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Dark Tourism: 6 Spots That Draw the Morbidly Curious

Rusted bumper cars sit abandoned in an amusement park in the ghost city of Pripyat, Ukraine. The entire city was evacuated on the afternoon of April 27, 1986, just 36 hours after the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, and is now a tourist destination. Francisco Goncalves/Getty Images

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Let's face it: death sells. Whether it's a tour of a former Nazi concentration camp detailing the horrors of the Hitler era or a jaunt through the Hollywood hills retracing the steps of the Manson Family murders, a growing assortment of "dark tourism" or "thanotourism" offerings are popping up for travelers who want to take their vacations down a notch or two.

"People have always gravitated toward the horrific," says Scott Michaels, the founder of Dearly Departed Tours in Los Angeles. The company has been offering a handful of celebrity murder tours for nearly 15 years.

Of course, having one of those murders portrayed on the big screen certainly can't be bad for business. Michaels was a consultant for "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," filmmaker Quentin Tarantino's ode to the old-time movie business. It is told through a slightly revised look at the Manson Family's bloody run-in with actor Sharon Tate at the Hollywood home she shared with director Roman Polanski. The success of that film has given Michaels and the folks at Dearly Departed a much appreciated boost in interest for their Helter Skelter tour.

They're not the only ones dabbling in dark tourism.

The relationship between tourism and death has become a mainstream research topic, according to a study published in August 2017 in the journal ScienceDirect, which looks at the differences between dark tourism and heritage, or historical, tourism and the ethical issues involved in both. Scientists don't exactly know why, but people seem to be drawn to certain places with dark histories and will even spend their vacation time to check them out.

Here are six of the most popular options for tourists with a taste for the dark side:

1. Khmer Rouge Killing Fields

The Khmer Rouge only ruled Cambodia for four years, but Pol Pot's Marxist regime used that period in the late '70s to kill off as many as 2 million people through murder, starvation and disease.

A sign asking tourists to stay off a mass grave at the killing fields of Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Malcolm P Chapman/Getty Images

The Killing Fields in and around Phnom Penh are the areas where the regime carried out much of the genocide and where they buried victims in mass graves. Choeung Ek — the largest of the fields, which sits just outside of the capital city — today serves as a monument to those whose lives were lost and a stark reminder of atrocities that occurred some four decades ago.

It is also meant as an educational tool, designed to ensure that history does not repeat itself. Over 800 people a day visit the killing fields today, disturbing the site and ignoring rules requesting silence and restricting the use of cameras.

2. Chernobyl

The site of the world's largest nuclear disaster has also seen a rise in attention from tourists, thanks to television. The HBO series about the tragic accident, in which radioactive material was pumped into the atmosphere for nine straight days, has fueled renewed interest in visiting the site.

A 19-mile (31-kilometer) exclusion zone has been largely sealed off to visitors in the three decades since the disaster. Now, the Ukrainian government wants to make it an official tourist site. That includes plans for a "green zone" for visitors.

Government officials have their work cut out for them. The site is still coated with radioactive material that some experts say could pose a risk to anyone who comes in contact with it.

3. Helter Skelter in Beverly Hills

Charles Manson was the leader of a quasi-cult commonly referred to as the Manson Family, a group of mostly female misfits and hippies in Southern California. Four members of the group broke into Tate and Polanski's Los Angeles home on Aug. 9, 1969, where they murdered the actress and four others.

The Polanski/Tate house in L.A., where five people were murdered by the Manson family in August, 1969. The house was torn down and a new one built on the site in 1994.
Flickr/George (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Beverly Hills house was long a destination for dark tourist thrill seekers, and the site still attracts the curious, despite that fact that it was demolished in 1994 and has since been replaced by a new house. The Dearly Departed tour tells the story of the victims, their murders and the bloody killing. It may also change the way some think about Manson, who is widely believed to have orchestrated the killings as part of his vision for some bizarre race war that he called "Helter Skelter."

4. Auschwitz Concentration Camp

More than 1 million people visit the site of Auschwitz, the former Nazi concentration camp in Oświęcim, Germany, each year.

The largest of the Nazi camps, Auschwitz was originally built as a detention center for Polish Jews after Germany annexed the country in 1939. Hitler's forces held as many as 60,000 mostly Jewish captives at a time there during the five years during which the camp was operational.

Today, Auschwitz serves as a memorial to Hitler's victims and an educational center. Nearly 300 licensed guides offer tours in 19 languages. There is an educational archive of historical documents and photographs, as well as an art museum devoted to prisoner and death camp-related art.

5. Murambi Technical School

As many as 1 million Rwandans were killed over a little more than three months in a 1994 genocide targeting the Tutsi ethnic group. The murders, orchestrated by the Hutu cultural elite, followed the assassination of President Juvénal Habyarimana. It was part of a civil war for control of the country that ended only after a Tutsi rebel group toppled the government.

The Murambi Technical School in the hills outside of Butare, Rwanda's second biggest city, initially served as a place of refuge for fleeing Tutsis. It turns out that they had been lured there for a massive killing. The school was eventually raided, resulting in some 45,000 deaths.

The school has since been converted into a genocide museum, telling the history of Rwanda, the civil war and the horrific slaughter of an ethnic community.

6. Hiroshima

The ruins of the former Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotion Hall, now called the A-Bomb Dome, which was destroyed by the atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945.
Elisete Shiraishi/Getty Images

More people died in an instant in Hiroshima than in any other mass killing in history. And while the city stands as emblematic of the absolute worst of man's inhumanity to man, the dark tourist sites that attract millions of visitors every year in Hiroshima are mostly devoted to education in the pursuit of a peaceful future for mankind. Tourists can visit the Peace Memorial Park and Peace Memorial Museum, as well as the A-Bomb Dome, which stands as a stark reminder of the tragedy that helped to bring about the end of World War II.

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