Appeal of the dark

17 November 2017

© Mary-Ann Ochota

Noble or morbid? On The Why Factor (World Service, Monday of last week), Mary-Ann Ochota explored “dark tourism”

Noble or morbid? On The Why Factor (World Service, Monday of last week), Mary-Ann Ochota explored “dark tourism”

PETER HOHENHAUS has visited the sites of more than 700 atrocities. He has been to mass graves in Armenia and Poland, Rwanda and Bosnia, and has rated them on his website’s “darkometer”. The most ghastly get a rating of ten.

On The Why Factor (World Service, Monday of last week), Mary-Ann Ochota explored the appeal of “dark tourism”. Is the impulse a noble one, or simply morbid?

There is, believe it or not, an Institute for Dark Tourism Research, and its director reassured us that fascination with death — and, in particular, other people’s — had always been a human trait. If the Romans could take selfies, they would have been hugging dismembered Christians for the camera.

Predictably, the man from the Institute for Dark Tourism Research reckoned that there was more research that needed to be done into dark tourism.

Ochota tested her own tolerance for horror by visiting Auschwitz (darkometer score of ten) and recording her impressions. Thus we, as listeners, were treated to a kind of vicarious dark tourism: we were required to feel, at a distance, the desolation of that ghastly place. Ochota’s visit concluded, as so many do, with a little cry and an ice cream. And, in line with the BBC’s new “If you liked this, then why not try this” strategy, the continuity announcer then informed us that we might like to try other programmes on The Why Factor, such as episodes on serial killers.

The dark-tourism industry’s busiest season is around Remembrance, but there was nothing either mawkish or sensationalist about Radio 2’s offering, The Ballad of the Great War — 1917 (Saturday): an hour-long sequence of songs and eyewitness accounts from the trenches of Passchendaele.

Produced with ingenuity and an expert sense of pacing by Ian Callaghan and John Leonard, this was the fourth in an annual series in which memories of the Great War, gathered from the Imperial War Museum archives, are framed within newly composed ballad-style songs.


Part of the skill here is to maintain a freshness in the relentless narrative of destruction and misery; something that the producers managed by interpolating lighter “chapters”, as on the foibles of the officer class. “There’s pips upon his shoulder But he hasn’t got a clue” ran the song with the grim humour of Oh! What a Lovely War.

A horror of a different kind was revisited as the Radio 5 Live commentary team looked back at Pomnishambles: The inside story of the 2013-14 Ashes whitewash (Tuesday of last week). For anybody awaiting with trepidation the opening deliveries of the Brisbane Test in a few days’, then your nerves may not be up to be reminded how England collapsed to a five-nil defeat down under.

Of the many laughable episodes recounted here, perhaps the most bizarre is England’s team-building exercise, which involved playing a sophisticated version of hide-and-seek under the direction of the SAS. How driving around the Stafford ringroad in an unmarked car is useful in defending yourself against a Mitchell Johnson bouncer was left unexplained.

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