In Kent Russell’s wild yarn, “The Disaster Tourist,” the gonzo journalist enlists the tour operator that was showing Otto Warmbier around North Korea when the doomed American was thrown in jail. With his fellow thrill-seekers, Russell embarks on a “profoundly stupid—nay, monumentally irresponsible” trip to Chechnya and the diplomatically unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, conflict zones where Americans are definitely not supposed to go. Their goal: to “experience something so transformative that we just might return home an improved version of who we were when we left.”
As Russell notes, he isn’t the only one out to “indulge morbid curiosity” by drinking homebrewed vine vodka in what our most-eloquent president might call a shithole country. So-called adventure tourism grew to become a $263 billion by 2012, and it’s now the subject of an engrossing docuseries, Dark Tourist.
The new series, hitting Netflix this Friday, is directed by David Farrier, a New Zealand journalist best known for Tickled, a riveting documentary that uncovers the dark, fetishistic underbelly of “competitive endurance tickling” videos. As with that film, Farrier narrates Dark Tourist and serves as its on-camera straight man, lumbering through some of the world’s most morbid and dangerous locations like a swashbuckling successor of Anthony Bourdain– equally tall but a bit more dorky. Farrier’s delivery is deliciously deadpan. “I’ve never been to a shop that sells dried puppy heads before,” he observes before watching a chaotic, blood-soaked voodoo ceremony in Benin, West Africa.
Farrier realizes there’s a fine line between exploration and exploitation, and he often questions his own motives–as well as those of his fellow tour group members– as he takes a Jeffrey Dahmer tour of Milwaukee with a group of women who are attracted to “bad boys,” or wanders the Japanese “suicide forest” that got Logan Paul into so much trouble. Visiting the Aokigahara forest in the series premiere, Farrier notices what appears to be the remains of a makeshift noose, and says he’s glad that’s all he found. Perhaps to avoid the sort of backlash that met Paul’s glib stunt, Farrier enlists the company of a woman who almost took her life in the forest. When she acts like she’s being attacked by a spirit, Farrier has to give her an awkward back massage. So much for deeper context.
There’s an ongoing debate about the merits of “ruin porn,” and some of the destinations in Dark Tourist are definitely the sort of places that might be featured in Viceland’s Abandoned series, or on the Atlas Obscura website. Japan’s Hashima Island was once one of the most densely populated areas in the world, but the 16-acre community of concrete high-rises was abandoned in the ’70s, when its underground mine was closed. Likewise, the once-thriving Cyprus resort town of Famagusta has been abandoned and fenced off since the Turkish army invaded it in the ’70s. Here again, Farrier consults a Greek woman whose family fled the beach town in terror. Urban explorers might call the abandoned high-rises “highly Instagrammable”; she considers the site “an exercise of your ability to withhold pain.” Despite the somber moment, Farrier doesn’t delve all that deeply into what happened here; his primary objective is to break into the forbidden zone. Even after being detained by police for three hours for filming the abandoned city from afar, he makes a last-ditch effort to cross into it while swimming, by attempting to duck under a floating rope that serves as the border. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well, although the stunt does make a point about the absurdity of borders.
This isn’t Farrier’s only encounter with authorities. During a trip to the so-called “difficult-to-return-to zone” near the Fukushima nuclear disaster site, Farrier isn’t content to stick to the bus tour. He darts away from his tourmates, who have been taking sexy selfies amidst the tragic landscape and freaking out over their Geiger counter readings, and nearly gets arrested while poking around in a blown-out video arcade. The arcade doesn’t look all that different from the accessible areas, but clearly a big part of dark tourism is the thrill of going where you aren’t supposed to. It’s exactly why Farrier seems nervous and giddy– even sweeping his hotel room for “bugs”– when, in one of the more visually striking episodes, he has to pose as a sports journalist in order to access the surreal, North Korea-esque hermit kingdom of Turkmenistan. As for doing things you aren’t supposed to, I’ll leave it to you to find out whether Farrier helps a Myanmar village slaughter the participants in a water buffalo fight. Or whether he kills a cow with a rocket launcher, which you can pay to do in Cambodia. (Cue Dead Kennedys.)
If some of Farrier’s adventures can be considered “epic” in the bro-iest sense of the word, others are a bit tamer. He takes a disco Kennedy assassination tour in Dallas, seated next to a forlorn Jackie O. impersonator; watches self-declared vampires politely suck the blood of their acquaintances in New Orleans; goes on the Manson trail in California; and participates in a World War II reenactment, complete with faux Nazis, in England (other reenactments there have since ditched the Nazis). (Then again, maybe I only consider these “tamer” because I’m an American.) The War and Peace Revival isn’t the only place where Farrier encounters swastikas; he also visits the Littledean Jail museum, whose proprietor has assembled tableaus that amount to a depraved version of Marwencol. Farrier doesn’t know how to react to the lampshade made of skin, and his feelings are similarly mixed when its owner puts him in touch with notorious British prisoner Charles Bronson. Farrier tells the so-called “most violent prisoner in Britain” that he seems like a “lovely, reasonable gentleman.” Likewise, while being led on one of Medellín’s many narco tours by Pablo Escobar’s onetime hitman, “Popeye” Velásquez, he catches himself laughing at a joke and tells Popeye, “You’re so likable, but you’re talking about cutting up bodies. It’s not funny.”
All of this is to say that dark tourism is a deeply paradoxical pursuit, and Farrier is perpetually walking a fine line. Since each episode consists of multiple locales, there’s only so much he can do to give them the deep attention they might deserve. Still, he does his best to pair the daredevil antics (eating fish from the “Atomic Lake” created by Russian nuclear testing) with more sobering experiences (a visit to an orphanage to see the apparent effects of lingering radiation). Don’t expect any revelations about the Mexican border crisis when a former coyote leads a group of paying customers through the desert during a six-hour simulation of a border crossing, complete with bandito and narco encounters. But then again, maybe that’s not really the point. “I’ve been forced out of my comfort zone and had my beliefs challenged,” Farrier says to close the first episode. “Yet somehow it’s made me more happy to be alive. Maybe that’s the whole point of dark tourism.”