Dark tourism is visiting places associated with death and suffering

With a new book in the making, photographer Rebecca Bathory takes David Hillier through her favourite dark tourism spots.

Fontanelle Cemetery, Naples, Italy

Some 40,000 bodies await at Fontanelle CemeterySome 40,000 bodies await at Fontanelle Cemetery
Rebecca Bathory
I really love this place. It opened in the 1500s and is home to something like 40,000 bodies, most of whom were deposited there during the 1656 plague and cholera epidemics of the 1830s.

In 1872, there began a conclusive cleaning and inventorying of the bones, led by Father Gaetan Barbiti. Over time, a cult arose where people would care for the skulls and name them, bringing them flowers and gifts. This ‘cult of the dead’ carried on until 1969 when a Cardinal decided it was unhealthy and sealed up the crypt. You can now book tours. It’s great. 

Pripyat, Ukraine

Abandoned gas masks in Pripyat, near ChernobylAbandoned gas masks in Pripyat, near Chernobyl
Rebecca Bathory
This is the town that was built for the workers of Chernobyl. It’s 3km (1.9 miles) away from the plant and its population of 49,000 was evacuated when the station erupted. There’s a 30km (19-mile) exclusion zone around it, meaning it’s forever frozen as it was in April 1986.

We found a kindergarten that had been converted into a laboratory. It was full to the brim with plastic bottles with little samples in them. I started taking photos, then my mate got a Geiger counter out and the radiation was off the charts. It was like: “Get out, now.”

They are really strict as to where you can go. The tours aren’t meant to take you into the buildings, but the last guide we had just drove us around and took us where we wanted to go. I paid a bit extra for that, though.

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, West Virginia, USA

The central stairs at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic AsylumThe central stairs at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
Rebecca Bathory
After an 8-hour drive, we arrived at the asylum around midnight and had to climb through an open window to get in. We decided to come back the next morning and left a door open to make it easier to re-enter, but when we returned at 5am it was locked. That was nerve-racking, so we didn’t stay around for long.

The trespassing rules are different in the US compared to the UK and Europe where they are more relaxed. In the US you’re trespassing even if you’re not breaking and entering. I have very strong principles and I would never break in, even if it’s somewhere I really want to go, I just find an open window or a door.

Paryhsiv, Ukraine

Evacuated after the Chernobyl disaster, Ivan and Maria returned to ParyshivEvacuated after Chernobyl, Ivan and Maria returned to Paryshiv
Rebecca Bathory
Ivan and Maria live in the village of Paryshiv near Chernobyl and are very much part of the tour. They were evacuated shortly after the explosion, but decided to move back in 1988. They make a small living through the tourists and are given money and food by the tour guides. They’re about 80 years old now and seem happy.

Herculaneum, Italy

Herculaneum was destroyed by the 79 AD Mount Vesuvius eruptionHerculaneum was destroyed by the 79 AD Mount Vesuvius eruption
Rebecca Bathory
Herculaneum is near Pompeii and was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79, along with Stabiae, Oplontis and Boscoreale. This picture was a bit of a naughty one: you’re allowed to take photos but they don't allow tripods.

There was a fence in the way of the skeletons to stop photos from being captured, so I waited patiently until the tourists had passed and hopped over the barrier and grabbed a handful of shots.

St Leonard’s Church, Hythe, England

St Leonard’s Church is one of only two ossuaries in the UKSt Leonard’s Church is one of only two ossuaries in the UK
Rebecca Bathory
St Leonard’s is one of only two ossuaries in the UK, holding around 1,200 skulls. There’s no firm evidence as to why the skulls came to be there but it is thought they’re from the 13th century.

The crypt is currently closed for renovations, but we just called the church. There was another couple that wanted to come and we were told that if we all came at the same time they’d open it for us. It’s still an active church, so the ossuary is locked on service days.

Church Of The Dead, Urbania

The mummified skeletons of Urbania’s Church Of The DeadThe mummified skeletons of Urbania’s Church Of The Dead
Rebecca Bathory
This is a tiny confined room inside a church where a little Italian guy was showing off these standing mummies. Though the tour was in Italian, you could still pick up on it: one mummy had died in childbirth, another had been murdered.

There’s one with a smock at the front, which I guess was put there for tourist value. You see this in a lot of places: they up the theatricalism to make it more exciting.

Denbigh Mental Asylum, Wales

Denbigh Mental Asylum housed Welsh paupers with mental health problemsDenbigh housed Welsh paupers with mental health problems
Rebecca Bathory
Denbigh is just massive, but it’s been left to rot and been stripped by looters and vandals. It opened in the 1840s to house mentally ill Welsh paupers who were receiving terrible treatment in British institutions.

It’s renowned for being a haunted building and we actually stayed the night in it. The TV programme Most Haunted Live! was filmed in one of the maternity wards, and they made a room with pentagrams and other silly things. We found that room and slept in it. It would have been cool to see a ghost but sadly it was just a room full of snoring guys.

Poveglia Island, Venice

Tangled plants have taken over Venice’s Poveglia IslandTangled plants have taken over Venice’s Poveglia Island
Rebecca Bathory
This is an amazing abandoned island near Venice where they took all the plague victims. Half the island is where they burned all the bodies. It’s all really overgrown now. Many Italians are really suspicious of Poveglia because they think it's haunted, so won’t go there. Luckily we found a lady on the internet who was willing to take us there - after we paid her a lot of money.

Highgate Cemetery, London

Highgate Cemetery is the resting place of Karl MarxHighgate Cemetery is the resting place of Karl Marx
Rebecca Bathory
Highgate was built in 1839 and run privately until 1970 when it hit financial issues. Slowly nature took over: growing over the gravestones as trees uprooted the stones. Then the vandals set in.

There are two parts to the cemetery, East and West, and there are roughly 170,000 people buried in 53,000 graves. The Victorians had a strong fascination with death, and it was normal for them to show their wealth by creating extravagant grave memorials for their loved ones, resulting in beautiful examples of Gothic architecture.

Many famous people have been buried in Highgate, including Karl Marx, Jeremy Beadle, Douglas Adams, William Rossetti, amongst many others.


Rebecca Bathory is currently working on a new photography book, Dark Tourism - The Beauty Of Death, which will be published by Carpet Bombing Culture. Find out more about Rebecca’s work at www.rebeccabathory.com.


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