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Morbid tourism sites make lively business features

June 28, 2011

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Photo by Kelly Carr

Well, it had to happen sooner or later.

Perusing news reports about the Casey Anthony murder trial currently under way in Orlando, an article popped up with the news that “Casey Tours” would begin ferrying rubberneckers around to various locations that figure in the case in which a mother is charged with the mysterious 2008 death of her daughter, Caylee.

Apparently public censure has caused the operators to withdraw their plans, according to the latest update from Fox News in Orlando – which is something of a surprise given the popularity of other ghoulish entrepreneurial efforts.  From gangster tours in Chicago to ghost rides in Las Vegas to Savannah’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” tourism to the notorious celebrity grave and crime scene tours in California, entrpreneurs have long sought to make money by appealing to our prurient interests.  From the Lizzie Borden trial in the late 1800s — which was easily as well-publicized and written about as the O.J. Simpson trial of the late 1900s – to today’s “haunted New Orleans” walking tours, the seamier side of life always has had a business angle.

These days, the Lizzie Borden murder house in Fall River, Mass. is doing brisk business as a bed & breakfast, and many crime scene tours in Los Angeles wouldn’t be complete with a spin around the Simpson sites in Brentwood.

There’s even a name for it – thanatourism, otherwise known as dark tourism or even ‘fatal attraction.’  (The word is derived from the Greek for ‘death.’)   There’s a theory that human nature is attracted to the morbid side of life, and some people have no qualms about cashing in on it.   According to this blog post, Jim Morrison fans willing to fork out $10 can tour the late singer’s last U.S. residence, even snapping a picture of Morrison’s garage door or paying another $10 for a baggie of dirt from the premises – complete with certificate of authenticity.

With tourism season in full swing, it might be interesting to seek out some of your region’s more somber attractions.   Here’s a national directory of ghost tours, for example, which seem to flourish in even the most prosaic areas of the country.  (Why are there eight tours in Missouri, for example?) Who’s the audience for such things – probably more mainstream than many would anticipate – and what are the economics of running a darker tourist attraction?  What are the pitfalls and how does the marketing plan differ for a murder-scene B&B compared to those that feature rose gardens or sunsets as their main attraction?  What are the security concerns and other unique issues?

Here’s a (PDF) scholarly study from Australia about the pros and cons of thanatourism, with an eye toward managing the visitor experience and the effect on the local community.  Note the bibliography and references to “sensitive historic sites.”  It may be that if you don’t have a local draw for the morbid set — or the taste for conjuring a business feature from them — you may have a local attraction with legitimate historic interest that still requires careful handling – think shipwreck scene, battlefield, etc.  – and taking a look at the management of the site from that perspective could be an interesting angle.  How are mementos, souvenirs and licensing handled, for example?  What about private tours or even using a death site for private parties – SABEW recenetly had its Best in Business reception at the Book Depository where President Kennedy’s assassin took aim, for example.


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