As you descend into the Parisian catacombs, buried deep under the 14th arrondissement, you pass through a portal over which is inscribed a stone warning: “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort”. Stop! This is the empire of the dead.
Past the portal, the air is cool and slightly musty, pregnant with the fading odour of the bones of nearly seven million Parisians. Ordered by type, the bones—skulls, femurs, ribs, vertebrae—line the walls in neatly stacked rows, mutely appraising the hefty American tourists who lumber through their halls.
In spite of the unsettling surroundings, there is something weirdly sacred about the place—as if the tunnels have been afforded dignity by death and the weight of years.
The sepulchral mood in the catacombs exists in spite of its history. Although the tunnels were blessed by priests before the bodies were interred, the catacombs were originally a civic solution to Paris’ overflowing cemeteries.
In the 1760s, residents of the Les Halles neighbourhood—near Les Innocents, the city’s largest cemetery—began to complain of vile odours advancing out of the soil. Indeed, it got so bad that not even the neighbourhood perfumeries could compete with the riotous stench of rotting flesh.
In response, Louis XV issued an edict that no more corpses were to be buried within the bounds of Paris, with the cemeteries to be moved several miles out into the countryside. Unfortunately for Louis—not to mention the desperate perfumers—resistance from the Catholic Church meant that the edict was never enforced.
It wasn’t until 1780 that an extended spring rain forced a decision on the issue: one of Les Innocents’ retaining walls gave away, and a veritable parade of decomposing bodies poured into the basement room of a neighbouring property. In response, the city’s cemeteries were finally emptied, and the miles of abandoned mine tunnels beneath Paris found a new purpose: as a vast mausoleum for the city’s departed.
After that, the tunnels’ status as a tourist destination was assured. The ossuary now sees thousands of visitors every day, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Entry costs approximately $15. Welcome to the empire of the dead.
In a revelation that I imagine will shock absolutely no one, human beings are excellent at generating excuses to visit sites of particular trauma or ghoulishness: cemeteries, war zones, concentration camps, mental asylums.
Commonly referred to as ‘dark tourism’ or ‘thanatourism’ (from Thanatos, the Ancient Greek personification of death), this practice is a form of tourism in which death and tragedy have been monetised for a hungry public.
The appeal of dark tourism can be used to explain a broad class of tourist locations: the Paris catacombs; Pripyat, the site of the Chernobyl disaster; the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Japan; the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia; Port Arthur (the site of both a convict gaol and the infamous massacre); the Robben Island Prison Museum near Cape Town; concentration camps such as those at Auschwitz, Dachau and Stutthof.
Although the evils that befell these places wildly differ, they are all places where tourists can consume “death and suffering in touristic form, seemingly in the guise of education and/or entertainment”, in the words of Philip Stone, executive director for the Institute for Dark Tourism Research at the University of Central Lancashire.
My fiancée—a ghoulish woman herself—has a penchant for these sorts of places. Although I’ll freely admit that I was moved to a delighted grin the first time I visited the London Dungeon and its concocted torture chambers, her ardour approaches the terrifying.
“Well, I think everybody loves a good ghost story,” she told me over this morning’s coffee. “The difference here is that instead of yelling, ‘No you fool! Don’t go into the basement without a light!’ you are struck by the fact that these things happened, and to people just like you. The story isn’t about what hides in the dark but the dark itself, and how all of us are consumed by it. Their stories are our stories.”
She took a sip of coffee. “Memento mori, my friend.”
A grim sentiment, but she’s hardly alone. As their residents can attest, cities with violent pasts—London, Sydney, Warsaw, Salem, to name a few—are prone to this sort of thing; they are absolutely lousy with ghost tours and other expeditions of the macabre.
Nonetheless, motivated by tragedy, this sort of thing can happen anywhere. As Stone told The Guardian in 2013: “It’s the commercialisation of death. Take the Flight 93 crash site. Soon after it happened farmers were selling tours of the field.”
Though it might seem mercenary for a private entity to sell tickets to a disaster, the fact that those methods work is undeniable. “But now there’s an established memorial,” Stone concludes. “There’s been a process of commercialisation from that initial demand to becoming a formal destination”.
It’s worth noting that this is not a recent trend. Tempting though it might be, we cannot blame postmodernity for the inhumanity of man against man; it is not as though the Great Recession has left us with an unquenchable thirst for human gore.
While it’s true that before the 16th century it was uncommon for people to move around much (the occasional Crusade notwithstanding), our ancestors certainly shared our grim appetites. Though dark tourism might seem like a contemporary phenomenon, there are distinct historical antecedents.
“You can make an argument that with some of his very first tour groups, Thomas Cook took people to see hangings in Cornwall,” Stone notes, speaking of the founder of the eponymous travel agency.
Although our delicate sensibilities shiver at the idea now, for many hundreds of years public executions were a mainstay of the social calendar. Crowds were punctuated by hawkers loudly selling snacks and souvenirs, while troubadours and other wags would sing ballads describing the exploits of the condemned.
Eyewitness reports of the period describe the frenetic, almost frothy excitement of the crowds as the bodies dropped through the gallows floor and noodled about in the void below, or the joyous clamour when the executioners’ axe severed head from body.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is a strictly historical phenomenon, either. In the early morning of the 17th of July, 1939, Eugéne Weidmann had the dubious honour of being the last person to be publicly executed by guillotine. At the news, a large crowd clamoured outside Versailles prison, awaiting the bloody spectacle.
Paris-Soir, a news daily of the period, described the crowd’s activities as “disgusting”, “unruly”, and “jostling, clamouring, whistling”; in fact they were so disruptive that the execution itself was delayed by a number of hours.
It is further reported that women hung around after the execution, waiting for an opportunity to dip their handkerchiefs in the blood of the deceased—blood which stained the footpath a deep, ruby red.
Local officials were horrified. For centuries, the purported justification for public executions was that the watching rabble would be terrified into obeisance, with the gory death a salutary moral lesson. After Weidmann’s execution, however, it became obvious to French officials that it encouraged quite the opposite effect: rowdiness, agitation, an orgiastic lust for violence.
These predilections did not only find expression in public executions, however. From pilgrimages to see bits of dead saints, to guided tours of mental asylums, to the death masks held in wax museums like Madame Tussaud’s, history shows that our appetite for blood remains undiminished.
Recently, a number of news organs have reported that dark tourism is on the rise.
No doubt thanks to a hideous confection of bloodlust and the death throes of late capitalism (and helped along by the success of Vice Travel and Anthony Bourdain’s television travelogues), this macabre corner of the market is experiencing an undeniable boom.
Thankfully, most contemporary dark tourism is relatively benign. In 2015, Airbnb gave punters the opportunity to stay overnight in the Paris catacombs over Halloween; visitors to the Củ Chi tunnels in Vietnam can fire authentic Viet Cong weaponry; those with a masochistic streak can spend an evening trapped in a former Stasi bunker in Rennsteighöhe being berated by men dressed as DDR officers.
Perhaps the most well known of these ventures is an outfit called Political Tours, founded in 2009 by Nicholas Wood, a former New York Times foreign correspondent. “We work like a newspaper editor,” he says. “We know how to put a tour together—we have all of these elements and it’s like building a story.”
At the time of writing, Political Tours offers all-inclusive trips to Kosovo, Bosnia, Russia, North Korea and South Ossetia. Back in 2014, they offered a tour called ‘Libya: After the Revolution’, which included visits to Muammar Qaddafi’s former compound and the Abu Salim prison: the site of a massacre in 1996 where an estimated 1,270 prisoners were killed.
For Wood, there is a strictly economic rationale for offering these sorts of services. “People can travel by themselves so much more easily now, so if you’re going to be in the travel market, you have to bring added value,” he says.
While we’re not quite at the point where Contiki is offering dark tourism packages along with its bus tours and carefully scheduled hedonism, perhaps that outcome isn’t as far off as you might think. “What’s changing is how these trips are being formalised through the tourism industry, as well as the fact that technology and the Internet are also picking up on it,” Philip Stone explains.
At the same time that corporate concerns are waking up to the commercial value of dark tourism, more adventurous dark tourists are beginning to travel independently for the explicit purpose of watching geopolitical tragedies unfold first-hand.
In 2005, New Orleans was a popular destination amongst this cohort, as hundreds of travellers documented the destruction and human misery wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
More recently, and although safely in the hands of Syrian rebels at the time of writing, the Israel-occupied portion of Golan Heights was for a period a Mecca for sightseers keen for a glimpse of the Syrian Civil War.
“People come here every day to see the show,” Marom, a retired IDF colonel, told The Atlantic back in 2014. “For people visiting the area, it’s interesting. They feel that they are a part of it. They can go home and tell their friends, ’I was on the border and I saw a battle.’”
Today, Ukraine and North Korea are dark tourism catnip: the former thanks to the ongoing disputes between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed militia; the latter thanks to the undeniable mystique of the hermit kingdom.
Both are enormously—if impersonally—dangerous; both places are the sites of untold, unrelenting human suffering. The implications might be disturbing, but in spite of—or perhaps because of—those facts, something about these places beckon to us; they demand our attention.
This much seems obvious. Nonetheless, a question remains: why?
Dead bodies smell like liquorice and peaches, at least at first.
When a person dies and their immune system ceases to function, their gut microbiome begins the process of decomposition. First go the intestines, followed soon afterwards by the spleen and stomach.
This riot of gut flora then begins to break down the soft tissue into its constituent parts: salts, liquids, gases. Anaerobic bacteria—that is, bacteria that don’t require oxygen to grow—get in on the act, consuming sugars and farting out methane, hydrogen sulphide and ammonia. This causes the body to bloat.
As the body fills with gas, the remaining tissue begins to haemorrhage and rupture. The skin goes blue-black, and starts to slough off in sheets. Finally, the corpse purges the gases and liquefied tissues that remain in the body through the mouth and anus.
Occasionally the abdomen bursts, like the least helpful fire hydrant in the world.
Of course, short of adopting some of Norman Bates’ less savoury peculiarities, I have no way of confirming these facts firsthand; although I’m a fellow reasonably experienced in the game of life, corpses are unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, beyond the purview of my experience. All I know about bodily decomposition is what I’ve read.
Nor do I think it unusual that I’ve had so little personal experience with death. Although I certainly know people who have died, and have been to a number of funerals, the bodies have always been hidden behind administrative processes or in wooden caskets.
It’s a macabre game of now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t.
Life means presence. Death means absence.
My experiences, and experiences like mine, are evidence that Western culture has fallen out of touch with the reality of death. Or at least, so claims Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and founder of The Order of the Good Death—an organisation that prepares “death-phobic culture for their inevitable mortality”.
It is to our collective detriment, she says, that Westerners are so death-averse. Not in the sense of action movies or video games, obviously; no one is denying the visceral satisfaction of watching John McClane let Hans Gruber fall to his death at Nakatomi Plaza. Instead, she means something a little closer to home.
When someone we know dies, bodies are kept behind closed doors and in caskets; people die in hospitals and hospices, their corpses whisked away smoothly and invisibly. We have an abstracted relationship with the ends of our lives; while death has not been bested, she has certainly been made to behave.
This, according to Doughty, is part of the problem. “We no longer live in an era where the dead body is laid out in the front parlour, washed, and cared for, and waked by the family,” she says. “We outsource our death to funeral homes and corporations, and that leaves people hungry for some kind of honest relationship with mortality.”
Thanks to the media we produce and consume, the death that we do encounter is stylised, bombastic, technicolour. Or sometimes it is quiet, staid, mournful. Occasionally, it might even be comedic.
Rarely though are we reminded of the brute physicality of death. Rarely are we confronted with the fact that something happened, and it happened here, and it happened to someone just like you.
Although it might be a bit much to call dark tourism an ‘honest relationship with mortality’, it’s not a huge stretch to think that the appeal lies in somehow, if imperfectly, reconciling ourselves with the fact that we too shall die.
Being a dark tourist means coming to terms with that fact, regardless of whether or not we want to. It doesn’t matter if the destination is an ossuary, a concentration camp, or a war zone, or whether the location is heartbreaking, voyeuristic or kitsch; they are places on the very edge of life and death.
“Time collapses when I am standing alone in a charnel house,” Paul Koudounaris, author of death photography book Memento Mori, told The Guardian in 2015.
“I think that is why they made such effective liminal spaces. They enforce upon me the lesson that no matter who we are and how different we seem to be, we are all part of and subject to a greater cycle—a cycle which in the end ensures that we all end up unified and largely undifferentiated.”
This, I think, is the key to the puzzle. The bones and the death and the tragedy of these places address us mutely. “I was once like you,” they accuse. “You too will soon be like me.”
In a way, the motivation behind public executions wasn’t entirely wrong: there is a moral lesson at the heart of dark tourism. However, rather than scaring us straight, it simply forces us to admit to ourselves that we too will one day shuffle off our mortal coils.
Like the slave who sits behind the emperor in Tertullian’s Apologeticus, the acknowledgement keeps us honest. It’s a bit hard to be vainglorious when the spectre of death is lurking around every corner.
“Respice post te. Hominem memento te,” the slave mutters darkly. Look behind you. Remember that you are but a man.