You might be wondering, not unreasonably, what so-called dark tourism even is. I always thought it was a holiday to France, but Dark Tourist, the new Netflix Original documentary series by New Zealand’s David Farrier, stretches the definition so wide that it barely means anything at all.
In the simplest terms, dark tourism is the phenomenon of holidaying in places that are extremely odd, or, in some cases, might actually kill you – either immediately or several years after visiting. These are, for instance, the serial killer tours of Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson; grisly trails through Milwaukee and Los Angeles, replete with unpleasant details of the notorious madmen’s horrific crimes. It’s like a Butlins holiday, only slightly more upbeat.
And then there’s a jaunty tour through the ghost cities around the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, which are ostensibly safe to return to. Farrier’s clacking Geiger counter suggests that might be bullshit. The driver ferrying Farrier and his fellow dark tourists around says that a radiation level over 0.2 would be where he drew the line, at which point most of the travelers nervously realized that their personal meters were reading much higher. It takes a special kind of individual to visit a tourist hotspot where you don’t return with a souvenir, but potentially another head.
Other places – each of the eight episodes travels to three-or-so weird locations in a specific section of the world – feel less fraught with peril, and more like part of being a dark tourist is having journalistic access to places that are logistically out of reach. These are the weaker episodes of the season, as Farrier’s unparalleled ability to recruit outrageous tour guides or magically open otherwise-inaccessible doors can feel a bit artificial. There’s always a vein of morbidity running through proceedings, but there’s sometimes also a sense that Farrier is trying to use his own ignorance and bumbling personality to drum up excitement and interest where there wouldn’t otherwise be any.
All the best bits of Dark Tourist come when Farrier is visibly uncomfortable with what he’s being asked to do, and when he’s walking that line he’s a fantastic host, and the show is genuinely fascinating and compelling. Luckily this is quite often. His approach is usually the same: he starts each episode with a slightly different definition of what dark tourism is, then ventures into the most traditionally touristy local version of it, spiralling further and further into esoteric madness until, by the end of the 40 minutes, whatever definition he started with has been thoroughly mangled.
And you can tell what fascinates Farrier the most. He’s particularly into evacuated ghost towns, such as those in Cyprus and Japan, and his enthusiasm for that kind of eerily tourist-free adventure is infectious. When he’s less interested, his incredibly dry sense of humor works wonders on the conspiracy theorists, mad separatists and literal Nazis he’s forced to knock around with in places like South Africa and Virginia. Of course, they’re too stupid to realize he’s insulting them, but the audience (hopefully) isn’t.
If Dark Tourist feels like a slightly depth-averse version of something you might see from, say, British documentarian Louis Theroux (Farrier is explicitly compared to him at one point), then Netflix seems the ideal place for it. It’s occasionally frustrating that Farrier only rarely asks the burning question of why anyone would want to visit these places, and those instances in which he does always yield the most unexpectedly resonant or emotional moments. But I’m not entirely convinced that the question is even answerable in this format. Netflix’s recent success in this genre, with stuff like Wild Wild Country and Evil Genius, shows that there’s an audience who do want to go to places they otherwise wouldn’t. Shows like Dark Tourist can take them there without the need to salute the führer or go home with radiation poisoning – I think the appeal is pretty obvious.