit Dracula’s castle in Romania for a little thrill, recalling the horrors of Vlad Tepes. Others want to see if they can provide new ideas or uncover new clues in old mysteries, like brave explorers in the Ural Mountains trying to solve the 1959 Dyatlov Pass mystery. Whatever the reason, dark tourism draws visitors who may never otherwise have visited these regions.
There isn’t just one type of dark tourism. First, the darkest are the ‘inhumanity and evil’ sites that walk visitors through mass death, murders, and other deliberate acts of evil. These sites are dedicated to education and ensuring these things never happen again. Next there are tourism sites where natural disasters or accidents happened. The tragedies at these sites weren’t intentional or malicious, but resulted in death and damage anyway.
Aside from their dark appeal, educate the public about accident prevention and safety planning. Finally, at lighter end of the spectrum, there are the “fun fear factories” (Phillip Stone, 2006) that play on people’s love of being spooked or interest in the macabre. Dark tourism has a place for everyone, from respectful reverence to spooky thrill.
The systematic killing of millions in Europe during the Holocaust continues to horrify, generations after the last concentration camp closed. Survivors of the Holocaust are becoming fewer in number, leaving only records and places like the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum to tell of the horrors they endured at the hands of Nazis. Visitors walk through original buildings and see where victims slept, ate, and worked.
Clothing and volumes of human hair stolen from the heads of the people forced to the camp gives visitors a sense of the volume of victims. They walk among the sparse barracks and gas chambers, and cremation ovens. Auschwitz-Birkenau museum director Piotr Cywinski says “…younger generations raised on TV and movie special effects need to see and touch the real thing.” Understanding and seeing how the Holocaust happened, and what happened at Auschwitz will, hopefully, help prevent it from ever happening again.
The rise of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 brought the fall of educational and cultural institutions. The Khmer Rogue’s goal was to socially engineer a fully agrarian society free from race and class. They began with a radical restructure of their population. Schools and universities closed. Pol Pot’s forces moved city dwellers into the country to perform agricultural labor, making up for food shortages. Many of these people died of disease and starvation.
From 1975 to 1979, Khmer Rouge killed minorities and anyone who gave an intellectual impression. This wasn’t just limited to lawyers, clergy, professors, teachers, and doctors, it included ‘intellectual’ things like speaking another language or wearing glasses. Rural areas and prisons, like the prison (now a memorial museum) at Choeung Ek in Phnom Penh, were used to torture and murder anywhere from 1.5 to 3 million people, are now referred to as the “Cambodian Killing Fields.”
The Elmina and Cape Coast castles, now a memorial museum, were built for the timber and gold trade. It wasn’t long, however, that a far more gruesome trade would operate from these ports from the 1600s to the 1800s – enslaved human beings. Traders stole people from their homes and families and taken to the castles. They had the bare minimum of food in their dark dungeons. They endured abuse, filth, and disease.
Captive people waited in these cells to go somewhere known only to the captors preparing them for transport. The captors justified the conditions and shockingly high death rate by claiming it weeded out the “strongest” prisoners for the work to come. The castles were their last view of their homeland as they passed through the Door of No Return. Once through the door, they boarded ships on their way to overseas slave markets.
In 1945, with a blast as bright as the sun, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. It obliterated its military target. It also killed between 70,000 to 135,000 people and demolished the city, a thriving, well-populated urban center. Survivors withing the blast zone suffered painful, deep radiation burns and lifelong health problem. Despite the destruction, pain, and massive losses, Japan takes a different approach to dark tourism.
Theirs is a message of peace and hope. Jang (2020) says Hiroshima doesn’t consider itself dark tourism. Instead, Hiroshima wants to be considered a “symbol of peace and a place of commemoration.” The idea of ‘dark tourism’ is considered fukushin, inappropriate or indiscreet. The term lacks sympathy and reverence such a tragedy deserves. Visitors to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial museum can see artifacts from the bombing, hear survivor’s tales, and explore peace memorials and exhibits.
The invasion of Normandy, started on D-Day on June 6, 1944, was the turning point of World War II. Eight allied armies banded together to launch a massive invasion against German forces. 850,000 soldiers, 148,000 vehicles, and 7,000 ships stormed the beach. 10,300 men lost their lives over two months. Germans were led to believe the assault would happen at another target and were not ready for the invasion.
This gave the Allies an opening to move through northern France, liberating Nazi-held territory. The Allies coordinated efforts with Soviet troops coming from the east. These forces entered Germany, preventing Hitler and Germany from building up troops to repel these forces. Germany surrendered in 1945 and Hitler was no more than a stain on history. Today there are multiple memorials along the 50 miles of Normandy waterfront, dedicated to the soldiers who helped defeat Hitler’s regime.
The stories and experiences of each victim were so unique and personal. There was no one right way to honor those who didn’t go home. Despite objections from some families, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum developed in the footprint of the lost building. It includes artifacts from the collapse, and a remembrance fountain where people can go to reflect on the day, the victims, the impact to the survivors and the nation.
It quickly became contaminated with waste, spreading disease. Commander Henry Wirz was so sadistic he was tried and executed for war crimes at Andersonville. 45,000 Union soldiers were held at Andersonville during its 14 month operation. 13,000 died in the prison. It was overcrowded; at one point 32,000 men were crammed into the 26.5 acre space. Today, visitors to Andersonville National Historic Site explore a cemetery, a museum, and can walk the grounds of the prison.
Apartheid held South Africa in its grim grip from 1948 to 1994. This legalized, government-sanctioned racism was based on segregation. South Africans were designated into four racial groups; white, black, Indian, and non-white colored. There were specific areas for white people, separate (and often worse) areas for non-whites. Interracial marriages were illegal. Non-whites could not use public toilets, go to beaches, and were barred from living among white people in cities.
Black citizens could not vote or actively engage in politics. Leaders like Nelson Mandela brought the injustice of apartheid to the attention of the international community. Additionally, international outcry, sanctions, embargoes, and eroded diplomatic relations pressured the South African government to end apartheid. The Apartheid Museum explores the rise and fall of apartheid. The experience immerses visitors in the stories of those who lived it, and those who fought back.
In 1946, Joseph Stalin built a camp in Kutchino, near Perm, Russia to produce lumber for post-World War II reconstruction. By 1972, it became a ‘reformatory camp’ or GULAG for prisoners charged with political crimes. Offenses might include writing and distributing anti-communist material, advocating human rights, or opposition to communism. Perm-36 had some of the harshest conditions of all the GULAGs.
Prisoners were performed hard labor, cutting dense Ural-region forests. Within the GULAG there was a special barrack, the ‘special treatment detention block.’ Prisoners were locked inside almost all day, with a group of two, four, or six people. For ten years, this group and the guards would be the only people prisoners saw. Perm-36 is the only remaining camp of its kind in Russia. Most camps were destroyed in the early 1990s after communism fell. Its preserved buildings serve as a museum and memorial to the GULAG system.
Chacabuco was once a thriving saltpeter mining town near Antofagasta, Chile. Its history turned dark during the Pinochet regime in in 1973 and 1974. 1,800 prisoners, mostly intellectuals and professionals like doctors, lawyers, professors, writers who opposed the Pinochet, lived behind electric fences. Landmines surrounded the perimeter. The camp tortured its prisoners for their opposition to the regime. Prisoners had to stand outside in harsh weather or in the hot sun.
For three months in 1888, five women in London’s Whitechapel district were mutilated and splayed out in a gruesome display. The story was fascinating even to people of the time. When the second victim, Annie Chapman, was discovered, people who had flats overlooking the crime scene charged spectators a penny to come see the corpse and (later) the scene. One hundred and thirty five years later, the case still fascinates people all over the world.
Theories abound about who did it. Some theories are reasonable, others outlandish. The story draws visitors to London’s Whitechapel district. Once the seedy side of London, today Whitechapel is a trendy arts and cultural center. Despite the turn-around in the neighborhood, the past haunts today’s Whitechapel. Visitors can take one of many Jack the Ripper tours, looking for shadows of the community as it was in the late 1800s.
In June of 1912, the Moore family, Josiah and his wife Sarah, their children Herman (11), Katherine (9), Boyd (7) and Paul (5), returned home from a church program around 9:30 pm. They invited friends Lena Stillinger (12) and her sister Ina (8) to stay overnight. Neighbor Mary Peckham noticed the Moore’s chores weren’t started the next morning. She called Josiah’s brother to come investigate.
He discovered all eight victims with massive axe wounds. The killer covered windows and mirrors with the victim’s clothes. Oddly, a slab of bacon lay next to an axe in the Stillinger’s bedroom. The case remains unsolved, although there are many theories about the crime. Today, visitors can rent the Villisca Axe Murder House for tours or an overnight stay. The house is eerily decorated to recreate the terrible night in 1912 when the Moores and Stillinger girls died.
Lizzie Borden House, Fall River, Massachusetts, USA
Lizzie Borden claimed she found her father dead on the couch, his skull hacked to pieces with a hatchet in August of 1892. Abby Borden, Andrew’s wife and Lizzie’s stepmother, was killed in an upstairs bedroom. It sparked the 1800s version of a celebrity crime, with wealthy, young Lizzie accused of the crime. Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the crime, but her name is synonymous with “murderess.”
Visitors can tour the Borden house or stay overnight in the infamous rooms where Lizzie slept and Abby was killed. As the property owners say, “While we tell an accurate story based in the truth as we know it, we wholeheartedly embrace the macabre and provide a home for those seeking answers to the unexplained phenomena unique to this historically haunted location.”
In 1692, a group of teenage girls started acting strange. Not just strange, but downright terrifying. They contorted as if tortured. They screamed that the spirits of fellow Salem residents tormented them. This was enough “spectral evidence” to kill nineteen people for witchcraft. Bridget Bishop, a colorful tavern mistress and land owner in Salem, was the first convicted and hanged. Seventeen more women died in the same manner.
Giles Corey, the only man executed during the Trials, refused to enter a plea. He was pressed to death in an effort to force a plea out of him. Jonathan Corwin served as one of the judges at the Trials. His house is the last remaining building from the Witch Trials era. The house has been restored to the Trials era. It provides context to the Trials and education about tolerance.
Dark Tourism Mystery: Dyatlov Pass, Ural Mountains, Russia
Ten students from Ural Polytechnic Institute went hiking to reach Otorten Mountain in the northern Ural range in January 1959. One had a health problem and left the group. His nine friends continued onward, to their deaths. It’s clear how they died; they froze to death, and some had traumatic injuries. Yet nobody knows why nine experienced young campers would suddenly abandon their tent to face arctic weather, leaving their winter clothing and gear behind.
Scientists now think there was an avalanche, but the Dyatlov case is still debated. The site, now called Dyatlov Pass after the group’s leader Igor Dyatlov, is still a forbidding site, off the major routes and difficult to reach. However, tourists make the trek to see if they can unravel the mystery of the Dyatlov hiking group. A large rock near the hiker’s tent site bears a memorial plaque to the nine hikers.
The 1986 Chernobyl disaster is one of the worst nuclear accidents. 32 people died in the accident, and countless others, possibly up to 70,000 suffered from the effects of radiation. In addition, Pripyat, two miles from Chernobyl, had to be quickly evacuated. Pripyat was the home of many Chernobyl workers and their families. Shortly after the accident, the families had to prepare for a brief evacuation.
Many left almost all their personal possession and mementos behind, believing they would be back after the emergency. They would never be back. Pripyat is frozen in time. Nurseries with Soviet-era books and toys wait for children who will never play with them. The iconic Ferris wheel looms over the city for a population that will never roam its streets again. There are tours that explore Pripyat under controlled conditions, and despite the radiation hotspots, it is a popular destination for urban explorers.
A more recent (2011) entry in dark tourism, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant suffered a core meltdown after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit the city. This cut the power supply and cooling system in three reactors. It ranks with Chernobyl as one of the worst nuclear accidents in the world.
Residents within 30 kilometers (18 miles) evacuated the city. While there is still an abandoned zone within the city, some residents have returned to their homes. Fukushima has become a dark tourism destination, despite not having a high death number. Visitors to Fukushima are asked to show respect to the people who died and those whose lives were upended in the disaster and protect their privacy.
Floods were nothing new to Johnstown, Pennsylvania residents. They lived in a river valley, and streets flooded every year. But heavier than normal rains filled Lake Conemaugh. The lake, created as a “pleasure lake” for the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, was held by the South Fork Dam. Unfortunately, the dam weakened. Despite the best efforts of officials, the dam broke on May 31, 1889, creating a 10.6 to 12.1 meter (35-40 foot) wall of water that hit the town.
Houses flipped over, trains derailed. Additionally, as an added trauma, the 40-foot pile of debris trapped at a railroad bridge caught fire. Over 2,200 people died in the flood. The flood demolished 1,600 houses, and caused $17 million in property damage. The Johnstown Flood Museum welcomes visitors to explore the flood and its impact on the community.
“Oh, the Humanity!” The infamous 1937 broadcast of the Hindenburg disaster captured the helplessness of the spectators as the airship burst into flames during landing. The Hindenburg was Nazi Germany’s pride of their air fleet, a new innovation in travel technology. Instead, it was a giant balloon of combustible gas, with disastrous results. As flames engulfed the zeppelin, passengers and crew came spilling out of its windows, trying to escape the inferno inside.
Grounds crews desperately tried to help the people as they it the ground. 13 passengers, 22 crew, and one of the New Jersey grounds crew lost their lives. It ended the airship’s popularity as a new travel method. The site is now a memorial, with a bronze marker embedded in the ground. Hanger #1, where the Hindenburg was supposed to dock, is a Registered National Historic Landmark.
Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Ritchie Valens, and Dion rocked the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa on February 2, 1959. This was just another stop on a long, disastrous tour. The tour bus broke down in below freezing temperatures. Frostbite hospitalized the drummer. Almost everyone had the flu. They had gone almost two weeks without doing laundry or getting rest. Buddy Holly had enough.
He chartered a plane, and after a bit of friendly negotiating for a seat, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper joined the flight to the next stop. The plane crashed six miles outside of Clear Lake. Today the Surf Ballroom is one of the last operational ballrooms of the era. It is a museum with memorials to the young musicians who died that night. Visitors can also visit the crash site, thanks to the generosity of the private property owner.
On a warm August day in 79 AD, citizens of Pompeii, a Roman port city, woke up to an average, regular day. By nightfall, most of them would be dead. In a timeline recorded by Pliny the Elder, a cloud emerged over nearby Mount Vesuvius around noon. Ash started falling from the sky around 1pm, and by 2pm, it was raining pumice. The weight of the pumice and volcanic rock would collapse roofs by 5pm.
The eruption would block the sun as people began to flee the city. Multiple pyroclastic surges hit the city throughout the night. There were at least six surges, the heat killing people who could not escape. Volcanic materials buried the city and entombed the people by morning. Today, visitors can walk the excavated streets and explore buildings preserved in time.
Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, California, USA
Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, built a 24,000 square foot mansion for an unusual reason. Sarah was reportedly convinced the spirits of people killed with the rifle haunted her house. She built the house to confuse the spirits and keep them away from her.
She began construction on the house in 1884, a project that lasted at least 36 years and created a house-maze. In the end, the 24,000 square foot house, now a National Landmark and museum, had 160 rooms, 2,000 doors, stairs and hallways that lead to nowhere, secret passages, and a séance room. There is even a doorway that opens to the outside – and a long drop into the yard below. The overall weirdness of the Winchester Mystery House has made it one of the most famous “haunted houses” in the United States.
Bram Stoker’s blood-sucking terror has scared audiences since the 1897 publication of his gothic tale, Dracula. Bran Castle presents as “Dracula’s Castle.” There is, however, no evidence Stoker visited Bran. He may have seen pictures, and heard stories of strigoi, ghosts who rise in the night and drink their victims blood. Sources at Bran Castle claim a description of Bran Castle inspired Stoker’s Castle Dracula rather than him having seen it in-person.
Estes Park/ Stanley Hotel, Estes Park, Colorado, USA
When a reportedly haunted hotel spooks a guest so much that it inspires a best-selling horror novel, it’s going to become a notorious dark tourism destination. Author Stephen King and his wife visited the Stanley Hotel in 1974. When the Kings arrived, the hotel was closing down for the season. They stayed in reportedly haunted room 217. The emptiness of the hotel and the isolation of being there before shut-down had a chilling effect on King.
He had a dream where his young son was running the eerie hallways, chased by a fire hose. This dream, and the eerie sense of closedown inspired the book The Shining, an international best seller and later a wildly popular movie. The Stanley Hotel still welcomes King fans and ghost hunters to its rooms, and capitalizes on its reputation as a haunted hotel by offering ghost tours and paranormal investigation.
Dark Tourism in Nature: Alnwick Poison Garden, Northumberland, UK
One of the only dark tourism sites in the world that is, literally, alive, the Poison Gardens is a small section of Alnwick Garden in Northumberland, UK. The plants in the garden can kill visitors, making it, literally, one of the most dangerous of the dark tourism sites. The garden features 100 deadly plants, including laurel hedge, cannabis, cocaine, and South American Brugmansia, a killer aphrodisiac.
Behind the heavy iron gate with its clear warning, its carefully curated specimens, and guided tours, straying from the path could cost your life. The garden keepers strictly prohibit touching, smelling, or tasting plants. Even so, toxic fumes have made visitors faint. Duchess of Northumberland Jane Percy, who developed the garden as a unique educational tool, says “People think we’re being over-dramatic when we talk about [not smelling the plants, but I’ve seen the health and safety reports.”
Dark Tourism from Literature: Sleepy Hollow, New York, USA
The story of Ichabod Crane has been a Halloween staple since 1820. Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a chilling tale of a love rivalry, an eerie ride through the woods, and a headless horseman set in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Once a Dutch colonial settlement, Sleepy Hollow is a modern riverfront city.
Some notorious sites are not on this list for a very important reason. These sites are someone’s home or personal property. Properties are sometimes demolished after a tragedy to remove the memory (or physical stain) of what happened. This is what happened to Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment building; it was a biohazard. Additionally, the Dahmer site drew too many tourists, causing problems for neighbors still living in the area.
The building was demolished in 1992. But other properties are cleaned and reused. Despite being homes, businesses, or personal property, tourists show up to gawk, knocking at the door at all hours, taking pictures of the building or its occupants. Efforts to make the building unrecognizable don’t always work. Dark tourists, please be good guests. If you wouldn’t want strangers taking pictures of you or your property and plastering it all over the Internet, don’t do it to privately-owned dark tourism sites.
Dark tourism isn’t just about the worst aspect of life, it’s about society’s reaction to it. The horrors of the Holocaust, slavery, homicide are beyond words. Murders and accidents are painful. Dark tourism educates visitors about what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. Visitors learn how to help and advocate to make things better. Some communities don’t want to be known for dark tourism, but hiding a local tragedy doesn’t work.
People visit tragedy sites anyway, even without a curated experience, but this lacks the context and educational element. Dark tourism is a vital part of learning and changing things for the better. It can share, spirituality, and cultural traditions. And in the cases of haunted houses, can just be a fun way to draw in tourism dollars. Whatever the purpose of the dark tourism site, it is an important part of our culture and history.