Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster

Dark Tourism presents a paradoxical attraction, where death and disaster become points of interest and fascination. This form of tourism poses important questions about human nature, our history, and how we remember and interpret the past.

Sofia Vallasciani
Sofia Vallasciani

Sofia is a sustainable travel writer currently exploring Indonesia. She loves finding local gems and uncharted spots.

Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster
Photo:Marcus Witte/Shutterstock

The human nature is such that people are often fascinated by death and tragedy. That is not to say that people have no remorse, but there is curiosity that knows no bounds. It is this novelty that takes tourists to places across the world that have had the unfortunate opportunity to meet a catastrophe. We are talking about dark tourism, often described as the attraction of death and disaster.

Wuhan for example, the Chinese city where Covid-19 originated, was voted by people in the country as the place they’d like to visit most shortly after the pandemic, and increasingly, overseas tourists are including the city on their list of places to visit in China alongside popular destinations like Beijing and Shanghai.

But what is dark tourism? The term emerged in the 1990s within the academic world, and since then, different definitions have been proposed, with the more common one being “tourism involving travel to places historically associated with death and tragedy”. Dark tourism has thus becomes the mystification of catastrophe. Anthropologically, the phenomenon corresponds to an “attempt to discipline the figure of death.”

The Controversy Behind Dark Tourism

Main entrance of Auschwitz Concentration Camp

Photo: Juliano Galvao Gomes/Shutterstock

Dark tourism is considered one of the most controversial tourism trends today, given that it involves visiting places related to death and human suffering. Many scholars argue that this trend is macabre and unethical, as it appears to commercialize tragedy for financial gain.

Nevertheless, there are those who perceive the practice as an opportunity to raise awareness, remember, and respect history, as well as those who associate it with educational purposes.

Traveling to these destinations is believed to bring individuals closer to what has occurred and facilitate a better understanding of such events. As the great British statesman Winston Churchill fittingly put it, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

What Places are Considered “Dark”?

2008 Sichuan Earthquake Memorial Site in China

Photo: EcoSpace/Shutterstock

Dark tourism includes places linked to tragedy, such as memorials, concentration camps, areas of paranormal phenomena, locations of nuclear disasters, sites of brutal murders, and places where natural disasters have occurred, among others.

Recently, the areas affected by the 2004 Pacific tsunami and the school where hundreds of children lost their lives following the 2008 earthquake in China have become popular tourist destinations.

Many experts believe dark tourism to be a form of economic exploitation, as the emotional reactions of visitors are often used by tourism agencies to generate profits. Additionally, some places have become meccas for the curious.

For instance, the house where Elizabeth Fritzl, daughter of the “Amstetten Monster,” was locked up for 24 years or the residence where Natalia Kampusch was held for nine years. The latter even decided to purchase the house to prevent someone else from transforming it into an “amusement park.”

This phenomenon of visiting and commercializing spaces of grief dates back to the Middle Ages, where people would visit the tombs of saints to touch them, leave personal effects, or ask for healing. These pilgrimages were centered around the need to heal the body or soul and were not driven by mere curiosity, as in the case of dark tourism.

Why Do Some Places Draw Visitors While Others Do Not

island of dolls mexico

Photo: Marketa1982/Shutterstock

Not all dark tourism locations are created equal, which raises an important question of why certain tourist destinations are favored over others. The practice is characterized by sites linked to tragedy and death, yet only some become renowned “must-visit” spots.

The reasons behind their popularity vary. Some locations hold significant historical importance and can serve as educational centers. For instance, memorials erected on a site can invite commemoration.

So, despite lacking the typical amenities that appeal to tourists, such as comfort and aesthetic beauty, this trend is only set to grow. According to Clara Tahoces, a writer with extensive experience in researching unusual and enigmatic subjects –  enthusiasts of dark tourism “seek out destinations that differ from typical tourist hotspots because of a touch of morbid curiosity: to learn about peculiar stories or to expand knowledge of certain tragic events that they were already familiar with.”

women wearing traditional sugar skull masks and costumes for Dia de los Muertos celebration

Photo: Moab Republic/Shutterstock

It is also important to note that certain locations have developed specific attractions to cater to the needs of dark tourists. As such, an increasing number of “attractions” are being group under this type of leisure activity, to the extent that many businesses capitalize on dark tourism without actually being affiliated with it.

Tahoces notes that “fictitious facts are used to sell places where nothing has really happened. For example, supposedly sinister houses on film sets, which often become places of worship.”

The media also plays a role, particularly in cases where we are exposed to shocking news of certain events. Television series and documentaries, such as HBO’s Chernobyl or Netflix’s Dark Tourism, have an impact as well. Following the release of Chernobyl, for example, there was a substantial increase in visits to the site.

What Drives us to Visit These Places

Catacombes de Paris, France - Dark Tourism - The Attraction of Death and Disaster

Photo: I. Casavechia/Shutterstock

Everyone is unique, and so are the reasons why we are drawn to certain destinations. For those interested in dark tourism, stepping away from the regular home routine to experience something different is a common desire. The primary motivation for such travel often stems from a yearning to feel something profound, authentic, and somewhat sinister, satisfying our curiosity.

Visiting these places is typically driven by the quest for unique experiences, a curiosity about past events that have shaped societies, and an eagerness to learn more about humanity. This trend isn’t new; back in Victorian London, for example, there was significant interest in visiting sites where Jack the Ripper committed his infamous crimes.

It seems there’s an inherent aspect of human nature that draws us towards death and life’s darker facets. Perhaps it’s this connection to our morbid side that attracts us to these unusual destinations.

Dark Tourism Places To Visit

If your interests are still piqued and you’re rareing to visit some dark tourst destinations, here are a few of the most popular ones:

Kensington Palace (UK)

The gates of Kensington Palace in Hyde Park in London, England

Photo: FarkasB/Shutterstock 

For over three centuries, Kensington Palace has been the residence of British royalty, bearing witness to both great moments and tragedies, including failed romances, loneliness, rancor, and premature deaths.

Princess Diana once called this palace her home before her untimely death. Today, tourists come from all over the world to pay tribute to the beloved Princess of Wales and learn more about her story.

Book a hotel near Kensington Palace

Aokigahara Forest (Japan)

Aokigahara Forest in Japan - Dark Tourism - The Attraction of Death and Disaster

Photo: Aberu.Go/Shutterstock

Aokigahara, often referred to as “the suicide forest,” has earned a reputation for being a place where numerous individuals choose to end their lives. Although the forest might evoke feelings of fear or curiosity among some visitors, it’s important to note that Japanese officials have ceased the release of suicide statistics to deter the negative portrayal of the forest and lessen the number of people visiting for such tragic reasons. Nowadays, Aokigahara Forest is adorned with messages of hope, encouraging people to seek help and reminding them of the value of life.

In 2017, prominent YouTuber Logan Paul posted a video that quickly became infamous, documenting his visit to the forest. At first glance, everything seemed unremarkable, considering Paul’s reputation for filming videos in unusual locations.

However, what he encountered moments later within the forest left both his followers and Paul himself in shock. The video revealed a disturbing sight: a lifeless body suspended from a tree. A terrified Logan hastily left the scene.

The video sparked significant backlash and universal condemnation from the online community. Many felt that Paul was exploiting the agony of others and disrespecting those who had experienced tragedy in the woods. Moreover, Logan’s initial reaction upon discovering the body was seen as insensitive and lacking in empathy.

9/11 Memorial Museum (New York, United States)

9-11 National Memorial Museum in New York City

Photo: Pit Stock/Shutterstock

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks shook the world to its core, claiming the lives of nearly 3,000 people. The 9/11 Memorial Museum serves as a tribute to the victims of this devastating event, as well as to those who perished in a previous attack in 1993.

Visitors can pay their respects at the memorial, where the names of those lost are inscribed, and also learn more about the events and people impacted by the attacks.

Ticket for the 9/11 Memorial & Museum can be bought from Get Your Guide

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (Pripyat, Ukraine)

Chernobyl nuclear power plant - Dark Tourism - The Attraction of Death and Disaster

Photo: DimaSid/Shutterstock

In 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant became the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history, causing widespread devastation that that continues to have far-reaching impact even today.

While some people remain skeptical about the safety of visiting this location, others are drawn to the eerie beauty of a ghost town frozen in time. Visitors can witness firsthand the aftermath of the explosion and pay their respects to those who lost their lives.

Get a 2-day Private Tour of Chernobyl From Kyiv

Old town of Belchite (Spain):

The ruins of the old town Belchite in Spain

Photo: Juan Garcia Hinojosa/Shutterstock 

Belchite was the site of a devastating battle during the Spanish Civil War, leaving the town in ruins and abandoned. In recent years, interest in the town has grown due to recordings of eerie sounds and paranormal events, attracting many curious tourists. Despite the tragic history of the town, it serves as a reminder of the impact of war and the importance of preserving historical sites.

The Attraction of Death and Disaster

Abandoned Ghost Palace Hotel in Bali

Photo: Dmytro Tyshchenko/Shutterstock

Dark Tourism the attraction of death and disaster may seem macabre to some, but it holds a profound fascination for others. It is a means to gain an understanding of our past, to pay tribute to those who lost their lives, and to experience the profound emotions that come with standing in the presence of tragedy. It is essential, however, to approach these sites with respect, empathy, and a sense of responsibility.

By acknowledging and preserving the stories of these places, we can continue to learn from the events that have shaped our history and ensure that the memories of those who suffered are never forgotten. Through this form of tourism, we can gain a deeper understanding of the fragility of human life and the importance of cherishing every moment.

Places from this article