When I was growing up, my father often recounted tales of being captured by the Nazis at the onset of World War II. At age 14, as Germany invaded Krakow, Poland, in September 1939, he resided in a small town named Adamow, north of Krakow. He vividly recalled the trucks that arrived, forcibly taking him and his older brother away from their home and family. Due to his Catholic faith, he spent the war years as a prisoner of war (POW) and a slave laborer rather than in concentration camps.
As the war concluded, Americans intervened, enabling his departure from the country. This marked the end of his connection with his homeland and family, as he chose to establish permanent residence in Australia. A few years ago, I visited Poland to understand my father's past better. While I initially dreaded visiting WWII historic sites, I eventually felt compelled to do so. This experience transformed the stories my father shared into a stark reality, offering me a profound connection to the historical events he had recounted throughout my childhood. When I was visiting these places, it never occurred to me that this type of tourism had a name.
What Is Dark Tourism?
In the realm of travel, where the allure of pristine landscapes and cultural marvels often takes center stage, a niche form of tourism known as dark tourism seems out of place. Defined by visits to sites associated with tragedy, death, and historical trauma, dark tourism raises profound questions about the human psyche and our intrinsic fascination with the darker chapters of history. From the haunting grounds of Auschwitz to the desolate landscapes of Cambodia's Killing Grounds, these destinations beckon travelers with a promise of profound experiences and a journey into the depths of the human condition.
About 40 miles west of the Polish city of Krakow, you'll find the site of World War II atrocities, Auschwitz. You'll also find Schindler's Factory just south of the town. While these stark reminders of a horrific past seem like the sort of thing you might want to see rot, they've evolved into something entirely different. These sites average over one million visitors annually—a figure that increases rather than diminishes each year we get further from the event. So what is it that attracts people to visit historic sites that are associated with such tragedy?
The Appeal of Dark Tourism
While it might seem like a strange morbid appeal, dark tourism feeds into our human psyche for historical curiosity, the desire for experiential learning, and the search for a connection to the past. According to psychologist Rod Mitchell, “Dark tourism often taps into our deep-seated need to probe life's big questions like ‘Why are we here?' It's a tangible way of connecting with history that stirs these existential thoughts.”
“Some individuals may also visit dark tourism sites simply due to their natural curiosity about death or an interest in having a unique experience,” says thanatologist and death educator Elreacy Dock from Capstone University. In relation to the affinity I felt by visiting Poland, Docks adds, “An individual with a personal or cultural connection to a dark tourism site might feel a sense of connection to a larger part of their heritage or identity.”
Emotional and Psychological Effects
Visiting these dark tourism sites may have a potential impact on mental well-being. Most people will experience some emotional response, from empathy and reflection to distress and trauma—which will impact an individual differently depending on their relationship with a site. Should this be cause for concern?
“An individual with a personal or cultural connection to a dark tourism site might feel a sense of connection to a larger part of their heritage or identity, whereas an individual who is visiting due to curiosity or general interest may experience feelings of sorrow, anger, disgust, vulnerability or other intense emotions,” says Dock. On the other hand, she adds that the extent of exposure to graphic details and images of death can lead to a phenomenon known as ‘neutralization,' giving rise to contradictory effects and responses, such as pleasure, amusement, or inappropriateness in some individuals.
Coping With Psychological Distress
Some people may experience psychological distress after visiting a dark tourist site. While many may be prepared to encounter distressing situations before their visit and have mentally prepared for it, something may still trigger an extreme emotional response. This is where education and support can have key roles.
Psychologist Mitesh Jain of Mandeha Psychology says, “To address these effects, it's essential to provide adequate information and warnings to people of the potential emotional intensity.” Jain also suggests that onsite support at such places would be helpful. While this isn't always practical, having your own support network in place—especially if you know a destination may trigger a negative emotional response, is something to keep in mind.
Ethical Dilemmas of Dark Tourism
A decade ago, pop star Justin Bieber caused anger over his visit to Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. The Jewish girl was known for her posthumously published diary, The Diary of a Young Girl. She and her family hid from the Nazis in Amsterdam during World War II, and the Anne Frank House now serves as a museum preserving the secret annex where they lived. During Bieber's visit, he inappropriately wrote in the site's guestbook, “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully, she would have been a belieber.”
Cambodia's Killing Fields are the mass graves and execution sites where the Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, carried out systematic genocide from 1975 to 1979. During this dark period in Cambodian history, an estimated 1.7 million people were brutally murdered. This site is considered sacred, and, as such, they expect visitors to be dressed respectfully—no skimpy and revealing clothing—which goes for men and women. Unfortunately, too many people don't follow the wishes of the custodians of these historic sites and become offended when they're asked to leave. Tourists should follow the rules and ask if taking photos and selfies at such places is okay.