Dark Tourism & Terror Management

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.


Filed under General Thoughts

5 responses to “Dark Tourism & Terror Management

  1. Rich

    Maybe we should send folk anxious about their mortality on holiday to places where thousands have died before .
    How about people whose idea of ‘fun’ is to jump off bridges attached to rubber bands , or whose idea of transition to ‘manhood’ consists of dicing with death in interesting ways . Lots of ‘ordinary people’ drive like maniacs , endangering not only themselves but any other road-user . Do these people have/develop death anxiety before/after their experience or what ?
    Perhaps we could look at the life-affirming activities people engage in as an antidote to the death-dealing compunctions of the anxious .
    And while on the subject – can any reader suggest a positive and socially enhancing life-affirming activity ? Or a remedy for death-anxiety ?

  2. brucehood

    Having a bad day Rich? 😉 Seriously, you might expect people to become more civil and reflective when confronted with their own mortality but not according to TMT. There again, this is not my area and I expect that the interpretation is somewhat contentious but I did see meta-analysis paper reporting moderately strong effects over hundreds of studies so there is definitely something going on.

    • Rich

      In retrospect – yes , Bruce . I suppose I was looking for what one can do to subvert those who are in the grip of death-fearing (death-dealing ?) righteousness .

  3. Arno

    “Visitors try to empathise with victims and imagine the motivations of the perpetrators, he says, and then visitors have a sense of relief that they can step back into the safety of their own lives.

    “People feel anxious before – and then better when they leave, glad that it’s not them,” says the centre’s executive director.”

    ..but then it’s not really about mortality, is it? If it was just an understanding of human mortality, then a simple visit to any graveyard would do just as well. Or a visit to, let’s say, a site of a giant natural disaster where thousands of people died. Did a tourist industry flourish around visits to New Orleans after Katrina, or to Banda Atjeh after 200.000 people died during the tsunami of 2004? To me, it feels as if the tourist destinations mentioned by Stone focus more on “human-inflicted death”: death with a purpose, instead of an unintentional side effect of natural forces. So, is it perhaps an attempt to understand human suffering and “evil”, which, though related to mortality, is clearly not the same.

  4. Jacob V

    Just saw this in a local paper and it’s a bus ride I can not imagine going on. Then again I work with family dysfunction and child abuse issues professionally and my entertainment choices tend toward the fictional and never involve “true crimes” or family dysfunction.

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