Why this interest in dark and weird places?
Where does my dislike of (or non-interest in) "standard tourism", especially beaches, and my interest in "dark tourism" or "weird places" in general stem from? It's not easy to say for sure, but I can only guess that an element of early childhood "imprinting" must play a role.
When I was a kid, in northern Germany
, my Dad would take the family, or sometimes just me, to various kinds of places that, in hindsight, I would now indeed categorize as somewhat "dark" or at least "unusual/weird" (back then it just was what it was).
A favourite weekend trip was out to a disused peat bog (the Himmelmoor) north of Hamburg
. There we would clamber around the abandoned peat-cutting and transportation machinery that had been left there to just rust away. On one occasion we even managed to get some of the narrow-gauge railway carriages moving. The remains of the cut-out peat bog stretching for well over a mile in straight lines were also hugely impressive for me back then.
Other regular trips took us to parts of Hamburg
's harbour, where back then you could still roam around relatively freely – now it's all fences and security so you can't explore anywhere any longer. Back then we would climb around scrapyards, stroll along quaysides, amongst the cranes while harbour business was going on around us (even though we generally preferred the quieter parts).
One outing that made a particularly strong impression on me was the one that took us along the then FRG
border, where we explored abandoned houses, and most dramatic of all: drove onto and walked around on the old Hamburg
motorway (now the A24 motorway – see lost places
), which back then was disused and in a pretty bad state of disrepair. The badly potholed and cracked motorway surface, in many cases scattered with debris, stretching along as far as the eye could see, was a sight I will never forget. I'm not sure it was entirely legal to go there, but we never caused any harm during any of those "adventures".
My first ever trip to Berlin
also left a deep impression: esp. the sight of the Berlin Wall
, then in full gruesome use and stretching all the way through (and around) the city. There were little platforms with steps you could climb to take a look over the wall (and see the border guards patrol and monitor the wall with binoculars from the various watchtowers
). Perhaps even more darkly impressive were the "ghost stations" of the U-Bahn (metro) and S-Bahn (regional metro trains) where the Western network went partly through the East's territory, mostly underground (see Nordbahnhof
). You could take in the eerie sight of the dimly lit former stations, sometimes even see the shadowy figures of the border guards, as the trains pulled slowly through these abandoned stations without stopping. The infamous Friedrichstraße station
, which also served as border crossing point, was another powerful indication of Cold War
separation, esp. the GDR
soldiers patrolling on a bridge overhead.
Later my Dad would take up sailing, so most summer weekends and holidays the whole family were going on the yacht – when we had time we'd go to the Baltic Sea, via the Kiel Canal. This in itself also had an adventurous feel and provided some fairly "weird" sights, such as the giant locks at either end of the canal. Or the combined railway and transporter bridge over the canal at Rendsburg (similar to the famous transporter bridge in Middlesbrough, England). Even just going up and down the river Elbe had such elements, especially sailing past the nuclear power station at Stade (one of the oldest such power plants in Germany, now decommissioned) with its iconic dome. The latter was particularly impressive when seen from the shore opposite (where we occasionally camped) with the sun going down directly behind the dome, creating the impression that the power plant was genuinely "radiating" red light!
And even when we went to the beach (this was something my Mum enjoyed and it was considered to be "kiddie-friendly stuff" to do, so we did it), my Dad would always make sure we found somewhere isolated without any other people around. And if other people did happen to come along and also occupy a spot nearby, my Dad would start making unsavoury comments in an attempt to drive them away ... or else move us further along the beach … This must also have left its mark. To this day I find crowded beaches one of the worst horrors in the world. (In fact it got worse in adulthood – to the point that I avoid beaches altogether; unless there's a particular, compelling reason in the sense of a dark destination – such as at Yala
in Sri Lanka
, or ANZAC Beach at Gallipoli
In adolescence and then adulthood I kept on searching out the unusual and off-the-beaten track, e.g. when I first started to go on trips abroad on my own, the old London
Docklands became a particular interest of mine for a few years (see lost places
It also has to be noted that I spent a crucial part of my formative years during a period when the Cold War
was heating up, esp. in the first half of the Reagan era, when warheads proliferated, warning times shrank and with that the risk of the accidental unleashing of World War Three
. And thus total nuclear annihilation became a very real and palpable threat – in particular in Germany
(which would have been the epicentre of a nuclear war – i.e. the whole country would have been completely scorched off the map had the Cold War turned hot). This left a mark on me – to this day I can't shake off this strange mixture of horror and dark fascination with sites related to the Cold War.
And speaking of nuclear threats – I also vividly remember the fear that engulfed us all when the Chernobyl
accident happened … even though we were not too badly affected where I lived at the time (Hamburg
). Still, the warning shot was clear enough, and I've always been politically sceptical of the civilian use of nuclear power too … again not without at the same time being strangely attracted to the abstract, invisible eeriness of nuclear sites.
Then, after I had I met my British partner, meanwhile wife (see personal background
), in Bradford
in Yorkshire, Great Britain
, the interest in the "darker" side of travelling to unusual destinations got a particular further boost, namely through her interest in the Holocaust. We started visiting concentration camp
memorial sites together and I got hooked on that aspect of dark tourism too.
Furthermore, we generally enjoy travel experiences on the edge, as it were, preferring the unusual over the "normal". And here we are, with such magically dark places under our belt as Chernobyl
, North Korea
, exploring Kazakhstan
and other post-Soviet
countries, poking around ghost towns
, swimming in the Viti
explosion crater in Iceland
, watching the eruptions of Montserrat
's volcano, driving through nuclear test
sites, going down missile silos
and into abandoned underground airbases
, as well as visiting the established top-notch
dark-tourism attractions such as the 9/11 Memorial & Museum
, Tuol Sleng
, etc., etc. … And the list goes on and probably always will for as long as we can travel.
How I realized I'm a dark tourist:
I first encountered the term 'dark tourism' in 2007, namely in an article in the British newspaper The Guardian. It was based on an interview with one of the academics who had introduced the term within academia and later to the world (namely J. Lennon, co-author of this seminal book
). The examples used made realize that my travels to a pretty large proportion fall into that category. By that time I had already been to Chernobyl
, Ground Zero
, Robben Island
, North Korea
, the Berlin Wall
, several concentration camp
memorial sites, countless cemeteries
and so forth.
My reaction to that realization was perhaps somewhat different to that of others when they first hear of the term 'dark tourism'. I was instantly fascinated, wanted to know more about it, so I started reading about the topic and I also wanted to do more dark tourism in practice. The idea for developing this website followed within less than a year. And since then, I've targeted a large majority of my travelling time to pursuing and discovering yet more dark-tourism destinations.
I noticed over the years that for most people when they first hear the expression 'dark tourism' this triggers an initial negative reaction. I've come to believe that this probably has to do with the word 'dark' instinctively being associated with 'bad', 'morally wrong', or even 'psychologically deviant'. It often takes a bit of explaining that the 'dark' in 'dark tourism' is primarily the same figurative use of that word as in 'dark chapters of history'. Once that is understood, people usually become more open-minded and some even go on to suggest more examples. Yet the number of people who get immediately enthusiastic about it is still more limited …
Why did I not have that initial negative reaction back in 2007? I've only recently become aware of a possible explanation: at the time I was still much more into the Gothic music
scene (I still am, just not as much any more – I've musically diversified more, so to speak). And in that scene, the word 'dark' has rather positive connotations. Indeed it's one of the key ingredients defining the genre. There are even subgenres explicitly bearing the banner, such as 'dark wave'. Similarly I doubt that members of death metal bands have an issue with the name of the genre containing the word 'death'.
So for me on hearing the term 'dark tourism' and seeing the examples adduced, my reaction was more like “hey, how cool is that? There's even a word for what I'm doing, and a cool one at that!” It only later occurred to me what a barrier the term can be when talking about it with others, and especially with the media. It's been suggested to me that maybe I should call it something else. But I'm loathe to give up this extremely convenient cover term for all those widely varying things that come together under this huge umbrella term. And I simply cannot think of anything with the same coverage while at the same time being short and simple. The existing alternative terms (thanatourism, grief tourism, disaster tourism – see here
) are all way too narrow. So for want of anything better, I'll stick with 'dark tourism'!