I’ll be travelling a lot this year, mostly work-related, but as I began sorting out which places I wanted to go to, I realized that there will be quite a shift on this blog as I venture further away from cemeteries, and more towards what are commonly known as “dark” places – Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Auschwitz-Birkenau are just some of the few that I’ll be exploring. This wasn’t my intent when I first started blogging a few years ago – really it was meant to be a place where I could recall all the specifics of the grand cemeteries I visited. But then I visited some not-so-grand cemeteries, or places that had been cemeteries but no longer were, or places that had burials but that couldn’t be properly classified as a cemetery (such as old churches and cathedrals). And that led me to other kinds of memorials, memorials to people who were unknown, or buried in unmarked graves, or as a reminder of an event where many (or just one) were killed. I soon realized that the lines I had drawn around this blog were quickly becoming muddied, so while the focus is still primarily on cemeteries, it is also about other dark places too.
All my life I’ve been fascinated by the dark moments in human history, such as the Holocaust, but until recently, never thought of myself as a dark tourist. I was, and still am, a historian at heart, and these places all reflect some part of human history. Let’s face it – most of human history is filled with war and disasters and plagues. Even when I was in high school, I remember asking my teacher if we could study something different – up until that point we always began our Canadian history studies the same way: first with the First Nations people, then with the European explorers, and maybe getting to Confederation. It never changed. It was boring. I wanted to study the World Wars, the Vietnam War, the counter-revolution movement, the FLQ crisis – events that were more exciting and relevant to current affairs. To her credit, my teacher listened, and she asked us all what we were interested in and redesigned the curriculum around that. One of my favourite books was a sci-fi book about a uni student travelling back in time during the Great Plague that ravaged Europe. When I was a uni student myself, I spent a year studying the Holocaust and seriously considered making that my primary field of research. I knew then, almost 25 years ago, that I would one day make it to Auschwitz to pay my respects. So yes, I’ve always been interested in dark events, but I never thought that was unusual or edgy.
Unfortunately the term “dark tourism” is really starting to gain critical mass, even though the term was coined two decades ago. It’s really only been in the last 3-5 years that it has reached the masses – hashtags on social media, articles in mainstream newspapers, arrogant and unfeeling YouTubers, sensationalist Netflix series. I sort of view it as a double-edged sword of a term: on the one hand, it accurately describes a form of tourism that has been around forever, and helps legitimize visiting certain places, even those on the lighter end of the tourism scale, like dungeons and cemeteries. On the other hand, it is also an easily accessible catch phrase that almost anyone can understand (unlike, say, thanatourism) and is hashtagable. The negative impact SNS sites like Instagram has had on tourism is pretty well documented, and a sub-category of that is now many people who have little to no knowledge of “dark” places, be they former concentration camps, disaster areas, etc., now visit them to get the perfect selfie, showing very little respect in the process. Now, I’m not saying every person now visiting these sites are like this, but as numbers increase, so do the number of insensitive people.
In any event, I’m sure I’ll be discussing this further as the blog progresses.