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Hackman Student Studies Rise and Fascination Behind Dystopian Dark Tourism

By Krissy Montville '14

Is society drawn to death and destruction? Are humans intrigued by violent undertones?

Franklin & Marshall College junior Zheng Jin found himself asking these questions as he researched a growing industry called dark tourism -- historic sites linked to death and tragedy.

Jin's research was made possible by F&M's Hackman Scholar Program, which supports faculty and student joint research over the summer. His research involved reviewing literature and reading reviews of dark tourism sites.

Working with Jeffrey Podoshen, associate professor of marketing and chair of the Department of Business, Organizations & Society, Jin focused on the steady rise of the popular dystopian dark tourist sites such as Wewelsburg, in Germany, the Helter Skelter Tour in the United States, and the H.R. Giger Museum and Bar in Switzerland.

"We chose these sites because they are newly opened or renovated," Jin said. "They have been getting a great deal of press in the tourism media and provide more opinions to work with."

  • Dark Tourism
  • Jeffrey Podoshen, associate professor of marketing at Franklin & Marshall College, and junior Zheng Jin leaf through a text titled "State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda." The two researched dark tourism locations, historic sites linked to death and tragedy. (Photo by Krissy Montville '14)

Dystopia -- a society characterized by misery and oppression -- is revealed behind each of the three tourist sites, all of which call attention to something horrifying, such as the Nazi security unit Schutzstaffel (or SS), the Manson Family murders, and extraterrestrial environments based on the science fiction film "Alien" and its sequels.

Podoshen's previous research showed a spike in the number of dark tourism sites. The question is, "Why now?"

"Dystopian dark tourism is likely an outgrowth of the dark times we live in," he said.  "The tools of mass killing and mechanized death took on new, greater, perverse significance in the 20th century."

Working with peer-reviewed research and media accounts, Jin studied and summarized popular opinions to formulate theories behind dark tourism and why consumers are drawn to it.

In observing each tourist site through a historical lens, Jin said, "I discovered that people throughout history, who intended to create a perfect world with their actions, did not bring any perfection to the world. Instead, what they really brought was chaos and hopelessness. It is this imperfection that makes the world more real and fascinating for tourists today."   

Jin’s research was multidisciplinary, Podoshen said. It combined elements of business and consumer behavior, but also implemented theories from a variety of fields, including history, anthropology, sociology and psychology. 

"It is important to realize that the F&M community is at the forefront of exploring the world from an interdisciplinary perspective," Podoshen said. "Studying phenomena from the liberal arts perspective means that you cast a wide net and you really grapple with ideas, theories and literature outside your comfort zone."