The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.
Ernest Becker, 1973 “The Denial of Death”
I was very intrigued to learn of the new Institute for Dark Tourism Research that opened last week at the University of Central Lancashire. According to their mission statement, “The Institute for Dark Tourism Research aims to advance knowledge about the act of visitation to tourist sites of death, disaster or the seemingly macabre.” The Institute’s director is Dr. Philip Stone who spent 15 years in the tourism industry before becoming an academic. On reading Dr. Stone’s academic profile, I learned a new word as he has a Ph.D. in “thanatology” – society’s reactions to and perceptions of death and mortality and has co-edited a book, “The Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism” (Channel View Publications, 2009).
Every year, thousands of people visits sites such as Ground Zero and Auschwitz in what Dr. Stone calls a compulsion to face their own mortality in a secular pilgrimage. “People feel anxious before – and then better when they leave, glad that it’s not them,” he told the BBC education correspondent.
However, there is a psychological theory called “Terror Management Theory” (TMT) that shows that when people are made aware of their own mortality, they become more punitive and aggressive towards others who could potentially threaten their world view and self-esteem. For example, judges are more likely to hand down harsher sentences if they have been reminded of their impending deaths.
TMT, developed over 20 years ago by social psychologists, explains how humans come to cope with death anxiety by developing self-esteem and attributing purpose to life. However, we do this by shoring up our own cultural identities, self-esteem, and frankly become more conservative in the way that we view others who might threaten our world view. So while Dark Tourism might make us feel all the better about being alive, it may make us less tolerant of others which just seems so counter-intuitive.