Violent Deaths And The Dark Tourism Phenomenon

Philip R. Stone

Philip R. Stone

It is (western) society’s apparent contemporary fascination with death, real or fictional, media inspired or otherwise, that is seemingly driving the dark tourism phenomenon. Further to this, Marcel Schmier noted the range and diversity of dark tourism supply when she examined whether “death makes a holiday,” and consequently suggested that dark tourism is the dirty little secret of the tourism industry. Nevertheless, before the democratization of travel, dark tourism had a number of precursors and indeed death has been an element of tourism longer than any other form of tourism supply, often through religious or pilgrimage purposes.

Early examples of dark tourism may be found in the patronage of Roman gladiatorial games. With death and suffering at the core of the gladiatorial product and its eager consumption by raucous spectators, the Roman Colosseum may be considered one of the first dark tourist attractions. Other precursors to dark tourism may be seen in the public executions of the medieval period up until the nineteenth-century. As public spectacles, executions served as visible reminders of deterrence and retribution. Yet with the advent of more formalised arrangements to accommodate visiting voyeurs, public executions increasingly took on the characteristics of a spectator event. Indeed, execution sites such as Tyburn in London in the United Kingdom, boasted specially erected grandstands to offer better vantage points to see the condemned die. In a similar vein, this fascination with “Other Death” may be seen in the alleged first guided tour in the United Kingdom, whereby in 1838 a railway excursion in Cornwall took in the hanging of two convicted murderers. Other early examples of dark tourism may be found in the guided morgue tours of the Victorian period, the Chamber of Horrors exhibition of Madame Tussauds, or in “correction houses” of the nineteenth-century were galleries were built to accommodate fee-paying visitors who witnessed flogging as a recreational activity.

However, dark tourism over the last century has become more widespread and varied. Smith for example, suggests that sites or destinations associated with war probably constitute “the largest single category of tourist attractions in the world.” Yet war-related attractions, though themselves diverse, are a subset of the totality of tourist sites associated with death and suffering.

Additionally, within the literature, reference is frequently made either to specific destinations, such as the Sixth Floor in Dallas, Texas or to forms of tourism, such as visits to graveyards and celebrity death sites, holocaust tourism, prison tourism, or slavery-heritage tourism. Such is the diversity of macabre-related attractions, from fictional death in The Dracula Experience in Whitby, United Kingdom, or recreated death in the London Dungeon, to the sites of real “famous” deaths (James Byron Dean, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley) or major disasters (Ground Zero and New Orleans), that a full categorization of supply is complex and multifaceted.

However, despite the apparent difficulties, Graham M. S. Dann does offer a comprehensive, if not playfully constructed inventory of dark tourism main forms. In particular, he presents a multitude of examples under five principal categories, namely perilous places, houses of horror, fields of fatality, tours of torments and themed Thanatos. Within these principal categories, Graham M. S. Dann further lists eleven sub-categories which again reveal the diversity of contemporary sites, attractions and exhibitions that are referred to as dark tourism.

Nevertheless, despite the long history, the varied nature of products, and increasing contemporary evidence of travel to sites or attractions associated with death, it is only relatively recently that academic attention has been focused upon what has been collectively referred to as “dark tourism.” In particular, a number of attempts have been made to label macabre-related tourism activity, such as the previously mentioned “thanatourism,” “morbid tourism,” “black-spot tourism” or, as Graham M. S. Dann alliterates, “milking the macabre.” In particular, these attempts have been to analyse specific examples or manifestations of dark tourism, from battlefields to hyper-real experiences. Attention has also been focused, though to a much lesser extent, on exploring the reasons or purposes underpinning tourists’ desire to seek out such sites or experiences, the proposed “drivers” of dark tourism, which to date are suggested to vary from a simple morbid curiosity or a malicious indulgence in another person’s suffering, through schadenfreude, to a collective sense of identity or survival “in the face of violent disruptions of collective life routines.”

Despite the term “dark tourism” being first coined by Malcolm Foley and John Lennon, their work was not the first to focus on the relationship between tourism attractions and an interest in death and the macabre. In particular, Chris Rojek considers the concept of “Black Spots,” or “the commercial developments of grave sites and sites in which celebrities or large numbers of people have met with sudden and violent death.” Interestingly, Chris Rojek introduces his analysis by making reference to the hordes of sightseers flocking to the sites of disasters, such as the shores of Zeebrugge, Bruges, Belgium in 1987 (the capsizing of the ferry Herald of Free Enterprise) and Lockerbie, Scotland (the crash site of Pan Am 103) in 1988, before going on to discuss three different examples of Black Spots ― the annual pilgrimage to the place where James Byron Dean died in a car crash in 1955, the annual candlelight vigil in memory of Elvis Presley at Graceland in Tennessee, and the anniversary of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas. These he refers to as postmodern spectacles, repeated reconstructions that are dependent on modern audio-visual media for their continued popularity. Other attractions, such as national and metropolitan cemeteries, are categorized as “nostalgic” sites and it is only later that he goes on to distinguish disaster sites as being “analytically distinct from Black Spots as sensation sites.” A similar distinction is made by Blom who defines “morbid tourism” as, on the one hand, tourism that “focuses on sudden death and which quickly attracts large numbers of people” and, on the other hand, “an attraction-focused artificial morbidity-related tourism.” Thus, the concept of dark tourism and its production is immediately rendered more complex by a number of variables.

These issues are considered shortly when the paper discusses a typological framework for dark tourism supply, but firstly to return to the work of Malcolm Foley and John Lennon, their use of the term “dark tourism” relates primarily to the presentation and consumption (by visitors) of real and commodified death and disaster sites (1996). This rather broad definition is later refined by their assertion that dark tourism is “an intimation of postmodernity.” That is, firstly, interest in and the interpretation of events associated with death is to a large extent dependent on the ability of global communication technology to instantly report macabre and death-related events and, subsequently, repeat them ad infinitum (hence compression of time and space).

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