Frolicking on sandy beaches, admiring magnificent wonders of nature and exploring ancient castles are typical holiday experiences. But increasingly, a growing class of tourists are seeking out destinations that may incite goose bumps than awes of wonder – spooky and gruesome places of death and tragedy.
This phenomenon, coined ‘dark tourism’, involves visiting cemeteries, haunted castles and other places of torture or suffering. Although specific numbers are unavailable, many of these ghostly attractions are among the most visited in their respective countries. Think the Tower of London, with its dark history of death and torture, or the underground world of Edinburgh’s Mary King’s Close where plague victims were left to die, just to name a few.
Obviously, these eerie locations are — to most sane folks out there — not in the least alluring. This begets the question: why then, do people visit such places? Truth be told, the motivating factors that draw people to dark tourism sites vary.
Much like the famous idiom ‘curiosity kills the cat’, people are inherently curious — and all the more towards places filled with mystery and the unexplained supernatural. In fact, if you were to observe how strangers can show up at the funerals of even the most ordinary people whose deaths were widely publicised, you will note that mankind has not evolved significantly from the days of public executions being a communal event.
Some cite the educational and cultural value of dark attractions; ancient graveyards, torture chambers and castles alike shed much light on the history of the country and provide insight to the sufferings borne by the people of a bygone era.
Yet it was only in recent times that death started becoming commercialised. While milking money out of such places of suffering for camera-touting tourists may seem disrespectful to the deceased, it is undeniable that dark tourism can give these places a new lease of life. Tourism generates revenue for the maintenance and preservation of historical sites that would otherwise be left abandoned or in a state of disrepair.
Regardless of your motivations, here are some spooky destinations to consider for your next holiday.
The capital city of Austria is known for its morbid fascination surrounding death — the people sing about death, cemeteries are used as weekend recreational spaces, and the dead are sent off in elaborate funerals and laid to rest in numerous cemeteries in the city that look more like urban parks than graveyards. Visit the Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery), the second largest cemetery in Europe where famous residents such as Beethoven have been laid to rest. The Burial Museum with its ornate displays of coffins offers an insight into the city’s culture of death. For those with a higher tolerance for gore, visit the crypt of Saint Michael’s Church where 300-year-old mummified corpses lie in coffins, still decked out in their fine regalia.
Known as one of the most haunted cities on earth, the capital of Scotland has no lack of spooky attractions for fans of the supernatural. The Edinburgh Castle is said to be the most haunted spot in the city, undoubtedly so since the castle was the site of numerous grisly executions, mysterious disappearances and murders in the past. Ghost tours take visitors to grisly locations such as the Edinburgh Vaults, underground chambers that served as slum dwellings for the poor and as storage spaces for serial killers to hide their victims; and the aforementioned Mary King’s Close. For those who prefer horror without the possibility of encountering a real ghost, the Edinburgh Dungeon is a horror themed attraction that provides harmless amusement rides with a mix of dark humour.
England’s capital also has several spine-chilling attractions to ramp up the fear quotient. The Tower of London is said to be amongst the world’s most haunted locations due to the multiple sightings of ghostly spectres, including the ghost of Anne Boleyn, a royal lady who was executed at the tower for adultery. Many ghost legends also surround the Highgate Cemetery, the final resting place of Karl Marx and Charles Dickens’ family. Catacombs, ancient tombstones, and a vampire once said to roam the grounds, give this sprawling Victorian cemetery its eerie charm. Join one of the many Jack the Ripper tours that take visitors to the actual murder sites of London’s infamous serial killer and media sensation, whose grisly killings in the 1880s caused so much fear that he is now immortalised in popular culture.
Dark tourism reared its ugly head when many tourists reportedly descended upon New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for a glimpse of the destruction. Less ethically controversial attractions can be found in the city where voodoo was once widely practised. The Saint Louis Cemetery, a series of three cemeteries known as ‘cities of the dead’, is a unique sight as graves are situated above ground due to the high water table that would wash the body out of the soil if done otherwise. The haunted Lalaurie Mansion, where many slaves were killed and tortured by the wealthy Madame Lalaurie in the 1800s, continues to draw many curious tourists.
The Bhangarh Fort in the state of Rajasthan is one of the most famous haunted locations in India. Various legends suggest that the town, now deserted and left in ruins was cursed by a magician. Perhaps as a warning that the legends should not be taken lightly, the authorities have made entry to the fort prohibited after dark. The ancient Brijraj Bhavan Palace is also said to be haunted by the ghost of Major Burton, a British man who was killed by soldiers and whose spirit continues to patrol the palace ground today.