Essay: Dark Tourism and Mass Media

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A large amount of tourism literature deals with the marketing and consumption of “pleasant diversions in pleasant places” (Strange & Kempa 2003, p.386), but a number of communications scholars have recently attempted to explore tourism sites of a darker nature. This has helped popularise the form of travel known as dark tourism: tourism which provides “potential spiritual journeys for [those] who wish to gaze upon real and recreated death” (Stone 2006, p.54). In modern Western societies, normal death is hidden from public consumption, yet “extraordinary death is recreated for popular consumption” (Stone 2012, p.1565). Marketing of dark tourism often overlaps with historical or heritage tourism (Mullins 2016, online), and can present promoters with challenges not present with the tourism of ‘pleasant diversion’. This essay will examine some of those challenges and the relationship between mass media and dark tourism in the context of this rapidly developing tourism form.

Dark tourism has a long history, having existed since the earliest pilgrimages and times when people would travel to witness public executions (Jahnke 2003, p.6). When academic research on the topic became significant in the 1990s, at the same time as growing numbers of tourists were seeking these new experiences, the complexities of dark tourism’s relationship with mass media became apparent. Just as all cultural production and consumption is complex and dynamic, the production and consumption of dark tourism has been described variously as “continuous and interrelated as demand appears to be supply‐driven and attraction‐based” (Farmaki 2013, p.281), fuelled by “an increasing supply of carnage and blood” online (Hiebert 2014), driven by factors “extend[ing] from an interest in history and heritage to education to remembrance” (Yuill 2004, p.1), and as a “source of private pleasure” (Seaton 1996, p.235).

The issue of how death is presented to mass audiences is particularly complex. In the realm of dark tourism, media can bring about a “neutralisation of death” (Jahnke 2003, p.8), helping tourists to become more aware of the mortality of others and themselves, or a mental state of being which Stone (2012, p.1565) describes as “a space to construct contemporary ontological meanings of mortality”. In many ways, mass media and dark tourism are “in the same business” (Walter 2009, p.41) in that they both mediate death to mass audiences. Many Western societies have relinquished their attachments to the dead, yet retain a vibrant interest in history (Walter 2009, p.40) and the people who inhabited familiar spaces, setting the stage for two key industries to bridge the gap between the dead and contemporary living: mass media and tourism.

Mass media plays a central role in marketing many dark tourism sites, using tourism literature, Hollywood films, television, newspapers, and comic strips in the role of public relations. Similarly, mass media can keep other sites from public view (Yuill 2004, p.125). By placing sites and events in the forefront of communications, mass media have the ability to attract visitors to dark tourism destinations. Media can provide the public with a general understanding of, and encourage an interest in, dark tourism sites, although Seaton and Lennon (2004, p.62) describe how many Western media outlets tend towards creating a moral panic around dark tourism sites through “sensational exposes of dubiously verified stories”: the result of moral debates about dark tourism within society.

At the same time as promoting and marketing dark tourism destinations, mass media has a distinct influence over public opinion and interpretation of many sites of dark tourism (Ntunda 2014, online). New media technologies can “deliver global events into situations that make them appear to be local” (Lennon & Foley 2000, p.46), embodying simulation and interpretation of historical experiences for a mass audience. Public perception of the importance or prominence of dark tourism sites may also be affected by mass media. Dachau concentration camp, for example, was not one of the largest Nazi extermination camps, yet is one of the most visited, due to its appearance in many films and books (Young 1993, p.10). However, while media is central to understanding and interpreting historical events, it can cause dissatisfaction brought about by constant exposure to simulation (Lennon & Foley 2000, p.47). This can often be countered by the reality of visiting a permanent ruin, monument or preserved space.

Motivations of visitors travelling to dark tourism destinations are varied, and often not directly related to mass media. The need to reconcile comparisons between imagined landscapes and topographical reality (Podoshen 2012, p.263), an interest in history and heritage, educational reasons, collective and personal remembrance (Dunkley & Morgan 2010, p.860), and emotional attachment to a place (Rasul & Mowatt 2011, p.1410), among others, can be important factors encouraging dark tourism. Biran and Hyde (2013, p.191) suggest the primary motivation for many dark tourism participants is to “contemplate life and one’s mortality through gazing upon the significant other dead”, fitting with Stone’s (2012, p.1565) description of dark tourism destinations as “space[s] to construct contemporary ontological meanings of mortality”. Additionally, in the past two decades, many tourists have sought to escape the “sanitised version of reality that tourism has traditionally offered” (Robb 2009, p.51); with many no longer content to lounge by the pool or hotel bar, or embark on guided tours. It could perhaps be argued that each of these motivations could be influenced by mass media to varying degrees, but media is unlikely to be the main driving force. It is also problematic to group all dark tourism destinations together under one category, making it just as difficult to group together motivations for visiting them. Representations of death are unique from site to site and often from visitor to visitor (Robb 2009, p.51). Indeed, many managers of dark tourism sites no longer wish their destinations to be viewed as dark, but as sites of sensitive heritage with a focus on social engagement (Magee & Gilmore 2014, p.898).

In conclusion, it can be said that, despite many challenges, mass media plays a part in encouraging tourists’ interest in dark tourism sites, although it is neither the only, nor arguably the major, driving factor in promoting dark tourism destinations. Dark tourism sites are cultural landscapes which can be interpreted in many ways, as can tourists’ motivations for visiting them. Visitors to dark tourism destinations seek a variety of meanings from their experience and their reasons for visiting sites of real or recreated death are numerous and varied. Dark tourism is a complex issue, in terms of consumption and supply, and its relationship with mass media.


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