Reviewing Netflix's Dark Tourist series
Text: Anna Scholder
Image: Islay Kilgannon
After the opening tune of Netflix fades out, the face of a Louis Theroux lookalike appears on my screen: David Farrier. Filmed from the safety of his own home, David, a journalist from Aotearoa, explains in his opening minute that he is taking the viewer on a journey with him, in search of the ultimate dark tourist experience. Fascinated by the ‘mad, macabre and morbid’, David took me by the hand as he traveled the globe.
I stumbled across this trending series by accident, as I was looking for a film starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. What drew me in was the cover picture: an almost mummified face of a deceased woman. Later in the series, the viewer will learn that this is a deceased grandma; she has been in her tomb for 17 years, only to be taken out once a year. In Toraja, Indonesia, washing and grooming the dead is part of funeral rituals. This defines the style David and his crew adopted for their series: luring people in at the beginning of the episode by showing short clips that highlight the bizarre to later explore the story more thoroughly.
First and foremost, David doesn’t do a bad job at all. The series is an entertaining travel documentary, easy to watch with sprinkles of historical and sometimes even anthropological insight. David approaches every single one of his destinations with a frank and open-hearted earnestness; he rarely outright applauds or condemns anyone’s attraction. As he travels the globe, to different continents and countries, he seeks out experiences that fall under the umbrella term: Dark Tourism.
A Big Mystery
In an article by Colette Copeland about the aesthetics of Dark Tourism, Philip Stone (a British dark tourism scholar) explains dark tourism as ‘the act to travel to sites associated with death, suffering and seemingly macabre’. This may be my naïve self talking – for you should know: I do not like scary things – but why on earth would one go to a place well known for death in their free time? Surely visiting a still highly radioactive sight or voluntarily submitting to being tortured hardly does any good. This seems to be exactly what David and his crew are off to uncover: the ‘Why?’ behind dark tourism.
Colette Copeland offers a few theories on the ‘Why?’ question. Though scholars disagree about the reasons why there is a global increase in dark tourism since the late 1990s, Copeland does offer some insight on why people partake in dark tourism in the first place. One of the theories is that the events of the Cold War led to a growing interest in commemorations that create a space for reflection and redemption. Thus, this suggests it’s some kind of memorial. In this perspective, dark tourism is not just for pleasure and the adrenaline thrill. Another theory Copeland describes agrees on the non-pleasure aspect. It stems from a Freudian discourse: a compulsion to visit sites of trauma for closure and disclosure. Dark tourism would thus keep the memory of trauma alive and in the front of our collective memory. This can clearly be seen in some scenes of the series. David visits Tomioka; a ghost town in Japan, left lifeless after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. David is affected by the scene and makes sure the viewer is brought back to the reality of the scene as he singles out personal items and children’s toys among the chaos. People have died here, many had to flee their homes: it is a disastrous place, let’s not forget that.
David’s visit to McKamey Manor, the world’s scariest horror house, seems to be on the opposite side of the frame and does not seem to fit into the non-pleasure theories. People voluntarily get tortured at this horror house; is it in order to remember that people have been tortured in the past? Or to remember the fact that people are still being submitted to torture in more than one place on our globe? The Manor seems to be an activity for just the adrenaline thrill and an ego boost (or a reality check of one’s ego). But perhaps it is to remember. Remembering that you are still alive and that your life is good. As people usually give up their experience in the horror house within 5 minutes, they seem to have found a new appreciation for life. The intense fear they experienced comes to an end and they get to go back to their normal lives. With an additional experience, that over time fades to the back of their mind and becomes a distant memory.
David seems to be addressing different kinds of mad and morbid. He visits South-Africa and meets up with people who are prepping for the end of the world. Well, the end of their world. According to them, chaos and destruction will come in the form of an uprising among the Black community. These preppers are straight out racist and want to preserve Whiteness in South-Africa. In my eyes, this is a completely different dark tourism compared to visiting vampires in New Orleans, as David did earlier in the series. Whilst eating cake with them, they seem to be in it for the sake of role playing. They find a community and a family through the absurd. Maybe some things just should not be identified as dark tourism. Certainly, fighting and flaunting in a SS-uniform, re-enacting WOII battles, a gruesome entertainment museum with images and statues of the Ku Klux Klan lynching Afro-American or Nazis assaulting Jewish prisoners in a concentration camp goes too far. I find it revolting, superlative to morbid and definitely not ‘entertainment’.
What seems to be forgotten in seemingly unharmful dark tourism experiences, is the human suffering that took place during these actual (historic) events. Considering the format, David does a good job exposing the bigger story behind the ‘ordinary dark tourist experience’. While visiting Benin, David narrates about the history of Lake Nokoué. The tribe Tofinu took refuge on the lake as they build an island on stilts; away from the slave traders. When visiting Medellín, Colombia, David talks to Escobar's former hitman, Popeye, addressing the poverty and structural inequalities that go along with violence.
So, David is not to be blamed for my frustration. What bothers me most is that it is a show about people capitalising off of human tragedy, whilst managing to do exactly the same thing. And I contributed to that. Even though I don’t seem to understand why there is a market for this kind of ‘entertainment’, I did not turn off my computer: I kept watching. Some things I simply find too mad, macabre and morbid. But no one forced me to look. I was outraged, but intrigued. Perhaps just like you are after reading this article: the experience is only a few clicks away. Are you experiencing that same morbid curiosity?