Why Are We So Fascinated by the Locations of Death and Violence?

Illustration for article titled Why Are We So Fascinated by the Locations of Death and Violence?

Welcome to this week’s edition of Reading List, Gizmodo’s weekly gathering of fascinating science and technology stories from around the internet. This week, we’ll attend an Indonesian funeral, explore the darker side of tourism, and join an expedition to the unforgiving Greenland ice sheet.

  • What motivates people to visit sites of tragedy and atrocity? Whether it’s morbid curiosity, empathy, or schadenfreude, it’s fueling a multi-million dollar “dark tourism” industry. Sociologists and tourism experts are trying to understand what drives people’s interest in places known for death, violence, and sadness. [Motherboard]
  • Do you remember the Sports Illustrated football phone? One unlikely moment of inspiration led to a unexpected cultural phenomenon (and sold a lot of magazines). [Rolling Stone]
  • In many cultures around the world, the dead are still part of the family. Some traditions may seem morbid and taboo to Western eyes, but a closer look can teach us a lot about grief, love, and finality. [Motherboard]
  • Greenland’s ice sheets are melting as the air and sea around them get warmer, and we need better models to help us understand how melting Arctic ice will impact the rest of our planet. Gathering data straight from the cold, swift waters of Greenland’s ice-melt rivers could help us understand what’s happening inside the ice sheet in much greater detail. [New York Times]

Top image: Visitors at the World Trade Center Memorial, April 2015. Malcolm Manners via Wikimedia Commons.

Contact the author at k.smithstrickland@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter.

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My dad instilled a thorough love of true crime stories in me growing up, and I’ve since read numerous books on the subject, and had quite a bit of fun attending “ghost tours” (usually just a litany of sensational murders and public executions) and other historical walks that usually include one grisly tale or another. What can I say? It’s fascinating, and it feels disconnected with the present day. I’m not disturbed by it; I just gain a perverse thrill from gazing into the abyss, while safely beyond the passage of time.

Just this morning, I heard about some Bangladeshi secularist publishers who were hacked to death in their offices by religious extremists, and I didn’t have quite the same thrill hearing about it. Too close to home now.

My dad’s interest in the subject has persisted over the years, and in his capacity as a historical docent at a local railroad museum, he recently took some tourists on a walking tour of the nearby coal-mining infrastructure in the small town of Issaquah, Washington, east of Seattle. He told two grisly stories on this trip.

The first was of an opium den proprietor from the turn of the 20th century named Lum Joe, who seduced and subsequently murdered a 14-year-old girl, dumping her body in Elliot Bay, where it drifted down to Tacoma and was found months later. There were several more murders tied to this story - the key witness against Lum Joe was found with three bullets in him, and he was subsequently released, then stabbed to death by his wife during a domestic dispute a few weeks later.

The second story was presented differently. Later on, as we were walking past an old coal-mining road, he offered a brief disclaimer: This particular stretch of road has a rather grisly history, and some folks may find it a bit disturbing - so he would hold that story until the end of the hike, and anyone who didn’t want to hear it could leave. When we reached the end of the hike, the story (which not a single person departed without hearing) turned out to be of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, who had lured two women from nearby Lake Sammamish State Park into his van, driven them to that very spot, then killed them and dumped their bodies nearby.

I asked him afterward why he had warned the tourists over the second story, but not the first (which struck me as equally grisly and sensational), and he said that it was based on his experience giving the hike once previously, a couple of months earlier. Since the Bundy killings had happened in living memory for several of the older hikers on the tour, a few of them had told him afterward that they didn’t like being reminded of Issaquah losing its innocence like that, in their lifetimes. It all felt so recent and connected to the present day. As compared to the opium den story, which - if it weren’t reasonably well documented, would sound like the stuff of pulp horror stories (drugs! infidelity! underage sex! murder! more murder!).

So that’s my working theory. We can easily disconnect from historical murders, which paradoxically allows us to connect with them more easily. The old ones don’t feel like something that could happen today, even though they certainly still can and do.