“I Am the Dark Tourist – Travels to the Darkest Sites on Earth”
by H. E. Sawyer (Manchester: Headpress, 2018), 262 pages
– reviewed in October 2018
--- NOTE: this is a very long review. If you're not interested in the details and just want to see the overall verdict go straight to the conclusion
SPOILER ALERT: in the following discussion I have to give some of the content away, specific observations the author makes and what conclusions he draws from them, in order to evaluate and discuss them and compare them to mine. So if you don't want to know, i.e. don't want any “spoilers” before you've had a chance to read the book yourself, then go directly to the conclusion
and avoid the main text.
First impressions can be deceptive, and for me this book was a case in point. When I saw the cover I first thought “oh no, not another one associating dark tourism with such 'paranormal' stuff such as ghost hunts” (which are excluded from this website – as explained here
). That's because it shows a shadowy semi-translucent figure with a mask and black suit and top hat against the dark backdrop of the interior of some abandoned building. The title, too, was not to my initial liking: as with Dom Joly's “The Dark Tourist”
I find the definite article wrong. Neither can claim they are the sole dark tourist, there are plenty more, so the indefinite article would be more appropriate. But I guess the claim implicit in the definite article makes for more attention-grabbing power. Same for the title image (at least it's not as clichéd as Dom Joly's).
So in a way me and this book got off on the wrong foot – but of course one shouldn't judge a book by its cover or its title, and whatever reservations I had on the basis of that first impression were indeed quickly rectified when I started reading the book. The foreword, contributed by Lupine Travel founder Dylan Harris, immediately changed my first impression. It is in fact one of the best two-page intros to the topic of dark tourism I have ever read! Absolutely to the point. And, incidentally, no “paranormal” or “ghost hunt” sites get covered in the actual body of the book's text. It's just that strange cover image.
The first proper chapter
, i.e. penned by the main author of the book, replicated my first encounter with the book a little bit. It kicks off with a description of one of those Jack-the-Ripper walking tours in London
, which this website covers only briefly in passing, primarily because there are no authentic places left associated with this story, so visitors have to rely entirely on their imagination and the narration (and historic photos) supplied by the guide. The chapter is, however, actually three in one. In the middle of the description of the Ripper tour, the topic is suddenly dropped and instead the author embarks on a wide-ranging kaleidoscopic overview of various examples of dark tourism across the globe. I found this a bit too jumpy, lacking any sort of thread (other than the dark-tourism label, of course), but maybe that was intentional: to dazzle the reader a bit.
After picking up the Ripper tour again, the final section explains the reasons for the book. The first bit made me smile, as it recounts how the author suddenly discovered the term 'dark tourism' after having apparently been a dark tourist for 40 years, unknowingly. I think such a discovery is quite typical for many dark tourists – for me the moment came in 2007 when I read an article based on an interview with J. Lennon
. However, my reaction back then was rather different from this book's author's: whereas I just thought “cool, there is a term for what I'm doing as a traveller and it's a cool term too!”, H.E. Sawyer's reaction was that the discovery made him uneasy. Worse still, he confides that it unsettled him morally, like he'd suddenly been found out, shamed. He found his “lack of self-awareness frightening”, it gave him a “pang of guilt”. I had to wonder why, and why I did not have such a shocked reaction. I wrote more about that in this separate section
Despite the very different personal reactions, the author's practical next step was very similar to mine: to start reading up on the subject. But whereas I was just looking for information about more dark tourism as well as being intrigued about the academic interpretations of dark tourism, Sawyer says he was looking for a “diagnosis”, as if being a dark tourist was somehow akin to having a mental illness. Anyway, it is given as the reason why the author embarked on more dark travels and on writing this book. Fair enough.
Yet this is NOT a guidebook for dark tourism, even though here and there some bits of practical information are also provided (costs, opening times), but it seems more for the record rather than for the benefit of other travellers. The accounts given in each chapter are part travelogue, part historical background summary, part personal interpretation/evaluation, often with a focus on morals, ethics, and politics. Here we go, chapter by chapter:
of the thematic chapter
s is about Ground Zero
in New York
, specifically the 9/11 Museum
vs. the 9/11 Tribute Center
's guided walks. In contrast to the erratically kaleidoscopic first chapter, things are now much more focused. Very much so. It quickly becomes apparent that the author is a) extremely observant, and b) ready for critical assessment at every step of the way. For instance, when I visited the 9/11 Museum I didn't even take much notice of the security measures at the entrance, maybe just because I'd become so used to them (it's so common these days that you have to walk through metal detectors and have your bags inspected). But, of course, the author is right in pointing out the irony in this being the first thing you get as a visitor – the same sort of security measure that on that fateful day in September 2001 failed to prevent the hijackers from boarding those planes.
The author did the 9/11 site to the max – a guided tour of the memorial plus a full-length visit to the two exhibitions, nine hours in total. And though he dutifully reports on the controversies that were sparked by the costs of the memorial and the addition of a large museum shop, he comes basically to the same conclusion as mine: that this is an exceptionally good museum. And, unlike me, he even went on a veritable spending spree in the museum shop. And, again, very much like me, he wonders how anyone can get through the historical exhibition in the recommended two hours (I too needed almost three times that amount of time).
In addition to the Memorial the author also reports about a walking tour with the 9/11 Tribute Center
he did the day after. I went on one of those tours back in August 2010. Things have clearly changed since then, though the format of the walks is still the same: volunteers who were in some way directly affected by the events of 9/11
(be it as survivors, police officers, firefighters or through bereavement) guide visitors around the area and share their story. The author keeps the report of the tour short but has more to say about the exhibition run by the Center, now officially a museum. His verdict is, again, similar to mine, namely that it offers a more personal dimension and is thus more direct, more authentic, compared to its official, state-run, bigger neighbour, where commemoration and grieving can come across a little more forced than at this smaller outfit run by the 9/11 Families' Association.
The next chapter
is also in two parts, this time in different countries. It starts with a report of a two-day tour of Chernobyl
, which seems to have had many similarities with my own second trip to the Zone. The author also makes the same observation that such trips feel like time travel in two ways, not just into the past (Soviet
time) but also into the future, for a glimpse into what the world might look like after humanity has ceased to exist … There's one erroneous factual statement, however, which I read before (here
), that I have to correct: the author claims that it was only in 2011 that Ukraine
(annoyingly he often uses “The Ukraine”) began licensing tourist visits to the “Zone”, meaning that all previous visitors had “penetrated” it illegally. This is not true. I went on my first tour of Chernobyl in 2006, and it was perfectly legit, with the same kind of government paperwork to get an official permit. It was just that at some point there was some quarrel over money matters that led to a temporary suspension of tours by the government. But legitimate tours were resumed again soon after.
The author then contrasts Chernobyl with another bit of 'nuclear tourism' of sorts, namely a visit to the Kelvedon Hatch nuclear bunker
. Here the author doesn't so much describe the site and its commodification
as such, but rather its context of the Cold War
and its representation in the media. It becomes clear that we are of the same generation, still remembering well the then omnipresent threat of nuclear destruction (in my case, in West Germany
, the outlook was probably even more apocalyptic). It's something I often find is hard to get across to people of a younger generation who didn't live through that era. Reading this chapter, I found myself frequently nodding along in agreement, but I wonder what readers 20 or 30 years younger would make of it.
After the first couple of chapters were about places I am also very familiar with – and largely share the author's assessment of them – the next chapter took me into a totally unfamiliar scene: wreck-diving. Since this is only for certified and experienced scuba divers, and I've never attempted anything more serious than a bit of snorkelling (I'm generally not so aquatically minded), this is an alien world for me. The author concedes that this sort of dark activity is indeed somewhat “elitist” because of the restrictions and requirements. He also admits that there are ethical questions about diving recent wrecks, such as that of the “Salem Express”, which sank in the Red Sea in 1991 taking hundreds of passengers down with her. Such wrecks are thus de facto tombs. Yet I'm not sure about his tenet that diving wrecks is “maximally voyeuristic”. If there is no one to be offended by it, indeed nobody to even notice it (except other, complicit, divers, of course), then can it really be 'voyeuristic'. I don't think it's the right word.
But anyway, I must say, I found the author's descriptions of actual dives and the accompanying photos totally captivating. It's a world full of mysticism that I will (most likely) never have the chance to experience myself. Maybe this out-of-reach-ness is what makes it so exiting to read about. I can't imagine how difficult it must be for wreck divers not to succumb to their hard-earned bragging rights. Because this is also serious 'danger tourism'. The risks of entering underwater wrecks are manifold and divers have died on such dives. I don't think I'd be cut out for such adventures, despite the undeniable high-level glamour factor (only in dark-tourism terms, of course).
Naturally, the most famous wreck of them all has to be mentioned in this chapter too: the “Titanic
”. Even though there have been a select few moneyed enough to pay for the enormous costs of a deep-sea-submersible dive to the actual wreck (the author isn't one of them), most of the Titanic-related dark tourism takes place on dry land. So the author reports on the enormously successful commercial milking of the Titanic legacy through various exhibitions containing salvaged items recovered from the wreck or the new Titanic Belfast
and a vast array of souvenirs at each of these sites. Moral objections to this commercialism, if voiced at all, have apparently been comparatively minimal. Maybe it's just due to the overpowering glamour factor of the Titanic that has made the ship the “ultimate” wreck in the eyes of the media and in public awareness. Or maybe the passage of time helped. This is even more true for historic wrecks that have actually been raised, of which the author names a few (surprisingly without including the Vasa in Stockholm
). This chapter also has information on a host of further wrecks, for diving, and I realize that this is a category under-represented on this website, with the only other (submerged) ship wrecks given an entry here, other than Titanic
, being that of the USS Arizona
and the Rainbow Warrior
(not mentioned in Sawyer's book) and there's a general mention of the many warship wrecks at Bikini
. But I think it would go too far to get drawn into more detail here, fascinating as the subject is.
After this excursion into the world of wrecks, the author returns to the “Big Five” of dark tourism (see above) in the next chapter
, and Holocaust
tourism in general. This is of course much more familiar territory, for both me and, so I presume, most of my readers. Yet the author has several surprises up his sleeve here ...
Couched in a report of a visit to both Auschwitz I
and Auschwitz II
) is a historical account that is pretty accurate, balanced and well-worded, except for a little detail that puzzled me. The author claims that “experiments” of gassing with carbon monoxide were conducted by the Nazis
in “occupied Russia
”. That's new to me. I thought the first “test gassings” were undertaken at the T4
institutions, and further applied at Chelmno
's gas vans before being implemented in Operation Reinhard
. And I always thought that Maly Trostenets
, was the easternmost camp of the Holocaust
. But none were on actual Russian territory. But maybe “Russia” is used here to mean “Soviet Union
”? (It's not an uncommon confusion; the Americans made this mistake all the time throughout the Cold War
That bit apart, though, the chapter is very accurate and also very thought-provoking. For one thing, what sets the author's account apart from my experience is that he knew an actual Holocaust survivor in Britain
and he had made a promise to her as a young man to one day go and visit Auschwitz. So his visit was even more of a pilgrimage than mine. This also had an impact on his feelings while at the site – the pilgrimage added a feeling of fulfilment and even an uplifting note, which is something he acknowledges won't be very common amongst most other visitors. Another interesting aspect of the chapter about Auschwitz is how different the memorial site could have been. Apparently there were many competing design suggestions, and the author describes one that may have been superior to the current approach … I found this bit especially interesting. His impressions/descriptions of the sites themselves are pretty much like mine (see the Auschwitz chapter
on this website) so I won't go further into it. But there are other aspects worth dwelling on a bit:
The author also notes the plethora of Holocaust
-themed museums around the world displaced from the actual events, in far-away countries, especially the USA
, or even Argentina
(normally rather associated with providing a safe haven for exiled Nazis
such as Eichmann
), and that this has been criticized as a “Holocaust Industry”. Yet all these institutions work on the basis of seeing themselves as Holocaust-educational. The author sees two intriguing and difficult problems in that. One is in education itself.
He quotes extensively from a report on how successful Holocaust education in schools has been in Britain
over the past few decades. While there are some good aspects (83% believing it to be an important subject, say) there were also worrying aspects (e.g. only 37% knowing what anti-Semitism means). But what disturbed the author more was apparently there's also a lack of knowing why the subject of the Holocaust should be taught. Everywhere new learning centres are being set up, but nobody knows why? I wish the author had followed that up a bit more. I felt this to be a bit of a loose end – instead the author admits to having come to the point of “Holocaust fatigue” himself and quickly closes the chapter.
What worried me more was a passage a few pages earlier, where the author claims that, no matter how educational the various Holocaust memorial sites aim to be, including Auschwitz, the main reason for “hard-core dark tourists” to go there was simply that they were places of death, large-scale death of a unique nature, and because of who the killers were. The fact that the victims were overwhelmingly Jews, on the other hand, is claimed to be of less significance from their perspective. He adds “It's not that committed dark tourists aren't listening, but they're not there specifically to receive it” (p 126). And he furthermore claims that such “ardent dark tourists” will visit Auschwitz with pretty much the same interest and motivation as they would 9/11 sites or cemeteries.
I had two immediate reactions to that: on the one hand, I felt caught, found out, exposed. Indeed, I do visit all these places BECAUSE they are dark-tourism sites, not specifically as Holocaust sites or 9/11 sites, and indeed they all are dark sites because of their association with death. But then I asked myself: other than me and you (meaning myself and the author of the book), who actually are those alleged “ardent/committed/hard-core dark tourists”? In fact I only know but a minute handful of people who actually describe themselves as dark tourists and would indeed admit that when they visit a dark site they are doing so “to tick another site off their list”. But how representative of dark tourism actually is that? I'd say: not very! In my experience, the vast majority of visitors at a dark site haven't even ever heard of the term 'dark tourism'.
It's a bit of a chicken and egg thing. The author seems to presume that first there's the dark tourist, who draws up a list of dark sites to visit, and then does so. I believe the much more likely scenario, or more realistic way of looking at it is this: there is this site, which people find interesting for some reason, and that reason may include something dark, even death. So people visit and in doing so they become, strictly speaking, dark tourists. And for many that's it. They may have become interesting for dark-tourism researchers as subjects, as examples of dark tourists now, but most of these visitors will forever remain unaware of this, and possibly never even visit another dark site elsewhere. Only a few may later find out about the term, just like the author and myself have (see the first part of this review), and if they are also intrigued may then move on to become “committed dark tourists”. BUT: we are still a tiny minority!
This also is in line with the observations gleaned from the 2016 documentary “Austerlitz” that silently shows visitors wandering around Dachau
and appearing indifferent, uninterested, some are wearing inappropriate T-shirts and some even take selfies. Yes, it's “unnerving” … but these are NOT “ardent/committed” dark tourists but at best what I'd call “casual dark tourists”. And as with most casual tourists, their behaviour does leave much to be desired. Indeed they may not have a proper awareness of where they are and probably won't gain much understanding from their visit either … they're probably just there because the site is there, because it's in the guidebook or is offered by the local tourism industry as “something to do” (I've witnessed a truly uncomfortable influx of such visitors once at Stutthof
!). I wanted to cry out “at least real, committed dark tourists like us DO take an interest (and no selfies)”. But it's true, casual dark tourists can be unsettling to observe, just like any other “mainstream” tourists. Still, coming to the conclusion “that Goebbels won” (as the maker of that documentary apparently does, quoted in this book) is going way too far. It's absurd in the extreme. I hope that doesn't even have to be explained.
The book continues with another top-notch dark-tourism destination in the next chapter
: Phnom Penh
, in Cambodia
. Again, the chapter starts with a concise and on-the-dot historical summary before turning to one of the key sites: Tuol Sleng
. Only a few things seem to have changed since my visit in 2008, and the author's account of his visit reads very similar to my impressions back then. Contrasting with some of the musings in the previous chapter about tourist behaviour, it is noted here that at Tuol Sleng visitors tend to be almost exclusively respectful and appropriate in their behaviour! (And he attributes that in large parts to the “silence” pictograms placed around the site.)
Again, the author tried to discuss with the management how they see their site's role as a dark-tourism attraction, but again he couldn't get far in this. He admits that this is a general experience, including with Auschwitz
(no response), and that he's become cynical about major dark sites' engagement with the public. Behind closed doors, such as at specialist conferences, they are willing to discuss it, but when approached from the outside they refuse or even deny their sites have anything to do with dark tourism, even when evidently they do. I've experienced this too, even to the point of open hostility, so that I've become very cautious as to whom I let on that I am doing research for a dark-tourism website when I visit such places. And I gave up on the press departments of established sites years ago. Sometimes it's easier to remain undercover.
But back to Cambodia. The next site, predictably, had to be Choeung Ek
. I was intrigued about this because I knew there would have been changes since my visit, when a new museum was still under construction. The author's report of that museum didn't make me want to rush to make a return visit. Apparently it's a small, rather superficial affair, complemented by a stylistically very dated short documentary film. The rest of the site seems to be the same still – except that here too you can now use an audio guide. The author observes just one couple taking a single selfie, otherwise tourist behaviour didn't seem so bad when he visited (I was less fortunate back then).
The author then covers an additional site outside Phnom Penh that I did not see when I was in the country, so I got more intrigued. Along the way he reports in a wry style the difficulty one has as a dark tourist to fend off the insistent offerings of mainstream tourist traps and I caught myself grinning broadly while reading these passages. The dark site in question is Battambang, or rather the “killing caves” nearby. Going by the author's description, I don't feel I've missed out on an awful lot. In addition to the hassles from the local tourism “industry” (well, touts), the site is dominated more by Buddhas and other religious symbolism, even including a “Buddhist Hell”. That's a kind of sculpture park peopled by garishly-made statuary engaged in various kinds of torture, all as punishment in the afterlife for not having led a virtuous life in the real one. I've heard of such “Buddhist Hells” and seen many exaggerated such sculptures in South-East Asia, but always felt that the brutal depictions are offset by the childishness of the OTT artwork. Yet this is a surprising juxtaposition here, given the real dark site just round the corner. But inside the cave, apart from a few human remains (allegedly including “human skin”, though I found that very doubtful), there really didn't seem to be so much of a dark-tourism focus here. The author cuts the chapter off unusually abruptly.
In the next chapter
we're back on serious dark-tourism territory of the highest order. The author's off to Japan
, going first to Nagasaki
. From the off I find myself in total agreement with the author about the delightful, if at times a bit bewildering, charms of travelling as a tourist in this country. I won't go into details about the author's description of the Memorial Parks and the Atomic Bomb Museum
, as they are largely the same as what I found (down to the aside remark about the surprise at seeing small children being allowed into the main exhibition, despite its extremely graphic content).
section is, again, very similar and largely overlaps with my own impressions, which are mostly positive. Except that he notes the often depressingly simplistic platitudes that are quoted on a wall by the guest book, statements left by “world leaders” such as a former Pope and a former US president (the latter a Nobel Peace Prize laureate pledging for a nuclear-free world while at the same time authorizing funding for the modernization of the US atomic arsenal). The author's appreciation for both the quality of the Peace Memorial Museum
and the serene design of the Peace Memorial Park
outside, as well as the iconic grandeur of the A-Bomb Dome
, are all things I fully concur with. His sidelines of always inspecting museum cafés, gift shops and toilets as well as his smoking breaks, on the other hand, are things where we clearly differ.
But it's the final section in this chapter that I was most intrigued with, namely because it is about a place that's also high on my wish list for a return trip to Japan (hopefully rather soon): Okunoshima, aka “Rabbit Island”. As I expected, it is evidently a unique “juxtaposition of dark tourism and cute tourism” (p 187). The many thousands of free-roaming rabbits clearly steal the show for most visitors, but the reason H.E. Sawyer made his way there is the dark legacy of the place: of having been a secret chemical weapons development facility. And this history is not masked (other than by the distraction the rabbits provide) and in addition to a few ruined relics there is a dedicated museum about this. Going by the author's account it's a bit of a let-down in terms of size and scope, but I reckon it's still worth the trip, just for the bizarre contrast between horrific history and contemporary cuteness (and let's face it: cuteness is something the Japanese excel at like no others).
is the only country that this book devotes two whole chapters to! But the next chapter
is about a place that I personally find a step too far: visiting the infamous “suicide forest
” of Aokigahara
. Ever since I've known about this place and its tenuous association with dark tourism, I've always been clear about never wanting to visit it regardless. And yes, it's for ethical reasons – as much as for fear of repulsion. I just do not want to encounter (let alone specifically seek out) dead bodies of people who just hung themselves, nor do I want to stumble across personal items left behind, suicide notes even. As one quotation the author brings up makes clear: it's not just overstepping a legal line (access beyond a certain point is forbidden and there are signs making that perfectly clear) but it's also an intrusion into the privacy of people who decided to end their lives. Don't get me wrong: I have no moral issues with suicide as such – which, incidentally, is regarded in Japanese society as a much more noble act than it is in Western, Christian societies (and I reserve the right for that ultimate exit for myself, even, if the point comes), but I don't want to intentionally go “body hunting” in a suicide forest … it's just too wrong.
Anyway, unlike for me for the author of this book the allure of the forest was too strong to resist, even though he admits from the outset that there should have been “alarm bells” about his “moral compass” having “lost its bearings” (p 188). Yet despite such premonitions the author decides to go, both for the sake of researching the darkest end of the dark-tourism spectrum as well as exploring his own feelings when doing so. Personal safety concerns had to be considered as well – as you can't just stumble in. You could easily get disoriented, even twist an ankle or break a leg, and anyone seeing you wandering in might think you're about to top yourself and call the police. So the author goes searching for a guide – and finds one through a long line of friends-of-friends, namely an American expat who's immersed himself in Japanese culture and has been to Aokigahara before, repeatedly, though not primarily for “body hunting” but for the natural beauty that this area is also famous for. Hence there's the tourism infrastructure around it, though this specifically does not include dark tourism, on the contrary, the local authorities and tourism business actively discourage both suicide tourism and the extreme “dark tourism” following in its wake.
The two enter Aokigahara beyond the no-entry line twice, on consecutive days. I have to admit the narrative about this was thoroughly un-put-downable. It's beautifully written and seductive in effect. They do find evidence of suicide (especially a string of ties, knotted together to become a noose, still dangling from a tree). And it silences both men. Speculations about who it could have been who ended his life here and why ensue, but of course it's impossible to know beyond a few basic probabilities (businessman, being one – the ties certainly indicate it wasn't a women, not in Japan). They find a few other items, less evocative, basically litter – but in this context any bit that isn't forest gets the imagination running away with you. Still, they find no bodies or remains. And the sense of relief is palpable. The scenery is convincingly described as of “outstanding natural beauty” (and it doesn't feel like the tourist-brochure cliché you encounter it as all so often). So, has reading all this changed my mind? Would I, too, now venture beyond the no-entry line in this mystical, beautiful “sea of trees”. The answer is still no. But I concede this chapter was one of the most compelling in the whole book. I do not see that as a contradiction.
Given the graveness of the previous destination, the next chapter
has a hard act to follow. But it does, even minus the outstanding natural beauty and wild speculations. The next destination is small, raw, tragic and close to home: Aberfan
. The 1966 disaster clearly left its mark on the author of this book, and he describes his preparation for the visit in the gloomiest, guilt-laden terms, as something he shouldn't be doing, even though he has the excuse of doing it for the book he's writing. I did it for a chapter on this website, but I'm not British, so maybe that explains why the sad story of Aberfan
didn't resonate with me any more than other disasters of its scale elsewhere. For me it's simply not quite so close to home. So I was much less filled with ethical doubts when I visited the memorial and cemetery.
True, there is absolutely no tourism infrastructure promoting visits to Aberfan's dark heritage sites – no visitor centre, no education centre, no guides, no gift shop. But is it really true that this means the cemetery and memorial garden are only intended for the locals? Isn't the very point of a memorial that it tells the story not only to those who already know it? Isn't it the point of a tombstone that it tells the world for prosperity (or at least a good period of it) who's buried beneath, not only to give the bereaved a physical point of reference and spot for mourning – even though that is undoubtedly its original, initial role. Over 50 years on, I don't think it is still morally forbidden to go and pay Aberfan
's memorial and cemetery a visit. Of course, with great discretion and respectful behaviour! (Absolutely no selfies here!!! Not that I'm ever tempted anyway). That's absolutely required, but I don't think these places are in principle out of bounds. With that out of the way, let's return to the book's chapter:
After having made his reservations about visiting the site abundantly clear, the author first launches into another account of the historical background. With panache – it's probably the longest historical part of any of the book's chapters. The detailed recounting of how the tragedy unfolded, the dreadful aftermath, and also the anger with the politics involved that it generated, is all incredibly moving and even though I had read similar accounts before it still had me on the brink of tears. Towards the end of the chapter it becomes clear why the topic of Aberfan is so close to the author's heart: it featuring on the children's TV programme “Blue Peter” when he was four was his first realization of his own death being possible anywhere any time … and he freaked. Aberfan brought death to his conscious awareness. No wonder it's so heavy for him.
His visit to the sites in the village, on the other hand, go relatively smoothly. He slips into the background a bit in the cemetery when a local mourner appears on a motorbike, and is relieved when he departs, but the stop at the memorial garden goes without incident or too much emotional discomfort. Only on the way to the library does he get a glowering look from a local. The author attributes this to the fact that everybody knows everybody in this village, so “intruders” are instantly noticed. And since Aberfan
has not opened up for tourism, there's only scope for going to pay your respects. Or stay away.
The final chapter
is different from the preceding ones in that it does not have a specific destination or theme as its topic, but is more like the opening chapter: kaleidoscopic. It starts out with a couple of pages on papal visits to the Big Sites of the 9/11 Memorial
, followed by a section about dark tourism in the media, noting that astonishingly in Britain
it's the “Daily Mail” that features such sites with the most regularity, and beyond the usual household names. The author does not mention the typical 'moral panic' reflex I've encountered all so often in the media, but notes one case of outrage after schoolkids threw bottles into the memorial ponds at the 9/11 Memorial. (Noting in passing that those kids said they were bored and that this casts doubt on the educational success of the site – which I found a bit of an over-interpretation … teenagers get bored anywhere.) This is followed by speculation as to whether an incessant string of BBC online reporting about Hitler
's birth house in Braunau, Austria
, may actually contribute to it attracting the unwelcome attention of neo-Nazis.
I got more excited when the author turns to his record of responses to the questions he sent to many a site, including the 9/11 Museum
. He lists them all. Some are plain factual enquiries, others broader (e.g. had they taken note of dark tourism academia?). None of the questions are provocative, disrespectful or otherwise inappropriate. He sent similar sets of questions to the relevant departments at Auschwitz
and Tuol Sleng
. But as the reader already knows by this point, all those requests were ignored. And I have had similar experiences over the years (these days I don't even make such requests any more). The grim conclusion the author arrives at is this: “Media departments are not there to engage in critical thinking. Their job is simple: to promote and deflect.” (p 238).
The verdict is similarly damning with regard to the travel industry itself. The author reports his efforts to get some feedback from the agent he used about dark tourism and the elements they actually sell which fall into that category, but again he draws a blank. Conclusion: “Dark tourism isn't something the travel industry wishes to publicly discus, [not] even with those customers such products are aimed at.” Again, it's quite familiar to me. As was remarked at the inaugural conference of the iDTR
by some representative from the tourism industry: “None of us in the industry use the term dark tourism.” Fortunately I know a select small number of exceptions, but even with these companies (all small) it took a long, careful breaking of the ice ...
There follows a short segment about dark tourism online, noting the contemporary possibilities of virtual visits to specific sites such as Auschwitz
. The social media outreach efforts of institutions such as the 9/11 Museum
get some comment – but surprisingly none of the Facebook groups with the words 'dark tourism' in them (including mine
, active since May 2015) get any mention. Instead the author moves on to the touchy subject of photography at dark-tourism destinations. Predictably the story of Grenfell Tower in London
comes up, where locals complained about selfie-takers. One specific dark-tourism attraction that became controversial for even existing is the topic of the next section: about the Jack the Ripper Museum in East London. As was widely reported, locals opposed the museum. It was even the target of vandalism. Yet its contents were decidedly underwhelming for the author.
And then there comes a sudden twist
. It's getting personal
. The author let's on why he thinks he became a dark tourist and what its roots in his childhood were. Early bereavement, abuse, subsequently finding solace in roaming cemeteries. I won't go into the details. It made me wonder whether there are any parallels to my biography. Not really. I had a comparatively peaceful childhood (though not without problems), and at the time of writing this, my parents, though old, are both still alive. My earliest close encounter with death was when a school friend and next-door neighbour passed away after a nasty battle against cancer that was drawn out over months. But I had only known him for about a year (though a year, from the perspective of a seven-year-old, is a very long time … whereas now, in middle age, a year flies past seemingly in no time). So I got over it pretty well. Yet now I keep wondering whether that left some kind of seed in me for becoming a dark tourist later in life. It's a vague speculation, no more than that. I think the real reasons are more likely those I wrote about in this separate chapter
The author states that visiting dark sites has helped him “keep going” and that way he gets something positive out of the experience, and that it has given him “perspective”. He wonders whether it constituted some “means of self-help bereavement counselling”. (His enquiries about this with professional counselling bodies didn't lead to anything.) Anyway, he suggests, quite rightly, that “not every dark tourist visits sites in a ghoulish capacity as if attending a freak show” (which is what so many moral panic
media articles in effect routinely accuse dark tourists of!), but instead they “come for peace, reassurance, and motivation” (all quotes in this paragraph are from p 249).
Yet he rejects the legitimization of visiting sites like Auschwitz by the management through wanting to turn visitors into “messengers for remembrance”, and calls that “self-aggrandizement”. Yet it's a “tag” he can live with. I think he's right here too. Yet he claims that, through his research and fieldwork for this book, he's changed the way he approaches sites, looking beyond the pre-packaged narratives that sites like the Big Five (see above) offer their consumers (and again bemoans their resistance to engaging with dark tourism). He also remains uneasy about the “delicate balance between remembrance and taking advantage”, that “we” dark tourists “are far from perfect” (p 253), and that in some places we are perhaps simply not welcome, not invited.
He finishes by reiterating that dark tourism has enabled him to “carry on” and that that's why he is a dark tourist and why he wrote this book. The final line reads: “I suspect I'm not the only one” (indeed he is not).
And then there's a single word in italics at the bottom of the final page that presents a riddle for us readers: “Torschlusspanik” It's an almost untranslatable German word very roughly meaning something like 'fear of time running out', the panic you get when you realize that you haven't used your opportunities in life enough and that not many more are coming before the gate closes (literally: “Tor” here means 'gate', and “-schluss” is 'closing'). I still can't quite work out why the author chose to leave us with this riddle.
The main prose part of the book is followed by a page of acknowledgements and a list of sources, split between a bibliography, a filmography and even a discography. But no online sources are noted. Of course I wanted to check whether my dark-tourism.com gets a mention (and I know the author's been aware of my site because quite a long while ago he even contacted me to alert me to a few dark dive sites), but in the absence of a suitable category that is of course not so. I'm only slightly miffed. At the end of the book there's also a five-page index.
The book is a bit of a hybrid. On the one hand, it's (as far as I know) the first in-depth account written from the perspective of a practising dark tourist about a targeted selection of the principal dark sites in the world (plus a few comparatively more exotic ones), coupled with very thoughtful passages digging deeper, and with a well-balanced amount of historical background (but never too much). Yet it's not a guidebook, nor is it an academic study. It dutifully acknowledges the academic discipline of 'dark tourism research' (see iDTR
) to a degree, but does not join those trying to press dark tourism into some pre-given theory or philosophical corset. Instead it is personal, frank, open and still deep. In a way it's as much an insight into the author as it is an insight into the real world of dark tourism out there (as opposed to the abstract perspective from an academic's armchair).
I found this nature of the book an extremely refreshing contrast to all the other books about dark tourism I've so far read – which in general are either “too academic” to be of much (or any) use to an actual dark tourist (and suffer from the typical convoluted academic style that's expected inside the Ivory Tower – as I know myself all too well
). Or else they are either too specific (e.g. this
) or too superficial (e.g. this
) and/or not always even really relevant to genuine dark tourism (such as Tony Wheeler's “Bad Lands
” and “Dark Lands” – in which the names of the countries may have a “dark” ring, but very little in terms of actual dark tourism sites inside them is covered).
The book is well written, cleverly worded and stylistically appealing, and also well edited, despite the odd slip, such as a missing word here and there, and a couple of typos, but nothing too serious and so infrequent as to be negligible.
The only issues I take with the content of the book, apart from very few factual objections, concern the sometimes a bit forced focus on the morality of dark tourism, as if the author's making every conceivable painstaking effort to search out some ethically questionable angle, even where the sites are overall perfectly accepted and visited by millions, not just some really ardent, hard-core dark tourists. And given that extreme sensitivity towards moral issues, I wonder why the Japanese suicide forest had to be included … but never mind.
One thing I was also wondering about is whether perhaps the book could have benefited from a bit of a wider spread of coverage, i.e. more dark sites in more countries (e.g. in the former Soviet Union
), at the expense of detail on the morally-digging-deep front. But that may have been detrimental to the overall style of the book, with its mix of first-hand reports, historical accounts and elaborate critical evaluations. You just can't have everything in this format. The book had to be selective.
Even though I don't agree with everything said in the book I cannot deny that it set the bar very high for anything to follow or compete with it. It's the most in-depth, most thoroughly researched, most thoughtful and thought-provoking and at the same time elegantly written books on dark tourism yet. Required reading!
NOTE: you can order the book direct from the publisher
(external link, opens in a new window), and that way avoid Amazon or any other 'middlemen'.