Review: Dark Tourist

By John Ruberry

Twenty minutes into the first episode of a new Netflix series, Dark Tourist, not only did I ascertain what dark tourism is, I realized that I am a dark tourist. After all, I’m someone who has vacationed in Detroit. Twice. I’ve visited the most dangerous neighborhoods of Chicago. I’ve been to Gary, Indiana. Those jaunts are known as urban exploration.

Seeking out similar dangerous and notorious locations outside of cities, such as the radiation hot zone surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, the personality cult-driven capital of Turkmenistan, and the ghost resort town of Famagusta in Cyprus, where the Turkish army bans visitors–is what rounds out dark tourism.

Dark Tourist stars David Farrier, a nerdy journalist from New Zealand who nonetheless is, for the most part fearless, or perhaps I should say foolish. After all, Farrier, during his visit to the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan, swims in Lake Chagan, also known as “Atomic Lake,” which, as you can guess by its name, is radioactive. And he takes a bite from a fish caught there. Afterwards he at least has the good sense to down a shot of vodka.

Ferrier is a darn good reporter who asks what a cosmonaut calls “a profound question” about space travel at a pre-launch press conference.

There are dark tourism tours right under my nose. Several times a year my day job brings me to Milwaukee. But it never occurred to me to search out sites connected with cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. When Farrier was in Wisconsin’s largest city he connected with Dahmer devotees. Weird? Yes. What makes this situation very weird is that most of these fanatics are women. What do they see in this gay man who ate his murder victims? Why are bachelorette parties drawn to Dahmer?

The same episode sees Farrier in Dallas where there are Kennedy assassination tours, including one that employs a Jackie Kennedy impersonator.

How do you top these Dahmer and JFK tours? Why with a Charles Manson trip, of course.

Medellin, Colombia has a thriving Pablo Escobar dark tourism industry. As far as I know there are no Jeffrey Dahmer impersonators driving cabs in Milwaukee, but there is an Escobar reenactor cabbie who threatens to kill Farrier’s loved ones. Also in on the drug lord vacation racket is John Jairo Velásquez, whose nickname is “Popeye.” He claims to have murdered 257 people, including his girlfriend, who was recorded speaking with the DEA. Popeye has gone from killer to charismatic YouTube star.

One episode takes place in Africa. Predictably there is a voodoo sojourn in Benin. Then Farrier visits white nationalists in South Africa. They direct him to a group of Afrikaner survivalists.

There are plenty of disturbing and macabre bits, was well as some humorous ones, including Farrier embedding himself with a group of British men impersonating the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army participating in the world’s largest World War II reenactment, a dinosaur robot checks Farrier into a Japanese hotel, and Farrier is followed by his “guide” in Naypyidaw, the capital city of Myanmar.

The other Asian capital Ferrier treks to in Dark Tourist is Ashgabat in Turkmenistan. Both cities are beautiful–Ashgabat has been called the place where “Las Vegas meets North Korea”–but both are largely devoid of people. Turkmenistan is a dictatorship that has had two cult-of-personality leaders since the Soviet Union collapsed. Myanmar’s capital was founded in 2005 when that nation, now a struggling democracy, was a despotic state.

Blogger on a dark tourist trip in Detroit last year

Autocrats love buildings but not people. That’s a dark truth I learned while watching Dark Tourist.

Warning! There are unpleasant images and scenes in Dark Tourist. I dropped my plan to include the official Netflix trailer in this post because even that clip was too disturbing for a mixed audience. Dark Tourist is rated TV-MA.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.