As usual, I’m late to the game on this, but after a few people suggested it to me, I finally felt ready to give Dark Tourist a spin. I was honestly a bit surprised that I found myself binge-watching it over the weekend, and even though I’m not all the way done watching all of it yet, I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
The host (who is accurately described as a Louis Theroux-type by a friend of Charles Manson on an episode) does a good job of talking to others who are drawn to these dark sites. He chats with the people who run the tours (and who usually make a profit off death and destruction), and sometimes even with individuals who have differing points of view to tell a full story. Normally the sites, tours, and people he profiles are doable by the average tourist, although sometimes it feels like he’s indulging his own curiosities. Most of us won’t be able to masquerade as a sports journalist from New Zealand in an attempt to meet the President of Turkmenistan. Ultimately, though, I learned some stuff from the segment, and it was fun to watch, and I think that a lot of people can relate to wishing they had the guts to sneak into places that are more off-limits.
Sometimes his conclusions come off more impactful than others, but it does capture how some of these tours and attractions can feel… like a grey area. It’s important to learn about dark things, but it’s also important to contextualize them. He doesn’t outright say that it’s maybe in poor taste to have a mournful Jacqueline Kennedy impersonator come along on a JFK Assassination tour, but you feel how weird and almost awkward it is as you watch. He doesn’t condemn the tourists taking selfies on the Fukishima tour, and cops that you could snag some cool Instagram photos, even though it comes off as a bit insensitive at times.
Or even seeing him giggle his way through the Illegal Migrant Border Crossing tour; it seemed half like nervous laughter, half laughing at the drama of it all… and ultimately, it doesn’t appear like he was sure how to feel. Paying $50 to experience a fake border crossing is a weird premise for a lot of reasons, and it’s interesting to see what kind of people go on that sort of tour and what they got out of it… but at the end of the day, are these grey area things worth others visiting and experiencing? Were the tours awkward, educational, or interesting? Are these tours (and the money made from them) helping locals, the economy, or the environment? Is it worth, in a few cases, risking your health to see some of these places? What’s the line between a tour being interesting-gruesome (the Dahmer Tour, pre-paranormal contact) and disturbing-gruesome (the Manson Tour)?
If another person was making the show, they might make more definitive conclusions or have stronger feelings about some of these questions (especially in regards to the whole Ark Encounter visit…) As it is, he leaves a lot of it up to the viewers’ interpretation. Whether or not that’s a good thing is, in my opinion, another grey area. Ultimately, though, I’ve found the show to be fun to watch. I think that it’s important that the show does at least bring up some of these grey areas. I think that in life, people should experience as much for themselves as they possibly can with an open mind, dark and weird or not.
DIY Dark Tourist
Two of the episodes take place in the United States (America is apparently home to a lot of weirdos), and even then it doesn’t feel like he scratches the surface of the country’s potential weird, dark tourist destinations. And, if you don’t have the time or the guts to try and sneak into a Turkish military zone to explore a ghost town or you’d rather not hang out with Pablo Escobar’s most notorious hitman, you can always DIY your own dark tourist excursions. Here are a few our of easy suggestions!
You can take a bus tour through the AMARG Plane Boneyard, where the skeletons of more than 4,000 decommissioned airplanes sit in row upon haunting row in the desert. There’s also the abandoned Lake Shawnee Amusement Park, which gets a bit more hocus pocus-y than the show normal leans, but it’s still creepy to visit a park where kids allegedly died… even if their undead spirits don’t actually roam the property.
There’s no shortage of abandoned asylums, hospitals, and prisons in the country as well; one of our favorites is the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Even though having a place where the mentally ill could get treatment was a step up for the early 19th century, this asylum quickly became way overcrowded, which led to horrific conditions, and it was ultimately abandoned in 1994. Or, there’s the abandoned Launch Complex 34 at Cape Canaveral… the decommissioned launch pad was where the Apollo I astronauts died during a test when their capsule caught fire.
Our favorite scary hotel isn’t haunted… well, not by ghosts at least. The Clown Motel in Tonopah is vintage kitsch at its most horrifying, and it’s worth a visit. Or really toe the line between dark and disturbing with a stay at the America’s Most Wanted B&B, which was once the polygamist compound of convicted criminal Warren Jeffs. For something lighter, there’s the mostly-abandoned Flintstone’s Bedrock City Campground, which is an eerie shadow of its former self.
The show visits more than a few nuclear sites, and while you won’t find dangerous amounts of radiation here in the US, there are some intriguing disasters you can explore. Book a tour to visit the Apple-2 Houses, the remains of a recreated community (called Survival Town) that the government nuked the crap out of for research. There’s also Montana’s Berkeley Acid Pit, an abandoned open-pit copper mine that filled with water. It wasn’t long before toxic chemicals from the mining process seeped into the makeshift lake, and it’s now one of America’s largest Superfund sites, complete with a viewing platform and gift shop.
The ghost town of Picher is another hot destination for the darkly curious. It’s known as America’s most toxic town, thanks to the lead and zinc ore mines that once employed its residents… ironically, these same mines made the ground unstable for building, and the waste poisoned the groundwater so badly that in 2006, the town’s remaining residents were relocated. Centralia is another abandoned disaster town worth a visit. It was abandoned after a 1960s underground mine fire started burning… and it looks like the flames won’t die down for another 250 or so years.
Aliens and Other Unidentified Creatures
To some, aliens might fall into the same category as ghosts… but the experience of dabbling in the extraterrestrial might fall into the “dark” category for many. For the inside scoop on the Extraterrestrial Highway (and maybe even advice on catching a glimpse of Area 51), head to the Little A’Le’Inn. Or visit the actual site of the crash at the center of the Roswell Incident (and the whole town of Roswell itself.) We’re also fans of Point Pleasant’s obsession with the Mothman… the town went as far as to erect a statue of it in the center of town. And all of your other cryptozoological curiosities can be covered by Maine’s International Cryptozoology Museum, from Bigfoot to chupacabras and everything in between.
A lot of the stops in the US are murder-themed. For Manson Family fans, you can grab a meal at El Coyote, the last place Sharon Tate and her friends ate before they were murdered. Or you can visit Bonnie & Clyde’s bullet-riddled death car. You can visit a memorial to the tragic Waco incident (which may or may not be monetized by the Branch Davidians). Or grab a drink at the L&L Tavern, a Chicago dive bar where Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy were both regulars. And then there’s the National Civil Rights Museum, which is located in the very motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Creepy Museums and Shops
We love a good, weird museum. Like the Oasis Bordello Museum. It was a working brothel up until a federal raid shut it down in 1988… the place was left abandoned and frozen in time, and has been preserved as a museum in the same condition it was left in. The Science Museum of Minnesota is home to the collections from the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, devoted to the worst quackery and fraud in the history of medicine. On the topic of weird medicine, there’s also the Mutter Museum, which is filled with preserved specimens from medical oddities, and the Morbid Anatomy Museum, where you’ll find everything from taxidermy and bones to old-school erotica and post-mortem photography.
And then there’s the Museum of Jurassic Technology… no one is really sure how real or serious it is, but it serves up some majorly (possibly fake artifacts) and unsettling vibes. And not too far away is the LA Coroner’s Shop’s kitschy gift store, called Skeletons in the Closet. We’re also fans of old-school wax museums, especially the gruesome ones, like the Salem Wax Museum, which tells the history of America’s most famous witch trials.
Too Strange To Defy Categorization
In the middle of Canada’s remote Yukon Territory is one of the world’s weirdest, most disgusting shots; the Sourtoe Cocktail. It’s made with your booze of choice, and a mummified toe. Those who finish the drink (the toe MUST touch your lips) are welcomed into the Sourtoe Cocktail Club, an exclusive honor. For something more straight-up morbid, take a tour of Coffinwood, the casket-and-grave-adorned home of a Nevada couple who run a vintage coffin-making business called Coffin it Up. They even have a wedding chapel onsite.
Speaking of coffins, you might need to order an extra large one after a visit to the Heart Attack Grill in nearby Las Vegas. Waitresses dressed in risque nurse costumes serve Jello shots, IVs of wine, fries cooked in pure lard, and massive burgers that can come with up to 8 patties and 40 slices of bacon. Oh, and patrons who weigh over 350 pounds can eat free. Or, if you’re a horror buff, you’ll want to grab a burger and a Leatherface Lemonade at the Texas Chainsaw Massacre House, which is now a charming little eatery.
Instead of hunting for vampires in New Orleans, make a dark but uplifting visit to the Saint Roch Chapel. People with illnesses and disabilities come here to pray for healing, and oftentimes leave behind prosthetic body parts, braces, crutches, glass eyes, dental plates, and more, that now sit almost on display. And last but not least, see where Cabbage Patch Kids come from at Babyland General Hospital. No, the stork doesn’t bring them, they’re born from a tree surrounded by cabbages… dolls are plucked fully grown from the leaves by doctors. It’s a weird mix of real-life hospital sterileness and drug-induced fantasy.
More dark and twisted stories from the road…