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Thanatourism -Entertainment for the Dark Side of Human Nature or Spiritual Contemplation on Death?

Thanatourism -Entertainment for the Dark Side of Human Nature or Spiritual Contemplation on Death?
Author: Pilvi Roberts
1 Commentries
Abstract: This paper examines the tourists' motivations to visit places of death and disaster. Some ethical issues regarding the consumption and commercialization of death are brought up an examined in the light of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Key Words; Dark tourism, Thanatourism, Visitor motivations, Post-modernity, Holocaust

Thanatourism -Entertainment for the Dark Side of Human Nature or Spiritual Contemplation on Death?

Dark Tourism means tourism which concentrates on places that have been scenes for death, tragedy and disaster. (Stone & Sharpley, 2008) It is also called 'Thanatourism', the name derived from term 'Thanatopsis', which is a human process of getting used to the idea of death. (Slade, 2003) This kind of tourism is not a new phenomenon as people have always travelled to places of death, one of the earliest examples being the Roman Gladiatorial games. (Stone, 2006)

Thanatourism has received much critique and such strong links with death and tourism have persisted throughout history that death related tourism has been referred to as 'the dirty little secret of the industry'. (Stone, 2006) Visitor motivations have been brought to ethical discussion and it has been suggested that the main motivation would be curiosity over the deaths themselves, hence it could be hardly said that Thanatourism would be a positive tool for helping people to accept and confront death. (Slade, 2003) However tourism to 'dark' places has been growing significantly and theorists have noticed and attempted to understand it, as the phenomenon specifically in the last century has become more widespread and diverse.(Stone & Shapley, 2008)

Categorization of death-related attractions is complex. Some support the idea of different shades of dark tourism, which range from 'fun parks' such as the London Dungeon to camps of genocide. (Stone, 2006) However it has been strongly suggested that dark tourism is an intimation of post-modernity. The rationale behind this argument is that death has been commercialized and commoditized as dark tourism attractions. Further sign of such connection with post-modernity is the role of media in attracting attention to these places and the fact that many sites create anxiousness regarding the results of modernity, such as the Holocaust camps. In this view it is also concluded that that although there is no separable niche-market for dark tourism; a dark tourist is usually driven to the attraction by serendipity and curiosity.(Lennon & Foley, 2000)

It has been suggested that due to the constant presence of artificially re-created or re-presented death in the media, people feel more isolated than ever from 'real' death. Sanitation and professionalizing death (which means that the dying are dealt with in hospitals instead of within the society) and funerals are highly private, has left the people to deal with the issue of dying alone. Questioning of meta-narratives, such as religion, also contributes towards post-modern anxiety. In the light of the almost taboo-like role of death in contemporary society, some suggest that visiting dark tourism places could provide a chance for tourists to confront 'real' death and come to terms with it. (Stone & Sharpley, 2008)

However there is more criticism towards the motives for consumption of death sites than there is acceptance of it. Criticism towards dark tourism for prioritizing the 'visual' and 'experiential' over the need for accurate historical interpretation has also been recognized as one of the symptoms of Post-modernity. It has been said that in some cases the barrier between delivering a message and the capitalization on the tragic events has become blurred or un-distinguishable. Some further critique towards the supply of dark tourism products is that this consumption -whatever the true motivation of the consumer- is seemingly often disguised as education and/or entertainment. (Stone, 2005)

Holocaust is described to be one of the most unimaginable, scarring, dark events in human history. Hence the suggestion that a fitting example of exploitation of dark history would be the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., is rather disturbing. The museum is said to be a Disney-like tour', which leaves very little for interpretation of his attitude towards the attraction. The visitors are provided with ID-cards of real victims of the holocaust and they can swipe them during the exhibition to see how their holocaust victim is 'progressing' at the death camp. Opinions have been addressed also about the questionable, continuous, extremely graphic, visual presentation of the executions of the victims. .(Lennon & Foley, 1999)

While entering a discourse about the purpose of this museum Lennon & Foley (1999) admit that the holocaust exerts considerable attention and interest of people due to the fascinating and seductive nature of it. A truly valid question, which should also be considered in context of the supply side of tourism, has been raised about the consumption of dark material from the holocaust; "Is exposure to barbarism an antidote to that very barbarism?" It is rather easy to pick out the darkest form of Thanatourism and point out the moral issues concerning it. However if it is so easy to recognize these issues that occur in re-presenting one of the most sensitive and painful historical events, it certainly calls for attention to the question: "Where do we draw the line with consuming other peoples' suffering and death?"


Lennon, J. & Foley, M.(1999) 'Interpretation of the Unimaginable: The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum', Washington, D.C. and "Dark Tourism, Journal of Travel Research, Vol. 38 (iss 1) pp. 46-50

Lennon, J. & Foley M. (2000) Dark Tourism -The Attraction of Death and Disaster, Continuum; London

Stone, P & Sharpley, R. (2008) 'Consuming Dark Tourism: A Thanatological Perspective', Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 35 (iss 2) pp. 574-595

Thanatourism -Entertainment for the Dark Side of Human Nature or Spiritual Contemplation on Death?
Author: Nadine Buchanan
Thanatourism -Entertainment for the Dark Side of Human Nature or Spiritual Contemplation on Death?

This paper is well written and covers the key issues surrounding the ethics and motivations of dark tourism. Dark tourism is visitations to places where tragedies or historical death have occurred and that continues to impact our lives (Tarlow, 2005, p.48). It can also be described as "the phenomenon which encompasses the presentation and consumption...of real and commoditised death and disaster sites" (Foley and Lennon, 1999, p.198). The paper refers to Thanatourism which is another word for dark tourism which is the process of getting used to the idea of death (Lennon and Foley, 1999).
The author has acknowledged the issues regarding motivations for dark tourism and how there is still not a clear motivation as of yet. There has been much debate about the motivations and the main one which keeps cropping up is for historical and educational reasons, which is understandable as people should learn about such horrific events that have occurred in the past (Dann, 1997). However the author of this paper makes an interesting point that the real motivation for visiting such horrific places if purely morbid curiosity and a desire to confront death and in fact people are just disguising these motivations as educational and desire to learn about history (Seaton, 1998).
The paper also touches upon the concept of the different categories and shades of dark tourism, which is important to acknowledge because the motivations for each place can vary depending upon the nature and the intensity of the dark tourism place. For example as Sharpley, 2005 indicates the motivation for going to a fun dark tourism attractions such as the London dungeons would be different to the motivations for visiting a concentration camp. The motivator for the fun attraction may be an excursion whereas the motivator for a concentration camp could be education and history. Furthermore it depends on how interested and fascinated with death the person is (Sharpley and Stone, 2009).
Dunkley, (2005) furthers this and suggest that there are several motivations and interests for people wanting to visit a dark tourism place. Some of the reasons are morbid curiosity, special interest; thrill seeking, authenticity, iconic sites, remembrance, self discovery and validation. Each motivation is different for each individual and there will be a different motivation depending on the shade and the category of the dark tourism place visited.
The paper indicates that the issues may be with the supply side of dark tourism which in some respect is true, however there is clearly a string desire and interest from the demand side and without this there would be no supply. Furthermore the paper also touches upon the point that commercialising such place can take away the authenticity and this can by itself dis-respect the families and friends of the ones that suffered. This has alot to do with the management of the place and how sensitive the delivery of the message is.
Overall this paper provides a good discussion about the motivations of dark tourism (than tourism) in regards to ethics. The paper covers the main issues and provides a great debate, however the paper could have had more arguments from both sides of the argument including the side that agrees with dark tourism and the side that does not. Overall a good paper.

Dann, G. (1977) Anomie, Ego-enhancement and Tourism. Annals of Tourism Research 4: 184-194.
Dunkley, R. (2005) Tourism Society Seminar Event 'Dark Tourism - Cashing In On Tragedy?' Kensington Close Hotel, London on 17th October 2005.

Lennon, J.J., and M. Foley (1999) Interpretation of the Unimaginable: The U.S. Holocaust Museum, Washington, D.C. Journal of Travel Research 38:46-50.

Seaton, A.V. (1998). Guided By the Dark: From Thanatopsis to Thanatourism. International Journal of Heritage Studies. 2 (4), 234-244.
Sharpley, R. and Stone, P., R. (Eds.) (2009) The Darker Side of Travel. The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism. Great Britain: Chanel View Publications.
Tarlow, P. (2005) Dark Tourism: The appealing 'dark' side of tourism and more. In M. Novelli (ed.) Niche Tourism: Contemporary Issues, Trends and Cases (pp.47-57). Oxford: Elsevier.