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Dark Tourism: where do we draw the line?

Warning: this post contains graphic and heinous content.

I knew I shouldn’t have gone in….

Museum of Death
The Museum of Death on Sunset Boulevard

I had seen the Museum of Death on Sunset Boulevard advertised in some Los Angeles magazine or brochure and mentioned it to my husband as somewhere he might want to pop into while I was at a travel conference in Downtown LA.

Being a cop who deals with homicides on an all-too-regular basis in Auckland, I knew he’d probably find this interesting. I, on the other hand, would not.

But so it happened that we were together on our hop-on-hop-off bus from Sunset, through West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, when stop 15 was conveniently located a block from this spooky museum.

If you can call it a museum. It’s more like a building housing the memorabilia of a twisted man.

Museum of Death
Owner JD or James Dean, poses by the entrance to his death rooms

Against my better judgement I went in. $15 this creepy man charged us. Each. All I can say is this is not for the faint-hearted or those who have a tendency for nightmares. Apparently here, the First Amendment right to freedom of expression is more important than a victim’s right to privacy and the owner of this hideous collection of death paraphernalia, who called himself James Dean, has been collecting newsclippings, photographs, mortuary signs and death bits and pieces for 20+ years and has 5000 pieces, not all of it on display here.

We pushed aside the beaded curtains and a woman with her husband quietly reading about some grisly murder from a newspaper clipping on the wall nearly dropped on the floor with fright. Such is the feeling you get in this place.

We laughed uneasily and our husbands busied themselves with more news stories. I didn’t stray far. There were body bags, old electric chair parts, crime scene photos of the most heinous kind.

He even has a room filled with his own taxidermied pets. The big Lassie dog looked like it needed a good dusting.

I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Suffice to say I saw photos that day that a person should never see and the perpetrators of one particularly horrific crime were caught thanks to the photo processor at Walmart who called the police when he came across the same photos I’m now looking at: a naked woman posing for her boyfriend who is taking the photo over her dead husband with his own mutilated penis rammed into his mouth.

Auschwitz barracks
Auschwitz barracks. Pic Milan Boers

I was shocked. My stomach turned. I wanted to use the loo and asked directions, but when I finally found it behind red velvet curtains down some winding hall, I was too scared to enter.

I needed to get out of there. Stat.


All this brings up the topic of Dark Tourism.

It’s a lucrative business. But where should we draw the line?

Is visiting the death camps of Auschwitz sadistic and voyeuristic or is it to pay hommage to the dead? Is gawping at pickled body parts at Philadelphia’s medical Mutter Museum, (read my blog on this here) educational or macabre?

Or what about the touring Bodies Exhibition which are sliced and diced human beings on display that school groups come to visit on the pretext of learning how the human body works, yet these are deceased people?

Ted Bundy's VW
Serial killer Ted Bundy’s VW in the Crime Museum

Or what about Washington DC’s Crime Museum which seems to glorify the likes of Ted Bundy whose car is parked in the lobby showing exactly how he hid his poor, terrified victims while he drove them around before he killed them.

I’ve visited the catacombs in Lima and touched the bones of bodies that were filed en masse by type rather than buried whole. It was eerie, yet a part of our history that we would be wise not to ignore.

Mutter Museum Philadelphia
The Mutter Museum’s skull wall. Pic George Widman

Arguments for and against slum tourism or earthquake tours range from it being an altruistic helping hand to the communities with the injection of cash such tours bring in, to equating this peering at the poor like animals in a zoo and any money that tourists invariably give them reinforces their lifestyle and turns them into beggars.

Or does a tour like one of quake damaged Christchurch a few year ago help those of us who don’t live there better understand what they went through, and for some, still are going through?

It is a conundrum.

I have found myself drawing the line around buildings and monuments that remember a past tragedy. I don’t consider the New York 9-11 tower dark tourism, neither the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. But really, is the latter any different to the London Dungeon? I was equally disturbed at both.SaveSaveSaveSave

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!