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.