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“Dark Tourist”, series (8 parts, ca. 40 minutes each) by David Farrier (Netflix, 2018)
This is the Netflix “documentary” series that caused quite a stir in the summer of 2018. After its release I got dozens of interview requests and the media certainly picked up on the topic of dark tourism again in general, possibly with more hype than ever before.
Having read scores of reviews (many quite negative) and having been told about it personally by various friends and acquaintances who'd seen it, I admit I was reluctant to actually sit down and watch the whole thing from beginning to end myself. But I eventually did, so that I could get a first-hand impression and come to my own conclusions.
So what's my verdict? There's no simple answer to that. Certain aspects I find good, others I have problems with – some minor, some much more fundamental. I have one particular gripe with the whole approach and I think that's why the title is wrong. The series could have more appropriately been named “How Not To Be A Dark Tourist”. Instead of portraying genuine dark tourism in an actually representative way, David Farrier, a journalist from New Zealand, sets out on an often sensationalist thrill- and outrage-seeking approach and seems to be more interested in getting himself into all manner of dodgy situations, and then pulling pained faces.
That said, though, there are exceptions and a few places covered in the series are indeed top DT destinations. In general the imagery is very cool as well, the editing excellent, and the presenter David Farrier comes across as a very likeable character. The series is without a doubt extremely entertaining. It just doesn't do its topic full justice. And that I think is a great shame, as the opportunity would have been there. [Footnote: In fact, the maker/presenter of this series contacted me about a year before it came out, and I did provide plenty of consultation. Yet he chose to ignore most of what I had said and instead followed his clearly preconceived, more sensationalist approach all the same. I found that personally a bit disappointing.]
So what's the series like in detail? Let's take a closer look:
---- WARNING: spoiler alert! In order do discuss the content of the series I have to give quite a bit of it away, so if you rather don't want to know, especially if you haven't watched the series yourself yet, then don't read on – but you may want to rather jump directly to the conclusion:
Each episode kicks off with a very short intro about the presenter's general interest in the unusual and off-beat, and his quest to explore “dark-tourism hotspots around the world”. There's also a brief overview of what will be covered in the episode. Then follows a little animated title sequence with a rundown of visual “dark” clichés (skulls, guns, coffins, nooses, mushroom clouds, gas masks, the usual lot), and then the topical parts begin.
Episode 1, Latin America:
The first port of call for Farrier is Medellin in Colombia. So this is about so-called “Narco-Tourism”, which is mostly fuelled by the legacy of former cocaine cartel boss Pablo Escobar. Indeed there is a rather controversial tourism industry that has grown out of this and various Pablo-Escobar-themed tours are available. Yet given the controversial status of these, I find it a very unfortunate first example to pick to represent dark tourism (because it's not representative, but rather exceptional within the larger context of the concept of dark tourism). Farrier mostly concentrates on interviewing Escobar's main hitman, a multiple killer, that is, who is now milking the legacy of his time with the drug baron, while claiming that he's a changed man after having done time for his crimes (though Farrier doesn't quite buy this). The most revealing thing in this section, I thought, was one American tourist who's briefly interviewed and who says “I just want to know the history”. That's the attitude Farrier should perhaps have pursued a bit more rather than concentrating so much on that ex-killer and his antics. But never mind.
Next he travels north to Mexico City in time for Day of the Dead, when people dress up, wear skull make-up and so on and congregate in cemeteries to celebrate the memory of the dead. It's indeed a major cultural event that also attracts dark tourists, which Farrier acknowledges, but then instantly shoves aside. With the claim of wanting “to dig deeper” he instead proceeds to dig somewhere else, namely at an extreme expression of Mexico's peculiar relationship with death: the worship of folk saint Santa Muerte.
With the help of a local fixer he goes to the disadvantaged (and decidedly un-touristy) quarter of the city, where this is most prevalent. But first, under the pretext of wanting to “prepare himself” Farrier goes to visit a priest – just as an “exorcism” is under way. At this point we've completely left dark-tourism territory of course. And this passage seems more about showing Farrier's well rehearsed facial expression of discomfort and doubt (arguably THE leitmotif of the entire series!). Normally, I would have started fast-forwarding at this point, but feeling obliged (also for the sake of this review) to sit through it all, I soldiered on. It was painful … all about “evil spirits”, “demons” and religious zeal and confrontation. The “exorcism” spectacle featured here apparently went on for two hours and Farrier admits he was glad when it was over. For me even the few minutes of coverage were already way too much.
Following a blessing by the priest, Farrier than dives deep into the Santa Muerte cult, and it gets ever weirder. Yet it suddenly takes an unexpected turn when Farrier arranges to meet the founder of the Santa Muerte cult and is shown her personal collection of death statues and effigies. He observes that she's actually quite like a “cool” grandmother. (Yet there is also real tragedy behind all this, as we soon learn … but I won't give the details away.) Farrier's conclusion is that this is not really death worship but about not fearing death. Fair enough. Very thoughtful. However, all of this part of the episode is a specially arranged journalistic foray into a normally hidden world in a disadvantaged barrio of Mexico City. So it's not really tourism, and hence not 'dark tourism' either. Interesting as it otherwise may be.
The final third of Episode One takes Farrier to the US-Mexican border, where he partakes in a staged faux illegal border-crossing “tour”. I liked the little sideswipe at Donald Trump's calls for building a wall along this border when there actually already is one, as Farrier soon finds out (I discovered this too, in El Paso). But the “tour” he then partakes in is anything but fun. And of course it is not supposed to be. Lot's of shouted orders and claims that “this is not play” (when in reality it is of course exactly that). Farrier likens the thing to a military boot camp. I was reminded of the sort of theatrical “immersion experiences” they offer e.g. at Karosta prison
But back to Mexico: the “tour” involves a lot of noise, gunshots, staged violence … all rather “amateur drama”, as Farrier rightly observes. The intention of the whole “role-playing experience” is to provide an insight into the dangers that real illegal migrants face when attempting to cross the US border, so it's supposed to be educational in a way. But is that the sort of approach to being educated that I would choose? Absolutely no. Do I think it is something that is typical of dark tourism? Definitely not.
So this first episode was in several ways beside the point – meaning: of very limited relevance to genuine dark tourism. Despite that, however, as such it was at times quite entertaining at least. Yet it was the next destination that I had been looking forward to the most.
Episode 2, Japan:
Japan is one of the absolute top countries for dark tourism, for Hiroshima and Nagasaki alone. But for this series David Farrier instead heads to Fukushima first. It's indeed a very exciting new dark destination that's only become available recently. I don't know which operator the team used – they go on a minibus together with about half a dozen other Western travellers – but I doubt it was the official one (because of the breaking of the rules – see below). Anyway, it is certainly one of the visually and topically most interesting parts of the series.
The tour starts in the town of Tomioka, recently declared safe to return to by the government, though few people have. The town they see is still largely a ghost town. Farrier wonders why the houses and shops have not been looted – and muses “maybe they know something we don't”, but in reality it's just not in the Japanese culture (that's also why you get so many vending machines all over the country, and they're never vandalized). Yet no such explanation is offered in the series. Visually, however, this is quite something. Not only is the place a de facto ghost town still, there's also earthquake damage still visible. Add to that the beeping Geiger counters and the constant rain, and there definitely is a lot of dark atmosphere about here.
But unfortunately this part of the series is marred by some gross errors and general naïvety. For instance, when the group measure something like 0.73 microsieverts on their “Geiger meters”, one young woman on the tour hysterically exclaims “that's more than in Chernobyl ... where no one is allowed to go!” How can you cram so much erroneous nonsense into a single sentence and still be so convinced you're right? I was just shaking my head but wanted to scream. To clarify: A) Of course you can go to Chernobyl. I've been three times myself and in 2018 alone some 60,000 other visitors went there too. A couple of thousand people even live and work there. B) There's no single uniform radiation level “in Chernobyl”. In the village of that name it's actually very low (around 0.12 μSv), while in a few hotspots within the Zone, Pripyat and at the NPP it's significantly higher. C) The radiation level alone is only part of the whole picture. Exposure is always a function of a) level of radiation, b) distance to the source of radiation and c), most importantly, duration of the exposure. The ca. 0.73 μSv they measured would have been per hour, but they probably spent much less than an hour at a site with such elevated levels. Moreover to say it's so much more than what the guide had said was “safe” is wrong for the same reason. That's because the guide actually said “safe – to live with”, i.e. permanently, or per year. Why is none of that clarified in this episode? Instead the misconceptions are exploited to heighten the sensationalist “danger kick”. OK, maybe Farrier didn't do his homework before the tour and got a bit infected by, and carried away with, the panic of his fellow travellers. But then he should at least have done his research duties after the visit, instead of just letting all that nonsense stand unchallenged. Very annoying.
And then there's the point where he deliberately breaks the rules. This was in the part of the Zone where there are checkpoints and gates and the bus isn't even allowed to stop. But they do stop and get out, which prompts a short encounter with a security guard who quickly shoos them back onto the bus and tells them to leave. Yet Farrier has licked blood and so goes on to talk the guide into letting him and his film crew out at one point to sneak into a building – and he gets allowed five minutes. And so they run into a semi-ruined ex-amusement arcade. The footage is indeed extremely atmospheric and eerie – but again they are caught in the act by police. This time they get a longer talking to, but are eventually let off. Though the guide makes it clear that they were “lucky” not to get arrested.
Longer term, too, this part of the series caused some outrage in Japan after the release of “Dark Tourist”. I read an article that claimed that the Japanese authorities contemplated suing Farrier and Netflix for this transgression (but I don't think that ever happened). And at least one official tour operator for Fukushima felt the need to distance itself from the series and its theme. Well done, Farrier – you've actually done damage to your topic and made it harder for other dark tourists to visit Fukushima! (Indeed, I've heard from one fellow traveller that she was at first refused a tour when she mentioned that she was interested in dark tourism … so it really is a problem).
But back to the tour in this series. There is a lunch break at a local restaurant, but Farrier and other tour participants worry about the food being served here, whether it's local, whether it's “safe” or radioactive. Then why didn't they use their dosimeters to find out? Anyway, they're all too hungry to reject the food and so give in and tuck in anyway. And apparently it's very tasty …
After lunch they head for the coast … to an area hit especially hard by the tsunami of March 2011. Footage from that disaster is interspersed – and brought back memories for me of being glued to the screen at home as the disaster unfolded and being totally shocked by it. Today, the coastline is mostly empty, save for the odd ruin still in situ, where they stop. Otherwise it's just heaps of mangled metal and debris, all that's left of the small town that once was here but that got swept away. Again it's rather eerie footage … Similarly unsettling is the look of the storage facilities for millions of bags of contaminated topsoil that had been scraped off the land. An ascending drone sequence really shows the dimensions of this facility … and it's only one of many dotted around all over the area.
After this they return to the edge of the no-return, forbidden zone, and again the readings on the dosimeters shoot up ... to as much as 1.5 μSv/h. Unsurprisingly the woman who already got hysterical at half that level, does so again, this time seeming genuinely panicked. Farrier's narration almost joins in, and the same misunderstandings as before come back. The hysterical woman proceeds to pull her face mask over – as if that could do anything about the background radiation they're measuring. I had to wonder why their guide didn't explain things to calm them down. Or did he but we're just not show it, as that would have undermined the “danger thrill” theme of this episode? Admittedly, seeing the readings on the Geiger counter hit over 9 μSv/h and a line flashing in red that says “dangerous background radiation” must be unsettling if you were told before the tour (as some claim they were) that something like 0.4 would be the maximum they'd encounter. So the group voted to have the tour cut short.

[UPDATE May 2019: I've meanwhile been to Fukushima myself, went an a real tour there and spoke to various people. From that I gathered that what's depicted in the Netflix series was in fact, quote, a “fake tour”. The “guide” wasn't one (but a photographer posing as a guide) and even the other participants on the “tour” were apparently hired by Netflix especially for this episode. This would explain a few things. It seems all that hysterical panic about radiation was actually just put on. This confirms the impression that the whole series is in fact a “fake documentary”, or at least not a serious one deserving that classification. In a proper documentary questions aren't simply asked and then just left to stand unanswered to create some cheap suspense; instead a documentary tries to find answers. And that would have been possible here too. For instance about the safety of the food: it turns out that food safety regulations and tests are actually stricter around Fukushima than they are elsewhere in Japan. So the food served in the series may well have been “safer” than in, say, Tokyo. No wonder the misrepresentation in the series caused so much anger and resentment in Japan.]

After this seriously dark destination the series then has a kind of contrasting interlude at the Huis Ten Bosch theme park where Farrier stays in the “Strange Hotel” staffed by robots. He claims it continues the “post-apocalyptic” theme, but how? Does he really believe the world will be taken over by cheap Jurassic-Park-like mechanical mini-dinosaur puppets with built-in speakers talking American English to hotel guests? The whole thing is certainly extremely weird and bizarre, but I can't see any genuine connection to dark tourism here. And it's not like there wouldn't have been anything dark around. The park is near Nagasaki, after all – but that top destination does not feature at all.
Instead, Farrier visits the infamous “Suicide Forest” near Mt Fuji. It's a destination that's made quite a few headlines in media articles about dark tourism. But I still find this rather dubious – see under Japan. The forest is certainly magically scenic. But that and the suicide element seem to be not enough: his guide, an American guy they meet, and eventually a Japanese woman who once came here to commit suicide but didn't go through with it, all try to hype things up a bit by adding some kind of ghost element, stories of invisible “spirits” and such stuff. That put me off even more (see under paranormal). I was glad that Farrier at least didn't buy it so easily. They don't find a body (but the American guy reports on finding one once), only a tie hanging from a tree branch that is claimed to have been used as a makeshift noose. So it is dark, but it's a kind of extreme dark tourism on the edge of that concept and one that I personally wouldn't want to engage in.
The last item in the Japan leg of the series is Hashima island. But instead of portraying the actual tourism here – i.e. the official boat excursions from Nagasaki – he instead exploits his privileged status as a journalist to gain special access (impossible for normal travellers!) to the island, accompanied by a guide and two former residents, all wearing hard hats as they explore the interiors of the crumbling ruins of this ghost town island. The footage is quite fantastic and I felt very envious. That's because I know that I, or any other tourists, won't get that kind of close-up experience. That's sad, because the visual appeal of this place really is second to none. And in that sense this section is another absolute highlight of the series. What's sorely missing in Farrier's coverage of Hashima, however, is the deeper, darker historical background, namely that (mostly) Koreans and Chinese POWs were used as slave labourers in the coal mines of Hashima during WWII. Not a word about that. However, that's perhaps not entirely his fault. The Japanese are quite cagey about their war-crimes past. Still, for someone who frequently states that he wants “to dig deeper”, it wouldn't have been outside the realm of possibility for Farrier to discover this dark part of the story ...
What I really like at the end of this episode, though, is Farrier's musing about that having been forced out of his comfort zone and having had his beliefs challenged, he felt even happier to be alive and that this is perhaps the key point of dark tourism. Indeed, that can certainly be an element of it.
There is something strangely missing in this episode, though. In the intro section we also see Farrier going on an earthquake survival course – which apparently was quite a noisy affair with simulated shaking rooms, hiding under tables and putting out fires and stuff. But none of that actually features in the episode. Was this section cut out and the reference to it in the intro simply an editing glitch? I don't know.
Episode 3, USA:
One of the greatest countries for dark tourism, but what is it this series picks out first? A certain serial killer (Jeffrey Dahmer). I could almost feel myself deflating when that came up as the first thing to represent the USA. Farrier picks up a woman he calls a self-declared dark tourist, though when he actually asks her that, it becomes clear that prior to this tour with Farrier she'd pursued her obsession with this serial killer's case mostly from her armchair at home through reading, but hadn't actually been to any of the places of this tour before.
Anyway, they join a proper organized guided tour in Milwaukee on the theme of this killer's extreme deeds. It's a bit like a US equivalent of those Jack-the-Ripper tours in London … also in that there isn't actually that much to see. At least Farrier and his companion get suitably annoyed when the tour suddenly takes on a “paranormal” direction. Nonetheless, it has to be conceded that tours like these are a fringe phenomenon of dark tourism (though personally I'd never go on one). That can't be said about what Farrier and his companion do next in order to “dig deeper”: they visit the lawyer who defended this serial killer in court! That may be very interesting – but it hasn't really got anything to do with tourism (and hence neither with dark tourism), as this is not something normal tourists could ever expect to do. Again, it was rather through coming with a film crew as a journalist that this meeting was made possible for Farrier.
Next, on the other hand, is something that is most definitely right at the heart of dark-tourism territory: Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, where JFK was assassinated in 1963. Farrier observes how much tourism business is visible at street level, with multiple guides vying for customers amongst the many curious visitors who come here. Yet these are the “rogue” freelancers who mostly promote their various conspiracy theories. Farrier goes on what he believes is the “most in-depth tour”, and it even involves riding in a car of the sort that JFK was shot in back then. It quickly turns out, though, that this guide/driver too has his own conspiracy theory to peddle. Granted, the JFK assassination remains prime conspiracy-theory material to this day, and it is part of the dark attraction, I suppose. But why completely ignore the main, officially commodified outfit here, the Sixth Floor Museum? Instead Farrier goes on another driving tour, this time a much shorter one in a vehicle involving some modern virtual-reality technology and noisy entertainment for a lively crew of very touristy tourists (of the sort that all genuine dark tourists I have ever encountered wouldn't dream of partaking in) … But it also includes a visit to the house that the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald used to live in. So we do get a little added place authenticity, at least.
Any such authenticity goes completely out of the window in the third US segment of this episode, however, for which Farrier travels to New Orleans, in order to meet “some real vampires” … Of course, they're not “real”, just extreme Goth types who are into the whole vampire allure and go as far as having fake fangs fitted in their mouths ... Farrier gives it a go too, even though type-wise he couldn't be more different from those Goths and wannabe vampires. He meets an even more extreme group who actually suck human blood (and at least one of them seems to be genuinely convinced he's an actual vampire). Anyway, it's all about a kind of underground culture that plays quite intensively and seriously with dark tropes … So dark it certainly is, but yet again I had to ask myself, where's the tourism aspect here? Where are the sites/sights, the visitor attractions related to this? At the end of this episode Farrier claims that it's through being a dark tourist that he's managed to get access to these otherwise hidden worlds of outsider culture. I say: no, it's the fact that he's a journalist with a film crew that made it possible to gain these insights. But that's very, very different from actual dark tourism undertaken by actual dark tourists. So this part of the series is completely off the mark.
Episode 4, the Stans:
Of the five countries normally subsumed under “The Stans”, only two are covered in this episode, but this included some absolute top-notch dark-tourism, beginning with: the Polygon/Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan! For this, Farrier teams up with a Brit who turns out to be more of a danger tourist than a proper dark tourist and who has visited various war zones – which is something Farrier is clearly very intrigued about. Amongst the war zones mentioned, however, is North Korea – where the war ended (if only in a ceasefire) in 1953. Strange. Anyway, Farrier considers their trip to the Polygon also to be danger tourism, except that the danger, radiation, will be invisible. His companion boasts that he “researched this quite a bit – I even know the name of the first bomb: Joe One – after Josef Stalin … so there's a bit of history for you!” Wow! Or rather: not so wow, and this minimal bit of historical knowledge isn't even quite accurate. The bomb was officially called RDS-1. “Joe 1” was only the nickname it was given later, and only in the West. But never mind.
They go to Kurchatov for overnighting (but don't visit the town's STS museum with its fantastic machinery) and then drive into the Polygon and first stop at the “atomic lake” (a body of water that filled a huge hole blasted into the ground by an A-bomb, when it was still thought possible to use nuclear explosions for civil-engineering projects). By now they are with a local guide who tells them that the deep water is highly contaminated, but the surface water less so. They meet some fishermen who actually haul fish from the lake and the visitors are invited to share a fish lunch, accompanied by plenty of vodka. With Dutch courage thus gained they even go for a swim in the lake. I don't know, all seems a little reckless, but maybe it's not actually as dangerous as you would assume.
Next they drive right to Opytnoe Pole, the ground zero of the early Soviet atmospheric nuclear tests. They put on thin protective suits and face masks, but Farrier isn't quite convinced. Like in Fukushima, no real understanding of radiation is shown when his companion walks through ground zero shouting out his Geiger counter readings … and as the reading goes to 6 (presumably μSv/h), Farrier claims that that is 20 times what it is at the edge of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. That is of course nonsense again, as there isn't any fixed one reading all along the edge of the Zone. When the readings peak out at 14, it's sounded out like a triumph – even though even that isn't actually that dangerously high (I've measured higher levels, and without protective clothes on, at certain hotspots in Chernobyl). They then retreat away from ground zero and explore the iconic measuring towers of the Polygon. Visually, all this is indeed dark tourism at its very best! And at this point I felt connected with the series, possibly more so than at any other stage.
Farrier also asks about people affected by all the tests, and while his initial guide is reluctant to get drawn into that side of the history, Farrier tracks down a doctor from the maternity ward (whether in Kurchatov or Semey is not quite clear, I presume the latter) for an interview. And soon the story changes and it gets quite grim. The doctor takes them to an orphanage to see for themselves the medical legacy of all the radiation released at the Polygon. It's getting quite upsetting at this stage and Farrier says that what he's seen here will stay with him forever. Not least because of this insight – plus the visuals – this part of Episode 4, in my view, was the highlight of the series overall!
But his next destination is the one that sparked the biggest envy in me: Baikonur, the Russian-run space port/rocket launching area within Kazakhstan. (When I tried to visit the place, my arranged tour was cancelled at short notice, so I wasn't able to see it – hence my envy.) He joins a small select group of visitors who paid some serious money to go there and watch a launch. One American guy who Farrier interviews explains what the thrill is about being here: that in the past it was all so secret and now you can see it from the front row. And what they get to see is truly awesome beyond words: a completely assembled Soyuz rocket being wheeled – right past the visitors – towards its launch pad. The whole thing is only slightly tarnished by Farrier displaying his ignorance again, namely by worrying about whether the fact that the Soyuz is based on 1950s Soviet designs, makes it unsafe today. One minute of research would have revealed that the Soyuz is in fact the rocket with the best safety record in space-age history (and for a while was even without competition, after the USA's cancellation of the Space Shuttle, with only China sporting their own system, since 2003). But not only did Farrier fail to do his homework, he didn't even listen properly when he was told about the Soyuz. This becomes clear when he anxiously exclaims “but this is old, 50 years old”. No, the design principle goes back decades (to the R7 of 1957, while the first Soyuz version was launched in 1966, to be precise). That's not the same as saying the rocket he's seeing is that old (it had probably only just been built). But Farrier clearly wants to be worried – and he conflates the Soyuz with the recent Proton rocket, which had several failures. And so he goes on to wonder whether he's about to witness a disaster.
Instead they first meet the actual astronauts/cosmonauts at the usual press conference. Farrier gets his chance to ask a question and it gets a bit embarrassing, yet Russian philosophical politeness saves the moment (I won't give the details away). The actual launch itself is just fabulous to watch – and you can see Farrier being totally overwhelmed by it too. I felt my eyes watering with envy at this point. Oh how I would have loved to experience this too. Quickly the regret over my failed attempt of 2011 came back to me …
So, that's been two amazing, epic and deeply emotional sections in this episode, and making it thus already the best one so far. What's next? Turkmenistan! Here Farrier has to pretend to be a sports reporter wanting to see the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, but of course he goes there with actually his dark-tourism quest in mind. No wonder then, that he gets a little paranoid about all the security and bizarreness of this hermit country. He even checks his Ashgabat hotel room for bugs! Farrier briefly assumes his official role as sports reporter (there's no other press in attendance, and the whole thing looks decidedly fake and staged) but then wants to head out of the city. He had heard of the “Gates of Hell” (he means the flaming Darvaza crater) and there's footage of Farrier watching videos of it on his laptop. But again, in his superficiality, he still gets half the background information wrong when he claims that the crater was the result of an oil-drilling exercise and that its flames are burning oil – they're not, it's natural gas, of course (hence no black smoke as burning oil would have created). But he doesn't get to see it anyway, as the entire city was shut off for the duration of the sports event, and journalists, especially, weren't allowed out.
Instead they at least get a city tour to see all the fantastical bizarreness of Ashgabat – and it's fabulous to watch, in that wacky, crazy way. Things take a sudden turn, though, as Farrier has an accident with a shattering mirror, and has to be taken to hospital. But they patch him up quickly enough, and (with the help of some heavy-duty drugs too) he manages to just about make it to the opening of the Games and to witness the speech by Turkmenistan's autocratic president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (Farrier gets the pronunciation of that mouthful of a name wrong, but I think anybody can be forgiven for that). But after this opening, Farrier has to cut his stay short because of his injury. Still, it was another insightful section, and so I maintain that the Stans episode is by far the best part of the whole series. By a mile, or two, in fact.
Episode 5, Europe:
Europe, the continent with by far the largest number and widest range of dark-tourism sites gets no more than the usual three places selected for this episode, and they're all rather far from what's the core of dark tourism. Here, Farrier is back at looking more for weirdness that he can pull his usual disturbed face at, rather than anything that is truly dark tourism. He starts out with something that is controversially often subsumed under the cover term dark tourism but which many, me included, do not regard as a form of it at all: battle re-enactments. Farrier visits what he claims is the biggest such event, in southern Britain, and meets the people who revel in putting on WWII-era uniforms, Nazi ones included, triggering the predictable tut-tutting by the presenter … yet Farrier lets himself into the theatrics, the mud, the camaraderie and takes part in a mock battle (looking mostly confused and pained). But even when he is actually told in the canteen by one of the participants that it is all just about friends coming together for a bit of “Hollywood” and simply just enjoying “play time”, he still continues to confuse it with dark tourism. And it gets worse: in his off-camera comments Farrier muses that making dark history (he mainly means the Nazis) just a bit of “fun” doesn't contribute to understanding that history. Fair enough. But then why does he so stubbornly avoid/ignore all the hundreds of dark-tourism sites that are precisely about gaining such better understanding?
At least the next place Farrier heads to, still in England, is a museum, so by definition a tourist sight. But does he pick the IWM, Bletchly Park or any other of the big ones of DT in the UK? No, he heads to the small private museum inside Littledean Jail, which has made some headlines in recent years and which Farrier calls “the most politically incorrect” crime museum. So here we go again: weirdness is given precedence once more.
Farrier meets the museum's creator/curator and gets a guided tour through the jumble-room-like crammed exhibition halls to search out its infamously controversial exhibits, which the guide is actually quite frank about. He soon finds a prime example: a display of dummy Ku-Klux-Clansmen about to lynch some dummy black kids. Yes, it is, as Farrier puts it, “confronting”. And he is probably right in his judgement that this isn't genuinely about educating visitors but rather about pure shock effect. This is certainly the case with the alleged lampshade made from human skin purportedly from a Nazi concentration camp (though whether it's genuine should be questioned, but in this programme it isn't). There are also scale-model dioramas depicting rape scenes from Auschwitz and such like – and these are, yes, of course, totally gross and objectionable (intentionally). Having sensed Farrier's doubts about the museum's authenticity (after all, the curator made those dioramas based on his own imagination, and whether some of the displayed serial-killer possessions are real is unclear), the curator then arranges for a phone call from an imprisoned serial killer – again: very bizarre and certainly dark. But tourism?
To contrast all these encounters, Farrier next heads to the beach. Yes, indeed. In Cyprus, though. And so, from the cliché-perfect holiday beach he tries to sneak into the forbidden ghost town of Varosha (near Famagusta in North Cyprus), a former beach resort town that ended up in no-man's-land after the partition of Cyprus in the wake of the Turkish military takeover of the northern half of the island. That, Farrier assumes, makes it a “target” for dark tourists … even though it is strictly off-limits. Still, he decides to “sneak in”.
But before he attempts that he goes to a viewpoint over the ghost town and then on to Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus and embarks on a Segway tour (I so had to cringe – this is the most embarrassing-looking tourist mode of transport in the world!). At least it included a stop by the UN-controlled buffer zone, where the team's filming causes a problem (it's actually illegal to film the zone). Still, Farrier keeps joking about wanting to sneak in, only to be reminded that it is actually a serious place when gunshots are heard in the distance. Meeting a former resident of Varosha also brings home the seriousness of the division of Cyprus.
To explore this further, Farrier travels into the unrecognized Turkish part of Cyprus and gets shown to a rooftop from where he can get a pretty close-up look into the off-limits ghost town. Filming even near it causes trouble again, as the team gets checked by Turkish officials popping up out of nowhere and he even gets arrested and detained for a few hours before being told to get out of Turkish Cyprus. So does he? Of course not.
Instead, Farrier decides to use some spy-camera-equipped glasses to illegally film Varosha (and all the “no filming” signs) … and the foolhardiness gets upped when he and his team actually try to swim into the Turkish forbidden zone from an adjacent beach resort – resulting in another clash with the border security forces, who again threaten to arrest them and demand they delete their recordings. They complied but managed to recover it later, so we viewers still get to see the footage. Eventually, however, Farrier concedes that this dark destination is simply out of reach.
So what was this? An adventure of sorts. A repeated attempt to break the law. Does that make it a form of extreme dark tourism? I'm not sure. On the one hand yes, the allure of and the brief glimpses into the contested territories of Cyprus are most definitely a kind of dark tourism. I'm more sceptical, however, about the naïve and foolhardy sneaking-in attempts. It's borderline also in the figurative sense of the word.
Episode 6, Southeast Asia:
South-East Asia, too, is chock-full of top-level dark tourism sites. But, again, this episode more or less ignores them all. It starts off promisingly in Cambodia. The fact that the killing fields are a major draw gets briefly mentioned and a few images flicker past … then this gets instantly dropped and instead Farrier sets out to find something altogether different. He'd heard rumours that there are shooting ranges where you can kill a cow by rocket-propelled grenades … and he wants to find out if it's true. Fair enough, if that sort of thing intrigues you, then from a journalistic point of view it might be interesting. But I just think it's far, far less representative of dark tourism than the big established Cambodian sights such as Tuol Sleng or Choeung Ek.
Anyway, he persists and does indeed go to such a shooting range together with an international gaggle of young backpackers, some of whom are clearly suffering from elevated machismo-levels. While these enjoy firing machine guns at inanimate targets, Farrier insists he has to find out whether you can indeed shoot a cow for real if you pay the price. He lets it go as far as the cow getting purchased and set up for him to aim his machine gun at – before deciding not to go through with it (to all his companions' relief). However, he shows some pride in having proven that dark tourists can indeed pay to shoot a cow – but that this is too dark for him.
Could this really be called dark tourism, though? I'm not sure – personally, even though I've been to some 800 dark-tourism destinations worldwide, this sort of thing has never once even remotely occurred to me. And I can 100% guarantee that I'd never do anything like this (I'd even pass on the shooting of machine guns full stop). So, is it something other than dark tourism perhaps? But if it is to be subsumed under this umbrella term then it is indeed a very disturbing extreme form.
More or less the opposite has to be said about Farrier's next destination: the new planned capital city of Myanmar, Naypyidaw. There's a short prologue to this section which recounts the country's very dark past (quite recent too, the military dictatorship officially ended only in 2015), but none of that plays any direct role in what follows. The artificial city, with its largely empty boulevards and squares, surely is very bizarre, but the only aspect that could perhaps count as “dark”, in a way, is the fact that the film team are constantly followed around by a government “minder”, so there's a bit of North-Korea-esque paranoia and weirdness going on. The 20-lane highway that they specifically visit, but which is completely devoid of any traffic, also reminded me very much of the empty motorways outside Pyongyang that I saw during my 2005 DPRK trip. So it's kind-of crazy-dark, but not really dark-dark.
It's a bit different when the team gets to the OTT parliament building. This is, again, very DPRK-like, or maybe more like Bucharest's Palace of Parliament: oversized show-off architecture laden with marble and gold decorations. There is something genuinely dark under the veneer too, as we are soon told. Myanmar's democracy isn't fully democratic after all: the military reserve 25% of seats for themselves, so big changes can still not be made without the generals' approval.
UPDATE 2021: now there isn't even any pretence of democracy any longer ... the military re-seized power in a coup in early 2021; democracy has once more been squashed.
The bizarreness of the official side of the city is finally contrasted by an arranged home visit preceded by going to a local market. Now this is proper South-East-Asia frontier tourism. And Farrier gets to enjoy a good home-cooked chicken curry too. But it's time to get back on track with dark tourism.
Next comes Indonesia, more precisely Sulawesi, more precisely still: Toraja. The elaborate and, from a Western perspective, extreme funeral rites of the Toraja ethnic group are well known, and Farrier calls it “the zenith of dark tourism”. Yet he notes that only few intrepid dark tourists actually go there and when he does he's the only outside visitor.
After completing the arduous journey to get to the extremely remote village that is his destination he meets a local guide … and then a villager who's actually been dead for two years. The locals believe in death being a gradual process and that this person is only “resting”. But then his proper burial ceremony comes up during which he will actually be interred. I knew that the Toraja funeral rites include the brutal sacrificial slaughter of buffalo and pigs – which is why I've personally never wanted to witness this … apparently I'm not dark tourist enough, then. So when it came to this part in this episode, I paused the programme and hesitated. Would I really want to watch all that cruel bloodshed, even though it's just on my computer screen? Feeling obliged not to wuss out, I eventually did watch … but had to do it in stages to recover in between the various bloodbaths. It's not just one animal, but dozens. I certainly would not have wanted to be there and watch it live. Farrier concedes that it is “difficult to watch”, and at one point he has to walk away and be on his own for a bit, but he adds that all that butchery is “just village reality”. OK, respect their culture. But treating it as a tourist “attraction” is something else. To his credit, though, Farrier is also visibly shaken by what he witnessed and declares he's going to go vegetarian from now on – if so, at least something positive would have come from it (see here why). But I couldn't help immediately doubting his sincerity in making that pledge … and indeed only a minute or so later he more or less admits to that himself.
Compared to the brutal slaughtering scenes the following ritual of taking the dead ancestors out of their tombs for their annual “spring clean” is much less hard to watch, somehow. At least for me. Farrier seems to struggle with it much more. The locals, on the other hand, are cheerful and get their smartphones out to take selfies with the corpse! What a culture mix!
Episode 7, Africa:
Africa doesn't feature as much on the dark-tourism radar as other continents, but includes some especially dark elements, such as the genocide in Rwanda or Ethiopia's politically brutal recent past. Yet again, though, Farrier more or less bypasses all that and instead heads first for the world's largest Voodoo festival in the small West-African country of Benin. Since this website excludes all paranormal and fictional dark aspects, such topics don't feature here, but opinions vary and some do consider it within the realm of dark tourism too. So I thought, OK, let's give it a chance. Just a minute or two into the programme, however, I regretted it, as footage of bloody sacrificial animal slaughter comes back to the fore … without any warning this time (cf. the previous episode). Dead animals – in the dried form – also feature a lot at the Voodoo market that Farrier visits next. It gets much ickier still and more extreme on the religious weirdness front – but I've decided not to dwell on this here. Suffice it to say it confirmed to me that this really isn't my kind of thing at all and I will continue to give it the widest berth possible. So enough of that.
South Africa, Farrier's next port of call, should be prime dark-tourism territory … but instead of true dark-tourism hotspots such as Robben Island or the Apartheid-era related sights in Johannesburg, he is guided by another common misunderstanding about dark tourism, namely that it includes both danger tourism and slum tourism. He heads straight to one of the infamous townships of Jo'burg, Alexandra, making it quite clear that he's there precisely because of its reputation of being a dangerous place. He goes on a regular guided tour by bicycle, together with a bunch of regular white tourists, experiences a much more relaxed and welcoming place than expected and is admonished not to refer to it as a slum. The participants feel safe, if a little “self-conscious” (being the only whites cycling quite visibly through a black community), and they get a bit of local history as well (a house with a Mandela connection – cf. Mandela House, Soweto). So this isn't really the anticipated danger tourism.
Hence Farrier is a bit disappointed and pushes for something edgier, and he gets it: he's taken to a place off the “sanitized” tourist route to watch some 'spinning'. That's a kind of spectator sport/spectacle where cars are spun in crazy ways with acrobatics added. Though it had its origins in gang crime when stolen cars were used to show off in that way, it's now a fully institutionalized and comparatively safe type of entertainment, with just a little element of competition. So, basically we've still not got anything genuinely dark. As if with a dose of regret, Farrier says Alexandra had been quite fun.
That changes a fair bit when he travels on to Orania, a kind of model white supremacist town that refused to take part in South Africa's post-Apartheid route towards equality and reconciliation. Instead it's a “good-old-days” white enclave. And there are even tours for visitors as well, all whites, of course. Farrier meets one group, all elderly white people openly nostalgic for the olden days and full of praise for how clean the place is, how like in the past, how peaceful. You can sense that what they also mean, without outright saying it: so nicely free of black people. Farrier notices this too and to get beyond the cagey responses he got on the tour and during the day in town, he heads for a bar (called “De Boer”, tellingly) in search of “the uncensored version”. He's still not getting it, but gets a hint where he might be “luckier” in this quest.
So he goes “off the tourist trail” to meet some Afrikaner “Suidlanders” – a religious group who predicted total anarchic collapse as a result of the end of Apartheid. He goes to meet the inhabitants of a suburban townhouse “run like a fortress” (though to me it looked like any house I saw when driving through Houghton, Johannesburg, all barbed wire and electric fences and CCTV). The family he meets are genuinely living in the belief that all hell could break loose any day when “the blacks” come to kill them off ('white genocide' is a term that crops up in this context) and that, consequently, they have to be prepared. So they store supplies and weapons and have exercise meetings to rehearse the great evacuation they anticipate when doomsday comes. Farrier joins in in one of those exercise events, and after a rocky start it descends into a kind of paintballing role-play scenario before settling into a religious family camp kind of event, with a zealous sermon and singing of the Apartheid-era former national anthem around a camp fire. It's all quite weird and pretty disturbing. And in a way that can be considered dark. However, it is not tourism in any way. These people do this entirely for themselves, not for any visitors, and the fact that Farrier was even allowed to witness this is quite astounding. I'm sure no non-journalist tourist would have been given this opportunity. So, it's a revealing and, in an uncomfortable kind of way, quite interesting finale to this episode, but: it has nothing whatsoever to do with dark tourism.
Episode 8, back in the USA:
The series goes even more off course with the final episode. Instead of filling any outstanding gaps, geographically speaking (say, Germany, Russia, or Poland, or any of the other top-dark-tourism countries), the series instead revisits a country already covered before: the USA. Since the first instalment barely scratched the surface of the rich range of dark-tourism attractions there are in this country, there would certainly have been plenty of scope for covering some more of that. But disappointingly the series finishes weakly, though typically: mostly off-topic or at best only on the extreme edges of it.
At first it's looking promising, though, when Farrier heads to Los Angeles, which he calls a “dark-tourism Mecca” (erroneously musing that “the grislier the topic, the bigger the business” – which is of course complete nonsense … sounds cool and wow, but is demonstrably untrue). He goes on a “Helter Skelter” tour on the theme of the Manson murders (cf. Museum of Death) that feeds the curiosity people still have about these notorious violent crimes and the infamous character of Charles Manson. The tour is pretty standard, so Farrier, yet again, feels the need to go more off road. And so he meets a Manson-worshipping YouTuber, who also offers extreme tours for Manson fans, which is out-of-the-ordinary enough. Then he goes to a clandestine arranged meeting with a friend of Manson's who is also his main heir! Manson actually died in prison (aged 83) during the filming of this episode, so this was all very fresh and current, adding some unplanned momentum to things. It certainly made for very gripping viewing, with some very disturbing twists, but yet again: the thread of dark tourism has been lost. This meeting had nothing to do with tourism, it was dark journalism, very dark for sure, but unrelated to tourism.
What follows next is a bizarre combination. On the one hand yet more doomsday “preppers” and on the other the weird giant replica of Noah's Ark in Kentucky. Farrier inexplicably calls this “the ultimate dark-tourism hotspot”. What?!? It's not even real, it's a Bible-Belt fantasy construct. Declaring that the ultimate in dark tourism takes it to another level, now it's getting close to insulting towards genuine dark tourists! Anyway, Farrier goes on a tour of this massively fake attraction (on board are even dummy dinosaurs!) and seems to be taking it for real, calling Noah the ultimate “prepper” and he and the guide discuss how Noah “pulled it off” – as if this was actual history (fundamentalist Bible-Belters may believe so, but that's why they are regarded as extreme fundamentalists – because it's dead easy to prove them wrong but they believe their stuff anyway).
Basically, though, Farrier just uses the bizarre Christian indoctrination set-up that this giant “Ark” basically is, as a mere link to leaving anything touristy behind yet again and meet a present-day real “prepper”. It's a bit like those South African Suidlanders again, only with more guns – this is the US, after all. But despite all the doomsday talk and exercises with all manner of weapons, Farrier experiences a nice bunch of people he's having a great time with.
Now that is set to change at his very final destination: McKamey Manor, Tennessee, a place that apparently pioneered the notion of “extreme haunt” and claims the title “scariest haunted house in America”. But it's not about mere ghost hunts. It's much more real and brutal. As Farrier describes it “this is an attraction that tourists flock to in order to get tortured and terrorized, just for the fun of it”. So the clientèle must actually be adrenalin-junky masochists rather than dark tourists. And so it turns out to be. Farrier meets one client and even agrees to take part for a bit, but quickly quits. And even the actual client doesn't last long. It absolutely is extreme. And the phrase the outfit uses to advertise itself “You don't want to do this”, is what the client unhesitatingly agrees to in the end, saying “Don't do it, don't come here”. OK, so I won't – not that I've been tempted in the slightest anyway. The less further said about this the better.
Except that I have to say one more thing: the very final line of the series before that last time the end credits roll, is exactly that from this crazy horror house “Really, you don't want to do this!”. So are we to conclude this for the entire series? And more importantly, about dark tourism? i.e. are we to understand this as “don't do dark tourism!”? That would be a most unfortunate conclusion, given how off-topic much of this series' content has been. But whatever, it'll certainly not stop me continuing with genuine dark tourism ...
Farrier's idea of dark tourism seems to follow more a desire to discover weird (rather than dark) stuff, and he certainly delivers that. The problem with much of it, however, is that it has little or nothing at all to do with the title of the series, with actual dark tourism …. not the exorcism in Mexico, the pretend vampires in New Orleans, the white supremacists in South Africa or the robots in Huis Ten Bosch in Japan – none of that is dark tourism.
Admittedly, a few places covered in the series are indeed top DT sites (e.g. the Polygon in Kazakhstan, or Fukushima in Japan) but mostly it stays on the edge of dark tourism and often prefers to concentrate on controversial fringe phenomena (e.g. the Pablo Escobar tours). Sometimes the series is so close to real dark-tourism hotspots but then ignores them (especially in Cambodia). And this non-representativeness I find unfortunate. It's a bit like trying to explain to somebody what the concept of 'politics' means by adducing lots of examples from left-wing extremism and neo-Nazi hooliganism. Yes, that is (unfortunately) part of politics in some way, but it's not representative of all that is in between those extreme poles. You cannot capture the concept of politics while completely ignoring the centre. Same here with dark tourism. By mostly picking the weird, controversial and fringe aspects, the series fails to get across what the vast majority of dark tourism really is like. I guess it's the same problem as with tabloid newspaper articles about the topic. The reality of dark tourism doesn't make for the same sort of attention-grabbing sensationalist headlines as much as those extreme and often debatable fringe phenomena. But concentrating so much on those means the coverage is biased and off balance.
In addition, there is often a somewhat annoying level of naïvety and superficiality in the series. In particular with regard to radiation, the narration and coverage are at times embarrassingly full of conceptual and factual errors. You get the feeling that Farrier, for this to have become a genuine documentary, should have invested a bit more in doing his preparatory homework and post-trip fact-checking.
So I don't think the series has done dark tourists as much of a favour as it could have done. It makes dark tourism look weird, superficial, and much dumber than it mostly is in actual fact.
Now, I've voiced a lot of (sometimes severe) criticism about the series in this review (that's the main point of a review). So time to contrast this with some positive praise: I have to concede that over large stretches I did enjoy watching this series nonetheless very much. It is certainly very entertainingly put together, excellently filmed and edited, and it can't be denied that the presenter, David Farrier, with his easy-going and approachable character – plus that endearing Kiwi accent – comes across as a really, really nice guy, who's probably great fun to be around and/or travel with. This makes it doubly a shame that the series so often fails to stick to its topic – especially at the very unfortunate ending. But there we are.
“Dark Tourist” is only available online at the “Netflix” streaming platform so you have to subscribe to Netflix, which charges a monthly fee for the service, in order to see it. You can, however, get a free trial month. If this series is all you want from Netflix, then you just have to remember to cancel your subscription before charges become payable.

© dark-tourism.com, Peter Hohenhaus 2009-2023

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