Dark Tourism for a Postmodern World*

*by Don Craig and Craig Thompson from Stenden University, Leeuwarden, the Netherlands

The Origins

Dark Tourism ‘speciality tours’ have been offered for time immemorial. There is a theory that the first guided tour was a train trip in the late 1830s to Cornwall, which had been arranged for a blood-thirsty public to witness the execution of two convicted murderers. Even earlier than that, there is reference to groups of well-heeled individuals who travelled to Belgium at the time of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and sugested that they might even have been at the battlefield itself!

Earlier, the Romans staged fights between individuals and wild animals and, for that matter, between man and man to entertain the public at sites like the Colosseum in Rome and other amphitheatres of the Empire. During the medieval period, crowds gleefully flocked to public executions, whether hangings, burnings or simply run-of-the-mill tortures.

In the modern era, though, there has been a slight change. People have always been keen to visit places where battles, massacres and nasty deeds took place, generally provided these events happened within a reasonable time before their visit. Getting up close to a death site has always appealed to the sense of the macabre. Nowadays, however, phenomena such as global communications, social media and technology permit (if not encourage) death-related events to be reported, often in ‘real time’, as they happen. It is also through technology that these events may be replayed for repeated viewing. The gap between the event shown and when and where it took place therefore significantly narrowed. Thus, it is not unreasonable to assume that a visitor to a site where destruction and killings took place could well have been encouraged to be there by virtue of widespread media coverage, the so-called CNN phenomenon.

Traditionally tourism literature has placed its gaze on the marketing and consumption of ‘pleasant diversions in pleasant places’. More recently, however, academics and others have begun to explore the phenomenon of ‘dark tourism’, so providing a springboard for the study of the innate phenomenon of a fascination with the notorious and macabre. In the opening years of this millennium, further terms ( ‘thanatourism’, ‘black spot’ tourism and ‘atrocity heritage’) were minted to explain and perhaps justify the packaging and consumption of death or distress as a tourist experience of both the distant and recent past. Strange points out that the most studied places in these works are battle sites and death camps, wich have literally and figuratively fixed the memory of collective violence to the places where suffering occurred. She develops a strong argument that the death sites of famous individual (such as Marie Laveau, Mother Teresa, Jimmy Hendricks or President Kennedy) have also become both religious and secular tourism shrines. And although unusual disasters (such as the PanAm plane crash at Lockerbie or the destruction of the World Trade Center) draw the curious from around the world, it can be argued that commonplace crime scenes and traffic accident locations can also become impromptu attractions, where people pay their respects, often in the form of cemetery-like floral offerings, or simply come together to wonder at tragedy’s aftermath.

Strange has argued that although such morbid destinations may ‘give us a thrill’, they also, by their very nature, provide opportunities for social, spiritual and political reflection. To put it another way, touring the more sombre destinations and sites may be ‘gruesome’ but is also, as with pilgrimage, ‘good’. (…) this fundamental necessity of ‘understanding the underside’ and interpreting consumer motivation that both leads and steers the current dark tourism debate.

Although Lennon and Foley regard dark tourism as the ‘commodification of anxiety and doubt’.

(…) Mestrovic had noted that ‘the most important aspect of modernity is that it causes humankind to suffer from an excess of “mind” at the expense of the “heart”: a virulent abstractionism that abhors anything permanent’. Now, either we could accept Mestrovic as correct, or we could view dark tourism as addressing the reverse side of Durkheim’s concept of anomie (1985). So this therefore raises questions such as whether death is, in fact, the final frontier, whether our desire to confront death could be regarded as disgrace, since dark tourism compels the permanence of death to confront the ‘ephemeral changes of the living’. Further, it challenges whether dark tourism is a way in which life renews itself from the unpleasant side of humanity.

Postmodernists (Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Deleuze, to name but a few) have argued that we inhabit a world dedicated to fun. In line with this, authors such as Bell, Riesman and Rojek individually define modernity as looking for fun in the mundane.  For example, Rojek suggests that the modern search for authenticity (particularly in leisure travel) and self-realization has ended. He further suggests that because of de-differentiation, leisure activity has assumed some of the characteristics of work activity. He develops his argument to suggest that the moral density of the State is called into question and that post-leisure and post-tourism celebrate fictive and dramaturgical values.

The Postmodernists therefore imply that the search for fun is often not as simple as it would at first glance appear. This seeming contradiction is highlighted by Mestrovic who noted that ‘postmodern vacations are usually stressful, few exotic places are left in the world and most vacation spots promise to deliver the same bland product-fun’.

(…)

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