Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Titanic and the strange world of Dark Tourism

titanic is everywhere you look this week - memorial cruises, rediscovered artifacts and live tweeting from the site of the wreck. it's an odd situation, ranging from somber memorial to thrilling clash with celebrity.

i had heard about Dark Tourism some time ago and had been looking for a chance to interview dr philip stone about his work on the subject.  he had some great ideas about why we are fascinated with titanic, and what ways we can think more deeply about ourselves in light of the darkness.

this is the article i wrote for the current edition of halifax magazine.

By Jon Tattrie

The last time Halifax marked the sinking of RMS Titanic, it installed an inflatable ship at the waterfront and invited children to recreate the moment of horror by sliding down the replica. Confused and excited by the sudden global interest in the dusty bit of marine history, the city erected billboards directing visitors to the “Titanic graves.” Tourists covered the tombstone of the previously obscure crewmember Joseph Dawson with flowers because he shared a first initial and last name with hero of James Cameron’s blockbuster movie, Titanic.

It was 1997, and it left us all with a bad case of mourning sickness.

Brace yourself: April 2012 marks the centenary of the disaster to which Halifax was accidentally, eternally connected. CNN, Fox and the Lonely Planet have all named Nova Scotia a must-see destination.
As cash registers around the world ring a solemn salute to the 1,517 victims of the sinking, what will Halifax get up to?

Titanic100.ca is the city’s official site. It promises to deliver “authentic, accessible” events and economic development, as well as festivals, concerts, upgrades to the graveyards and “Candlelight vigil/SOS distress fireworks.”

Ken Pinto is the man behind Titanic 100. In the past few years, he’s named-dropped Celine Dion coming to town and floated the idea of towing an iceberg into the harbour.  Both ideas have sunk and little is surfacing to replace them. Talking to the high-energy man with a manic mind, one gets the sense that he is surprised by how fast the iceberg is approaching, and how big it is.

Pinto, who abruptly left his post as executive director of the Atlantic Fringe Festival to take up the job with Titanic 100, has been handed about $200,000 in public funds to mark the anniversary.

“There’s going to be a Night of the Bells or Titanic Eve on April 14,” he says. “The next day there will be a spiritual ceremony in the Fairview Cemetery.”

A film festival and major conference have been rescheduled for the fall due to poor planning and a press conference in February failed to make clear what exactly will happen in April.
Pinto says Halifax is alone in feeling squeamish about tragedy as tourism. “We’re not celebrating, we’re commemorating,” he says.

Dark Tourism

Welcome to the strange world of Dark Tourism – visitor attractions connected to death and suffering. They can cause you to recoil in self-righteous disgust, or you can use them to shine light into the Mariana trenches of the human condition. 

Dr Philip Stone is a professor at University of Central Lancashire and the executive director of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research. His PhD is in Thanatology, the study of society’s reaction to and perceptions of death and mortality. 

“People are fascinated by it,” he says. “Rubber-necking becomes a recreational activity.”

He notes that the real Titanic was largely forgotten in the decades after the disaster. It was only with the 1953 hit movie The Titanic that it began to morph from marine disaster to cultural phenomenon.

He says the Titanic cruises of 2012 mark a tipping point. “It means that the touristification of the Titanic is now complete. It’s taken 100 years, but it’s certainly now a tourism attraction,” he says.

Part of the attraction is sheer spectacle. The imagined image of Titanic half-sunk, its nose in the starry sky, shocks us with the ordinary in extraordinary circumstances. Think planes crashing into towers.  

Think Costa Concordia on its side.

But there are deeper issues. Dark Tourism sites are highly reflective. We stare at Titanic to see ourselves and our society, floating alone over an ocean of death. Stone suggests three ways we can study Titanic 100 that allow us to learn from it, and not feel we’ve exploited a tragedy.  

Titanic as Morality Play

“Just for fleeting moments, we take the dark tourism event and start questioning much broader issues of morality, ethics and politics,” Stone says.

The Occupy movement talked about the one per cent, an idea that played out 100 years ago on Titanic. In life, the wealthy few had a comfortable journey while the plentiful poor toiled below deck. When disaster struck, the rich were best positioned to escape, while the rest struggled to flee the bowels of the sinking ship.  

After the tragedy, boats sailed from Halifax to recover bodies. “Because they didn’t have enough embalming fluid, they actually sorted the dead out by social class,” Stone says. The first class passengers were embalmed and taken for burial, while those in third class or steerage were buried at sea.

“Even in death there is a hierarchy,” he says. “Largely, that hasn’t changed.”

Think of the Asian tsunami of 2004. Tens of thousands of locals died, but the focus was on western tourists: the global one per cent.

“The Thai [authorities] treated the dead tourists arguably better than they did the peasants. [Tourists] were put into cold storage, tagged and repatriated. The peasants were put into a mass grave. Modern-day tourists are treated as first-class passengers were on Titanic,” Stone says.

“We’re getting down to some really fundamental relationships with society.”

Titanic as Mortality Play

Death has largely been professionalized in the west. It happens in hospitals, not homes. Bodies are prepared by morticians, not loved ones. It’s possible to live a modern life and never see a human corpse.

Titanic allows us to talk about mortality, what it means, and how we deal with our own inevitable extinction. “We’re using people who have died and allowing them to become significant in our lives,” Stone says. “We take the plight of those who died and we start thinking about our own mortality and the lives we live.”

It allows time to grieve, to study grief, and to discuss how we can best live our lives until we hit the iceberg.

“It creates that safe, socially sanctioned space, and it becomes a new church,” Stone says.

Titanic and the New Priests

That new church needs new priests. Where once we turned to clergy to hear morality and mortality plays from the Bible, we now turn to the media to curate stories from real life.

That makes journalists and pop culture producers the “new priests.” It is we who select stories, frame them, interpret them, and bring them to a wider audience.

“We’ve become very secularized,” Stone says. “It’s not the priest on a Sunday afternoon anymore, it’s everybody coming together and commenting on whether this is good or bad.”

Think of it as crowdsourcing morality.

In Titanic, we praise the band for bravely playing as the ship went down. We shame the captain for hubristically hitting the iceberg. Take time during Titanic 100 to think about how the media selects stories, who it casts as heroes, and who it casts as villains.

“Most dark tourism sites are mediated first through the media and then, through a variety of factors, it becomes an attraction,” Stone says.


But if all that is too deep, don’t worry: Ken Pinto wants to build a 25-foot model Titanic to greet passengers at the Halifax airport.
Maybe we can convince him to build an inflatable Mont-Blanc. The Halifax Explosion reaches the 100-year milestone in 2017.


Other Titanic events this year:

A Titanic Memorial Cruise leaves South Hampton, England, on April 8 and mirrors the Titanic’s journey to the site of the wreck. It’s already sold out. Don’t worry: for $14,850, the Titanic Anniversary cruise will sail you from New York to float over the underwater grave, and then sail you to Halifax. For $59,990, you can book a spot on a submersible and visit the wreck itself.
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