Dark Tourism & Media by Audrey Vitalo



The goal of any media – journalism, literature or film – is to garner the attention of the largest number of people, a contributing factor to this goal being profit. The fastest way to attract attention is through high entertainment value. However, high entertainment value often coincides with a direct account not being given and another possible version of events being recounted instead. Journalism, literature and film also have the ability to bring international conflict down to an individual level, thus it would only make sense that media creates a natural interest in the struggles they chronicle, ranging from total war to plane crashes. Lennon’s book, Dark Tourism, defines this effect as “the intersection between the global and the local,” (Lennon 9). The desire to visit tourism sites is not born out of respect for the victims or a wish to educate, but instead out of interest in entertainment. Media also shapes “what are the significant sites in the political history of the twentieth century,” (Lennon 20) and it is this media attention that in part, produces the social importance of these sites in comparison to others. In evaluation of these claims, this essay will examine the effects of three major types of media – film, literature, and journalism – on dark tourism, with a focus on film. It will briefly look at one example of journalism and media, each relating to a different historical trauma that have fostered burgeoning dark tourism industries with a deeper analysis of film’s effects. Film’s goal of generating profit and thus its additional detrimental effects to the dark tourism industry will be analyzed. The combination of high entertainment value and personal connection to trauma, both generated by media, create a desire to visit dark tourism sites to fulfill a curiosity, with the popularity of media working to shape which sites society deems more important than others.

As the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide passed on April 6, 2014 media coverage on the events in the country skyrocketed. However, more than just news companies picked up the story. Media journalism companies were quick to capitalize on the story and National Geographic ran stories on Rwandan commemoration of the genocide for weeks before and again after. One of the articles National Geographic published in its “online photography experience,” PROOF, is titled Revisiting the Rwandan Genocide: How Churches Became Death Traps. The idea of this piece is to show, both through pictures and words, how Rwandan churches during the genocide were “death traps” in comparison to their modern uses as places of peace and remembrance. Gwin, the author, also writes about Guttenfelder’s, the photographer, experiences in Rwanda during the genocide and the extent Rwanda has changed since, which provides an individual connection for the reader to make to the piece. The pictures included also make the reader feel more involved in the story and garner attention. All of the factors discussed here contribute to the readers’ development of a desire to learn more about the Rwandan genocide and even to visit sites of dark tourism. This desire is heightened by the fact that Rwanda is safe now and healing from its ordeal, which is something that Gwin comes back to over and over in his writing and Guttenfelder shows with his photography. However, although the article paints the churches where killings occurred as a tourism site to be visited for its entertainment value, it also shows consideration for Rwanda’s ordeal. It does this by quoting a local guide, Bellancilla Uwitonze, in her reasoning for why she gives tours of these churches. She tells Gwin and Guttenfelder, “it is very difficult to relive the genocide every day. I do it because young people must know what happened and that they can never let anyone divide us as Rwandans ever again” (Peter Gwin, David Guttenfelder). When the reader looks at it from this perspective, he can see that the sites are meant for education, not entertainment, showing the balance between entertainment and education that media journalism maintains.

Vaddey Ratner’s novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan is based on her own childhood during the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge. The book tells the story of a young girl, Raami, who at the beginning of the book is only seven years old. Books, more so than movies or journalism, allow the reader to develop a deep connection with the characters – in this case, with Raami. Especially because the book is told through Raami’s eyes, the reader feels a connection with her and through her, her family as well. Ratner’s condensation of her own experiences, although based on true events, is not exactly historically accurate and instead paints an alternate reality to what really happened. Although Ratner does not explicitly state the reason that she condenses her experiences and her family members except to “simplify,” it can be assumed that she does it for the reader’s benefit, which helps them to better understand her ordeal and the ordeal of all Cambodians (318). The reader’s improved understanding is beneficial in that they are better able to comprehend what individuals went through during the Cambodian genocide instead of only seeing facts and figures, and in this way Ratner’s book shines a light on the effects of the genocide and proves to the reader its value as a historical tragedy from which to learn. However, Ratner’s novel also holds an unmistakable element of entertainment, as all novels must. By peaking readers’ interests in Cambodia, especially in comparison to Ratner’s personal experiences returning as an adult, In the Shadow of the Banyan, using personal connection to the events and entertainment value, affects the readers’ desires to visit firsthand sites like those Raami experienced. Nonetheless, these desires are not as shallow and entertainment-seeking as those that stem from film, as books do allow the reader to be faced with an authentic experience of the tragedy.

The 1997 film, Titanic, tells the story of young lovers aboard the ill-fated ship. It focuses on Jack and Rose’s relationship throughout most of the movie until the ship hits the iceberg and begins to sink. The movie is considered to be one of the greatest love stories of this decade due to its ending – Jack dies of hypothermia in the arctic waters so that Rose may survive, and as a result she remembers him fondly for the rest of her life as her true love. Although this movie is based on the historical sinking of the ship, the story of Jack and Rose is completely fictional, as is the story of practically every other character onboard the ship in the film.  The true story of the Titanic is a tragic one – thousands died on a ship that was supposedly indestructible – yet the film industry has turned it into urban legend, or even a modern day version of Romeo and Juliet. When most people think about the Titanic, they link the historical tragedy with the film version of events. The film adaptation has also worked to turn the disaster into a historically important event. Admittedly, the sinking of the ship and loss of so many lives was tragic but in the grand scheme of things there were many other tragedies that have had arguably more impact than the sinking of the Titanic did, especially given the time period. Ultimately, the abundance of film about the event has caused a tragedy to be transformed into a source of entertainment.

What has made the sinking of the Titanic such a well-known historical event is the media coverage that surrounds it, especially the film adaptation with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, which ultimately gave the event its reputation as a source of entertainment. The love story between the two youths and the easy personal connection the audience is able to make to them is proven in the scene where Jack gives up his own life in favor of Rose’s. This personal connection heightens the entertainment factor of the film and serves to distance people’s view of the Titanic from historical accuracy even further. Lennon and Foley write that movies like these “are consumed precisely for the danger in which the characters are placed and in which some are expected to die,” (Lennon & Foley 6). This shows that people do not make the connection between a very real historical tragedy and the drama of a film. The failure to make the connection between historical tragedy and film drama is due to the producer’s use of representation and presentation. In terms of representation, the producers may have portrayed a truthful account of the sinking of the ship, but the method of presentation in which they did so had a goal of entertainment instead of “paying tribute to and understanding the predicament of the victims,” (31). The film’s popularity and its ability to turn the tragedy into a source of entertainment come together in tourism packages that companies began to offer following the success of the films. Guests were able to go on Titanic Cruises where they could eat the same food and listen to the same music as the passengers upon the real Titanic did. This is obviously a form of dark tourism due to its roots in historical tragedy, but the purpose of this tour is not respect for the victims, nor is it in search of education so that occurrences like these are not repeated, but instead there is a sort of romanticism that surrounds the sinking of the Titanic that stems from the film industry’s interpretation.

Granted, the fact that the Titanic sank over a century ago may affect the way in which the public views it, which Lennon and Foley discuss, however they also note that this time lag serves to accentuate the effects of media on dark tourism. Lennon and Foley argue that the memory of the sinking of the Titanic had become obscure until a 1958 film, A Night to Remember, revisited the event and “turned the relatively impersonal and largely forgotten sinking into a series of individual ‘stories’ of fictional characters upon the vessel” (18).  The sinking of the Titanic, as well as other older historical tragedies, has entered the public’s memory through television and film rather than historical facts (79). The more film that is produced on the topic only serves to solidify the event as a source of entertainment.

Through the three examples of different types of media – journalism, literature and film – each looking at a different recent historical tragedy, it can be seen that media has a profound effect on dark tourism. Because media is created with the aim of attracting attention, its composition must include entertainment. This entertainment factor, combined with the personal connection media establishes between global and local leads to increased desire to visit dark tourism sites where the events that the media was based upon occurred. This desire is born out of curiosity and longing for entertainment rather than education and respect for the victims, which are the intentions with which these sites are created. The medium of film is especially detrimental to the dark tourism industry given its ability to turn historical tragedies into profit-generating dramas, an example of which is Titanic. Through these past examples of media, and especially film’s, effects on dark tourism it is possible to predict the direction in which the industry of dark tourism is moving. As events become less painful and there are less survivors and people who were alive during the time of the tragedy, as is the case with the sinking of the Titanic, the historical event will become more and more capitalized upon by the media industries, turning what was once a trauma into a source of entertainment.






Works Cited

Gwin, Peter, and David Guttenfelder. “Revisiting the Rwandan Genocide: How Churches Became Death Traps.” PROOF: n. pag. Web.

Lennon, J. John, and Malcolm Foley. Dark tourism. London: Continuum, 2000. Print.

Ratner, Vaddey. In the Shadow of the Banyan. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print.

Titanic. Dir. James Cameron. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet. 20th Century Fox Film Corporation, 1997. .




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