My first experience with dark tourism was in 1986. We were moving from Alaska to San Bernardo California and my dad took me to the local library for a paperback book exchange. I was bored. Don’t misunderstand, I love reading and I love books. But I was 16.
He perused the turnstiles with musty paperback for a few minutes and then…I saw one that caught my eye…Helter Skelter.
Me: What’s Helter Skelter?
Dad: It’s about the Manson murders
Me: who’s Manson?
And that was my introduction to Charles Manson and the grisly murders of the Summer of 1969
By the time we reached San Bernardo I’d finished the book and I was a true Manson junkie. And…I couldn’t help but notice we were suddenly living an hour from Los Angeles and Manson’s ground zero.
We didn’t go to L.A. until early fall, and we technically didn’t go to visit Manson sites. We hit the Museum of Natural History, the Hollywood walk of fame, and Mann’s Chinese Theater, all sites that would normally thrill me. But I had a hidden agenda…
I waited until we were done with the touristy stuff to spring it on them….
“Ya know, we’re like super close to where Helter Skelter began…?”
They argued…’we don’t even know the address’. Yah, we do, 10050 Cielo Drive. It’s been burned into my memory since June! We drove around Beverly Hills for an hour. I suggested we stop for directions, I suggested we buy one of those handy-dandy maps they sell on every street corner, but no. I’m 90% certain he didn’t actually want to find Sharon Tate’s house, because it turns her house is a mere 19 minutes from where we started!
Tourism in any capacity plays on our natural voyeuristic tendencies. We crave the unknown. But I think for most middle-class, middle-Americans who live relatively boring but altogether safe lives, we want to see the darker side of humanity to remind us of how good we have it. And it’s possible there’s a disbelief when you read headlines about psychopaths dismembering people. Thankfully, we don’t see that kind of thing every day, so it’s surreal when we hear about it. There’s also a real sense of adventure when you can touch a bit of history where atrocities took place, from the safety of the present.
The idea of dark tourism has existed for decades, maybe even centuries. From crowds watching gladiators fight to the death in the Coliseum, to the nightly news, death and destruction have always been marketable because we’ve always been mildly obsessed with them.
In 1991 all of Knoxville Tennessee was obsessed with the ‘Zoo Man Murders’. The Zoo Man was identified as Thomas Dee Huskey, an elephant trainer at the Knoxville Zoo. Huskey would pick up prostitutes, take them behind the zoo and have sex with them. During the trial, he confessed his alter ego, ‘Kyle’ took four prostitutes to a dead-end road in east Knoxville, had sex with them and then strangled them. He was convicted of rape, but the murder charges were overturned by the state supreme court because of mistakes by the police.
The site where Huskey killed his victims is less than two miles from my parent’s house. We were living in Texas at the time and my mom was updating me on the case. So, when I went home to visit the next time, I drove out that dead-end road and walked around.
There’s nothing to see now, the base of a billboard and some overgrown weeds. But if you’ve ever visited a ‘dark’ site you know it’s often more about what you feel than what you see. And it felt weird! Even during daylight hours, it’s surreal to be there and know four women were murdered just feet from where you’re standing.
I’d heard the first body was found tangled in some old clothes behind the sign. The police found three more bodies when they entered the shrubs. I couldn’t bring myself to leave the pavement. I knew it was safe. I knew he was in jail and the bodies were gone and the entire area had been scoured for evidence. But I couldn’t walk beyond the billboard and touch death that closely.
Maybe what we like about dark tourism is that we get to decide how close we get to death, and far we keep it from us.