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Exploring the Idea of Dark Tourism

Image: Dark Tourism header

[Above: Acomb nuclear bunker, York; Charles Dickens World, Chatham; contemporary engraving of a Jack-the-Ripper murder; American Military Cemetery near Cambridge, UK]

Image: Korean Memorial figure- Washington DC


Most tourism is supposedly based on sunshine and, indeed, the lighter side of life. Dark Tourism is said to refer to another variety which involves visiting places to do with death and disaster. Washington DC could be said to enshrine - literally - the negatives of American national life - wartime memorials abound (pictured is part of the Korean War Memorial) along with statues of, for example, Abraham Lincoln (assassinated), out of work men during the 1930s depression (hungry) and graves such as that of John F Kennedy (assassinated).

Most of the entries on the University of Central Lancashire-run web site deal with places like Ground Zero and Auschwitz-Birkenau, which are clearly related to mass murder, the dark side of human behaviour.

Image: Dark Tourism book

A Text

Lennon and Foley's book was published in 2000. Reprinted twice, current copies are still in the original edition and therefore do not include anything on the attacks on the World Trade Center.

The book is based around a set of seven case studies, a number of other examples, and opening and closing chapters discussing the topic. War is the overwhelming focus of the studies, with the assassination of President Kennedy and the political division of Cyprus next. The approach is largely based on observation during field visits, with strong use of background material drawing on history and quotations from people involved in the management and development of sites. There are many illustrations using photos largely taken by the authors.

As the first book dedicated to a broad study of 'dark tourism', it is a starting point for much that needs debating around the subject, and follows a number of papers and articles that the authors have written on particular aspects of the subject. Where it is less satisfactory is in the perspectives. A previous posting on this blog about Arlington National Cemetery commented on the narrow judgment that they gave to the JFK grave site. The studies that are included cover a wide field but tend to be briefly descriptive according to a rather narrow viewpoint. Academic studies - they review many - have a tendency to see the places that people visit as the outcome of relatively simple processes. I have a particular dislike of those which sum them up under the label "post-modernism", which seems to me to be an academic cop-out, an attempt to produce a quick explanation which is really too shallow for comfort. They say "Our argument is that 'dark tourism' is an intimation of post-modernity" (p11).

I'm reminded of the ten minute rule exercised by many British primary medical practitioners which inevitably produces only a partial diagnosis, often based on very few, surface, observations. Better is a holistic approach in which more depth and greater breadth would lead to a real understanding of the individual. The places that people visit are formed and operated by a complex history of interacting motives and events. It is misleading to see the resulting outcomes, which appear to share certain characteristics, as automatically stemming from the same motivations. The book uses the term 'tourism products' as if all these sites are merely attempts to make money by western-style businesses, and yet the discussions and examples in the book (a political slogan in Northern Cyprus, the US Holocaust Museum) clearly point elsewhere. Again, similarities between sites of interpretation and income generation are the results of practical requirements, but do not mean that the motivations and the messages are all the same, nor the resulting visitor experience. The visitor leaving the London Dungeon might go out and buy the latest horror movie; the visitor departing the National Underground Railway Center might want to go out and hug the nearest black person.

Lennon, J and Foley, M (2000) Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster, London, Thomson Learning

Image: Dark Tourism - matrix

Shading and Proportion

A tourist itinerary might last several days (the excursion, that is, a day visit, might have different destinations or might not). Assuming an itinerary of a week, it is likely that there will be a number of places visited and different activities undertaken. This means that if one or more are of some kind of Dark Tourism character, there will be variations in the proportion of time spent immersed within it.

A family travelling around the north of England for a week might come across the Sledmere Monument discussed in a previous posting and touch upon a brief aspect of Dark Tourism - the story of the farm worker going to Flanders to revenge the death of Belgian women at the hands of German soldiers. Only a short period of just one day will be taken up by it. If, however, they were researching their family history there might be a higher proportion of the week spent studying gravestones and monuments and church records. The proportion of the holiday will be higher. For an individual or couple, as opposed to a family, it might be quite a high proportion. On the other hand the intensity of 'darkness' is less - reading grave inscriptions is much lighter than visiting a concentration camp such as Auschwitz or Sachsenhausen. Time spent in Washington DC amongst the monuments spaced at intervals along the Mall, visiting the Ford Theatre where President Lincoln was shot or President Kennedy's memorial at Arlington means a greater exposure to death and atrocity, but there will still be the National Botanical Garden and the Smithsonian Museums to lighten the tone.

It does suggest that there are two scales of intensity within Dark Tourism. This has probably been becoming obvious in previous postings on this blog. One is the level of darkness and the other the proportion of any given holiday spent encountering the dark subject. So it is possible to construct a matrix based upon two scales - level of darkness, proportion of time - and to plot upon it different forms of tourist activity. The proportion of time is objectively measurable. 'Level of darkness' is entirely subjective: each and every visitor will decide it - a close family member buried in a grave being visited might represent more heartache to the visitor than a concentration camp seen by a tourist who has come from a distant land with little awareness of its history. Dark Tourism depends not only on the subject, but upon the mind of the tourist.

Image: Halifax - old mill


A gaunt old mill, built in Victorian times as part of a carpet-making complex in Halifax, England. We know the phrase from William Blake's poem: "dark, satanic mills". Those who worked there used to start at 6:00am, breakfasted two hours later, worked on through a long day. Holidays were brief before an Act of Parliament forced them on mill owners. The mills were noisy, dirty, echoing with deafening noise from dangerous machinery.

All of which is one way of looking at their history, and for those of us who have known working in such places, all those features were present in those days. Dark, satanic ... dark tourism?

When there were arguments about opening an industrial museum in Halifax in the 1980s people expressed versions of two viewpoints. Some wanted no museum and for mills to be demolished. They said they were awful places which had blighted lives and should be removed. Others felt a museum was needed to remind people of the life that had been led. For them, some mills should be kept in the landscape as part of a heritage which recalled both achievements and misery - landscape as museum. Tourism has been promoted successfully in the Halifax area and visitors do see both the dark side and the light.

The photo doesn't tell all the story. The buildings shown are part of the remarkable Dean Clough Business Park created out of the former John Crossley and Sons carpet factory, once Europe's biggest. A string of buildings here are used by service industries both big and small, including some restaurants - and a Travelodge motel, shown below.

The tourist gazing on these old buildings might see the modern business park but know of its origin in some gradgrind mill to which workers were tied by economics. They might, however, think of Victorian enterprise in a town which was bursting with growth and human activity at every level. Do they see dark, or do they see light? Is industrial-heritage tourism a form of dark tourism? In reality, visitors will see all kinds of shades between the extremes according to their own experiences and viewpoints. Dark tourism might only be in the eyes of the beholder.

Image: Sledmere - village memorial


Deep in the North Yorkshire Wolds, at Sledmere, is a village memorial. The heavy, carved column is supported by four others, making the whole an imposing and eyecatching feature.

Carved around the main column are scenes from life in the area during World War I. Farm workers are shown gathering the harvest into horse-drawn carts. Neat stooks and bales of wheat are collected. The rural life is interrupted by the war. Labourers leave home, bidding farewell to their families and carrying some food in bags slung from a stout sticks. They walk to the city of York where they enlist, and are soon crossing the Channel to France. Before long they are able to fight the German enemy who has been committing atrocities, burning churches and killing women.

For many men these were their first journeys abroad, and coincidentally many who survived found that they had been introduced to the very idea of travelling in Europe. An earlier posting on this site told of a similar soldier of World War II who became a tourist to revisit the places where he had fought. The Sledmere column was erected to remind generations of villagers what their forebears had done in responding to the call to war. Tourists also read the same message.

The Sledmere column could be counted as a mass medium in stone. The opinions of the people who designed it drive a narrative using their interpretation of history. As in the newspapers, books, songs and films of the time there was a strong element of propaganda. All history contains some degree of propaganda. As someone has said, history is written by the victorious and the powerful. The story on the column is very simple: carved reliefs like this have to be. But the reasons for war, its bloody events and the cultures that were involved, are bound to be grossly over-simplified. Here, the British Tommy was good and the German Fritz was bad - bad because they raped and pillaged and slaughtered: we were all honest and decent, they were all vicious and sinful.

Sledmere's column remains, part of village life for most of a century. It tells a story for both villagers and visitors in which much is true, but it distorts some greater truths by missing out much more that should be said. For example: a concern of today is to obtain pardons for British soldiers shot for 'cowardice' after suffering prolonged bombardment during the First World War. Over three hundred men died at the hands of other British soldiers because their commanders wanted to ensure other soldiers continued fighting. The Germans shot very few for cowardice. In another example: when, in 1914, on Christmas Day, some British and German soldiers took a rest from the fighting and met in no man's land to play football, many of them could see that they were the same kind of men in both armies, and that fighting each other was wrong and a ghastly waste of human life.

The many truths about war are told to the tourist in guide books, exhibitions, tourist trails and information panels. Understanding other people and their viewpoints is fundamental to international coexistence. Unless the methods of communication between host and guest are good, dark tourism will be what results from the lack of enlightenment.

Image: Jorvik Centre - skeleton


This skeleton is in the Jorvik Museum in York in England. As such it is to do with death, one of the prime subjects of Dark Tourism. Is it a morbid exhibit? Is viewing it an indication of some kind of dark interest in death?

The skeleton is not representative of the Jorvik displays which are broadly to do with life, as it was lived by the Viking invaders and settlers in the York area. So visitors might not be expecting, or looking for, this kind of artifact. Can we therefore say that they are engaging in Dark Tourism?

Had they visited the York Dungeon we would certainly say they were showing a particular interest in this kind of tourism. There are displays of torture, murder and various forms of gruesome death - and little else. But the Jorvik skeleton is that of a dead person who met their end by lethal agency. Diseases, battles or executions were common causes of death, all events on the dark side. Here, though, the reason for the skeleton being on show is to illustrate aspects of research into York's Viking past. The viewer has chanced upon it as one of a sequence of displays which are not to do with death.

There is something about the motivation of the viewer which helps define whether the thing visited is to do with dark tourism or not. There is also something about the reason for the subject being dealt with as part of a visitor experience. In Jorvik the skeleton is not primarily an example of death or how that end was met, but an example of a set of remains to be investigated in order to ascertain more about the Vikings.

However .... if what we learn is that these people lived shorter lives which could be ended by being killed in battle, or as punishment for a crime, or for having unpopular beliefs .... then aren't we going to give a slight shudder as we think "what an awful life. Thank goodness we don't live in those conditions". Hasn't a shadow, a brief moment of darkness, passed us by? So there can be a dark component found within a perfectly ordinary experience in a museum ... along with the rats seen in the Viking village reconstruction or the smells of dirt and decay? Doesn't the darkness define the light?

Image: Diana and Dodi memorial at Harrods

Diana and Dodi

Princess Diana and Dodi al-Fayed were killed in a car crash in Paris in August 1997. The site of the crash in a tunnel by the Pont d'Alma would qualify as a dark tourism 'attraction'. What about this 'shrine' set up in Harrods in Knightsbridge by Dodi al-Fayed's father, who owns the store? It has their pictures, a memento or two, candles and greenery, is roped off from the public but available to them, and has a small plaque explaining its significance in the eyes of the al-Fayed family. Is it really a dark tourism experience, or a chance encounter while doing the shopping? That probably depends on who the public are.

If the people seen here were trailing around a series of places associated with Princess Diana then it could be described as dark tourism. On the other hand, they might have been admirers of her charitable work and influence on the royal establishment and upon, for example, people suffering from AIDS. Is that dark or light? If they were tourists popping in to view the famous food hall and its magnificent displays, and had come across it by chance, then its just a minor encounter.

Perhaps dark tourism exists only in the mind of the beholder. And the intellectual one, at that.

Image: J F Kennedy grave


The grave of President John F Kennedy is frequently cited in discussions about Dark Tourism. His assassination on 22 November 1963 was a defining moment in American history just like 9/11. Unfortunately many of those debates leave a false impression of the spot. Lennon and Foley, in their book about Dark Tourism call it "a further commodified attraction which has been commercially developed". Their point might be valid when they go on to describe are minibus tours which stop off at the site with "8 minutes for photographs and visits" but not for other aspects of the place . They thought this "the least reverential of all the Kennedy sites examined".

Arlington National Cemetery covers 612 acres and contains the remains of over a quarter of a million people. Memorials range from large monuments to small plaques. Thousands of visitors call each day to see the Cemetery and doubtless in some way large or small to pay their respects. Many arrive at a special station on the metro system and then walk through a visitor centre (where there are goods and souvenirs on sale, including patriotic and nationalistic DVDs) and along the paths up the hill to the main sites, which are diverse. There is no admission fee. The souvenirs are a matter of taste, and for many visitors will be quite valid as memorials themselves.

Arlington is a place of sweeping lawns with a mix of monuments and rows and rows of gravestones which leave a strong sense of the human side of war and service. On my visit in August 2005 at the height of the holiday season the Kennedy site had many people, all of whom were observing the quiet and respect such a place needs. The design of the marker stones is very simple compared with those of many world leaders around the globe. Around the site are carved quotations from Kennedy speeches recalling his best contributions to human thought. A small bus did arrive, some people - many elderly who would have had difficulty walking here - got off. Some stayed for the next bus 30 minutes later. Nothing about Arlington except the small shop gave any feeling whatsoever of 'commodification'.

It would be easier to identify 'militarisation' and of course 'patriotism'. After all, this is the capital of a nation. Many visitors go to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier standing on a slope from which the city can be glimpsed beyond the Potomac. At regular intervals the single Honour Guard is changed. A Sergeant addresses the crowd, requests people to stand, then inspects the new infantryman who will replace the old. To me, this little ceremony was a bit too mechanical. The stylised movements of the rifle inspection were too showy and ritualised and the whole stage show, small as it was as it was with three soldiers, no band or horses, took the attention away from the tomb. The Guardsman who was left on duty made a slow march up and down in front of the tomb every now and then, leaving the impression that the crowd was there to see him. Westminster Abbey, overrun with a mass of visitors, at least keeps its own Tomb of the Unknown Soldier respectfully on view within a frame of red poppies.

Arlington, however, is neither overrun nor a theme park to the dead.


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