Some of the strangest places and experiences on Earth are explored on the Netflix documentary program Dark Tourist. The eight-episode journey is filled with grim locations and scenarios (three per episode), culminating — where else? — here in Los Angeles. L.A. Weekly talked with host David Farrier about the nature of dark tourism, the appeal of going to scary places, and his observation that L.A. celebrates its own dark history more than any other place he's visited.
Among the Dark Tourist hot spots showcased on Farrier's show are a Pablo Escobar tour in Medellín, Colombia; a tour of Japan's radiation-infused Fukushima; and a tour of the birthplace of voodoo, in the African nation of Benin. In addition to such locations, where there are established tours and celebrations that welcome visitors, the series also showcases destinations without official tours, which various dark-minded tourists have sought out.
So how did Farrier select the destinations and experiences featured in his show? “It's more difficult than you'd think because we didn't want to make a show that was just relentlessly grim,” he explains. “So we tried to have places that were either visually really exciting — places like Turkmenistan, which is kind of almost seen as the new North Korea. Some stories had sort of some moral murkiness to them, [such as] serial killer tours — any sort of tours around death — and then also just stories that were a bit more, for want of a better word, wacky, which probably blurs the line between dark tourism and just offbeat destinations. But we thought it fit the vibe of the show.”
Dark tourism is actually a thing, and Farrier brings fans of eerie travel experiences with him on a few of his explorations. For example, when he travels to Milwaukee to join a tour centered on serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, he brings along Natalie, a Jeffrey Dahmer enthusiast. “I met with her, and I was just so interested in someone who was just deeply interested in serial killers and had never been on this particular tour,” Farrier recalls. “And I just wanted to experience it through her eyes and try to figure out what was so engaging about that. And I mean I was really fascinated on that particular tour, the Dahmer tour, because it ended up that most of the people on the tour were women, and, you know, I was sort of curious why that was. And I like to think that that episode kind of explored some of those questions.”
Sometimes on the program, Farrier takes it upon himself to sneak into some forbidden area, wherein the consequences could range from whatever penalties a tyrannical government metes out to, say, radiation poisoning.
Farrier says there's a wide spectrum of people who do what he does on the show and that some are more serious in their pursuit of discovery than others. “There's a vast difference in the sorts of people that engage in dark tourism, and some of them will happily break into a forbidden city or a forbidden abandoned building or they will sneak into places, and others wouldn't even dream of doing that.”
He says one type of locale always proves to be most tempting for these types of explorers. “[Usually] people are crossing boundaries when it comes to exploring abandoned places. A lot of the people we met when we were researching the show — and certainly when we were researching the likes of Hashima Island, off Japan — want to explore abandoned buildings,” he says. “Often that does involve breaking the law, which is something I certainly wouldn't condone, but it's interesting what people's curiosity will send them to do.”
For the final episode of the season, Farrier paid a visit to Los Angeles to partake in a Manson Family tour and to hang out with some friends of Manson (coincidentally, right after Manson died, so the friends were in mourning). While the exploits of the Manson Family are among the most notorious in the modern history of the county, it wasn't the first dark thing that Farrier noticed upon his first experience here.
“I mean, the first thing I ever remember when I visited Los Angeles was one of those sort of celebrity death tours,” he says. “I saw a bus go by, or maybe just an ad for this tour you could go on, and I thought, you know, what a morbid way to see your city.” One could say that anyone who visits Hollywood Forever Cemetery to visit the graves of celebrities is engaging in a form of dark tourism, he adds. “Los Angeles is pretty seedy and a lot of dark stuff has happened there, and I think people are naturally curious about it.”
Naturally, dark history goes hand in hand with a city so richly steeped in fame and glory (see Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon books), but Farrier observes that Angelenos embrace this darkness more than the citizens of any other places with dark histories that he's visited.
“I think there is a certain darkness to L.A. that's just much more accessible than other places,” he says. “I feel like where a lot of other countries or cities have had some dark things happen, there seems to be a certain part of the population that doesn't like the idea of those places being turned into a tourist trap. But it feels like in Los Angeles almost everything goes; it feels like death blends with pop culture there in a way where everyone sort of shrugs it off and has a smile on their face and kind of treats it as something entertaining as opposed to something potentially a bit morally bankrupt, if you know what I mean.”
Farrier surmises that L.A.'s attitude comes from its identity as an entertainment industry–centered city. “You see it all through a lens,” he says. “Hollywood probably has something to do with it.”
Dark subject matter is definitely in nowadays, and Farrier notes that when it comes to the films that sell and especially TV shows being made at the moment, the darker the better.
“People engage with them and love them, and I think that sometimes real life [in L.A.] can be treated a bit like, you know, just a story. Like it's an interesting story, you know, how someone died and how and why someone killed. It's a really riveting story and I think people at times forget, or it becomes less in the forefront of their mind, that these stories were real and they had real victims and that affected people in real ways. It's sort of seen more quickly as entertainment.”
In the event that Netflix green-lights the show for another season, Farrier says he might be interested in delving deeper into L.A.'s fascination with celebrity death. “I'm sort of fascinated by the way some of the celebrity death tours are treated. I've never been on one, but some of the stop-offs on these tours are of places where something relatively recent has happened,” he says. “And I'm curious, within the community, whether that does become offensive to certain people and how that is treated and how some of these tour operators work. Because it feels like something like a Charles Manson tour [centers on history] that has happened long enough ago where a tour sort of becomes OK, and Quentin Tarantino is making a film about it and that's incredibly hyped and people are interested. But what about someone who died a year ago? Should that be on a tour?”