David Farrier spends the first episode of Dark Tourist — a Netflix documentary series about the phenomenon of dark tourism, or travel to places associated with death and tragedy — joking with a former Pablo Escobar enforcer, witnessing an exorcism, visiting with followers of La Santa Muerte, and engaging in a border crossing experience in Mexico. It’s as strangely intriguing as it sounds in that capsule of a sentence while upsetting and surprising in equal measure. Farrier’s New Zealand sense of humor combined with the macabre circumstances of his tours imbue the series with a sense of whimsy before the reality of the violence or darkness of the activity slaps you back to attention.
When the second episode takes Farrier to Fukushima, one thinks that there is surely no danger if the government of Japan has opened it up for residents and tourists. As the Geiger counters clutched in each person’s hand fluctuate wildly toward levels unsafe for humans to encounter, the seriousness of the ridiculous situation these people have paid to endure mixed with the government’s assurances that people can live in the area makes the viewer feel sick themselves. When they stop to eat at a restaurant meant to lure people back, the tension of the area and situation people who possibly have more money than sense put themselves into starts to feel less dark and more idiotic.
Suddenly, that realization is lightened by the appearance of street performers — also paid by the Japanese government to illustrate safety in the area — that dress Farrier in a balloon bikini top and mermaid tail, a la The Little Mermaid. Callous photos taken by other tourists bring you back to frustration and tension quickly after, though.
It’s a thoroughly tiring experience to view, let alone actually participate in as a form of recreation. The actual allure of excursions focused on the darkest of dark experiences seems to be lost in the show. Some of the people Farrier encounters create a sense of ease for the location while others point to the monetary exploitation of a culture or suffering, making it the guiltiest of guilty pleasures for anyone with a conscience.
It’s also difficult to empathize with the people freaking out about their life choices when they knew about the inherent dangers of visiting the town Pablo Escobar built or a disaster area still empty of people but full of dangerous, life-altering radiation levels. What did you think would happen?
I’m sure that I will watch the rest of the episodes available in the season to see if the sense of enjoyment generally associated with vacation ever emerges, but I’m not completely convinced that it will. As someone with a pitch-black sense of humor, I expected to find some inspiration for future excursions that speak to that part of me. Two episodes in and I’m struggling to see the fun in checking into a hotel staffed by robots and then immediately visiting the Suicide Forest. But maybe that’s just me, a person that chooses to read about the strange and unusual instead of making the suffering of others into a holiday trip — but understands the contradiction of watching someone else participate.