Ethical Dilemmas in Dark Tourism

The terms "dark tourism" and "thanatourism" were officially coined in 1996 by academics studying tourism related to JFK’s assassination in Dallas. While the term is new, the phenomenon is not. For much of recorded history, humans have flocked to see shocking and macabre sights such as public executions, the gladiator battles of ancient Rome, and the wreckage of the Titanic. Dark tourist destinations are spots where tragic events have taken place, especially those which include mass death.

The phrase "witch to kitsch" is used by the mortician, author, and YouTuber Caitlin Doughty to describe the way these sites of horrific events can be turned touristy and kitschy once enough time has passed. The example she gives in this video is that of Salem, Massachusetts where 20 innocent people were executed for witchcraft, and almost 200 accused of it. If you visit Salem today you’ll find the Salem Witch Museum and a memorial site to remember the victims but the town’s relationship to the tragedy is overwhelmingly commercial. The "Salem Witch House" (which never actually housed any accused witches) is a common tourist destination and there are numerous occult shops which profit from the town’s yearly influx of visitors every Halloween season. There is even a statue featuring Samantha from the TV show "Bewitched".


Doughty argues that what makes it acceptable to relate to the witch trials in this way is the amount of time that has passed. Not one person who witnessed those events is alive today. Similarly tragic events that happened more recently are treated differently but can still be made into tourist sites in the form of monuments. For example, the 9/11 memorial in New York attracts millions of visitors every year. Some of them (like my friend and me on a trip there) wanted to see the spot where that momentous event happened. Other visitors were actually there on 9/11 or know someone who died in the attack. I doubt 9/11 will ever be made into the same type of kitschy destination as Salem, but in a few hundred years the site will be treated differently than it is today.


How people act at these locations is judged more harshly than at cheerful tourist spots, especially if the tragedy was recent. A few years ago, someone began a Facebook page where they collected selfies that Israeli teenagers had taken at Auschwitz. The page creator’s initial intent was not to shame those individuals, but just to collect examples of a strange phenomenon. The kids in the photos didn’t post with the intention of making fun of the Holocaust; they just weren’t really thinking. As Israelis they were certainly aware of the brutal realities of that historical period. Still, they were widely shamed for being disrespectful. Most of them took down their photos after the Facebook page gained attention.


Clearly those kids crossed a line. But what exactly is that line for how the tourist sites themselves should be run? People complain that tragedies are being exploited in the name of profit, and in some cases that’s true. At the gift shop of the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, a place where violent criminals were treated brutally by guards, you can find a cute little onesie for your baby. That strikes me as less than tasteful. If you travel to London, you can take a Jack the Ripper walking tour to see where he murdered and mutilated numerous women. I haven’t been on one of those tours but I’m curious to see how respectfully (or not) the story is treated. The challenge for people running these dark tourist spots is not only to make them interesting enough that people will return, but also to remain tactful.


Dark tourist attractions, if not done well, can serve to dehumanize victims. This is not just seen in obviously macabre locations, however. It can frequently be seen in medical or history museums. It has long been debated what the rules should be for museums displaying human remains or similar items. Mummies and skeletons can be seen in numerous historical institutions which could not possibly have obtained permission from the deceased to display their bodies. Sometimes a person of medical interest will state their clear wishes for their future corpse and museums will knowingly go against this, such as in the case of Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant. It should also be noted that the meticulously preserved corpse of Vladimir Lenin has been on display in Moscow for almost a century, despite Lenin’s stated wish to be buried near his mother.


When criticized for displaying remains, museums will often counter that their educational value is important enough to justify this disrespect. This argument is also made by those running dark tourist attractions when people say they are exploiting the tragedy for financial gain. The thing is, a lot of these locations would still attract tons of visitors without there being a gift shop simply because humans are morbidly curious creatures.


Setting aside the issues of commodification and disrespect, there is another problem with dark tourism which is both less obvious and, in my opinion, much more difficult to address. These sites of tragedy are meaningful largely because of how they remind people of their own mortality. Unfortunately, while that can encourage a person to live life to the fullest, it can also cause them to be less tolerant of other people. This is explained by Terror Management Theory, which posits that when we’re reminded of our own mortality, our fear of death causes us to act in more prejudiced ways in ill-conceived attempts at self-preservation. It has been theorized that this helps explain how Donald Trump’s fear-mongering helped him in the 2016 election.


So how can people in the tourist industry prevent these dark tourist sites from increasing social division? I think the answer is in humanizing victims. In my last semester at NC State, I took an Intro to Judaism class in which we spent some time discussing museums. One common complaint about depictions of Jewish history is that they focus too much on how Jews died rather than on how Jews lived. A tour of a concentration camp can be a sobering experience. The focus is on showing just how many people died, which is driven home with images like enormous piles of shoes taken from the victims. A site which I believe is effective in teaching about the Holocaust’s human toll is the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. While only eight people stayed in that attic, you get a much more personal glimpse into their lives, particularly Anne’s. Their stories feel more immediate and impactful and you see these Holocaust victims as individuals rather than as statistics.


Right now when so many museums and cultural institutions are either closed or limiting visitors, those in charge should take the opportunity to reflect on the darker things which they display to ensure they are truly educational and not just shocking.