Unpacking The Baggage of Netflix’s “Dark Tourist”

Another Saturday, another work week completed.  My feet sore from trying to be the cool new girl at work, my hubris at my own insistence to wear Converse low tops.  But my occult themed fully sleeved feet look so exotic peeking out from the dyed canvas, that it is almost worth the pain shooting up both of my tibia.  I make popcorn and settle in to my spot on the second hand sectional couch in my new home.

I’m in a period of transition.  I have moved from student to young urban professional.  I have also quite literally moved.  Gone is the falling down Victorian era mansion that I had painted and decorated to my aging inner goth’s delight in black and crimson, deep purple and forest green.  The walls that surround me are beige, modern, and they hold up a townhouse.  My rent has tripled.  My standard of living has skyrocketed.  Gone are the tinfoiled off windows and portable air conditioning units, traded away for central air and proper insulation.  Gone are the trips to the laundromat or mom’s house to do laundry.  I went to school for a long time and work very hard now to be able to afford my new “luxuries”.  I’m telling you all of this, not to brag (if bragging about basic human living standards in the privileged West can be considered bragging), but rather for you to understand that as a newly minted, newly moved, young urban professional, I’m currently not able to do much for travel, though my heart yearns with wanderlust.  It’s been four years since I last left Canada, and I yearn to update my passport, but need to do some working before I can do this.  With this in mind, I’ve been really into reading about travelling, watching shows about exotic locations.  My YouTube search history is a veritable documentary of all the places I want to see in this world, of all the places I WILL see, because as half of the Double Income No Kids couple, it’s feasibly possible for me.

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Cue the entrance of Netflix’s new series “Dark Tourist”, a travel show hosted by David Farrier purporting to explore the phenomenon (?) of so called “dark tourists” who avoid sand, sun, and fun, and endeavour instead to explore the dark and macabre locations of the world – killing fields, concentration camps, death museums and more.

I watched the trailer and was very interested, but I was hesitant.  As much as I would like to say I don’t judge based on appearances, David Farrier gave me privileged white cis male hipster vibes, and I found myself rolling my eyes when I scanned over the listing of episodes and their locations, landing immediately on Japan.

Since I am what the kids call a weeb, and somewhere in the dark annals of my upper middle class university education I once minored in Japanese language, the obvious first choice for me to watch was the episode on Japan.  Inwardly, I was screaming because the episode description made obvious mention of the elephant in the proverbial pop culture room about the infamous Aokigahara “suicide forest”.  Before I had even read the description, I knew this would be one of the places visited, and it made me uncomfortable.

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And here I hesitate, because, it didn’t make me uncomfortable that someone would want to go there.  I myself hope to find myself in those bleak woods someday.  It made me uncomfortable because of the vaguely exploitative nature that surrounds so many people who enter these woods, people who enter them with as cavalier a manner as going into some kind of carnival haunted house, hoping instead of papier mache spooks and scares to see suicide, or the artifacts of completed suicide.  Someone’s life and death used as casual hilarity.  Of course, here, I am referring to YouTuber Logan Paul (who I have previously written about, click through to read) and his video of a suicide victim in the Aokigahara Forest and the subsequent upheaval into which the internet was thrown.  Like I said in that article, I am someone who works alongside mental illness, alongside suicide, and alongside death.  I have personally attended the deaths of well over 100 people, and I have seen two people in the act of completed suicide.  I find myself sensitive and protective over people who suffer with mental illness, and the subject of suicide has been enough to get my hackles up.

The episode didn’t start in the ocean of trees at the base of Mt. Fuji, rather, it started in Fukushima, in the radioactive “difficult to return to” zone.  David and a group of “dark tourists” as he calls them prepare to enter the radioactive zone, and their tour guide tells them than if their geiger counters read over 0.20, the level of radiation is unsafe.  The group watches their geiger counters with the intensity of an eight year old watching an ant farm, and the numbers climb.

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Fukushima is beautiful, even the devastation.  Abandoned bicycles and video arcades, drone footage of the contaminated topsoil storage.  These images are all striking, haunting, and frightening.  Radiation.  Cancer.

It’s mentioned occaisionally in the episode, the big C.  Cancer.

As the tour winds through the exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi Reactor, and the radiation levels climb to 8.0+ on the geiger counters, many times over the previously quoted safe amount.  Radiation is measured in units called sieverts.  Robots in Japan have recently measured the burnt out reactor to bear radiation levels of 530 sieverts.  1 sievert is enough to give a human being radiation poisoning.  2 sieverts is usually enough to kill someone.

Maybe I’ve seen too many cancers, too many faces twisted into beaks and fungiating malodorous tumors to be thrilled by the thought of being exposed to additional radiation.  This aspect of the trip to the Japan seems less “dark” than simply foolhardy, but I suppose this is part of the human condition as well, to desire to enter places where we are clearly not meant to go, just look at the bodies that line Mt. Everest.  Each of those bodies once housed the mind of a highly motivated person desperate to carve a place for themselves in a land where the oxygen is in such short supply, that you are dying as you make that snowy trek to the summit.  It might be my indigenous upbringing talking, but I’m fine to avoid the places where Mother Nature has made it clear that she does not want me.  I never was much of a maverick.

Finishing the episode on Japan, I was pensive.  I wanted to like this series because by David Farrier’s definitions, I would be a “dark tourist”.  I myself have touched bones in the dusty Catacombs of Paris, I’ve seen freakshows in Mexico, seen the mausoleum that houses Bob Marley in Jamaica, made crosses in red chalk on stones in the St. Louis cemeteries in New Orleans, sat pensive by the grave of Bruce Lee in Seattle.  You’re more likely to find me wandering dusty bookstores and sipping craft beers in cemeteries than you will find me poolside.  It might be the aforementioned aging goth in me.  I have always been a weird kid.  I remember being eight and dragging my grandfather to a Scholastic book fair and returning home with books on Egyptian mummies and the Black Plague.  Lurid horror novels have always populated my bookshelves, ranging from R.L. Stine to Christopher Pike as a teenager to Clive Barker and HP Lovecraft as an adult.  I have always been drawn to the weird.  It was serendipity alone that took the Drunk in a Graveyard crew in 2014 to the Museum of the Weird in Austin, Texas.  A happy drunken accident.

I think part of my issue with this show comes from its very title – “Dark Tourist”, insisting on putting a label on something that doesn’t need and has never asked for one.  Isn’t it human nature to seek out the things that interest us?  Things that we find to be fascinating?  I think what really bothered me is that David Farrier kept saying that “dark tourism” is “new”.  It isn’t.  People have been attending grave sites and making pilgrimmages to see old bones for centuries.  Death fascinates us because it is the antithesis to life.  Christian conservative values have turned death into some kind of strange perversity to be feared and prayed over, and yet, these values, are eurocentric, rather than global.  It is human nature to be puzzled over things we cannot understand.  Our brains are organic computers that are constantly seeking patterns in life, and even in death, so that we might understand that question that plagues us all – why are we here?  What does it mean?  Does it mean anything?

We obsess over serial killers, mental illness, insanity, depravity, because for most of us, living in our mundane lives, we could never imagine ourselves in those roles.  They are foreign to us.  The thrill of cosplaying a character gives us a brief feeling of being that character, gives us power.  For many, one who takes the life of another exerts the ultimate power, the power of godhead, to decide who will live and who will die.  It is profound.  And haven’t we all thought of what it would be like to kill someone?  For many even death and decay is not something commonly seen, and it becomes novelty.

In the Cambodia episode, David has heard through the wind that if he pays enough money he will be able to shoot an animal with a high powered machine gun or RPG.  And this gave me pause as well.  I knew immediately that this weasley hipster in his fashionable glasses, and pink shorts would never kill an animal even if he got the chance, but even if he had, the act of killing an animal isn’t fundamentally wrong to me.  I grew up in a family of hunters.  I am indigenous.  Even for people who grew up on a farm to witness the death of animal is not some kind of Saw-esque grotesque torture.  It is simply the way of the world.  I’m quite certain that if you paid enough money, you might be able to kill a human being, and this might have been a better piece of journalism, but probably highly illegal/unethical, and we have all see Hostel by now.  This read to me like a strange VICE article written by a hipster from Williamsburg who shouts a fact about the world, like fish being full of worms, like it’s a revelation, and everyone who is normal yells back “Tell me something I don’t know.”

This is something I fought with as I watched this show – my immense dislike of David Farrier.  I don’t find him interesting, attractive, or compelling in any way.  He’s terrible at interviewing people, and his white eurocentric values seep through into every aspect of his travels.  Instead of sincerity, he comes off as pompous, aggrandized.  For a supposed “dark tourist”, his first sight of a mummified corpse makes him seem like a big baby, rather than the edgy type he is trying to play himself as.  And make no bones here, I’ve seen enough death, and seen enough people reacting to death that I know that everyone responds differently to seeing it.  I don’t judge him for being upset by the sight of a corpse.

The first time someone looks into that spectre, is to look into your own mortality, if only for a brief moment.  It is profound.  But I became confused, that as someone who cites himself as obsessed with the weird and macabre – he has never seen death?  Never been to a museum?  Never held a skull?  Rather than seeming worldly, he becomes more and more small town, more and more irritating.

In Africa, he gazes upon the world of voodou, becomes a disciple, and is horrified to learn of the animal sacrifices that come along with this primal faith.  Even when he is told that the animals sacrificed will be used for food, he is horrified.  Like, holy fuck dude, these people can’t just go to Whole Foods and buy some soy milk, where do you think their food comes from?  In truth, where do you think OUR food comes from?  If you eat a McChicken, guess what, it didn’t grow on a tree.  An animal had to die for it.

Meandering through the episodes, I find this hipster encountering more death, and more radiation, as he swims in a lake created by a nuclear bomb.  I find myself hoping that Netflix will do a follow up special in 5-10 years when this hipster’s body is nothing but a big tumor and he is dying of cancer somewhere in a hospice home.

He has a Guatama Buddha moment though, staring into the horribly deformed faces of children in an orphanage in the Middle East, victims of nuclear fallout.  Where he had been quick to joke about radiation, even sneaking off a bus tour in Fukushima to run through a highly radioactive video arcade despite severe warnings not to enter the no-go zone, you can see realization on his face, and in that moment I could see him considering the sky high readings on his geiger counter, the taste of the radioactive fish he ate out of that lake, the image of the radioactive Rillakuma bear toy in that video arcade.  I wonder if he will see those images every time something new in his body hurts, or every time he grows a new mole.  I certainly would.

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Death is, after all, all fun and games, until it’s coming for you.

I found myself disinterested in the show.  The episodes meandered for me.  The Africa episode was interesting.  Visiting South Africa, he sees the ancient ritual of “spinning” – where skids in South Africa soup up stolen cars and do donuts in graveyards to honor their dead. Die Antwoord makes reference to spinning in their video for “Baby’s On Fire”, complete with the “suicide spin” where the driver gets out of the car mid spin and walks the hood or hangs out the side. This video is problematic for a wide variety of reasons, and Die Antwoord the jury’s still out on, but yeah, I’m linking it anyways.

The quality in experiences that David Farrier has on this Dark Tourist trek vary wildly.  He meets people obsessed with serial killers in the United States, people who idolize Charles Manson, and he takes a Jeffrey Dahmer walk.  He wanders through Myanmar, through the Middle East, and makes an asshole of himself in Cyprus.  I find myself irritated by him more and more.  His desire for a story seems more ego centric than curious.  He at points almost chastises the people he is interviewing, labelling them as weird, and at one point asking Pablo Escobar’s hitman, a diminutive man named Popeye, if he’d ever considered seeing a psychotherapist.

The most disturbing thing of all, is not all of the death, the destruction, the pain, and the misery, but rather, David Farrier’s lack of understanding or growth throughout this series.  His eurocentric values and privilege are never really laid aside in trying to understand the people he talks to, and he seems preternaturally uncomfortable when speaking to women.  A hugely missed oppurtunity is presented when he wanders the Japanese Aokigahara Forest and meets a woman who had once thought of committing suicide there.  He is awkward and bumbling when speaking to her through his translator.  There is a missed teaching moment here about what mental illness is.  The show instead fixates on her belief in ghosts, the yurei who she claims saved her life by advising her to not complete her act of suicide.  But I suppose that is journalism, right?  Go for the headline rather than the meaning.  Everything only at a surface level.  A hugely teachable moment is gone, wasted.  Instead this weasley hipster mumbles, “WHY WOULD ANYONE WANT TO COMMIT SUICIDE”.  How dare you.  Perhaps instead of wondering, you should have asked this person.  But in truth, in order to understand why someone might choose to end their life, you must understand in some way the deep complexities of mental illness, the intersecting lines of poverty, class, race, values, religion, thought..  Everything that comes together to make us who we are.

In truth, I simply felt bored for a great portion of this show.  I felt like I was watching an edgelord with no edge insert his unwanted opinions over the culture of others.  I don’t feel like he took much away from his experiences beyond fuel for future health related panic attacks, like seeing flashes of a geiger counter in his nightmares.

The Latin America episode was the last episode I watched and oddly, it allowed me to leave the show on a positive, or at least more positive note.  It examines the cult of Santa Muerte, and in a shocking demonstration of reality, was poignant and beautiful.  David goes in expecting to find Satanists and instead finds a community of outcasts, brought together in their reverence for life and death.

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David also visits the home of Pablo Escobar and is confused that a city of people would worship the Czar of Cocaine, and again I was so annoyed at his lack of understanding.  Pablo Escobar was a kind of Robin Hood for these people.  Why wouldn’t they love him?  And here again is that piece of me that screams at my television about how the lack of critical thinking in so much journalism makes my head spin.  Yes, Pablo Escobar was a criminal, a murderer.  But at the same time, he helped a whole community with his money, built many houses.  People do not exist in staunch black and white, evil or saintly.  We are grey.  His evil acts are no less evil than his good acts are good.  To be able to see both of these things at once, is profound, like looking at death.  Escobar’s hitman Popeye says it best, when he says to David – “we are from two very different worlds”.  I don’t know that it sank in.

The final piece of the episode ended with a tour where tourists can try to cross the Mexican/United States border and it simulates the experience of illegal immigrants.  This is the piece of social commentary that I found to be missing from much of the other travel destinations in Dark Tourist.  I only wish the rest of the show had been treated with that kind of love.

And so, I sit here with mixed feelings.  In many ways, I see myself in David Farrier and his travels, and in many ways, I don’t.  During the Logan Paul suicide forest debacle, Caitlin Doughty, mortician and author of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, And Other Lessons From the Crematory” wrote on twitter – “it is a purview of the privileged youth to believe everything is for them, to be commented on by them”, and I feel that this comment stands here.  Did we need the thoughts of a boring white hipster on the complex death rituals of the world?  No, not really.

Will we watch it anyways?  Yes, of course we will.

Maybe I’m sick of people trying to put themselves into categories of the marginalized.  You’re not some type of weirdo or so-called “dark tourist” because you want to see where Marie Antoinette was beheaded, or visit the Tower of London or take a Jack The Ripper walk.  These pieces of history may be dark, but you aren’t some kind of ghoul for wanting to see them, and I think this is where this series lost me.

I find similarities here in this series with the horror community, with the metal community – people trying to make martyrs of themselves or thinking themselves to be edgy because they like extreme metal or watch horror movies.  Horror movies make fucking millions of dollars.  Haunted houses make people go crazy, and it’s not all black clad goths in Cannibal Corpse t-shirts.  People filling seats at horror movies and heavy metal shows are often just your average dickhead, and it’s the same with people who want to go to Auschwitz.  Stop pretending to be unique.  It’s boring and it makes me tired.

I’d like to say that I won’t watch a second season of this show, if there ever is one, but we all know I will.

Oh, and David, if you’re reading this, please for the love of all that is unholy, and in the words of Carrie White’s mother, take off those pink shorts “let’s burn them together and pray for forgiveness”.

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7 responses to “Unpacking The Baggage of Netflix’s “Dark Tourist”

  1. I stumbled across your blog. I’m excited to follow and I can’t wait to read more. I love the reflective nature in this piece and although I am SURE I will agree with the points you make here, I more than likely will check this show out and soon, to see for myself. I’ll be a dark tourist from my couch. From what you describe, it seems like a really disappointing missed opportunity for something really thoughtful and interesting to be done.

    • Hey man! Thanks for reading! I still recommend checking out the show, I just wish it had been done a bit better and with less imposition of eurocentric values. But I mean, it was still interesting. Notes for things to NOT do when you’re traveling tbh.

  2. This was very well put and basically captures my opinion on the series as well. I feel as though David could have been a lot more open minded and a little less naive. In the Charles Manson episode he was explicitly told not to talk as though Manson had passed. But the first thing he did was bring up his passing and later on he asked the man if he believes Manson should be remembered.. of course he should be remembered! And why ask his friend that? Some parts of the series were hard to watch simply because David seemed to lack a level of respect for other cultures besides his cushy New Zealand upbringing. Yet I will probably watch season 2 as well.

  3. Geiger counters usually report numbers in the unit of milliSieverts, that is one thousandth of a Sievert. So when the counter reads 8, it’s not 8 Sieverts, but 8 milliSieverts, much lower than any dangerous dose. Nuclear physicists know this. Tourists often don’t, though.

    • Clarification: the Geiger counter measures the effective dose pr hour. In this specific case it’s actually microSieverts pr hour. Anything below a few millisieverts pr year is not only safe, but completely normal. Anything below a few tens of milliSieverts pr year is also completely safe. Reading 8 microSieverts pr hour is nothing to worry about at all.

      • I truly don’t know enough about Geiger counters to contradict what you’re saying as I am not a nuclear physicist such as yourself. However, the areas that are shown in this show have not been cleared for safe return by the governments of both Japan and the Middle East and given the horrifying genetic abnormalities present in the children in the one orphanage, I would argue with you on the point you make about supposed safety levels.

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