Killing Fields
Tourists visit a memorial stupa containing the remains of more than 8,000 victims of the Khmer Rouge regime at Choeung Ek, a so-called Killing Fields site on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. REUTERS

Why do tourists flock to sites of great atrocity? That question is the raison d'etre of a new academic center, the Institute for Dark Tourism Research, or iDTR, which opened its doors at the U.K.'s University of Central Lancashire on April 24.

The first of its kind, the iDTR is described as a venue for ethical research into the social, scientific understanding of tourist sites of death, disaster, or the seemingly macabre. Exploring a shadowy corner at the nexus of psychology, anthropology, and business, the research center will put dark tourism under a microscope to contemplate the urges that draw us to sites like Ground Zero or Auschwitz.

Dark tourism brings death back into the public domain, said Philip Stone, iDTR executive director. Because death is under a medical gaze, it's been privatized. We reconnect with mortality through the tourism.

What Is Dark Tourism?

Thanatourism, as dark tourism is known in academia, derives from the ancient Greek word thanatos, or the personification of death. Of course, tourists' fascination with death is nothing new -- think of the many people who traveled to watch the gladiators at the Roman Coliseum battling until one was killed or the onlookers at the sacrificial religious rites of the Maya.

In the Middle Ages, pilgrims traveled to tombs, sites of religious martyrdom, and public executions. And this interest in death intensified during the Romantic period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries with attractions like Waterloo and the ruins of Pompeii, which early dark-tourism researcher Tony Seaton called the greatest thanatoptic travel destination of the Romantic period.

The primary focus of the study of modern-day dark tourism is on sites where death or suffering has occurred or been memorialized, such as battlefields, concentration camps, dungeons, prisons, or graveyards. But it is also about locations where the pain is not so much physical as economic -- for example, the Fabulous Ruins tour in Detroit, which memorializes the city's fall from glamour.

Branding An Academic Field

To make the field of study more accessible and attractive to researchers and tourism experts, John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, professors at Glasgow Caledonian University, coined the term dark tourism in 1996.

But not everyone in the field enjoys its adopted title.

Tonie and Valmai Holt, who spoke at a symposium during the iDTR's dedication last week, said they are uneasy about the name dark tourism.

It gives one the impression of voyeurism, Valmai Holt said, and that's something we want to distance ourselves from. We've spent the last 34 years trying to explain to the general public that there is nothing macabre or ghoulish about it. There's a place for this type of tourism.

The Holts pioneered the first modern commercial battlefield tour in 1978, and many at the time delighted in branding their tours as morbid.

The basic principle of everything we've ever done is to make it absolutely clear that we will be either reading about or walking on ground where people fought and died, and it's absolutely vital to remember that at all times, Tonie Holt said. It's important that one should pause and remain silent to remember and acknowledge what has happened on that ground. If we ever feel ourselves emotionally uninvolved, then we'll stop doing what we're doing.

It's no good just being a scholastic, detached group of people, Tonie Holt added. If you're going to be involved in this, you must have this fundamental conviction.

The inaugural symposium was attended by some 100 delegates from around the world. The online Dark Tourism Forum, which allows academics and industry professions to make research connections through the Internet, now boasts more than 1,500 members.

The Dark Tourist

Dark tourism comes in many shades, but iDTR Executive Director Stone's approach to the material is a pragmatic one: Why are these sites produced? How are they consumed?

If you look at tourism as a movement of people, we're understanding the consequences of this movement, Stone said.

Some tourists come looking for catharsis -- they search for answers when memory of the actual event fades: Why did the Khmer Rouge murder its own countrymen? How could Adolf Hitler initiate the Holocaust? They try to empathize with the victims and understand the motivations of the perpetrators.

Others are historians, genealogists, or researchers. Whatever the type, there's no code of conduct for visiting these disaster sites, nor are there rules on how to memorialize them.

Once I observed some people at Auschwitz, Stone said. They were smiling for a photo and their friends said. 'Oh, don't smile -- we are in Auschwitz.' This, he said, typifies the self-regulating aspect of dark tourism: You are really judged as a tourist, especially by other tourists.

Framing The Message

The line between memorialization and commercialization is fuzzy, and there are no clear guidelines on the ethics of marketing and promoting these sites.

There is a trend in memorial venues to incorporate not just how people were killed but how they lived -- to breathe some life into a place of the dead. This often involves reminding us of who the heroes were and why we should consider them as such.

Yet, because dark tourism essentially provides a lens through which to look at society at present and in the past, the message evolves over the years.

African-American descendants of slaves fought to make sure slavery was fully represented in history, and their struggles changed the way Southern memorials are presented. Many Southern plantation sites now tell not only the story of the plantation owner, but also the stories of the slave families who lived and worked there, framing a more complete picture.

Gay activists fought for representation in Holocaust memorials, and as a result many of them now include homosexual victims as a part of their exhibitions. Similarly, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York will likely change over time. What is now viewed as an American tragedy may take on a more global narrative as decades pass.

Time affects sites of tragedy in other ways, too.

There is the issue of chronological distance, Stone said. When it's safely in the past, there is an argument that it can be exploited for commercialization -- it's been blocked into history, so we can begin remembering the dead with, arguably, kitsch ideas.

This makes it OK to honor, say, the Titanic with a lavish memorial cruise full of costumed participants and raucous recreations. If we didn't, they would likely be forgotten.

Then there are sites like Grutas Park, popularly known as Stalin's World. The theme park draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to Grutas, Lithuania, a republic in the former Soviet Union.

From Stalin's World to the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the message at each of these dark-tourism sites is varied. At Auschwitz, for example, there is little recognition of the motivations behind the facility, while at the 9/11 Memorial, there is a message of peace and tolerance.

There is also a sliding scale of authenticity. How realistic can you make a memorial site without it being too real and too horrific for people to comprehend? Or, looked at another way, how much can you sanitize the story with symbolic representations before you lose the inherent message?

This, Stone said, is the challenge: to codify our inconvenient histories in such a way that they replicate a feeling of the past while instilling a symbolic message of rebirth. In other words, tourists may enter into a dark place, but the goal is to always have them return to the light.