By the pricking of my thumbs

The pandemic might have put paid to many a traveller’s dream, but as its effects ebb, tourism is picking up pace again
Last Updated 21 February 2021, 03:18 IST

The spotlight is on the dark. Of course, beautiful beaches, snowy mountains and forest camps are par for the course; but what really tingles the millennial traveller’s senses is what the Europeans call ‘dark tourism’. Simply put, dark tourism is visiting places associated with death, devastation, conflict and genocide as well as locations supposedly haunted. Before the pandemic hit, this was the hot new focus of tour operators worldwide and demands from extreme dark travellers were rising, for visits to countries such as Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Burundi and even Afghanistan.

Indians, long accustomed to tourist itineraries that specialise in hustling people from one ‘sightseeing’ place to other, are now, slowly but certainly, looking to expand their horizons. This is especially true of young tourists who are hungry for out-of-the-box experiences (in this case, it might even be a jump-out-of-your-skin experience!)

A step into the unknown

Humans are inquisitive beings. Our search for answers is never-ending. The concept of ‘dark’ is fascinating by itself; we revel in the does not take much effort to get enamoured by the seemingly macabre. In the process, we appropriate rituals and practices, which appear extraordinary or taboo. In a country like India, there is a dearth neither of abandoned and haunted places nor of urban legends and ghost stories. In fact, it is rather surprising that for a country so chockful of haunted tales, dark tourism caught on so late.

Dr Roshan Jain, a senior psychiatrist at a multi-specialty hospital in Bengaluru, says that death is the only constant — the only thing that is confirmed the moment one is born. “Everyone fears death and anything that reminds of it. Perhaps, our subconscious acceptance of mortality drives us to yearn for a glimpse of what death is. This compels us to observe places of devastation — to better appreciate the powers of nature.”

Talking about the psychosomatic aspects of the ‘dark’, Dr Rachna Sharma, the founder of a multi-specialty psychology clinic, says that when we become aware of any disaster, immediately, the amygdala in the brain gets stimulated. This is the part responsible for our emotions and survival tactics. “The Amygdala signals the frontal cortex, the part that analyses and interprets the data and evaluates if something is a threat. Then a flight or fight response gets evoked. This process triggers our survival instinct. Once we go through this process and deem that we are witnessing a non-threat, we continue to watch or read or stare as a way to face our fears without risking ourselves.”

However, dark tourism is not just about bats flying in and headless ghosts peering out of broken windows. According to the British Institute of Dark Tourism Research, it is about “travel to sites of historically documented tragedy, carnage, malice or any combination thereof.”

Vibes from history

Avid traveller Nitya Sriram, a senior programme officer at a civil society organisation in Delhi, says that she has always approached a tourist destination from a historical point-of-view to understand what went wrong. “We don’t think of it as dark tourism when we travel. After I heard the term, I looked back at my travels and realised I have indulged quite a bit in dark tourism. Almost every monument in Delhi has a dark tale to tell. And then there are places like Jallianwala Bagh and the Holocaust museum...”

Nitya raises a point about the darkness spread by acts committed throughout history. She cites the examples of conflicts in Israel, Palestine and Sri Lanka. Talking about her recent travel to Vietnam, where she saw the Cat Ba caves— the mountain caves that housed hospital units to treat wounded soldiers of the infamous war— and the Vietnam war museum, she says that the historical value attached to such places raises questions about human nature. Nitya also informs about the places in her travel bucket list: The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where the British Raj sent notorious revolutionaries to rot and the Holocaust museum.

Abandoned places do emanate dark and eerie vibes, IT professional and travel photographer Puneet Verma narrates, about his experience in Dhanushkodi. A coastal community was hit by a cyclone and all that is left there are dilapidated buildings and rusting boats. Puneet remembers that he wanted to visit the coastline to get pictures of the rising and setting sun, but when he arrived there in a jeep driven by locals, it was a gloomy day and all he could see was the remains of the abandoned fishing village and a dilapidated church, scenes that had a profound effect on him.

Puneet sees the positive aspect too. “The locals have adapted to the new life. They have learnt about the commercial potential of the place.” The keyword here is commercial potential. In the places which are now being designated as dark spots and where ghosts are said to be seen, is the story being spun from imagination or does it have an underlying motive? There have been debates internationally about such commercialisation of death and many find it obnoxious and objectionable that tourists are allowed to take selfies in places of death and devastation like Auschwitz or Chernobyl.

Consulting psychologist and special educator, Dr Mamta Jain gives an example of how perception is built and how marketing is done for the ‘dark’ places. “Imagine that you have found an old box with stuff from your childhood. How would you explain it? You will tell stories based on your experiences. You can change perceptions easily with your stories.”

A question of safety

But story-building does put a question on safety. Both Puneet and Nitya make sure that they research about the place before visiting. “When I travel to such remote places, I read about it and make a local connection,” says Puneet, who wishes to visit the abandoned fort of Bhangarh in Rajasthan and the killing fields of Cambodia that witnessed a genocide after the civil war in the country in the 70s.

Novelist and screenwriter K Hari Kumar, who has penned books like ‘India’s Most Haunted’, says India has a lot of scope for dark tourism because of its vastness and violent history. He lists places like Bhangarh, Kuldhara and Kalapani jail, which are already tourist sites and says that “travellers who go to these places must be protected from rogue agents. And since we are a country where people often fall prey to superstitions, that’s also an area where people need to be protected.”

Asked about the ‘haunted’ places he would like to explore, he mentions Chail in Shimla, where the web series ‘Brahm’ was shot and recommends Dakshina Kannada, “where legends of bhootas and pretas still linger. Rural Karnataka is the perfect place for a horror writer to write his next story, he says.

Actor Akul Tripathi, who hosted the series ‘Ekaant’, which focuses on exploring abandoned places, says that when he was asked if there are enough places to make a television show about them, he had replied saying that one can write an encyclopedia on them. “There is nothing in these places that spooks people. These are just figments of people’s imagination. They leave a strong impression on people, which end up invoking a range of feelings,” he says.

Ghostly adventures down under

Remember those bonfire nights when you shared your ghost stories and were spooked by your own talents! Ghost tours are simply an extension of this popular camping activity. They may be a relatively new concept in India, but in many Western countries, they have been popular for a while. Pete Clifford of Australia, aka Paranormal Pete, who runs mystery tours, sheds some light on the many aspects of dark tourism.

What prompted you to begin conducting ghost tours?

Growing up in three ‘haunted houses’, we were encouraged to talk to the ghosts; we were told that they lived in the house before us and were the original residents (and thus deserved that respect!) Ghosts and spirits were more norm than exception for me. I started my dark tourism business in 2002 after my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer. This made me search for answers about what happens when we die, where do we go, do we all cross over to the other side, etc.

Tell us a bit about what happens on the tour and how do people react...

We usually take guests in a small group, so they get an intimate experience. We tell them forgotten histories, stories of the place that are frowned upon and we encourage them to use their instincts and senses. The tours are interactive and hands-on and you get to use ghost-hunting equipment (voice recorders, cameras, thermal monitors, etc), to enhance their already heightened senses. And since the tours are conducted in the night, there’s no one around to interrupt the experience.

My guests love visiting historical places where death, tragedy and mysterious things have taken place; they also love the adrenalin rush when any paranormal phenomena happens right in front of their eyes. Something they touch, an apparition they feel, a voice they hear...

Do you see a spike in people opting for dark tourism? What are they looking for?

I believe the increase in popularity is because people are searching for answers nowadays... why did this tragedy happen at this site? How can we stop it from happening again? What happens when we die? Do we transcend to another dimension? Death remains a mystery, people want answers and peace of mind that when they die, they will go to a special place... Also, the massive rise in TV shows on the paranormal have contributed to the growing interest. Some guests are interested because of life-changing experiences like the death of a loved one; others have had some paranormal experience themselves and come looking for more. Some, of course, come because they just like visiting a building that can only be accessed through a dark history/ghost tour. Happily, this interest has spurred organisations to help restore and maintain several ancient structures and locations.

Do you see international tourists too? How has the pandemic affected business?

We get guests from all over the world wanting to have an adventure and maybe scare their friends or family members. We have been heavily affected by the pandemic with a six-month complete shutdown of the business. We are now running tours at a reduced capacity so, yes, the business is down.

Some famous dark spots in Australia?

On the top of our list is Australia’s most haunted inn, Woodford Academy, which has been featured on several TV shows and series. Sydney Quarantine Station in Manly, New South Wales, is another famously haunted location. The station saw more than 500 deaths and was used to quarantine travellers coming to Australia during the 1919 Spanish flu pandemic.

A few ‘dark’ spots in India

For a country like India, where every town has its own folklores and ghosts, the list of ‘dark’ places can get exhaustive. Here are the most popular ones in south India:

Shettihalli Rosary Church in
Hassan, Karnataka: Popular among bikers who take a ride to this abandoned church. The backdrop provides for a perfectly ghostly Instagram post.

Dhanushkodi: On the one side, there is a picturesque coast with a magnificent sun blazing, and on the other, an empty eeriness of what was a once a thriving town.

Golconda fort: Once considered to be an impregnable fort, this is now a site for film shootings. An architectural marvel, which was guarded to death for its diamond mines...who knows what secrets its many tunnels and dark caverns hide.

Arikamedu in Puducherry: An archaeological site dating back centuries, all that is remaining now is its dilapidated structure, almost textbookish in its sense of foreboding.

Hymavathy pond in Kerala University: It is widely believed that a ghost has made this pond its ‘adda’; a rather romantic ghost this particular one, for having chosen such a lush, green space to be its residence!

Why are we fascinated with the dark?

Dr Roshan says that humans have always ventured into the unknown, away from the mundane routine of life. But, over the years, we have chosen settlement over migration, signage over exploration and certainty over the unknown. “Dark tourism is about exploring the feared and experiencing what is denied.” When asked why is that we are attracted to something that is devastating and disastrous, Dr Rachna Sharma tells us about negative bias and morbid curiosity. Negative bias or negative potency is the tendency to automatically give more attention to a negative event or information than positive ones. Morbid curiosity is where people are curious of high intense negative information— horror movies and crime shows or coverage of violence news on the internet. She says people choose negative images because of an epistemic motivation.

“One is the curiosity, driven by motivation. Motivation to explore information or fill that information gap. You may ask what do these images of death and violence have to offer at the informational level. The negative events have a greater psychological impact than neutral or positive events. Because it is evolutionary, we are adaptive to be sensitive to negative information. Threat awareness is instilled in us. That is the first lesson we learn to survive. It gives us a kind of handhold over dealing with future negative situations.”

Opting for the dark is not unusual, as Dr Mamata summarises: “We are curious beings. Any behaviour pattern depends on various factors like personality, interests, learning, sex, socio-economic status, etc.” But anything in excess is something to note of and seek help for. As Dr Roshan warns: “If one is drawn towards the ‘dark’ and his/her nature is voyeuristic and this fascination leads to sexual or other excitement, then there may be a possible underlying antisocial tendency developed from unspent psychological energy due to disturbances such as abuse or trauma. If such is the case, it needs a professional evaluation to understand the issue and productively channelise this energy.”

(Published 20 February 2021, 19:31 IST)

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