By Courtney C. Reed
I knew I had to go. When people asked, I simply responded that I was traveling alone to Auschwitz because I felt I needed to – I had no other reason.
This enigmatic answer sparked an existential crisis and I left Florence for Auschwitz feeling uncertain about my character.
Traveling alone induces neurosis, phobias and an altered rapport between mind and body.
Confined for several hours on a train, you become both audience and raconteur of your subconscious and mine would not cease an attempt to explain the motive behind my journey.
Visiting to pay my respects to the deceased seemed false because I knew of no one who had perished in concentration camps; my relatives did not fight in World War II and have no Jewish heritage. Since adolescence, however, I have been saturated with brutal images of the Holocaust, accounts of torturous experiments by Dr. Josef Mengele and chilling interviews with survivors.
Though disturbing, these artifacts impacted me deeply and continue to fascinate me. Could this fascination be the force behind my visiting Auschwitz, and if so, did this make me a dark tourist?
An Enigmatic Answer
Essentially, dark tourism is “the act of travel, whether intentional or otherwise, to sites of death, destruction or the seemingly macabre,” said Philip Stone, a leading researcher of the phenomenon.
Locations range from “the lighter side to the more educational to the more serious,” said Stone, a senior lecturer in the Department of Tourism and Leisure at the University of Central Lancashire, England.
Examples of these places include lighter trips to Alcatraz Prison or Père Lachaise Cemetery, to the more didactic, like Gettysburg’s battlefields or Southern plantations, to somber experiences at Ground Zero or Auschwitz.
Stone, creator of the internet database Dark Tourism Forum, added that an understanding of dark tourism should move past the “Auschwitz syndrome [because] dark tourism goes beyond the Holocaust and must be recognized as extremely diverse both in production and demand.”
He is reluctant to speculate on the reasons as to why people are so drawn to such places.
“That’s the million dollar question,” said Stone. “There is no one reason why it exists and no one reason why people want it.”
Still, he suggested several possibilities such as the West’s distance from experiencing death, now “made absent by the privatization of the medical industry.” He also cited a desire to confront our own mortality, education, penance, a need to learn from history and schadenfreude [enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others] as possible reasons.
Rise to (Academic) Fame
Whatever the reason, the concept has been gaining academic interest since two professors in Scotland coined the term in the 1990s. The professors, John Lennon and Malcolm Foley of Glasgow Caledonian University, published a book in 2000: Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster, which generated academic attention.
Though Stone said that U.S. research is about five years behind research in the U.K., some U.S. academics are beginning to examine the subject.
Last year, Jessica Sarver, an undergraduate at California University of Pennsylvania, where Stone will be speaking in April, won an award from the Travel and Tourism Research Association for her paper: Dark Tourism and its Effects on the Tourism Industry Relating to the Flight 93 Temporary Memorial.
“There are some visitors who travel to these destinations because of the thrill some get from death and destruction,” said Sarver, a resident of Somerset County where Flight 93 crashed. “But overall I would attribute visitation to these sites as a form of respect or for education purposes.”
Georgina Fujimoto, a correctional treatment specialist who was recently visiting Ground Zero from Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania, said viewing was a patriotic act.
“If you don’t go, it’s almost like you’re not a good American,” said Fujimoto who was in New York to visit her daughter.
Disasters to Dollars
Tourists have been flocking to Ground Zero since the day of the tragic event in 2001. In fact, because of the high demand from visitors, New York City Vacation Packages responded by creating a Lower Manhattan Walking Tour in January 2002, according to vice president Joel Cohen.
The tour allows groups to walk on the floor of the former World Trade Center for the adult price of $25 and children’s price of $15. While most visitors are interested in paying their respects, said Cohen, there are repeat visitors who like to view the progress on construction.
Hurricane Katrina generated similar fascination in New Orleans in August 2005. The natural disaster sparked another dark tourism venue as several companies have developed Hurricane Katrina tours, focusing on the destruction. Gray Line Tours’ packages began in January 2006 and were first popular with locals, but are now filled with tourists, according to sales and operations director Jim Fewell.
“People really want to see for themselves – which is typical of any disaster, natural or manmade,” he added.
Benoit Monin, assistant professor of social psychology at Stanford University, said that the desire for an immediate experience “has to do with seeing the world the way the victims did.” Despite a person’s motivation, he added, being in the place of a dark historical event creates a special connection between the observer and the observed.
An Observer’s Observations
Upon entering the visitor’s information center at the Auschwitz Museum and registering my nationality for the museum’s records, I realized that the history of this place continues to write itself. I am now part of the harrowing tragedy for as long as the records remain preserved.
And I no longer felt ashamed to want to travel to the source of suffering because the haunting presence of the barracks, electric fences and crematoriums demand witness of their existence.
Within the next generation, survivors of many historical natural and manmade disasters will no longer be with us and their truth will fade with each passing year. Lest we repeat the past, we cannot deny our impulses to view the macabre – entering sites as pupils and leaving as powerful enlighteners.
Courtney Reed is a senior at New York University where she studies journalism and drama. She has been published in New York Resident, Manhattan South and NYU’s Washington Square News.
For more information visit the Dark Tourism Forum.
This story originally appeared in NYULivewire, a publication of the NYU Department of Journalism.