Associated with death, destruction, disaster and atrocity, dark tourism or grief tourism draws in those thrilling to learn more about the eerie stories behind some of history’s most tragic events. In recent years, the likes of Auschwitz, Chernobyl, and Khmen Rouge Killing Fields have suddenly gone from sites of tragedy to trending tourist destinations, some receiving millions of visitors every year.
What is the appeal of dark tourism destinations?
There are many reasons dark tourism intrigues travellers. Some merely seek thrills, others are curious to visit sites they’ve done research on, others yet want to understand and learn from the mistakes of the past. What’s certain is that dark tourism is on track to redefining leisure travel as we know it.
In the spirit of Halloween, we have identified the 5 most macabre dark tourism destinations in the world worthy of a blood-curdling holiday.
1. Aokigahara Forest, Japan
Wondering what’s so macabre about the lush forest pictured below? Aokigahara Forest in Japan is not like any other forest: it’s a deadly forest.
Located northwest of the iconic Mount Fuji and a two-hour drive from Tokyo, the forest—also known as the Sea of Trees or Suicide Forest—is famous for being the number one suicide location in Japan. The forest became known worldwide in 2018 when YouTuber Paul Logan posted a controversial video of a body hanging on a tree. The legend goes that the forest is haunted by yūrei—spirits of the dead who can’t leave our world and aren’t too positively inclined towards visitors.
In 2010, police records showed that over 247 people attempted suicide here, of whom 54 completed the desperate act. However, the forest is so thick that many bodies might remain undiscovered forever.
One can roam around the woods solo or accompanied by a tour guide, but tours tend to focus more on the natural beauty and vegetation of the forest rather than on its reputation as a dark tourism destination.
2. Chernobyl and Pripyat, Ukraine
Who’s ready to soak up some radioactive rays in Chernobyl, Ukraine? In truth, radioactivity levels have gone down to safe since the disaster happened, and tours to Chernobyl — or Chornobyl in Ukranian — are run by qualified guides that assure guests’ safety while visiting the Exclusion Zone.
What was the city like before the world’s worst nuclear disaster?
Only 134 km (83.2 mi) from Kyiv, Chernobyl is a small city in northern Ukraine near the border with Belarus. Before the catastrophic nuclear accident occurred on April 26, 1986, approximately 14,000 people lived here. Today, roughly 100 people still continue to live in the city.
The now-ghost city of Pripyat was once home to over 50,000 plant workers, a Soviet paradise of sorts. Today, the abandoned amusement park, the drained pool, and the crumbling buildings gesture to moments of joy in the past that aren’t likely to come back in the foreseeable future.
3. Catacombs of Paris, France
The glamours city of Paris is home to one of the darkest secrets in the world. Beneath its streets lie the remains of over 6 million dead Parisians.
In the 18th century, the rapidly growing population of Paris was facing major challenges, including lack of living space. During this period, the tunnels of the city were turned into an ossuary. During WWII, members of the French Resistance used Les Catacombes de Paris as hide-outs.
The underground cemetery has always been one of Paris’ top attractions: first, reserved exclusively for visits by royal families and Parisian aristocracy, and later opening to the public in 1867.
Tips for visitors:
- Pre-book your ticket to avoid long queues.
- For safety reasons, it’s forbidden to bring any luggage or suitcases with you.
- Carrying a jacket or warm clothing is highly recommended, as temperatures here are normally around 14 degrees.
Pack all your courage to walk through this boned-filled labyrinth.
4. The Island of the Dolls (La Isla de las Muñecas), Mexico
Hundreds of broken, deteriorated, decapitated, sinister dolls of various kinds inhabit the spooky La Isla de las Muñecas (which translates to The Island of the Dolls), in Xochimilco canals.
It all began when Don Julian Santana moved to the island and made a chilling discovery: the body of a young lady floating dead in the water first and a doll floating on the lake shortly afterwards.
From that day forward, it is thought that the cries of the drowned girl hounded Don Julian who began collecting dolls from the trash and canals and displaying them all around the island in an attempt to ward off and please her spirit.
However, the body of the drowned girl has never been found and many believe that the story was all figment of his imagination.
In 2001, Don Julian Santana was found drowned in the exact place in which he believed the young girl had died.
On a visit to the Island of the Dolls, apart from the frightening dolls, you’ll find a small museum with old newspaper articles, information about the late owner, and his first and favourite doll, Agustinita.
5. Khmer Rouge Killing Fields, Cambodia
Cambodia was the scene of one of the darkest and horrifying pages in modern history: according to different sources, between 1.7 and 2.5 million Cambodians died through execution, starvation or disease during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979, one of the worst genocides of the 20th century.
The Khmer Rouge was the Communist Party led by Pol Pot, whose goal was to turn the country into a socialist agrarian republic putting into practice radical adaptions of the Marxism-Leninism theories. Under his regime, cities such as the capital Phnom Penh became “ghost cities,” while the countryside became cramped and over-populated.
Toul Sleng – S-21 Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh – is a former school, whose hallways, once filled with joyful student voices, was turned into a scene of unspeakable horror. Here, prisoners were tortured to death or sent to Choeung Ek (the site of a former orchard and mass grave of victims) for execution.
Today, both sites are open to the public with the goal of educating people about the tragic mistakes of the past.
With the rise of dark tourism, more tourists are drawn by the curiosity to visit these sites, resulting in an increase in visitors and profits. In fact, some have even doubted if this is educational or merely exploitative, and the debate remains ongoing to-date.
If you choose to pay a visit to sites mentioned in this article (or any other dark tourism destination), please be mindful of possible sensitivities and act respectfully on location.