Creepy Corner: What Do You Think of "Dark Tourism"?

Is there any value in opening up some tragic places to tourism?
Publish date:
January 29, 2015
history, human rights, tourism, attractions, Disasters, dark tourism

Whenever I go on vacation, I always look up the more morbid sites I might want to include on my itinerary.

Typically I'm drawn to historic cemeteries, macabre museums, or bizarre attractions. I'd like to think my "creepy senses" guide me well, but sometimes I'm confronted with options that toe the line of good taste. Or cross it.

As many of you may know, I've become increasingly wary of "attractions" like the Villisca "Ax Murder House," or places like plantations that exploit the victims of human suffering. In the past I'm not sure if I've always made the right decision in regard to sites like these. Writing about Elisa Lam or the Lemp Mansion come to mind.

And make no mistake, I'm not exactly apologizing for bringing these people or places to the Creepy Corner, as my sort of "Creepy Mission" is to be sensitive and fair to such sites. More, I wonder if I contributed to the exploitation of such sites.

I'm not looking for a pat on the back or even a condemnation for covering the places I've covered in the Creepy Corner. More, I guess, I'm surprised at the evolution this series has undergone. The stories I wrote about in the beginning, I'm not sure I would write about now. And I think that's a positive thing.

In the spooky-sphere where it's so easy to turn every supposedly haunted location or tragic location into fodder for the next scary story, I do think Creepy Corner usually stays grounded in empathy. This is in no small part because of you, Creepy Corneristas. You guys keep me honest and on point. That more than anything is why I love writing these posts so much.

So I bring to you the question I've been turning over in my head lately: dark tourism.

What is "dark tourism"?

Basically it's when a location, due to the atrocities that have occurred there, becomes a tourist destination. It's also been called "grief tourism."

Now, my first reaction, and probably yours, is, "NO WAY." This breaks all the "rules" of Creepy Corner that I've made for myself. (The first rule of Creepy Corner, of course, being you do not talk about Creepy Corner . . . after midnight.)

But with websites (which I choose not to link to here) and books written about popular dark tourism sites, it's become more and more of a "legit" tourist industry in the past decade. With that in mind, part of me wonders if there is any value in opening up some tragic places to tourism?

Bear with me for a moment.

In my opinion, dark tourism places like Xuankou School, where the Sichuan Wenchuan earthquake destroyed a middle and grade school killing hundreds of people, Karostas Cietums in Latvia, a military prison where inmates were tortured in horrible living conditions, or "slum tours" in Mumbai, are so far across the line of respect or human decency that I hesitate to even mention them here.

Even places that don't typically fall under the dark tourism moniker, I find questionable. For example, I have a hard time contending with The Myrtles Plantation. I'm not going to sit here and tell you you're a horrible person if you've visited there; a few years ago it was high on my list of "Haunted Places to Visit." I mean, it IS a beautiful property that is a real part of American history. History, no matter how it's dressed up, can be ugly and we cannot deny that.

However thinking about it now, I personally am uncomfortable patronizing it. The root of most of the Myrtles's ghost stories — Chloe, the Native American burial ground, the Civil War bloodstain — is suffering because of bigotry, or cruelty, or both. Oh yeah and it was a PLANTATION.

But then there are places like Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Pearl Harbor, and Ground Zero among many, many others that pop up in lots of dark tourism, as well as mainstream tourism guides. Obviously there is a difference in the tourism at Hiroshima and the Xuankou schools, but how do we decide to draw those lines?

Does it come down to motive? You can't get inside every person's head who decides to visit both Chernobyl and the Lower Ninth Ward — their reasons could be noble, or they could be gawking. Or it could be a mix. But what about the motives of those who control the actual site? When does something slide from educational to exploitative?

Is it when people — alive or dead — are held up as "novelties"? Is it when we rob them of their humanity? When there is private monetary gain?

Is it when we forget that HUMAN BEINGS died in fear or hopelessness?

PLEASE let me clarify. I'm NOT saying that places like Auschwitz or Hiroshima are exploitative. They are physical reminders of the horrors humans can inflict upon one another — horrors that we must look square in the face so as hopefully never to repeat them — but also reminders that we as people CAN be better, that we CAN grow.

I guess my big question is, can there be a balance? Can tours or places firmly in the "dark tourism" side of things be beneficial? Do they serve a purpose?

Rikuzentakata was all but obliterated by the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. While it was previously a popular tourist destination for its beaches and forests, it has now become a dark tourism destination.

People now visit Rikuzentakata to witness the decimation the tsunami inflicted. The "Miracle Pine," a lone pine tree left standing on the site of what was once a forest with over 70,000 trees is a favorite destination. Additionally, there are tours that take people through the debris of what was previously home to thousands of people.

More than 18,000 lives were lost when a 9.0-magnitude undersea quake sent the huge waves barreling toward the Tohoku region. Entire communities were destroyed, buildings turned into matchwood and hectares of prime land left unfarmable.

While the community attempts to rebuild, there seems to be a mixed view on dark tourism in the area.

To me, Akira Oikawa who sells "fish, seaweed and other processed marine products" expresses the conflict at the heart of many dark tourism sites.

We are grateful for tourists visiting here and buying local products, as we saw a drop in the number of tourists after the disaster . . . But it’s hurtful when people ask casually about how many people died. We appreciate a little bit of empathy.

"A little bit of empathy." Is that the seed of difference between a place that is exploited and place that is respectful? Is a dark tourism site "okay" as long as we can empathize? Learn from it? Is it possible to rise above exploitative or commercial motives?

For me, the topic of dark tourism forces me to take a step back from my macabre fascinations and examine my own motives — past and present.

I know I've asked a lot of questions. I feel like I've used up my quota of question marks for the year. But it's questions like this I trust to our little Creepy Corner community. I'm genuinely curious what your responses will be.

All I ask is that you comment with sensitivity, like you usually do.

And thank you for making a series called CREEPY CORNER a safe, and constructive place.