I Am The Dark Tourist
Horrified’s Ally Wilkes reviews I am the Dark Tourist by H. E. Sawyer, a thought-provoking, uncomfortable and chilling look at the appeal of ‘dark tourism’...
I’ve dipped my toe into ‘dark tourism’, large and small. I’ve been on Ripper walks; I’ve visited the epicentre of the bombing of Nagasaki. However, if you asked me why I was interested, I’d probably deflect the question: laugh, and say ‘I’m just a ghoul’.
I am the Dark Tourist by H. E. Sawyer examines not only the ‘dark tourist’ industry (defined here as ‘the act of travel to sites of death, destruction or the seemingly macabre’), but also tackles why people feel drawn to visit and explore these sites. It’s a big, interesting, thought-provoking book, lovingly presented in a hardcover edition from Headpress. I found it made for compulsive and uncomfortable reading, and would like to note up-front by way of a trigger warning that the book discusses (amongst other things) death, genocide, bodily injuries and mutilation, torture, and suicide. Some of these topics will be touched on in this review.
There’s simply no getting away from the fact that this book deals – by its very nature – with horrific subject matter. Sawyer gives the reader a brief account of the events behind each ‘dark site’, and these accounts are tough and uncompromising. The sites include the 9/11 memorial museum; the ghost town of Pripyat, near Chernobyl; Auschwitz-Birkenau; the Killing Fields of Cambodia; and Hiroshima. These – he says – make up the ‘big five’ of dark tourism. Sawyer also takes us to lesser-known locations such as the wreck of the Salem Express ferry, sunk off Egypt in 1991; Aokigahara in Japan, growing in notoriety as the so-called ‘Suicide Forest’; and (perhaps most controversially) Aberfan in Wales, site of a landfill slide in 1966 which engulfed Pantglas Junior School. Each site is given its own chapter, although there are so many other locations mentioned and referenced that it felt like getting an entire encyclopedia of the subject; the book is crammed with information.
I am the Dark Tourist gets off to what I felt was an inauspicious start: a Ripper walk played for laughs (“You’ve all come to see where the prostitutes were – MURRR – DAAARRRDDD!”), with unhelpful denigration of the looks of one of the Ripper’s victims. However, Sawyer has a far more nuanced approach to his subject than this opening would suggest, and here and elsewhere deconstructs the ‘Ripper industry’; in the afterword he deals with the controversy surrounding the 2015 opening of the Jack the Ripper museum (which was billed as ‘the only dedicated resource in the East End to women’s history’ and turned out to be – well, you can probably guess). The book is full of these apparent contradictions and re-evaluations, and I found it genuinely refreshing. No aspect of the dark tourism industry goes unexamined or unquestioned, from the (sometimes horrendously tacky) souvenir shops, to the way we are encouraged to take photographs or selfies at dark sites – and how those selfies have sometimes led to public internet-based shaming.
Sawyer relishes digging into what might be shady aspects of (some would say) an already shady industry. For example, he tells us that the Choeung Ek Killing Fields in Cambodia are now leased to a Japanese consortium (which has raised the entry fee), with profits returned to Cambodian government officials; perhaps I’m not qualified to comment, but something feels instinctively difficult about this, given what those deaths meant to Cambodia and its relationship with its own past (explored quite deeply in the chapter entitled ‘Year Zero’). Meanwhile, some of the larger sites would literally not exist without their torrent of annual visitors, in which the memorialisation of the dead is a self-sustaining industry forced to keep drumming up visitor interest to turn a profit; this is particularly examined in the chapter entitled ‘9/11 Inc.’ (I’m still intrigued by the paper cranes sold in the 9/11 gift shop – as the paper crane is a Japanese symbol of peace, Sawyer tracks down officials at the Peace Museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to try to get to the bottom of where those $16.95 cranes came from).
The question asked repeatedly throughout the book is: who benefits? And more importantly, who should benefit? There are no straightforward answers. Sawyer does, however, show that small-scale dark tourism can benefit those affected by poverty or lasting inequality, mentioning in passing the growing popularity of favela (‘shanty-town’) tours in which tourists pay money directly to the community, or his quite moving encounters at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia with two survivors, who now sell their books within the prison walls.
While this book could easily be simply about the sites and their background, I am the Dark Tourist takes time – in respect of those sites which welcome tourism – to examine the infrastructure of each, how the ‘visitor experience’ is framed and stage-managed, and how memorialisation of the dead sits alongside the sites’ various other raison d’êtres, including education. He touches on this most explicitly in ‘The Promise’, dealing with Auschwitz-Birkenau, and explores the claims of Norman G. Finkelstein (a highly controversial figure) about a ‘Holocaust Industry’. This was sometimes extremely uncomfortable to read: to be clear, Sawyer considers the extent to which the Holocaust is memorialised and taught while not detracting for a moment from the enormity or evil of the genocide perpetrated. There’s also an intriguing mention of ‘Jonestown’ in the Guyanese jungle (site of the 1978 People’s Temple cult massacre) and the possibility of developing its infrastructure to allow tourism: the tastefulness or appropriateness of so doing left aside, Sawyer rightly remarks that if they build it, people will come.
One chapter which I have to single out as personal nightmare fuel was ‘The Underwater Cortège’, dealing with the 1991 shipwreck of the Salem Express. If you’re claustrophobic, or afraid of drowning or darkness, then this chapter will make tough reading indeed, both in respect of the events causing the wrecks and Sawyer’s (typically excellent) sideways look at the divers who have lost their lives exploring them.
However, what I haven’t yet mentioned is how personal and moving I am the Dark Tourist can be – and in juxtaposing this element with his wry humour or the dark macabre details, the narrative sometimes provokes an uncomfortable emotional whiplash. Sawyer excels at finding the poignant, human note in the horrors underlying the sites he visits, and there isn’t a single chapter where this deeper engagement isn’t apparent. His entire visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, in particular, is filtered through his obvious love and affection for Sissy, a Slovakian Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who – he works out later – must have been imprisoned for some time at that very camp. She asked him to visit ‘for her’. Her utterly heartbreaking story is threaded through this chapter, presented for scale, to allow us to better appreciate the monstrous darkness of the mass murder done there.
The book takes in two more controversial ‘black sites’, in which dark tourism is far from promoted or appreciated, and this is where the book heads into its most interesting – and new – territory. ‘Yellow-San’ deals with Aokigahara, made increasingly visible through the distasteful antics of ‘influencers’ or YouTubers trying to find a story in the Suicide Forest. Sawyer both visits the forest and goes off-trail looking for bodies, which some will find crosses a significant moral boundary. (Why? Perhaps it has something to do with the immediacy of the death and how necessarily personal it is – not filtered through the distancing lens of time and mass casualties).
Sawyer explains his intentions with reference to the 2016 documentary Aokigahara – Inside the Suicide Forest, which asks the question: ‘Does one really need to see this with your own eyes?’ and Sawyer answers: ‘The answer was that I did, if only to see what happened when I was within the trees, and to discover what I felt as a result, even if that might admittedly be self-revulsion. As Friedrich Nietzsche also noted, “The doer alone learneth.”’ What he finds is haunting, poignant, and crept so close towards voyeurism that I genuinely found it hard to keep reading. The chapter ends with details of crisis lines, and if there’s one criticism I have of this volume’s generally excellent presentation, it’s that a set of trigger warnings – and those crisis lines – might usefully have been presented up-front.
The final ‘black site’, and – in my view – the most difficult to justify visiting, was Aberfan in South Wales. This small community has made it plain that they do not welcome casual sightseers, and many survivors and bereaved families still live there. In ‘The Village’ Sawyer presents the story of the horrifying disaster and its aftermath, but given the lack of any tourist infrastructure or anything to ‘visit’ beyond the village memorial and the local library, this assumes a greater weight than in previous chapters. As he remarks: ‘The continued protection of the dead from any form of exploitation allows the community to hold a mirror up to reflect any visitor’s true motives for being there in the first place.’ Given that the only thing to do in Aberfan is pay your respects, any ‘ghoul’ will feel uncomfortable and out of place, and it’s testament to the strength of Sawyer’s writing that this transmits to the reader.
Throughout the book, Sawyer intensely examines his own motivations for visiting these sites, and his lifelong fascination with death and the dead. It all comes together in ‘Skeletons’, offering an unexpected and very personal conclusion: dark tourism as coping mechanism and catharsis. I ended the book with the urge to interrogate a lot of my own interests (this book would make an exceptional double-bill with Peter Laws’ The Frighteners) and feeling like I’d been taken on a very difficult – dare I say it? – journey. This book won’t be for everyone, and it deals with topics which will make many people upset or uncomfortable: Sawyer notes on the last page that ‘There’s little value writing about a subject unless there is someone who would prefer it if you did not.’ But it’s intensely fascinating, and begs to be read – then put down – then picked back up again.
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