Dark Tourism

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Few interesting discussions begin at 10am; I swear there’s a special time in the early hours in which tired people lose enough of their ‘filter’ that they come out with some fascinating things and are yet coherent (usually). Having survived the day on four hours sleep, we had intended to get a nice early night before our trip to the second-most haunted forest in the world… but on a bottle of vodka and a day fuelled by a few hundred new sights, we spent half that night around the kitchen table, shifting around on less-than-comfy wooden seats but too engrossed to end the discussion.
We had begun with the mundane (like the logistics of hiding a priceless Egyptian mummy in your home, the cultural differences regarding cannibalism and the ways in which a person could most successfully murder each one of us without detection) but by 3am it had turned into a debate about war photography and the obligation to report versus the urge to help;
Why do some people feel they are helping by recording events or ‘raising awareness’ when more could have been done physically? 
Is there a difference between objectively reporting and rubbernecking with a camera?
Do the physical aides take more or less of the strain than the reporters who may otherwise feel helpless?
At what point is detachment a good thing (like a surgeon during an operation) and at what point do we lose empathy by watching through a screen?
Of course there is no answer that fits everyone- we couldn’t even agree among the four of us.

Our locations were growing more potentially disturbing by the day and we had just returned from Bran Castle- a beautiful, fairytale-esque and welcoming place, and the home of Queen Marie of Romania and later her daughter Princess Ileana of Romania. (It would later be seized by the Communist regime and ownership returned to the Royal family in 2009).
It is said that Dracula’s castle was inspired by Bran Castle and on top of that, Vlad the Impaler was rumoured to have been connected with the place. Both these statements are so loosely based on fact that if the connection was any looser it would drop off… and yet the site itself is advertised on these ghoulish selling points. The second-least dark of our scheduled locations advertised itself solely using the appeal of ‘Dark Tourism’, which is what team member Rebecca is writing her thesis on; the allure places associated with death and horror have for the masses. Nothing here proved the existence of this attraction more than Bran Castle.

Case in point: This is one of the posters displayed on the castle approach.
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The castle looks imposing as hell from the outside- pointed roofs, slits for windows and perched on top of a small cliff with a pine forest on one side. It is well kept of course- it’s a tourist attraction and so we entered legally through the main gates with tickets in hands (causing slight disappointment to one of our team). Inside, there are letters of thanks from the descendents of Queen Marie for having their family home returned to them, messages welcoming tourists and portraits of the family itself- its members looking terribly normal and pastel-shirted compared to their very regal-looking ancestors.
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Enter further and you find tiny rooms (that is, tiny for a castle- the rooms are low-ceilinged and feel similar to those in a large country house). Not remotely scary- in fact, I’d quite happily have moved in. All castles have weapons collections but this one made me rather envious- knives, sword, pikes, battle axes- considering the size of the space, it looked as though the restoration team had put every pointy thing they could possibly find on display. Almost every main room contained a framed Bram Stoker reference and there was an entire room dedicated to Dracula and Vlad the Impaler!

Here’s the truth:
– Bram Stoker never visited Romania- however, it is believed that Bran Castle was described to him as his description of Count Dracula’s castle easily matches Bran- it is the only such place in Romania. Even so, Dracula’s castle itself (like Count Dracula) is imaginary- it was never supposed to be Bran Castle. “. . . on the very edge of a terrific precipice . . . with occasionally a deep rift where there is a chasm [with] silver threads where the rivers wind in deep gorges through the forests.”
– Vlad III was known as Vlad ‘Tepes’ (the Impaler)… or Vlad ‘Dracula’ because his father was called Vlad Dracul. ‘Dracul’ used to mean ‘dragon’ and ‘Dracula’ translated as ‘son of the dragon’ but in modern Romanian, ‘dracul’ now means ‘the devil’. Bram Stoker certainly named his vampire after one of the Vlads, but the character is not supposed to actually be the historical person. A bit confusing! 
– Tales of Vlad the Impaler’s cruelty and torture began circulating during his lifetime… BUT it is unknown exactly how politically motivated the stories were. While historical documents detailed the everyday running of Bran Castle, they did not cover military or political events- even so, there is no evidence that Vlad the Impaler’ lived there…… until he was imprisoned for a couple of months before being taken to Visegrad Fortress. So although he entered the castle once upon a time, impaled men and women (and a donkey, apparently) did not decorate the approach to Bran Castle. If Vlad really did much impaling, it was in his own castle in Wallachia.

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We didn’t end up paying the extra cost to enter the torture chamber but I managed to snap these shots from the doorway. The implements look so Hammer Horror… until you remember that these things were used on actual people. Torture’s one of those things that squicks me out- I can make someone hurt if they deserve it (or they ask nicely ;P )  but I can’t imagine the minds of the people who can detach from this. (I guess once they become desensitised then like surgeons, they do their ‘job’ better. Ugh.)

On a far funnier note… I was editing my images for this blog and my app decided to treat the Iron Maiden’s face like an actual portrait- giving me the option of ‘prettifying’ it. It’s okay though, the Iron Maiden below remains as I saw it and has not been held to impossible beauty standards. 😀
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We were on our way downstairs by then and left via a beautiful little courtyard straight out of Pans Labyrinth  and the gift shop… which predictably was full of Dracula memorabilia and Vlad the Impaler mugs as well as the postcards, jewellery and history books. Bran Castle is lovely and could have been marketed on its fairytale factor, view and many other appealing things in addition to the macabre but instead the poor castle often finds itself included on ‘most disappointing attraction’ lists due to its lack of true ghoulishness!
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So why do people want the horror? Just like the debates above, everybody has an opinion and I’m not sure there is a right answer but here’s my theory:
People have loved horrible stories since time began. Why? Because they give names and identities to the scary things out there- the dark, noises in the night, ‘monsters’. They’re reassuring because no matter what happens in ‘real life’, it can’t be as bad as the stories- our imagination is always worse… except that things have a habit of escalating. I reread Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde recently- it’s a good book but it made me smile at how tame it was compared to popular stories today. “OMG Jekyll IS Hyde” used to be groundbreaking. We had “OMG Bruce Willis is DEAD” (the biggest scary plot twist I can remember growing up). Now it’s Saw. Hostel. Hannibal. I know the shock and gore genre has always been around but now it is accepted in the mainstream (and yes I think Hannibal is visually stunning).
So what does this have to do with people visiting Auschwitz or Aokigahara (Japan’s ‘suicide forest’)? Partly for the history. Partly, seeing something for yourself- connecting with a reality that it is almost impossible to comprehend unless you see it, touch it. And also, in my opinion, to chase a kind of detachment, consciously or not. We know that people are capable of true horror compared to many, many years ago when murder was considered the worst thing a person could do and just as we ended up discussing late that night, we also know that looking at something through a lens can create distance- like watching something on television. We want proof that the stories are true but yet we don’t want them to be too true- and so we make our pilgrimages to the horror sites and come out again with stories of our own.

This is just one of my theories that change all the time- and we had a fascinating few hours swapping ideas about life, the universe and everything dark… and I’d love to hear from you! Do you go looking for ‘dark tourism’? Where is the creepiest place you have visited, and did it live up to the hype, if any?
Tell me in the comments!

Next stop in Romania; I get fooled by a bendy tree, find some sunflower seeds and we begin a hunt for the real castle of Vlad the Impaler…

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