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10 of the World’s Most Macabre, Creepy & Tragic Tourist Destinations
By Debra Kelly,
Urban Ghosts Media, 23 June 2015.

For some people, vacation means fun in the sun, white sandy beaches, and perhaps cocktails on the beach. For others, though, holidays mean something very different. There’s a dark side to tourism, and some locations are so bleak that visiting them is being dubbed ‘thanatourism’, after the Greek word for ‘death’. People choose grim, haunting, stuff-of-legends-and-nightmare travel destinations for myriad reasons, from remembering atrocities to facing our own mortality, or connecting with those who’ve gone before. This article highlights 10 dark travel destinations around the world, each with its own eerie, tragic and macabre tale to tell.

1. The Leper Tree, Malawi

Image: © Photo​s​ by Edrich Schafer as published in

There are many reasons to visit the African nation of Malawi. It’s called the Land of the Lake, full of sandy beaches, lake-shore resorts and wildlife preserves. And it’s on one of those preserves - Liwonde National Park - that you’ll find the Leper Tree.

Image: © Photo​s​ by Edrich Schafer as published in

From a distance, it looks like any other tree. But for generations, the hollowed-out trunk has been the final resting place of locals suffering from leprosy. According to traditional belief, a person who has died from leprosy can’t be buried in the ground, or their disease will infect the soil and continue to spread. Those that visit the park and stop to see the Leper Tree are told by their guides to look down, inside its hollow heart, where the bones of the dead still lie, unburied, skulls staring up to the wide African sky.

Image: © Photo​s​ by Edrich Schafer as published in

It’s not an ancient practice, either. As late as the 1950s, one tribe found itself in the midst of an outbreak of leprosy. They gathered their dead and took them to the tree. Then, they gathered their living, too - the ones that were sick - binding their hands and forcing them into the middle of the tree also. A single small marker serves as a reminder that the beautifully twisted baobab, standing at the base of Chinguni Hill, isn’t just a tree, but a grave.

2. The Capuchin Catacombs and Rosalia Lombardo, Sicily

Image: Sibeaster

The Capuchin Catacombs, deep beneath Sicily, are arguably one of the world’s most macabre tourist attractions. The entrance, characterized by a nondescript building and a ticket seller, looks eerily ordinary. But in the subterranean world below, the air is filled with a dry, rotten smell, and for good reason. These are the crypts, the final resting place of about 2,000 decaying corpses. The catacombs are, for many visitors, a first glimpse into the realm of the dead.

Image: Sibeaster

In truth, though, no one really knows how many there are - the first body was interred there in 1599. There are monks, of course, and soldiers still dressed in the rotting remains of their uniforms. Elsewhere, dead women endure, clothed in the fashions popular at the time of their deaths. There are separate rooms for virgins, priests and others, while the bodies of deceased children chillingly resemble dolls dressed for a party.


One is so well-preserved that, at a glance, it’s possible to believe that she might have wandered away from a tour group and fallen asleep in this grisly place. Rosalia Lombardo (pictured above) was two when she died from pneumonia in 1920. Her father hired one of the most famous embalmers to preserve her and, today, she still looks hauntingly alive.

Image: Habanero666

For decades, no one knew just how the embalmers had managed to create a formula that would keep the little girl’s body looking much as it did in life. In 2009, an anthropologist stumbled across the notes of Alfredo Salafia, the man responsible for Rosalia’s preservation. His handwritten notes record the formula - zinc salts, alcohol, formalin, glycerin and salicylic acid.

3. The Towers of Silence, Iran


There are no bodies or bones at the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence; at least, not any more. In use until the 1970s, the towers are circular buildings sitting on the Iranian plain, used for one of the most important cleansing rituals practiced during ancient burials.

Image: Adam Jones

The bodies of the dead were taken to the the Tower of Silence by those specifically tasked with dealing with the deceased. While friends, family and loved ones mourned from below, bodies were placed in their appropriate circle within the walls of the tower. The innermost circle was for the children, the outside one for men. There, the bodies would rest, their bones picked clean by birds of prey. With flesh gone and bones cleaned, the same people who had taken the bodies to the top of the mountain would dispose of the bones in a central well.


Use of the towers outside the city of Yazd was only banned in the 1970s and it’s impossible to tell how many people were buried in that deep, seemingly-bottomless well. One of the oldest, continuously occupied cities in the world, Yazd and its province are home to five such Towers of Silence.

Image: Poida Smith

According to Zoroastrian belief, death is the final evil and, as such, the dead cannot touch the good, represented as the four elements. A body is unfit for burial until it’s been cleaned by the birds. The process is also seen as the dead’s final act of selflessness, giving their flesh to nourish another.

4. Isla de las Munecas, Mexico


If there’s any place on earth to make even the most stout-hearted person think there might be something to the world’s creepiest myths and legends, it’s the Isla de las Muncas. A small island off the coast of Mexico, it was never supposed to be on anyone’s list of tourist destinations. Dolls can be creepy in their own right, but these dolls are especially eerie. They sit in the trees and hang from the branches, staring out over the beautiful island with vacant, unblinking eyes.


Unless, that is, you believe the stories. According to local legend, those who pay close attention to the dolls will start to see their eyes and limbs move. And though these stories seem highly unlikely, Isla de las Munecas is one of those places where the truth is even darker than the legends.

Image: Troels Myrup

Don Julian Santana Barrera had been the caretaker of the island when he came across the drowned body of a young girl. Unable to save her and not knowing why she had met her tragic fate, he never forgot the girl. On the contrary, he turned the island into a lasting tribute to her. It began with a doll he found floating in the water not far from where her body had been discovered. Thinking it may have belonged to her, he placed the doll in a tree, just in case the dead girl’s spirit should return.


More and more dolls joined the first one. According to the story, Barrera kept adding them in an attempt to appease the spirit. After five decades of collecting dolls and hanging them in the trees around the island, he too died. His body was found in 2001, supposedly in the same place that he had found the dead girl. Separating fact from fiction is difficult in the case of Isla de las Munecas. But the Island of the Dolls is certainly a creepy, if slightly indirect, example of thanatourism.

5. The City of the Dead, Russia

Image: Ahsartag

A trip to Dargavs, the City of the Dead in North Ossetia will transport you way out into the middle of nowhere. It’s a popular thanatourism destination as spots in the middle of remote Russia go, but those that do make the three-hour drive from civilization find an eerie place steeped in myth, legend, folklore and death.

Image: Alex Svirkin

On the approach to the village of Dargavs, you’ll see a collection of white houses dotting the hillside. They’re not houses, though, they’re crypts. Every family in the region has a crypt, with some in use since the 16th century. Today, there are more than 100 of these ‘little houses’, earning its apt reputation as a City of the Dead.

Image: Rartat

Many myths and legends accompany the city of the dead, too. In the 18th century, a plague swept through the area. In order to contain it, it was said those that became sick were taken to their crypt before they were dead, given food but otherwise uncared for until they succumbed to the disease. Many of the bodies inside the crypts are sitting in boats, suggesting that in order to get to heaven, they needed to cross a river.

Image: Alex Svirkin

Each crypt has a well beside it, and the story goes that once someone was buried, a loved one would drop a coin down the well. If it hit a stone at the bottom, that person’s soul had been accepted into heaven. Other crypts lie away from the main group, off-limits to most. That’s where the criminals were buried.

Image: Rartat

And, chillingly, the last surviving member of a family, or those with no one to bury them, may simply take themselves to the crypt and wait to die. Another legend, meanwhile, holds that those who visit the city of the dead may find death themselves, and never return.

6. The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, Cambodia

Image: Adam63

Between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge killed about 21 percent of the Cambodian population. Today, there’s a vast variety of popular tourist destinations in Cambodia - ranging from Angkor Wat on one extreme to the grim Killing Fields, about nine miles outside of Phnom Penh.


Look closely, and the Killing Fields betray their bloody past even today. Cattle graze there, and sometimes, after the rain, their movement turns up bones. The sunken areas are mass graves. The trees that surround the field were used for hangings. The Khmer Rouge operated on a dual principle of genocide and saving bullets, meaning that many of their victims were beaten to death. Babies were disposed of at the bashing tree.

Today, a stupa stands in the middle of the Killing Fields, and the remains of 8,000 dead are on display at the site. That’s just some of the estimated 20,000 people that died there in a matter of only a few years.

Image: Quadell

And because it wasn’t that long ago, many of the guides who now show tourists through the fields have personal stories to tell, memories of the Khmer Rouge, and how they escaped. Or how their friends and families perished. Many bear the scars, some are missing limbs, taken by land mines. For some, telling their story is cathartic, a way to come to terms with the past, and to make sure that the atrocities committed there won’t be forgotten. Others sell their stories to tourists to make a living, too broken to do much else.


The Killing Fields are made even more eerie by the scenes of normalcy that surround them. There’s a school nearby, suburban lawns, palm trees. But the sunken areas of mass graves, and the skulls that keep eternal watch means there’s no way to mistake this place for anything but what it was.

7. Tuol Svay Pray High School, Cambodia


Many of the people whose lives ended on the Killing Fields were first held at the Tuol Svay Pray High School. It still looks like a school. But in 1976, the Khmer Rouge turned it into a torture and execution centre. Interrogators sat at school desks, shackles are still fixed to steel-frame beds. Pull-up bars were turned into torture devices. Classrooms were divided into cells.


There are photos there, too. In order to prove that orders had been carried out, everything was thoroughly documented. One wall in the old school, which has now been turned into a museum, is papered with thousands of photos of the men, women and children held there. Mothers hold their babies, shirtless men have their identification numbers pinned to their skin. Children are terrified. By the time the prison and photos were discovered (there were about 6,000 photos and 20,000 pages of documentation), the images were badly damaged and separated from their files, rendering the prisoners nameless, identified only by the numbers pinned to them.


Other photos show the suffering inflicted in the classrooms of Tuol Svay Pray High School, all guided by Khmer Rouge torture manuals. Those manuals discouraged torture to the point of what they called a ‘loss of mastery’ - or, in other words, death. Guards and interrogators that worked at the prison were mostly brainwashed boys between 15 and 19-years-old.

This former high school, which became S-21 Prison, is now the site of the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. Much as it was when abandoned, the museum serves to ensure those who died there - and later, in the Killing Fields - are not forgotten.

8. Goree Island and the Door of No Return, Senegal

Image: Bess Sadler

April 22, 1441. It was a Friday. It was also the day that the first Europeans landed on Goree Island. A small island off the coast of Senegal, it would become the gateway between freedom and slavery.

Image: Bess Sadler

Over the next three centuries, an estimated 20 million people passed through Goree Island on their way to a new life - a life of slavery. The island was developed as a holding centre for those taken from their homes, awaiting ships that would take them to the New World, South America, and the Caribbean. Families were separated while the sick and weak died. Above the dark cells where people sat chained and terrified, others held extravagant balls and danced the night away.

Image: Bess Sadler

Girls were separated from the women, because girls would bring a better price. Men were weighed - those that weighed less than 60 kg (132 lbs.) were sent to separate cells and fed beans to bring their weight up, and thus ensure they too fetched a higher price. Balconies and staircases looked down into the pits, where traders could discuss the merchandise without getting too close.

Image: Bess Sadler

Goree Island was ruled first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, the English and the French. Today, the island remains open as a reminder of a tragic past, of abuses and injustices delivered during dark times. The buildings of the slave trade still stand, including fortresses, cells, and squares. There’s also the Door of No Return, through which every person passed to board a ship that would take them away from their homeland forever.

9. The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft, Iceland

Image: Jonathan

There are lots of strange museums, but as far as dark, creepy places that’ll leave you sleeping with the light on at night, the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft is a surreal example. For centuries, Iceland boasted a rich history of not just witchcraft, but of folkloric beliefs that, in later years, mingled with Christianity to become an even stranger sort of belief system. And there are plenty of relics on display at the museum that don’t just offer visitors a history, but show how terrifying the idea of sorcery really was.


There are necropants, which are even more disturbing than they sound. Made from the flayed skin of a dead friend (removed only with their permission and in a single, complete piece) and worn by the sorcerer, they’re said to also come with a supply of endless wealth. And then there’s the tilberi, which is a two-headed worm, created from a dead man’s rib, fed church wine and wrapped in wool. Once brought to life, it was supposed to steal milk from one’s neighbour’s goats.

Image: Hljod.Huskona; example of a heathen alter.

The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft also exhibits graphic information on Icelandic beliefs about raising the dead, which involve the usual poetry, spells and walking through the graveyard, but turns even darker with a fight against the risen dead man and licking off all the liquids leaking from his face in order to get him under your control. There’s even a skeleton emerging from the floor of the museum, illustrating the influence of the supernatural throughout Icelandic history and folklore.

10. Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre, Rwanda

Image: Milo Hensley via YouTube

At one time - and not so long ago - this site belonged to the Murambi Technical School. On April 21, 1994, thousands of Tutsi refugees headed to the school, where they had been promised safety. Instead, militia and civilians alike descended, many armed with axes and machetes, and killed between 27,000 and 50,000 men, women and children. The Murambi Genocide Memorial isn’t a list of names on a wall, and it was designed to be shocking. Gruesome. Real.

Image: Milo Hensley via YouTube

Glass cases line the walls, containing skulls, most of which show the holes of the killing blow. Mass graves were exhumed and the bodies that hadn’t decomposed completely were returned to the centre, preserved in lime, and laid on wooden racks. The guides know some of their stories, pointing to the rosaries still held tightly, the babies that were pulled from their own mass grave. Some hid their faces, others held out their arms out to those poised to strike a killing blow. Other rooms contain piles of bloody clothes and bookcases filled with children’s shoes.

Image: Milo Hensley via YouTube

Those who founded the museum wanted people to remember what had happened there. And, with barely two decades passed since the massacre, they still want justice. Theonest Karamage sits in jail today, and he speaks freely about his role in the deaths, remembering the first man he killed. There were others, too, people who murdered their neighbours and never spoke of it again. He regularly receives threats from others who participated in the murders, but lives in hope that justice will come for them like it did for him.

It’s graphic, and it’s meant to be. Everything about it begs for remembrance - and justice. Just thirteen people survived the Murambi massacre. They’ve returned to the site to hold vigils, and to listen to the words of those who perpetrated the killing.

[Source: Urban Ghosts Media. Edited.]