Just when you thought that the popularity of Dark Tourism had reached its peak, it skyrocketed again. The latest jolt came from Netflix’s Dark Tourist, which revived public interest in Dark Tourism.
With interest comes scrutiny, and the manifold implications of Dark Tourism are being discussed again. The debate around Dark Tourism revolves around the ethical implications of visiting places connected to tragedy. However, while the debate may be recent, the activity is not; it’s rather that the pursuit of dark sites didn’t have a label.
The interests and motivations behind the pursuit of such sites are as varied as the definitions and associations of what is “dark.”
Is it the abandoned, the haunted, the morbid, or the bizarre that lures us to these places? Or maybe even a sense of nostalgia for something we will never get to experience? In my case it’s all of the above. And while I don’t necessarily have to travel to find that, I do like to see how these aspects of history, tragedy, and loss are reflected and dealt with in the different places I visit.
There is no single definition of what qualifies as “dark.” Dark Tourism can range from the bittersweet to the outright gruesome, yet in the end it all comes down to our individual perception, interpretation, and sensibility. That is why I asked nine of my favorite “Dark Tourists” to share with me the place that best represents Dark Tourism to them.
Concrete and Kitsch | Tank Cemetery
I always find it particularly interesting when the marquis attraction of a place could be considered “dark,” and this was certainly the case in Asmara, Eritrea. Current government situations in the country make the nation itself a rather dark place to visit, and Asmara’s Tank Graveyard did nothing to lessen this feeling.
On the outskirts of the city, on the road to Dekemhare, lies the Asmara Tank Graveyard. There, surrounded by newly built Chinese housing developments, sit shelled out remains of tanks, shipping containers, supply trucks, and other heavy machinery from Eritrea’s thirty-year guerrilla independence war with Ethiopia – ending only in 1993.
Eritrea is a proud nation, so much so that the ageing, rusted tanks and military equipment are seen as trophies that visitors should pay tribute to. Aeroflot logos are spray painted on much of the equipment, as Ethiopia was particularly demanding to its allies during the war with Eritrea. The US backed Ethiopia until 1974 (when a Marxist coup ended Haile Selassie’s reign), after which the Ethiopians drew support from the Soviets and other comrades from behind the iron curtain.
Eritrea had the odds stacked against it from start to finish, and with losses of over 100,000 people over the thirty-year war, it’s no wonder that the struggle for independence is a defining period in the construction of a modern Eritrean identity.
To enter the tank graveyard, you need a permit – as you do if you want to travel anywhere outside the capital. We arrived and were, per usual, the only tourists around. We presented our documents to a plainclothes officer carrying a Kalashnikov, and spent an hour or so surveying the scene with our driver, Daniel, who lived through the struggle. Aside from being extremely photogenic, the tank graveyard is worth visiting to gain a greater understanding of how war shaped contemporary Eritrea: a country born from devastating war and losses.
Wanderella Story | Children’s World
A short ride from the cobbled streets and historic buildings of Vilnius lies a different reality: Elektrėnai, one of Lithuania’s youngest towns and a concrete result of the Soviet planned economy. Dominated by the sight of large apartment complexes, the town was built between 1961 and 1972 to provide housing and entertainment to the workers of a nearby power plant.
Belonging to the latter category was Vaikų Pasaulis (”Children’s World”), Lithuania’s only amusement park and center for fun in Elektrėnai. Though small in size, Vaikų Pasaulis had all the essential rides of a traditional amusement park: a roller coaster, ferris wheel, several carousels, breakdance and bumper cars. Its centerpiece was the Jet Star 2 roller coaster, one of the only two of its kind in the world. A relatively late arrival to Vaikų Pasaulis, Jet Star 2 was acquired from Moscow’s Gorky Park in 2002.
Unfortunately, what the park offered in fun and games it lacked in safety. Its story came to an end in 2012 when Jet Star 2 suffered the last of its many malfunctions and one of the wagons got stuck at the top of a steep slope. Although nobody luckily got injured, it was enough to make parents think twice about allowing their children to board the rides. Visitors soon disappeared and Vaikų Pasaulis, already struggling under the general economic decline of the time, was forced to close down.
Today, the vacant rides stand as a reminder of Elektrėnai’s past as one of Lithuania’s foremost industrial towns. Yet, despite the broken promises of economic prosperity, the place somehow manages to exude a light charm unknown to so many other dark tourist sites. Visitors can sit in the still-colorful wagons and almost hear the joyous screams of children and the clunk clunk clunk of steel coming to life. Happy memories were made here.
Metallia Matkassa | Stutthof
During the German occupation in Poland hundreds of German concentration and forced labour camps were scattered around the territory. Around 20 miles east from city of Gdańsk lies Stutthof concentration camp, which was established in small town of Sztutowo, in a secluded wooden area, hidden from undesirable attention and eyes of the public. Stutthof was one of the first Nazi camps set outside Germany and started operations on 2nd of September 1939, right after Nazi troops invaded Poland. Stutthof concentration camp was smaller than the one in Auschwitz, but still around 110,000 prisoners walked through the main gate and approximately 65,000 never made it out again alive.
Visiting former concentration camps may be difficult – to think of all the terrible things that took place once in the same spot you are standing on makes one angry, sad and losing faith in humanity. I felt very powerless when looking an old gas chamber, where thousands were executed only because of their religious, ethnic or educational background. One of the most terrifying things I learned about the history of Stutthof was that bodies of the victims were used in experimental factory for soap production. Just thinking about it makes my skin crawl.
Even though visits in places such as Stutthof or Auschwitz may be emotionally shocking, my personal interest of traveling to such destinations lies in learning; I want to know and see where the horrifying acts took place, in order to educate myself about different events of history, even if they are devastating and not always easy to process. Since I moved to Trójmiasto, I have visited Stuffhof concentration camp museum twice and I am still planning to visit it again some time.
Stutthof is quite easy to reach from Gdańsk by local bus. Journey takes around an hour and ticket costs some 13 zlotys / one way. It’s best to prepare around 3 hours for the visit. The museum is open 7 days a week.
Coffee and Cleveland | Warner and Swasey Observatory
Now covered in ivy and graffiti, the Warner and Swasey Observatory was once an important building in the world of astronomy. The observatory was gifted to Case Western Reserve University in 1919 and it opened its doors in 1920. Two important astronomical discoveries were made here. It was discovered that the Milky Way was a spiral galaxy and that cooler stars, known as Red Giants, mainly inhabited the center of our galaxy.
Unfortunately, its heyday was short lived. Like most city-dwelling observatories, light pollution from nearby Cleveland became a problem when observing the night sky. Its original telescope was moved to Geauga County in the 1950s and continued to make observations until it was moved to Arizona in 1979. The Warner and Swasey building continued to make astronomical observations into the 1970s. In 1983, Case Western sold the building to a businessman to use as the headquarters of his cable television company. It was not long after that the building was completely abandoned.
More recently, a real estate mogul bought the observatory at a foreclosure auction for $115,000 with plans to turn it into a luxury family home in 2005. However, plans were stopped in 2007 when he was sent to jail for fraud. Today, the building still sits abandoned. You can easily get inside by simply pushing aside the plywood that covers the entrance.
The Warner and Swasey observatory was the first abandoned building I ever visited. While it’s not located in the best areas of town, its immediate vicinity was quiet and peaceful. The green ivy and boarded windows made it seem like the quintessential abandoned building. And its location in Cleveland adds to its character and special quality.
Fotostrasse | Vyšehrad Cemetery
When I close my eyes and think about Prague, the first thing that comes to my head is the work of the fantastic Alphonse Mucha. I grew up with his illustrations, and his work was one of the many reasons I ended up working as a designer.
When I first came to Prague, I knew I had to pay my respects to him and to everything he meant to me as an artist. After some online research, I found out his final resting place is the famous Vyšehrad Cemetery, where Antonín Dvořák, Ladislav Šaloun, and Bedřich Smetana are buried as well.
When I got to Vyšehrad Cemetery, I walked among the tombstones for a few minutes, trying to find Alphonse Mucha without any luck. I walked around without direction until I discovered that a map with information and location from most of the graves there in front of the church. That changed everything for me.
The map I found pointed in the Slavin direction, but his name wasn’t on the front panels. I started walking around the statue until his name came popping in front of my eyes. I found it! His work was so influential and important to me as a designer that it was an emotional experience to be there. Without any question. For some, it is just a name, but for me, it was like visiting a teacher who I never met before.
For those who have no idea who Alphonse Mucha was, let me stop here to explain a little bit. Alphonse Mucha was a painter and decorative artist whose theater posters featuring Sarah Bernhardt started the Art Nouveau movement in France. His work, posters, illustrations, and paintings, most of the time featured beautiful women with flowing hair and robes that are impossible to ignore.
Vyšehrad Cemetery is open from 8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, pretty much every day of the year.
Lost Lara | Palats Ilyich
The framed photo of Lenin stared down at me, as the man I shared no common language with locked the door, trapping me in the office with him. The room smelled like a rancid combination of stale cigarette smoke and dirty dish towels. I handed him my money, I knew it was too much, but while I’m not well-versed on the etiquette of bribery, I didn’t think it was appropriate to ask for change.
If I was Ukrainian, I probably would have frequented the Palats Ilych as a child. I, however, was born in Australia and found myself desperately trying to sneak a peek at inside. It was everything I had hoped for and more. Photos and statues of Lenin, in a post-Maidan Ukraine which has tried to strip away this part of its history; peeling paint; abandoned costumes, toys, posters and gym equipment; and a delightful dog named Marta, who pisses and shits wherever she pleases.
During the Soviet Union, most cities had a Palace of Culture, or a Palace of Science and Culture or some other combination of these words. Famous examples include Stalin’s birthday cake in Warsaw, Poland; the Palace of Culture – Energetik in Pripyat, Ukraine; and the National Palace of Culture (NDK) in Sofia, Bulgaria. These “palaces” were designed as a place for recreational and cultural activities for the masses. Palats Ilyich, in Dnipro, Ukraine, was no different. Opened in 1932, it was privatised in the 1990s and has been abandoned since 2000.
Kathmandu & Beyond | The Old Liu Family Mansion
Taiwan is a tremendous country if you are into exploring abandoned locations. Unlike in Europe, most places are accessible and easy to enter. It helps that urbexing is not especially popular in Taiwan as this, in turn, ensures that such places do not attract the attention of the authorities. But the main reason why urban exploration is so easy is that the Taiwanese, like many Asians, believe such places are haunted and so they give them a wide berth.
During our recent travels in the country, we visited an abandoned hospital, a dilapidated UFO-themed holiday village, a forlorn and overgrown amusement park, and a former Japanese Navy correction centre but the place that intrigued us the most was an uninhabited mansion situated in the countryside near the city of Chiayi in central Taiwan.
The cycle ride from the centre of the city was worth it for the architecture alone. Built in 1929, this redbrick, baroque style home has been completely taken over by the elements and the atmospheric, twisted vines that have engulfed much of its exterior reminded us of some of the Angkorian ruins we have seen in Cambodia. But it was the rumours and myths attached to the reason for its abandonment that captured our imagination and drew us to the house in the first instance.
The Old Liu Family Mansion, commonly known as Minxiong Ghost House, is one of the most famous haunted houses in Taiwan. To this day it is surrounded by rice paddies and farmland and would have been a wonderful place to live but, at some point in the 1950s, the Liu family upped sticks and left the property for good. There are various theories as to why they shunned their once-lovely home and most of them involve ghosts. The most popular tale involves a maid and her affair with the master of the house: shamed by the discovery of the affair, the maid is said to have committed suicide by throwing herself down the well. Her spirit came back to haunt the residents and, as a result, they deserted the family home and left it to the mercy of wandering souls, nature, and the occasional curious (living) visitor.
Rebecca Bathory | Fukushima
Fukushima is a newer nuclear disaster, but just as devastating as the Chernobyl disaster. A series of equipment failures and nuclear meltdowns occurred on 11th March 2011 after Tohuku earthquake. It reached a level 7 on the International nuclear event scale, which has only been matched by the Chernobyl accident, these two being the only to reach a level 7 on this scale. The tsunami caused by the earthquake caused the damage on reactors 1, 2, 3 & 4 it occurred 50 minutes after the initial earthquake. A 13 meter wave was just 3 meters too high and overcame the 10 meter wave gate that the power station had in place.
I photograph here because as nature claims back the buildings that once thrived with life, in years to come they will become just ruins and the photos I have taken on these trips will serve as a historical record of these years that occurred after that day. These photos are a reminder of that tragic day and to those that view them show the fragility of human existence and how powers such as this should be treated carefully as to not allow things like this to happen again.
The Bohemian Blog | Ort der Ruhe
A sign above the gate reads ‘Ort der Ruhe’ – Place of Peace – but the wind pays it no heed. The oldest of these stones has stood for more than a century: German prayers chiselled into the Transylvanian hillside. Below the cemetery, nestled in the valley, the village of Dacia fades into smoke by twilight.
The Transylvanian Saxons began settling here from the mid-12th century onwards. After the Mongol Invasion (1241-42) swept through the Kingdom of Hungary, these outposts of Germanic culture were tasked with defending its southernmost border. They built churches and fortified them, whole townships wrapped inside medieval buttress walls.
Today, most of them have gone. The years following WWII saw a slow exodus of Saxon folk from what was, by then, Romania; they left in droves during Ceaușescu’s reign, and after the Berlin Wall came down a half-million Transylvanian Saxons returned to a newly reunified Germany.
The village tells this story in miniature. First mentioned in 1309 AD it was called ‘Stein’ in German, or ‘Štîn’ in the Transylvanian Saxon dialect. In 1931 Romanian authorities changed its name to ‘Dacia,’ and by 1980 the Saxons no longer held a majority. But they left their stones here to remember them by.
Cemeteries are timeless in a way that fortified churches are not. Some of those Saxon churches are gone now, fallen to ruin, while others have been propped up with UNESCO support – reconstructions, gift shops and the rest. But up on the hill above Dacia, where this unassuming, windswept graveyard bears the weathered chisel-strokes of Saxon hands, a vanishing community is remembered without postscript. History indelible in stone. ‘Ruhet sanft,’ it says: Rest gently.
Between Distances | The Sedlec Ossuary
The chapel, at a first glance, did not look particularly special—then, I noticed the symbols of death. A mosaic outlining a skull with two crossed bones greeted me at the gates. I looked up and glanced at the chapel’s towers, and saw that they were not topped by crosses but by metal skulls. I was finally at the legendary Sedlec Ossuary in Kutná Hora, Czechia. This small Catholic chapel is known for its morbid decorations made with human bones.
How did the mortal remains of all those people find themselves turned into these macabre ornaments? In the 13th century, a monk brought back soil from the Holy Land after a trip there. Said monk spread the soil all over the chapel’s cemetery, which was thenceforth considered to be holy by many—thus becoming prime burial real estate for believers from Bohemia and beyond. The Black Plague and Hussite Wars, among other disasters, decimated the area’s population; after the cemetery filled up, the chapel itself became a storage place for the bodies of the deceased. It is estimated that the Sedlec Ossuary contains the bones of 40,000 to 70,000 people.
In 1870, an artist named František Rink was commissioned by the ruling Schwarzenberg family with rearranging the bones, which had previously been bleached by a blind monk. The idea behind this was to encourage people to reflect on their own mortality in order to be more appreciative of life—much in line with the medieval Christian concept of vanitas.
The Sedlec Ossuary is known for its morbid extravagance. The centerpiece of the chapel is a chandelier made primarily of shoulder blades, humeri, and skulls. Other objects include a giant chalice and the coat of arms of the Schwarzenberg family. Angels blow their trumpets atop towering racks of skulls while a moribund Christ oversees the nightmarish scene from his wooden cross. The amount of detail that went into its decoration is what sets this place apart from other ossuaries.
When I was inside I was overwhelmed by the smell of humidity; as I left, I was overwhelmed by the realization that every single one of those skulls turned into decorations is all that’s left of people who once were alive.
People like you and me.
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Which Dark Tourism destinations have you visited? Share them with us in the comments below!
All pictures by the respective authors.