Dark Tourism

Dark tourism is defined as tourism directed at sites, landmarks, or attractions associated with death or suffering - but it doesn't have to be all macabre and no education. We are nearing Halloween, as you know, and while the ghoulish sites may be on your list, these "dark" yet educational attractions might not. With your student group in mind, here are some of the most educational, informative, and mostly empathetic sites around the U.S. that qualify as "dark" tourism.

Ground Zero & other memorials

The site of one of our nation's greatest tragedies, Ground Zero was created as a beautiful memorial to the individuals who lost their lives in the 9/11 attack in 2001. There are a few other 9/11 memorials around the country, one being in Washington, D.C., but Ground Zero in New York City is the most famous, most poignant, and most heartbreaking as it was built on the site of the World Trade Center. The names of every single human being who perished in the attack are engraved around the memorial pools including the six who died during the 1993 attack at the same building.

Other memorials, many of which are located in Washington, D.C., are also highly recommended for any student group regardless of "dark" tourism. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is among the most visited as is Arlington National Cemetery, the WWII Memorial, and others.


People hold a fascination for incarceration and this comes in handy with Halloween tourism especially. There is definitely a darker side to prison histories and you can often choose which type of tour you'd like to take when visiting. Alcatraz in San Francisco is perhaps the most popular prison for tourism; here, tours run daily with ferry boats leaving every half hour and you have the option of doing a day or night tours, guided or self-guided, ghost tour or history-oriented. Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia is extremely important in the scheme of prison history as it literally coined the term "penitentiary" and designed a new system for how to treat inmates. It's also the site of a yearly haunted house set up within the prison walls and cells. Decide how you will enjoy touring the prison, you might just get spooked while you're there.

National Atomic Testing Museum - Las Vegas

An affiliate with the Smithsonian, the National Atomic Testing Museum is the only one of its kind to focus specifically on the atomic testing which occurred at the nearby Nevada Test Site. The museum covers everything from the first test event in 1951 to today's advances, documenting over 70 years of atomic testing with over 16,000 photographs and over 3,500 artifacts. Artifacts include Geiger counters, Native American artifacts from around the test sites, Cold War-era pop culture related to nuclear testing, and much more. There's even an exhibit on Area 51!

Mütter Museum - Philadelphia

Perhaps one of the most visibly dark attractions on this list, the Mütter Museum is dedicated to medical history and includes all of the disgusting, reprehensible practices once thought to advance the study of medicine. The museum is filled with historical artifacts, photographs, documents, and yes, human remains. Please be aware of this and know how your students will react to seeing human bones, skulls, and even the Soap Lady, a body exhumed in 1875 and unique in her unusual natural mummification. Permanent exhibits range in topic from medicine in the Civil War to glass slides encasing Albert Einstein's brain to a human skull collection. The museum is intensely interesting but can be disturbing to some.

Wounded Knee Museum & Site - Wall, SD

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, two incidents occurred between Native Americans and the U.S. government. In 1890, the Massacre at Wounded Knee ended in nearly 200 men, women, and children dead at the hands of American soldiers. This was an increasingly dark time for Native Americans in the U.S. and the malcontent escalated again in 1973 when roughly 200 protesters seized the town for 71 days, refusing to relinquish control at Wounded Knee. Today, you can visit the site of the massacre or learn more about the history at the Wounded Knee Museum in Wall, South Dakota.

Ford's Theatre & Petersen House - Washington, D.C.

You may remember the name Ford's Theatre from your grade school history lessons as the site of President Lincoln's assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. On that fateful night in April 1865, the President was shot and as physicians felt he couldn't survive the journey back to the White House, they took him to a boarding house, the Petersen House, across the street. Everything in the house has either been preserved or restored to how it looked as the President lay dying on the small twin bed. Both locations are open for tours and the Ford's Theatre, while also having an operating theatrical troupe, also has a small museum downstairs to peruse the history of the Lincoln assassination.

Pearl Harbor - Oahu, Hawaii

December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy bombarded the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, killing 2,403 Americans, injuring 1,178 others and destroying 188 U.S. aircraft. The attack pushed the United States into WWII with such force that retaliation for justice was inevitable, at nearly any cost. Pearl Harbor, during and after WWII, remained one of the main naval bases for the U.S.'s Pacific Fleet and has since become a national memorial park. The USS Arizona, a sunken battleship over which a beautiful memorial was built, is one of the most visited locations on Oahu. Other sites include the USS Missouri on which the Japanese signed the treaty of surrender, the USS Bowfin, and more.

Many people are skeptical about this form of tourism, and that's understandable. But there's a difference between capitalizing on someone's pain and paying respects, encouraging empathy and compassion, and remembering the legacy left behind in hopes of a better future.