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The Dark Ages

August 19, 2010 By:
Courtney Reed, JE Feature
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Macabre tours? Ground zero (above) and the onetime impenetrable Alcatraz prison make for some eerie attractions for a variety of reasons, say experts.

I knew I had to go. But I couldn't say why I wanted to travel to Auschwitz, and why I wanted to do it alone.

No one in my family had perished in a concentration camp. I have no Jewish heritage. My relatives did not even fight in World War II.

But since adolescence, I have been saturated with brutal images of the Holocaust, accounts of torturous experiments by Dr. Josef Mengele and chilling interviews with survivors.

Academics call my fascination dark tourism: "the act of travel, whether intentional or otherwise, to sites of death, destruction or the seemingly macabre," as Philip Stone, a leading researcher of the phenomenon, puts it.

Visits to Alcatraz, the notorious ex-prison; the battlefields of Gettysburg; and the slave quarters of U.S. Southern plantations all qualify, in Stone's view -- and so do trips to ground zero in New York and Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans.

Stone, a professor at the University of Lancashire in England, started a Web site devoted to the idea: The Dark Tourism Forum (www.dark-tourism.org.uk).

But he's reluctant to say definitively why many of us are drawn to such places. "That's the million-dollar question," said Stone, who teaches leisure and tourism.

The West's distance from experiencing death, as medicine moved to hospitals and funeral homes; a desire to confront our mortality; or a need to do penance or learn from history are possible reasons, he suggested. Or it can be a simple desire for education and remembrance (as can be the case of Jews visiting such sites as Auschwitz, to "never forget").

Two professors, John Lennon and Malcolm Foley of Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland, coined the term "dark tourism" in the 1990s, and published a book about it: Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster.

Clearly, there's something to all this.

Tourists have been flocking to the Sept. 11 site for years now, and the tourism industry quickly responded. New York City Vacation Packages created a $25 walking tour that allows participants to walk across the floor of the former World Trade Center, said company vice president Joel Cohen.

Most visitors are interested in paying their respects, but some repeat visitors like to view the progress on construction, he said.

Visitor Georgina Fujimoto, of Mifflinburg, Pa., called viewing a patriotic act: "If you don't go, it's almost like you're not a good American."

Several companies have likewise developed Katrina-focused New Orleans tours. Gray Line Tour packages were first popular with locals, said sales director Jim Fewell, but are now filled with tourists.

"People really want to see for themselves -- which is typical of any disaster, natural or man-made," said Fewell.

Yet the budding interest isn't always macabre.

Jessica Sarver, a student at the California University of Pennsylvania -- about 35 miles south of Pittsburgh -- who wrote an award-winning paper on the phenomenon, concluded that sometimes, people just want to find out what happened. It could be called the reporter in them, the mystery-novel guru, the archaeologist.

"There are some visitors who travel to these destinations because of the thrill some get from death and destruction," said Sarver, who lives near the crash site of Flight 93, the plane that took off from Boston on Sept. 11, but was forced down in a Pennsylvania field when passengers challenged the hijackers. All on board were killed.

"But overall," she said, "I would attribute visitation to these sites as a form of respect or for education purposes."

Being in a place of historical tragedy also creates a special connection between observer and observed, said Benoit Monin, assistant professor of social psychology at Stanford University.

This, he said, "has to do with seeing the world the way the victims did."

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