While many global travel trends have existed throughout history, there is perhaps no stranger travel phenomenon than the surge of interest in dark tourism. Recently made even more popular by the Netflix show Dark Tourist, the term is used for travel associated with anything tragic, taboo, creepy, disastrous, scary, and eery. But why would anyone want to travel to depressing sites like concentration camps, war zones, or ghost towns? Well, for some, it may be for the same reason people enjoy watching terrifying movies. There’s certainly an adrenaline rush, and a surreal, creepy, spooky feeling you get when visiting many of these sites. But some hypothesize it may be because of something deeper: a way to mourn the dead, work through trauma, or as a way to understand our world and grapple with those big existential questions through the lens of our darkest history. Here are some of the most popular dark tourism destinations you can visit.
S-21 Prison (Tuol Sleng) & Choeung Ek Killing Fields (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)
Formerly Tuol Svay Pray High School, the Khmer Rouge regime renamed the school S-21 when they turned it into a torture and execution chamber during the Cambodian genocide. The regime captured and executed almost everyone suspected of being in connection with the former government. Electrified barbed wire surrounded the buildings, and classrooms became torture chambers for the estimated 20,000 prisoners of S-21 (the real number is unknown). They were shackled to iron bars, beaten, tortured, and fed very little. They would eventually be taken to Choeung Ek (also known as the Killing Fields), the mass grave for the victims of the regime that holds the remains of an estimated 2 million dead bodies.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp (Poland)
Each year, more than two million tourists visit Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration and Extermination Camp, the Nazi German terror compound in Poland created in 1940 during World War II to imprison and mass murder people during the Holocaust. The Nazis used gas chambers, starvation, cruel medical experiments, torture, and other despicable conditions to murder about six million Jews, Poles, Roma, prisoners, gays, and other targets of Nazi hatred. It is estimated that 1 in 6 Jews that died in the Holocaust were killed in this camp. Given that it’s one of the most significant examples of darkness in our history, it’s understandable why so many choose to visit the site. Tours are given to honor the murdered victims as well as educate the masses about this tragic event.
Ground Zero (New York City)
The 9/11 Memorial and Museum commemorates the nearly 3,000 people who died on Sept. 11, 2001, during the terrorist attack on the twin towers (the tallest buildings of the World Trade Center at the time) in New York City. The attack was at the hand of Muslim militant group al-Qaida, resulting in one of the most traumatizing events in United States history when two hi-jacked planes crashed into the twin towers. Along with the gruesome deaths and injuries, it is estimated that the attack caused billions of dollars worth of damage. Visitors travel from near and far to visit this site, which includes exhibits, documentary screenings, and tributes to show solidarity and to mourn and pay homage to the firefighters, fallen heroes, victims, and their families.
The beautiful tree forest of Aokigahara (also called Sea of Trees) is one of the world’s most popular places to die by suicide. It’s a dense, vast forest (about 13.5 square miles) on the edge of Mount Fuji (about two hours from Tokyo). A popular destination for hikers, visitors, and yes, sadly, those who aim to take their own life, there are many theories on why this place is unfortunately a common destination for the latter; some suggest the anonymity of the expansive forest may be a factor while some point to movies and media as contributors. Many Japanese spiritualists believe that the spirits of those who committed suicide live within the trees, resulting in pervasive paranormal activity ("yurei"), attracting visitors who have an affinity for the spooky stuff. What makes the forest even creepier? Compasses, phones, and GPS systems stop working due to the magnetic iron in the location’s soil, though some people think this is actually proof of demonic activity at work. For those interested in paranormal activity or the spiritual world, this is probably a site worth visiting.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (Pripyat, Ukraine)
Once a small and humble city, Pripyat became known as the sites of the worst nuclear disaster in history. This radioactive ghost town has been completely abandoned ever since tragedy struck in 1986 when reactor number four exploded at the Chernobyl power plant, sending radioactivity through the atmosphere. It resulted in 30 deaths within the first three months (many more later on), radiation-related illnesses, and contamination of the air and land for hundreds of miles. It was reopened in 2011 for tourists (you must be 18 to visit) when radiation levels reached a safe zone, where you’ll find rows of empty apartments, markets, theaters, restaurants, and other buildings left relatively untouched since the roughly 45,000 inhabitants were evacuated.
If you’re interested in dark archaeological tourism, Pompeii will fascinate you. Pompeii was a thriving Roman town located in the Italian region of Campania. It was settled around the 6th century BC, and by the 1st century A.D., it was a prosperous community with a booming agricultural and water system that enabled the citizens to live well. In 79 A.D., Pompeii was destroyed by Mount Vesuvius, a volcano that erupted a cloud of tephra and gases, molten rock, and hot ash at 1.5 million tons per second. The ash settled over the town, essentially mummifying and preserving buildings, art, artifacts, and bodies of 16,000 people, which offers visitors a unique look at what this ancient life was like. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site attracting nearly 2.5 million visitors each year.
La Noria, Chile
Located deep in the desert of Northern Chile is a small, abandoned mining town that contains one of the world’s creepiest cemeteries. The town is said to have failed due to a number of economic hardships, and life was reportedly completely miserable. The people lived under terrible working conditions, resulting in many accidental deaths for both adults and children. Bodies were buried in a cemetery nearby, which has now become a popular tourist attraction for people obsessed with the dead, ghosts, and paranormal activity. The graves are shallow, leaving exposed skeletal remains strewn about. Some people have claimed they’ve seen the dead rise from their graves at night, and others say they’ve seen and heard other terrifying paranormal activity.