Monday, June 03, 2013

Dark Entertainment

The following post has been inspired by a recent visit to the University of Central Lancashire’s Institute for Dark Tourism Research (iDTR) 2013 Symposium, which was held at Inholland University of Applied Science, in Diemen, a suburb of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. The symposium featured a range of excellent presentations exploring a variety of issues in dark tourism research. 

Death is a part of life, and in certain societies, particularly religious ones, it is a sacred subject that may be prohibited from discussion, and certainly not under any circumstances associated with entertainment. As (overall) societies become more secular, subjects such as death that were previously taboo are becoming more open for discussion (Stone, 2013). Even in a secular society, one of the greatest responsible challenges faced by the entertainment industries is their sensitive representation of actual human tragedy, particularly death and suffering. This is principally the case where audience members may have a personal connection or resonance with something tragic that has occurred, and where commodification of these occurrences may be perceived as being ghoulish. The modern day entertainment industry has to some extent de-sensitised audiences to death and suffering through their continual portrayal of these through the media, in particular dramatisation and fiction in television, films and books. However dark entertainment is not about fiction, and its responsible provision should consider that when tragic or dark occurrences have taken place, audience members may be genuinely affected by interaction with entertainment based upon that occurrence.

Dark entertainment has been happening for millennia, consider Roman Gladiators fighting to the death or slaughtering animals in the name of entertainment for crowds of cheering spectators, or public executions that drew spectators from far and wide. The very notion that in this day and age dark entertainment could and should be responsible itself presents a paradox, when what is generating an audience activity is (typically) human suffering in the first place. However, dark entertainment is created to meet a demand in interest around tragic occurrences that have happened ‘in the past’, and not for the specific purpose of entertaining an audience by causing additional suffering or prolonging a tragic event.

There is a general misconception that entertainment is something that should be happy or have a positive resonance. The true meaning of entertainment is much deeper and involves audience captivation with something that emotionally resonates with that audience. Not all emotions are positive or happy ones, and many are the exact opposite. Dark entertainment through: the provision of media products; the staging of events; or the development of facilities through preservation and commodification of sites that have become visitor attractions, due to their association with tragedy, death or suffering, is perhaps one of the most controversial and contested areas within the entertainment industries.

Dark entertainment is a part of dark leisure, which according to Rojek (2000) describes leisure choices made by individuals, which go against what may be seen as traditional societal norms, and that may disturb other members of society. Spracklen (2013) states that dark leisure rejects the mainstream and transgresses norms and values. Some may consider providers of, and audience participants in dark entertainment as being deviant. Williams (2009) defined leisure activities that “violates criminal and noncriminal moral norms” (p.208) as deviant leisure, however it should be noted in secular society that those society members who would consider participants in dark entertainment as deviants are in a minority (Stone, 2013).

Like all forms of industry created entertainment, the vast majority of dark entertainment is media borne, be that through broadcast media, the Internet or print media. Dark media based upon a tragic occurrence reduces in volume and changes in focus over time. At the time of a dark occurrence, dark media is news focused, which subsides as time passes and is replaced by ‘special’ outputs that are dedicated to the occurrence explaining it in greater detail. Following this, documentaries are often made, and memorial outputs produced. The volume of these depends on the scale of the dark occurrence and the number of people who have been affected by it. Over time dark occurrences may be dramatized leading to outputs that may incorporate fictitious elements.

An example of the above in practice would be the 26th December, 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, which triggered a tsunami that had tragic effects in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, The Maldives and the East Coast of Africa, leading to deaths in the region of 280,000 (BBC, 2005b). In the immediate aftermath, news bulletins were filled with footage taken by tourists as well as interviews with survivors and experts. Eventually extended bulletins began to be produced, and documentaries made such as ‘Seconds from Disaster’ Season 3, Episode 13 ‘Asian Tsunami’ and PBS NOVA’s ‘Wave That Shook The World’. Alongside this, countless amounts of literature were produced in global newspaper and magazine pages as well as online, from a human interest, environmental and socio-political perspective. Numerous factual books about the tsunami have been published, including: ‘The Asian Tsunami 2004: When Disaster Struck (2007); and ‘The Asian Tsunami: Aid and Reconstruction After a Disaster’ (2010). In 2012, ‘The Impossible’ - the first big-screen movie featuring a dramatized account of actual events which occurred in the tsunami was released, almost 8 years after the original tragedy.

Dark media needs to be accurate and factual, after the 2005 floods in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina, various media outlets promoted stories about rapes, pedophilia, sniper attacks and murders, all of which proved to be false (Devine, 2005). There are also boundaries that should be considered in relation to taste and legality, particularly in relation to showing images of the dead, television channel Al-Jazeera faced heavy criticism for showing the dead bodies of British and US serviceman in Iraq, in its news bulletins, something which was possibly in breach of the Geneva Convention (Kafala, 2003).

Dark entertainment is closely interlinked with dark tourism through the creation of visitor attractions or staging of events to mark or commemorate dark occurrences. Tarlow (2005) defines dark tourism as “visitations to places where tragedies or historically noteworthy death has occurred and that continue to impact our lives” similarly Stone (2006, p.146) defines dark tourism as “the act of travel to sites associated with death, suffering and the seemingly macabre”. The relationship between dark leisure, dark entertainment and dark tourism is highlighted in figure 1 (below).
Figure 1 – Dark leisure, dark entertainment and dark tourism.

Dark tourism involves people travelling to destinations or events specifically because of their connection with a historic dark occurrence, for example the small town of Lockerbie in Scotland, is synonymous with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which was flying from London Heathrow to New York John F. Kennedy Airport on the 21st December, 1988. The aircraft was a Boeing 747, which crashed after being bombed by terrorists, with much of the wreckage from the crash falling on Lockerbie. In total the tragedy took the lives of 270 people, making it the worst terrorist atrocity on British soil to date. Today dark tourists visit Lockerbie for a variety of reasons, particularly to see the town, and to visit memorials, which were created as a focal point for grievers, respect payers, pilgrims and those interested by the event. The Lockerbie Air Disaster Memorial and Garden of Remembrance was created at Dryfesdale Cemetery near the town (see Figure 2, below), and is the main memorial to the disaster, the site also now has a visitor centre. As well as this there is a memorial in Lockerbie Roman Catholic Church, where a plaque lists the names of all 270 victims, there is also a book of remembrance at the town’s library and a second book at nearby Tundergarth Church. Lockerbie Town Hall has a stained-glass window, which depicts flags of the 21 countries whose citizens lost their lives in the disaster.

Figure 2 – The Lockerbie Air Disaster Memorial and Garden of Remembrance.

Van Maanen (2013) stated that heritage belongs to those who claim it and identify with it. This is certainly true in Lockerbie where the air disaster is a major historic event, and has become a firm part of the cultural heritage of the town of Lockerbie, in that it continues to shape and influence the town’s present character. Considering this, figure 3 (below), denotes dark tourism as a subset of heritage tourism, which Ryan (1991) classified as a part of cultural tourism. Figure 3 also demonstrates a range of types of dark tourism, base upon the work of Lennon and Foley (2000) and Sharpley and Stone (2009), all of which may have an association with a dark historic occurrence or occurrences.

Figure 3 – Types of Dark Tourism.

Figure 3 highlights the key sub-divisions of dark tourism, these are explained as follows:

·   Battlefield and conflict tourism: the visitation of sites associated with war, where battles or significant events may have occurred, e.g. the battlefields of Lexington and Concord, USA, where the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War took place.

·   Crime tourism: the visitation of sites that are synonymous with crime and criminality, e.g. mafia tourism in Sicily, Italy.

·   Disaster tourism: the visitation of sites that have been the locations of a disaster, either natural or man-made, e.g. people visiting New Orleans after the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

·   Funerary tourism: this is the visitation of events and attractions relating to funerals, e.g. the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in London, UK, which took place on 6th September, 1997 attracted over a million people along the route of the funeral cortege (BBC, 2005a).

·   Memorial tourism: this is the visitation specifically to memorials or graves to those who have been the victims of tragic events, e.g. the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery, The Netherlands.

·   Thanatourism: this is the visitation of places that denote or have a relationship with death, e.g. the Bodyworlds exhibition created by Gunter von Hagens.

Figure 4 (below) demonstrates three dark visitor attractions: (top) the entrance to the former concentration camp known as Aushwitz 2, at Birkenau, Poland; (bottom left) war graves at the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery in The Netherlands; and (bottom right) Mdina Dungeons, Malta, where visitors may pretend torture the human exhibits.

Figure 4 – Dark visitor attractions

The creation of visitor attractions or the preservation of dark sites, such as the Auschwitz-Birkenauconcentration camp in Poland, may cause disdain amongst critics who view these as being in bad taste, deviant or immoral (Stone, 2013), and preserving a terrible crime of the past. However, such facilities also serve to educate future generations about such atrocities, in the hope that they will never be repeated.

Dark tourism is not a universally liked or agreeable term, particularly amongst stakeholders of locations that are synonymous with tragic occurrences, who may view the term dark tourism as being sensationalist or ghoulish. Research by Werdler (2013) noted that some attractions considered the ‘dark’ label as “bad for marketing”, however he also noted that dark tourism was a more accepted term amongst dark visitor attractions which have a ‘thrill’ element to them, such as the ‘Dungeon’ attractions operated by Merlin Entertainment. Neering (2013) stated that the Heligoland Tourism board were unhappy with the term dark tourism (Heligoland is a small German island, which during the Second World War was carpet bombed by the British, and was the location of the World’s largest non-nuclear explosion). It would seem that there is disagreement between academia and industry as to when it is appropriate to use the ‘dark’ term, but from an academic perspective the ‘dark’ label works well to identify the association of a leisure form with a historic tragic occurrence.

Stone (2013) noted that the length of time that has passed between a dark occurrence happening and the perceived connection that an audience has with a dark occurrence impacts upon the motivations of consumers of dark tourism, the same may be said of dark entertainment. This is demonstrated by the matrix in Figure 5 (below), which demonstrates that those who have or perceive that they have a personal connection with a dark occurrence are more likely to be grievers in the time after the occurrence has happened, however as time passes, they and others may become pilgrims who visit sites or attend events in respect of, and memorial to those who have been victims of a dark occurrence. Those with less of a personal connection to a dark occurrence may be attracted to dark entertainment through an interest or fascination with what has occurred, and as time passes and a dark occurrence becomes more historic, they and others may wish to learn more about it, why it happened, how it happened, where it happened, who it happened to, and what the longer term impacts of the dark occurrence have been. In order to help people understand this, over time dark occurrences may be commodified into dark entertainment. 

Figure 5 – Motivation matrix of consumers of dark entertainment

Figure 5 can be contextualized using the examples of serial Killers ‘Jack the Ripper’, and Peter Sutcliffe (who became branded through the media as the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’). Both were / are notorious serial killers who operated in the UK and targeted women. Jack the Ripper was active in the late 19th Century, and the Yorkshire Ripper was active from 1975 to 1980. Jack the Ripper has become something of a legend, and there is a great demand for commodified entertainment products around the crimes he committed, and where there is demand, there is supply of products. These include websites such as the JTR Forums - which has the sensationalist tag line ‘THE place to be for all things Ripper’, to ‘Ripper Tours’ - guided tours around the Whitechapel area of East London, to visit sites that are synonymous with the Jack the Ripper murders.

The crimes of the Yorkshire Ripper are still in many people’s minds. Peter Sutcliffe is still alive, and so are many people who are family members or friends of Sutcliffe’s victims. As these crimes were committed more recently, and with a greater level of perceived connection with them, perhaps through not wanting to appear ghoulish, there is a lesser demand for entertainment products relating to them. To match this, there has been less inclination to commodify the Yorkshire Ripper crimes into entertainment products such as guided tours of sites relating to murders by the Yorkshire Ripper. Stone (2006) states that there is amongst western society’s an “apparent contemporary fascination with death, real or fictional, media inspired or otherwise” (p.147). It is likely that at some point in the future, possibly after the death of Peter Sutcliffe, something which itself will be well publicized, a renewed interest in his crimes may cause demand to create a supply of new audience attracting Yorkshire Ripper products.

Responsible operation of dark attractions, should consider the entire spectrum of visitors to them and not only ensure that all visitors are catered for, but that visitors are educated as to what constitutes appropriate behaviour at such sites. Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp attracts visitors from a wide variety of locations and cultures. It has been a personal observation of mine on a visit to Aushwitz-Birkenau in 2013, that a group of teenagers were singing and laughing as they walked amongst other visitors – is this appropriate behaviour at a site where an estimated 1.1 million people were killed?

The use of tour guides to personally explain to groups of visitors how they are expected to behave is a method which has been adopted successfully at the villages of Albreda and Juffureh in The Gambia. Here tour guides explain to visitors before arrival at these locations how they are expected to behave in terms of interaction with villagers and also rules around dressing modestly so as not to cause offence. Albreda and Juffureh are considered dark locations, due to their historic association with the slave trade, Albreda today features a slavery museum.

In summary, the extremely diverse entertainment industries do not only provide output that evokes positive emotions amongst audience members. Tragic occurrences which involve death and suffering are also highlighted and demonstrated through the media, the staging of live events and the creation of visitor attractions. This is dark entertainment which is a part of dark leisure and closely linked with dark tourism, which is more acceptable in a secular society, but still causes conflict where it may be seen as being in poor taste, or where the labeling of something as being ‘dark’ may be considered ghoulish. Consumers of dark entertainment have a range of motivations, which are affected by their personal connection with a tragic occurrence, and the length of time that has passed after that occurrence. Dark entertainment products are often supplied to meet audience demands or needs for them. Diverse audiences require sensitive management in order for the dark entertainment experience not to cause harm to other audience members and stakeholder groups.

Further iDTR information and resources on dark tourism can be found here: and on Facebook here:

An edited version of the above text will appear in a chapter on 'Responsible Entertainment Management' in my next book - Entertainment Management: Towards Best Practice, which will be published by CABI towards the end of this year.


  • British Broadcasting Corporation (2005a) 1997: Diana’s funeral watched by millions. [Internet] URL available from: [Accessed 1st July, 2012].
  • British Broadcasting Corporation (2005b) Indonesia quake toll jumps again. [Internet] URL available from: <> [Accessed 1st June, 2013].
  • Devine, M. (2005) New Orleans fights on after low blows. [Internet] URL available from: [Accessed 1st June, 2013].
  • Kafala, T. (2003) Al-Jazeera: News channel in the news. [Internet] URL available from: [Accessed 1st June, 2013].
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  • Urry, J. (2003) Global complexity. Hoboken, New Jersey, Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Van Maanen, E. (2013) What do you do with a World Heritage site that nobody wants? The iDTR International Dark Tourism Symposium 2013. InHolland University of Applied Science, Diemen, Amsterdam. 21st May, 2013.
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