Navigating the etiquette of dark tourism
By NATALIE B. COMPTON | The Washington Post | Published: October 25, 2019
When the fall weather creeps in, so, too, does an urge to seek out ways to terrify ourselves. Some of the scary fall activities we partake in can be casual and festive, such as visiting a "haunted" corn maze. Others are more serious, dipping into the realm of what has become known as dark tourism.
Although the term hasn’t yet made it into the dictionary, it’s largely defined as travel associated with somber events.
"It is sometimes claimed that the one element that unites all dark tourism is that it has, in some way, to do with death," Dark-Tourism.com founder Peter Hohenhaus said in an email. "But that’s quite abstract, and I do not think this is the main motivation with regard to those individual places (it certainly isn’t for me). Also: Not all dark-tourism sites are necessarily linked with death."
Some of the most popular dark-tourism sites in the world are Alcatraz, in San Francisco; Auschwitz, in Poland; Checkpoint Charlie, in Berlin; and Chernobyl, a site in Ukraine where tourism had been exponentially increasing since 2010, and then took off after HBO released a TV series on the disaster.
Whether you’re visiting a destination for the sake of its darkness or to learn about its history, keep in mind that the content is sensitive, and the people connected to it are human. Embarking on dark tourism can be different from other types of travel, requiring a different set of manners to keep in mind.
Here’s how to navigate the etiquette -- no matter how dark.
Don’t touch gravestones at cemeteries:
The most common macabre fall tourist activity is the cemetery visit. October is high season for historic resting places, like Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. It’s a nonsectarian burial ground, but it should be visited with the same respect as a religious site.
While Sleepy Hollow welcomes the boost in tourism, it emphasizes showing respect when touring the active cemetery’s 90-acre grounds.
"We encourage visitors to act as if they had family members of their own buried here," says Sleepy Hollow Cemetery’s director of visitor services, Christina Orban-La Salle.
During October, the cemetery hosts more tours throughout the day and into the night to accommodate all the visitors. There’s even a 10 p.m.-midnight lantern tour for those interested in a more eerie experience. That being said, Orban-La Salle gets requests from people looking to ghost-hunt at the cemetery, which she politely declines to accommodate.
"That’s not us," she says.
Established in 1849, the cemetery is where New York celebrities and locals alike are laid to rest. Orban-La Salle warns that smoking is not allowed, and against sitting on tombstones and other grave markers. Skip gravestone rubbing -- the practice of re-creating a gravestone’s engravings by rubbing pencil graphite or charcoal onto paper covering the etching. Oil from your hands can erode the surface of the stone.
Learn about religions outside of their Hollywood cliches:
To better arm yourself with cultural sensitivity, familiarize yourself with the history of places you visit. What you think you may know from movies and folklore is probably not the true story. This rings true for travelers who take voodoo tours in New Orleans. A lot of customers who sign up for voodoo experiences through Sidney Smith’s Haunted History Tours company are expecting something far from reality.
Smith says that although New Orleans has long been considered a haunted city, voodoo shouldn’t have anything to do with the city’s ghost-related reputation.
"Every night before the voodoo tour takes off, we give the people a disclaimer and let them know that this is actually a very academic tour on voodoo history, not a spooky tour," Smith says.
The company takes customers around the city on excursions that include the New Orleans Cemetery History Tour, the French Quarter Ghosts & Legends Tour and the New Orleans Haunted Pub Crawl. But it’s on the New Orleans Voodoo Tour that Smith’s guides may work hardest to make up for inaccuracies in pop culture.
"It’s our duty to dispel all those Hollywood myths and let people get a real history of the religion of voodoo," says Smith. "Voodoo is still a real religion that is practiced every day."
When touring religious sites -- related to voodoo or otherwise -- keep in mind that you’re visiting something considered holy by those who practice that faith, even if it’s far off from what you believe.
We can feel disconnected to destinations where dark histories happened long ago, such as Salem, Massachusetts. Best known for its harrowing witch trials between 1692 and 1693, the town attracts up to 1 million tourists in October to its own population of 42,000. But certain destinations remain seriously morbid and should be treated delicately. If venturing to a real dark-tourism attraction is on your fall bucket list, tread lightly.
Step One is to reconsider the selfie. Hohenhaus urges readers to visit difficult heritage sites with respect, not like a touristy beach.
"Dark tourism and wielding selfie-sticks do not happily go together," Hohenhaus said.
Artist Shahak Shapira made headlines when he launched his Yolocaust project, wherein he digitally edited tourists’ selfies at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin, to include images of Holocaust victims in the background in order to shame the photo-takers.
"It’s really important to understand that most people behave appropriately," says Pawel Sawicki, a press office official for Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, the site of Europe’s most infamous concentration camp and one of the most popular dark-tourism destinations. Two million people visit the concentration camp annually, and 80 percent visit on a guided tour.
"They go through a 3 1/2- to four-hour experience," Sawicki says. "The faces of people when they start are very different from the faces when they leave."
Skip the selfie and be more mindful of your surroundings. No matter your preferred communication style, sites like Auschwitz, Japan’s Aokigahara forest (a place gaining a reputation for suicide) and Chernobyl are known because of large death tolls and tragedy.
"This is not just a museum or open-air site," Sawicki says about the concentration camp. People "are coming to a site where millions of people were murdered."
And of course, being a respectful tourist is not a requirement limited to dark tourism. Whenever you’re traveling, no matter the destination, you should probably be on your best behavior.