Pripyat abandoned fairground near Chernobyl

Book review: ‘Atlas of Dark Destinations’ by Peter Hohenhaus

Image credit: Tetyana Kochneva/Dreamstime

Exploring the macabre world of dark tourism.

Peter Hohenhaus’s ‘Atlas of Dark Destinations’ (Laurence King Publishing, £25, ISBN 98719194719 4) would make a good Christmas present for a serious person with an interest in history, including the history of technology. It was probably a mistake, however, to release it at the tail-end of October, in time for Halloween, and to make it look like a collection of horror stories. A funereal front cover, with the title in bright Gothic red against the pitch-black background; a subtitle mentioning ‘dark tourism’ - what is this? Tourism after dark, like looking for the Aurora Borealis in Iceland?

Contrary to the impression created by the cover design, this is much more than just a spooky Halloween read. It does not so much scare you as make you think. In my case, it made me commiserate again at having had the misfortune to grow up under a social order that was the source of quite a lot of the world’s ‘darkness’.

The back cover, featuring an aerial view of a sunlit townscape with a merry Ferris wheel in the foreground, seems at first glance to be in stark contrast with the grim, almost moribund, front one. But take a closer look. The photo is of Pripyat, the ‘dead city’ three miles from the unfortunate Ukrainian town of Chernobyl whose whole population was hastily evacuated several days after a nuclear disaster, when for many it was already too late.

I happened to visit Pripyat several years after the explosion and will never forget its crumbling apartment blocks, its streets and squares, hardly visible beneath the shroud of wild bush and ivy, and the deserted fun fair with its rusty Ferris wheel squeaking mournfully as it was stirred by the wind, as if lamenting all the suffering that reckless humankind had unleashed on itself.

Yes, another sad conclusion the reader of this Atlas is bound to come to is that, alongside totalitarian states, another creator of ‘dark places’ and the resulting human tragedies has been technology. Technology that either seriously malfunctioned, or was specially designed for destruction.

The section covering Great Britain opens with descriptions of two gruesomely familiar sites - Dounreay and Sellafield - closely followed (for reasons I find hard to comprehend) by Bletchley Park, which I have always perceived as a positive and inspiring place, where Nazi secret codes were broken, hastening the end of the Second World War. Maybe the Atlas’s compiler had in mind the tragic (and truly dark) fate of the Enigma machine inventor Alan Turing? Alas, Turing’s tragedy is not mentioned in the long Bletchley Park entry.

Another issue I’d take up with Hohenhaus is his grading of places featured in his Atlas. Every site is graded by stars - from one to five - in the manner pioneered by the great German guide book writer and publisher Karl Baedeker. Yet, whereas Baedeker gave his stars mostly to hotels and later to nature walks and views, Hohenhaus, who seems to have gathered a good deal of his material on the internet, (“as the research for my website,” as he puts it), uses stars to indicate a ‘dark rating’.

This assessment of each site’s level of darkness and scariness is done in a rather arbitrary manner. Bletchley Park, for example, has five stars and a dark rating of 2. The notorious KGB-controlled upper floor of Tallinn’s hotel Viru, now a museum, stuffed with listening devices to eavesdrop on guests’ conversations and other spying equipment, has been given three stars and a dark rating of 5.

This approach leads to some gruesome, and at times offensive, trivialisations. The Auschwitz extermination camp near Krakow is awarded five stars and the maximum dark rating of 10. At the same time, Babiy Yar, the site near Kiiv where almost 200,000 people (the Atlas puts the number at 100,000), mostly Jews, were executed and their bodies dumped into a ditch gets two stars and a dark rating of 6 - lower than that of the Kurchatov ghost town in Kazakhstan which gets 7.

Babiy Yar, where several of my own distant relatives perished, is one of the most poignantly tragic, and indeed ‘darkest’, places I’ve ever seen. Any tourism-related rating, or ‘starring’ of places like this and Auschwitz is not just tactless, but totally unacceptable, and seriously damages the appeal of what is otherwise an excellent book - informative, well-written and richly illustrated. I hope that the stars indicating ‘tourist attractiveness’ and dark rating scores illustrated small human skulls are abolished in future editions, along with the whole approach of ‘tragedy rating’.

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