The Disaster Zone of Netflix’s Dark Tourist

The new eight-part series supposedly travels to the most mad, macabre, and morbid places in the world.

David Farrier in his Netflix series, 'Dark Tourist'

The host of Dark Tourist, David Farrier, is likened in the final episode of the new Netflix travel series to a kind of budget Louis Theroux, which he considers a compliment. Like the legendary British documentarian, Farrier is lanky, awkward, frequently befuddled, and undeniably charming (he hails from New Zealand, and most recently co-directed the 2016 documentary Tickled). His signature outfit is a button-down shirt over a pair of pink, pineapple-patterned shorts. It’s hard to marry the conceit of Dark Tourist—which is that Farrier is pursuing his dangerous fascination with all things “mad, macabre, and morbid”—with the show itself, which often feels like the world’s most genial librarian has accidentally ended up on a day trip to an Elite Hunting Club hostel in Slovakia.

It’s a disconnect that Farrier plays up throughout the eight episodes of Dark Tourist, which see him seeking out some of the world’s most disconcerting travel experiences. In Mexico City, while reporting on a sinister-sounding cult that worships death, Farrier jokes about a noisy exorcism drawing complaints from the neighbors. At a World War II reenactment in England, he refers to people who dress up as Nazis as “a pretty big, swastika-wearing elephant in the room.” Intermittently, Farrier offers up some half-hearted bromides to justify his misadventures. After injuring his hand in Turkmenistan and being injected with ketamine by doctors who appear not to tend to his wound at all, Farrier concludes, “Sometimes … dark tourism is the total realization of just how good I’ve got it back home.”

Is that what dark tourism is? An opportunity for thrill-seeking, cash-privileged Westerners to feel better about their mundane lives by trawling through global hot spots of genocide, catastrophe, and authoritarianism? In the first episode of Dark Tourist, Farrier categorizes the practice he’s investigating (or indulging in, it’s never entirely clear which) as “holidays in war zones, disaster sites, and other offbeat destinations.” That latter clause ends up doing a lot of work on the show’s behalf, because Dark Tourist, it transpires, is less often a travelogue than a voyeuristic trip into the grimmest regions of the human psyche. Serial killers, vampire cults, white separatists, oppressive warlords, haunted-house sadists—all feature in Farrier’s bumbling, affable narratives.

But there are other stories too, and that’s where the show’s hazy self-definition becomes troubling. It’s easy to comprehend the “darkness” in white South Africans prepping for a biblical race war, or in a dollar-store cult leader in New Orleans who drinks human blood, or in a military-run shooting range in Cambodia where tourists can pay to blast live animals with rocket launchers. But when Dark Tourist visits a remote part of Indonesia known for its elaborate funeral rites, or a life-size Noah’s Ark in Kentucky, or a part of Mexico City where a death saint is revered, the show’s framing takes things that are strange or simply unfamiliar and implies that they’re sinister. The best travelogues—Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown in particular—emphasize connection, despite language, despite difference. Dark Tourist does the opposite. It seeks out places and people who are bizarre, unusual, or just downright tacky, and it urges you to recoil at them.

Toward the end of the first episode, Farrier goes on a tourist experience by the Mexico-U.S. border, which offers an immersive re-creation of what it’s like to try to cross into America illegally as a migrant. The trip starts in darkness, as the group is screamed at by the masked man running the show, and proceeds as the dark tourists cross treacherous terrain, keeping eyes out for people pretending to be armed robbers and border-patrol officers. “It’s a weird role-playing experience that for six madcap hours allowed us to slip in and out of a very different reality,” Farrier narrates in voice-over. “At times it was entertaining … but in the end I got the message. For real migrants this is never fun.”

It’s a conclusion that feels more like a disclaimer than a genuine moment of self-awareness. When it isn’t pursuing the macabre, Dark Tourist is all about trying other people’s tribulations on for size. In the second episode, Farrier and a tour group visit an irradiated Japanese ghost town deserted after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. While the government has officially declared the town safe, Farrier explains, its former inhabitants aren’t in a rush to return. As the tour moves through the area, the Geiger counters the tourists hold register shockingly high levels of radiation around them, to the point where they finally seem uncomfortable. “Suddenly nuclear tourism doesn’t seem like such a great idea,” Farrier quips.

The term dark tourism was coined in 2000 by two academics, John Lennon (not that one) and Malcolm Foley, who together published a book investigating the increasing prevalence of “tourist interest in recent death, disaster, and atrocity.” While pilgrimages to historical sites involving death have long played a role in tourism, they write, the late-20th and early-21st centuries saw a surge in curious travelers intentionally seeking out what the sociologist Chris Rojek characterizes as “fatal attractions.” In 2011, the British comedian and writer Dom Joly published a book called The Dark Tourist, in which he detailed his travels to unconventional locations including Chernobyl and North Korea.

Although Joly’s book bears notable conceptual similarities to Dark Tourist (so much so that he complained bitterly about the show on Twitter), Joly’s attitude toward dark tourism is slightly different. On his travels, he recounted for The Independent, he realized that “all these places that were supposedly off-limits or dangerous were always fascinating and often incredibly good fun,” almost entirely because of the people he met. Dark tourism for Joly wasn’t about visiting difficult places in the world and grimacing at their horror; it was realizing that “human life always survived and often flourished under the most extreme of circumstances.”

In rare moments, Dark Tourist (the show) summons some sense of this appreciation for how resilient people can be. On a bicycle tour of the Alexandra township in South Africa, Farrier gets off to a bad start by focusing on the area’s reputation for gun crime, and tells his guide (who lives there) that he’s never been on a “slum tour” before. Then, realizing his rudeness, he apologizes profusely. He spends time getting to know a local named Stacey who’s a star in the extreme sport of spinning, and he expresses admiration for how Alexandra residents have created such a “vibrant and unique community.” But the segment’s brevity—most places Farrier visits get about 10 minutes a show—doesn’t allow for more than a superficial teachable moment.

More often, Dark Tourist treats its subjects like curios in a junk shop, casually examining them from different angles and then discarding them. Visiting Myanmar—in an episode that somehow makes no mention whatsoever of the regime’s human-rights abuses and persecution of Rohingya Muslims—Farrier tours the new $5 billion capital city and finds it disappointingly pristine. In a white-separatist town in South Africa called Orania, he interviews visitors who praise the community’s “culture,” and how “clean and safe” it is, but he declines to press them further on what they’re actually appreciating. His offscreen narration is limited to the flimsiest of platitudes (“On this trip I’ve flirted with radiation, desolation, and death … and somehow it’s made me even more happy to be alive”), rather than the nuanced, difficult context that’s required.

Foley and Lennon theorize that there are several major reasons why dark tourism is flourishing. One is the desire to better understand and connect with history, which is why people visit battlefields and concentration camps. Another is a subconscious desire to get closer to death for people from Western cultures that are increasingly removed from it. Farrier eats meat, but he cringes when animals are slaughtered in front of him. In Toraja, Indonesia, he watches as corpses are lovingly unwrapped and redressed in front of him, remarking that one is the first dead body he’s ever seen. It’s a moment of accidental insight that the series declines to excavate.

What’s more characteristic of Dark Tourist is a ghoulish but superficial kind of thrill seeking, as Farrier chats with Charles Manson’s best friend, and with Pablo Escobar’s assassin, and with the proprietor of a John F. Kennedy death tour who insists he’s a historian. The show seeks these people out, it hints, not because they have worthwhile things to say, but because this is what viewers want to see. We, after all, are the people watching a Netflix documentary series about the most supposedly bizarre, grotesque, and disturbing places in the world. Dark Tourist is just another guide on the trip, cashing in on people’s morbid curiosities without caring what real wisdom it could impart if it tried.