In the magazine Pacific Standard, Hannah Gais and Eugene Steinberg document—in both words and haunting images—the emergence of a minor tourist industry around Chernobyl, which was engulfed in a nuclear blaze almost exactly thirty years ago. Gais and Steinberg speak to experts in “dark tourism,” who posit that interest in visiting Chernobyl and similarly macabre places springs from a desire to encounter death, however limited and sanitized. Here’s an excerpt:
What makes the rationale behind travel to a sinister place, like Chernobyl, different from, say, the impulse to visit a history museum? Tourism experts posit a number of theories. For one, there’s the sequestration of death in modern society — what’s broadly known as “death denial.” Sociologists identify a few major trends and characteristics to explain why tourists may visit these sites. A host of modern developments have made it harder for us to experience actual horror in the face of death: These include the medicalization of death; the professionalization of the industries associated with death; the secularization in the rituals and language associated with death and dying; the distancing of sites, such as graveyards, from cities and urban areas; and the introduction of an industrial approach to dealing with remains and burials. At the same time, death is still a part of everyone’s lives: We all have to go sometime.
Philip Stone and Richard Sharpley, both researchers at the Institute for Dark Tourism Research in the United Kingdom, think that this paradox is one of the foremost drivers behind interest in dark tourist cites. They write in The Annals of Tourism Research that so-called “Dark Tourism,” to places like Chernobyl, “allows the re-conceptualization of death and mortality into forms that stimulate something other than primordial terror and dread.” As our travel to dark tourism sites is always temporary — most tours to the exclusion zone are day trips — it allows one an easy exit to the “real world” whenever staring into the abyss becomes too much to handle.
By opening the exclusion zone to tourists, Chernobyl has become a place that, in Stone’s words, “allows for the potential re-sequencing and re-construction of the past.” Guides choose what information to present to the tourists that accompany them, thereby popularizing a singular narrative. Meanwhile, tourists introduce their own experiences with the zone into the stories that they pass along to families and friends. While the exclusion zone is shuttered off from the rest of Ukrainian society by a series of policy measures and some rather porous fences, the touristification of the region signifies its transition from a space of destruction to a space with a particular ritualistic purpose.
Image of abandoned gas masks near Chernobyl via Pacific Standard.