Global Culture, sport and tourism

“Dark tourism: It’s not as scary as you think!” Interview with an academic expert 


Photo by Alex Azabache on Unsplash

LGIU’s Freya Millard chatted with Dr. Beth Heidelberg from Minnesota State University, Mankato, to discuss her very niche specialism in exploring local government’s relationship with the dark tourism industry. Providing insightful case study analysis from her own field research of dark tourism hotspots like Salem, Clear Lake, Holcombe and Amityville. This Q&A is a must-read for all who share a curiosity about the real-life implications of these seemingly globally innate ‘dark’ practices.

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Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and local government?

After I finished my master’s in urban planning, I worked for the City of Eagan’s local government for a number of years in their parks and recreation department. I loved my time in local government, and I learned a lot from the people that I worked with. However, I ended up going back for a doctorate at Minnesota State University. Our program is almost exclusively training students for local government careers. I specialise in historic preservation policy and urban law. No, I’m not a lawyer, I’m just fascinated with the policies that can keep city administrators out of jail. It’s been a very fun career. I enjoy what I do, and I plan on doing it until I cannot do it anymore.

I think that’s like a lot of people in local government – once you’re in, you’re in for life! The topic we’re focusing on today is dark tourism. Could you give us an overview of what this is?

I consider dark tourism to be a subset of heritage tourism which is tourism focused on the history of a place. However, dark tourism is sites associated with death, accidents and tragedies. It’s the real heartache of a community. Dark tourism is like the flipside of marketable heritage tourism. It’s difficult to market because people often think of it as more ghoulish, and it can be a difficult past to come to terms with. Dark tourism is a very ancient practice. Back in ancient Rome, you’ve got gladiator games, and in religious practices, people would take pilgrimages to see the physical remains of religious figures – sometimes even travelling hundreds or thousands of miles. Although it has always been part of history, as an academic practice, it’s relatively new. You don’t see academics addressing dark tourism as a separate entity until the mid-90s and even now, nobody has really investigated how dark tourism impacts a community.

When did you make the initial connection to the unexplored relationship between dark tourism and local government?  

The best I can pinpoint it was in 2008 on my honeymoon. We went to Boston and did the Freedom Trail and decided to head to Salem because I’ve always been fascinated by the witch trials. We were walking the heritage trail, and I started to think, ‘How do the people who live here enjoy having strangers walking along their sidewalks, staring at their homes, taking pictures of their driveways?’ ‘Do they like and embrace being known as the witch city?’ Turns out most of them do, but it got me thinking about other communities experiencing this, and I’ve just managed to build a lot of research and ideas from there.

There’s no denying that dark tourism is a pretty popular and profitable industry, yet it’s quite under-recognised by people and local governments alike. Why do you think that is? 

A lot of people are really uneasy with the idea of profiting off of somebody else’s death, especially in more recent events where there are still people who knew and loved the victims. It may even be viewed as blood money coming into the community, and they don’t want their success to be based on somebody else having to die. It’s one of those uncomfortable aspects of tourism because, in reality, people do come and visit – and often very soon after the event. If the councils aren’t prepared for it, it can end up being more harmful to the community. But it is an uncomfortable and difficult discussion to have with your councils and communities.

That leads nicely into my next question, which is from your research so far, you seem to have come to the overall conclusion that local government has a responsibility to not shy away from these events. What made you think that was the right approach? 

So, I’ve taken a look at a couple of different communities. Salem was one of them, but also Clear Lake, Iowa, where the Buddy Holly, JP Richardson and Richie Fallon plane crash happened. It’s a tiny community of about 7,000 which welcomes thousands of people internationally every year. They have both embraced dark tourism. Plus, there’s Holcomb, Kansas, in the middle of the mid-west, far away from any major metropolitan area. They get tourists because of Truman Capote’s book in the 60s called, In Cold Blood. People visit the farm where a family was killed. Now, the community may not have built an industry of it, but they’ve provided secondary sites for people to visit and learn more about the victims and the positive impact they had on their communities.

By taking a look at those communities who have not shied away from it – not promoted it necessarily like Salem – but not shied away from dealing with it. Then you take a look at a case like Amityville, New York. Although people may be familiar with the Amityville horror story, they may not be aware that the ‘demonic possessed house’ is rooted in a family homicide with five people murdered by the eldest son. Every time a new documentary or movie comes out, people re-flock to Amityville and the council there wants nothing to do with it. But people come anyway, they wander the streets, and they talk to residents – not necessarily a bad thing – but because it is rooted in the Defeo family murder, the residents aren’t comfortable profiting off that. I’ve heard reports of people knocking on the door in the middle of the night wanting to see where it happened, and there’s no control over that visitation. People also don’t have any particular reason to stay in the community either and spend money at restaurants or buy gas, so they just come and go.

I’m not saying that Amityville are wrong in this approach, but it does seem like they could help provide some context to remember the family that was lost. I talked to a friend of one of the daughters who was killed, and she said that when people started to come, the kids of the neighbourhood would direct them to a house about a mile and a half from the actual house because they didn’t want the visitors in their neighbourhood. It’s not a comfortable thing for communities, but local government can be leaders in trying to reconcile this tourism interest with tourism demand, especially on their services.

What would you say are the issues or risks that local government faces when it doesn’t step in to manage the spiked interest in their area?

People are going to come anyway, and they’re going to need to use the streets, they’re going to need to use facilities. If it’s not planned for, then sanitation might become an issue and there’s not going to be public safety or extra patrols in the area. Granted, some of these sites aren’t going to see lines of cars going down the street every single day, but there’s still going to be an influx of strangers in the neighbourhood. Dark tourism visitors are just everyday people, but they have needs, and the community has a chance when people visit their jurisdiction to entice them to visit other destinations and capture tourism income based on other reasons as well. Tourist money is a great way to gain some community reinvestment, including in infrastructure or recreation programs and even if it comes from dark tourism, it can have a massive positive impact on the community. Of course, it needs to be done respectfully, and you need to keep the victims of the tragedy in mind and treat them honourably.

In your opinion, is there an ideal length of time local government needs to wait out after an incident happens before they take any action? 

Involvement typically has to happen as soon as possible at a very public safety level. When a tragedy happens, you’ve pretty much got a plan for visitors to be coming immediately. Take the example of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, people were going to the lower nine as the roads were opening. Some wanted to help, but there were a lot of people who just wanted to see. It’s got to be done in a much more organised way, and local government can help facilitate that even in addressing what to do with visitation in an emergency plan.

We all know that we now live in a very interconnected world, and uncontrollable mass interest in something really can just happen overnight. Do you think all local governments should establish some sort of ‘unexpected event strategy’ in case their jurisdictions go viral?

That’s kind of what I’m hoping to do with my research, let local governments know that this can happen to you. It happens in small communities all the time. For example, in the United States, when school shootings happen, people want to go and see where it happened. The community are already dealing with a tragic situation, they don’t need the tourists coming, so the local government need to figure out what to do. You can’t stop it, people are free to come and go as they please. But how are you going to facilitate and deal with this? I would say plan for it right away, even if it’s not the main purpose of your plan.

When it comes to managing visitors and residents within a dark tourism hotspot, what are the key services that local government need to consider?

Emergency planning – how to deal with it if the tragedy happens right now. That’s probably the biggest one but some of the long term policies also need to be addressed in comprehensive planning. If you’re not going to not address it all, you still have to talk about that. You might need to deal with infrastructure, like building sidewalks and roads, providing way-finding, trimming the shrubbery and making sure you’re compliant with the disability acts. And, you have to think about it in terms of your local government budgets. In Salem, they actually purchased one of the last remaining sites associated directly with the witch trials. It’s one of their more popular tourist destinations because they’ve turned it into a museum to provide context and an educational base. It’s this type of thing and level of involvement the council needs to figure out. Do you want to purchase any sites associated with dark tourism so you can take control of the narrative? Do you want to provide funding for a non-profit or even a private sector body? Or partner with them to run the place?

In terms of planning, this might also include creating a secondary site. This is a place for visitors to go once they’ve visited the primary tragedy site. In Clear Lake, my studies found that they have the surf ballroom where the musicians played their last concert, but they also have the Three Stars Plaza nearby. Now that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it kind of is because it keeps people in Clear Lake longer and gives them another place to learn about the musicians, which is what the tourists are ultimately seeking. These decisions at a local government around how much you want to be involved, how to provide for visitor and resident safety and convenience, how to deal with the demand being put on their streets and what the economic development plan can do to address the increase in visitors – they’re all important policy pieces. This is true of most tourism, but with dark tourism, you can’t advertise it, and you have to do it with an extra level of sensitivity.

Do you have any suggestions about how local government can engage their citizens in the interpretation process of representing their home and its full history to the wider world?  

When I talked to the city administrator and the Mayor of Clear Lake, they said that their citizens are vital to the success of their tourism industry. They engaged them in educational programs during the development of Three Stars Plaza and had open meetings. They always planned it to show respect to the victims. This is not about the plane crash, this is about the musicians and the legacy that your sons gave the world. That’s what I see in the successful dark tourism sites. It’s not about what happened that day. It’s about who these people were, and the positive impact they had.

I would say approaching the families and any known loved ones first before you start doing any planning is probably critical to gaining success. If the family supports the local government in their initiatives, you’re much more likely to get community support as well. If the family is against it, you might as well just hang it up. In Clear Lake, they did such a good job with the sensitivity and the way that they showed respect to the musicians that Richie Valens’ family ended up living near Clear Lake even though they had no association with them prior to the incident. They are a good one to look to for respectful dark tourism involving the family, especially fairly recent living memory relatives. And that’s the flip side of dark tourism, preserving that narrative is actually also very respectful if done well and right.

Having studied this relationship in-depth, what would you say is the most important thing for those working in local government to know about dark tourism? 

It doesn’t matter if you don’t want it, people are going to come. If you’re not prepared for it, it can be difficult for your citizens to grasp the depth of the impact tourism will have. If you don’t provide interpretation, education and context, they’re gonna talk to citizens, or the private sector is going to come in and take control of the narrative. Now, they couldn’t do a great job and many do, but that’s also market-driven. If they’re starting to lose ticket sales, what are they going to do to the story that a local government wouldn’t have to do because they have a more consistent stream of revenue? And what does that do to your city? Involvement doesn’t have to be exclusively local gov either. In Salem, the private sector has a great amount of control of the narrative, but the public sector has a say in how the narrative is being presented, which you don’t get if refuse to acknowledge it.

You’ve written this incredible piece of work for us on the website about 10 lessons from the local government in Salem. But if you had to choose, what do you think is the smartest thing that Salem’s local council has done to embrace their dark tourism industry?

I think the best thing Salem has done actually is to partner with the private and the non-profit sector. They work with Destination Salem who coordinate and serve as a liaison between everyone and they’ve come to a cohesive narrative and plan events and tours. That’s not going to be possible for every community, but I think these partnerships are important because that way, everybody has a little bit of input. The other great thing that Salem’s local government has done is the level of respect that it’s shown the women and the men who were executed during the trials. They have gone out of their way to say, ‘We, as the local government of today, recognise that the local government of 1692 was completely wrong’. They’ve turned it into a lesson on diversity and acceptance, and made it something to learn from for the future.

I imagine for most local governments, the biggest worry about getting involved in dark tourism is how it may taint their reputation or integrity. Have you seen many successful examples aside from Salem that you think are worth pointing towards for inspiration or ideas?

A lot of my research is focused on the United States because I’m here to do the field research. You’ve got Holcomb, Kansas who provided a secondary site to draw visitors away from the farmhouse that still has people living in it. Clear Lake, Iowa has a secondary site, Galveston, Texas, they were the victims of a hurricane in 1900. They have built memorials on the sites – there’s a huge giant hand memorial right next to the water where children passed away. I would say that most of the successful areas have provided a secondary site, somewhere people can go to learn.

There are also dark tourism sites that are just there for fun. Some don’t have this heavy gravitas of death and destruction. These are the haunted houses, hellfire club sites and the Jack the Ripper tours – all associated with tragedy but they’re done in a more palatable way. For example, Savannah, and New Orleans have built an entire industry out of voodoo and ghost tours. It’s important to realise dark tourists are not some sort of subset of society. Just about everyone I know, from my friends to my children, has taken some sort of ghost tour at some point, just for fun. And some of these ghost tours include real-life sites where tragic things have happened. Now, if local government is involved, they could provide a little bit more insight into what happened at those sites.

You say that dark tourism research raises more questions than answers. So what do you think is the biggest remaining question? I know that’s a big question and a hard question.

Oh, there’s so many! The biggest question is, can councils and their communities embrace dark tourism without being morbid? My research is dedicated to trying to help communities do that, but I don’t know that I’m gonna be able to come up with an answer in my lifetime because I don’t think there is just one answer. Councils need to really work with their citizens and work with the families first and foremost. If you can’t get them on board, don’t do it. If you’re trying to do that without their support, that’s where you teeter around the ghoulish. So, the big unanswered question is how do we do dark tourism respectfully?

And I imagine everyone has a different opinion. So for local government, how do you balance a million and one people’s perspectives?

That’s the biggest question for local government. For example, with the September 11th memorial, when they started talking to the 3,000 families, they found that all of them had different ideas on how they wanted their loved ones memorialised. It became such an insurmountable project that I don’t even know how they got through that process, and there’s still controversy about that memorial. I don’t think in cases of large-scale tragedy, you’re ever going to get full agreement on dark tourism and how to manage it. The smaller communities are gonna be easier to work with than the larger ones. And with some of these smaller communities, that’s their entire industry. In Clear Lake, it draws in about $4 million a year. This is a great thing for their community, but it’s based on tragedy, and that’s why they wanted to make sure that they did it right the first time.

It sounds like it’s about time dark tourism gets taken out of the shadows and properly explored, both for the benefit of local government and their communities. What can local government do to help expand the research element of dark tourism?

When researchers like me come knocking, open the door. Host events and a dialogue between the researchers and the community members because we don’t know who to talk to. We need your help identifying them and we need to be able to sit down and candidly discuss a very difficult topic with your councils, with your historians and with the people in the community who don’t often feel like people want to reach out to them. And, of course, the family members.

That’s what we need the most, set us up and give us honest evaluations of how things are going. A lot of councils, when they get outside visitors, they want to present a really nice picture of everything’s going great. We don’t need to hear that. We need to know what the challenges are that you’re facing with dark tourism. What are people saying about your visitors? What are they feeling for real? We’re not there to make you look bad. We’re here to help communities by creating patterns. When we can recognise patterns across multiple locations, we can understand what the real challenges are for the local government, and we all need to know those things. Dark tourism, it’s not as scary as you think!

This interview has been edited for conciseness in a written format. To listen to the full interview from Dr. Beth Heidelberg, check out the podcast here.

Want more on this topic?

  • Read Beth’s feature for LGIU on the top 10 lessons in dark tourism from Salem’s local government (free to read with sign in) 
  • Be sure to check out our full Global Local newsletter on the underexplored relationship between local government and dark tourism


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