Netflix's Dark Tourist explores the world's most morbid travel destinations – but why are we so fascinated by the macabre?
From hanging out with Pablo Escobar's hitman to almost shooting a cow with a rocket launcher, filmmaker David Farrier has seen it all – and he's not quite sure what to make of it
In an age when true crime is a genre of entertainment unto itself, it’s intriguing to see how deep the morbid curiosity rabbit-hole goes.
Could you ever see yourself travelling hundreds of miles to trace a serial killer’s footsteps? Or to bear witness to a “real-life” vampire feeding?
If so, you’ll have something in common with David Farrier, the Kiwi documentarian at the helm of Netflix’s most inventive travelogue to date, Dark Tourist.
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It sees the New Zealand native – whose critically acclaimed film debut, Tickled, was released in 2016 – exploring the world’s grimmest tourist destinations, such as Aokigahara, a forest at the bottom of Mount Fuji in Japan, which has developed an international reputation as a suicide hotspot, and Fukushima (also Japan), a city-turned-wasteland ravaged by a nuclear disaster in 2011 and still plagued by high levels of radiation.
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Farrier is bespectacled, dark-haired, and disarmingly casual as an interviewer – which has led to comparisons with Britain’s foremost documentary filmmaker, Louis Theroux.
"People when they say that are basically saying, ‘You’re a real shit version of Louis Theroux’ – and I’ll take that,” he says. “Even a shit version of Louis is something I’m pretty proud of. Louis is the man; I find that comparison flattering and quite funny.”
But it’s probably fair to say some of the stuff that Farrier tackles in Dark Tourist is beyond even Theroux's threshold.
"I was pretty intrigued by it, personally,” he says of the prospect of travelling to dangerous and off-limits places. “I’m somebody who has never really seen the point in taking a holiday to nice resorts or a beach, because I just get bored incredibly easily. A lot of the places we visited I was really intrigued to go to, out of curiosity and a morbid interest in some of the things we were looking into.”
Some of the excursions involve putting himself in life-threatening situations. In Fukushima and a test site in Kazakhstan known as The Polygon, he comes across alarming radiation levels that greatly exceed the recommended dosage. He admits he is putting off getting the radiation in his body checked out by a doctor: “[The Dark Tourist team and I] joke about having a reunion for the series in 20 years when we’re all riddled with cancer,” he says with a laugh. “I hope that’s not the case.”
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Other times, he is more of a passenger – but there is still ample ground for morally questionable situations. In Milwaukee he follows the footsteps of heinous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and in Medellín, Colombia, his takes a tour led by one of Pablo Escobar’s hitmen.
He seems equally curious about the people he meets along the way: both the 'dark tourists' who travel out of grim fascination and the locals who profit from them. He does his best to reserve judgement, even as he watches a man, who proclaims to be a real vampire, drink blood out from a shallow wound in his friend’s back.
"I had a lot in common with Natalie, I think,” he says of a tourist with a serial killer obsession that he meets in his exploration of the Dahmer murders. She is the proud owner of a genuine human skull, which she brought with her on her trip.
"I grew up reading everything I could about serial killers, and I was probably the kid in the late 1990s who would always be on Rotten.com [a website dedicated to morbid curiosities], because I wanted to have my sensibilities pushed a little bit.
"I think part of some of these serial killer tours is exactly that: it's for those people that like to acknowledge that humans can go to some pretty terrible places just like Jeffrey Dahmer did.”
One such person is JJ “Popeye” Velásquez, a former member of the Medellín Cartel who, after serving a 23-year prison sentence, has made a name for himself as a YouTube star and a tour guide of Pablo Escobar’s decaying estate. In the series, it is clear that Farrier is conflicted about his interaction with him, knowing that he is responsible for over 300 murders and great damage to his homeland. In May 2018, Popeye was arrested in Medellín on charges of extortion and criminal conspiracy. He remains in custody.
"Our whole crew was really torn about Popeye. He’s one of those people that when he’s in the room he just lights the whole place up,” he says. “He’s so incredibly charismatic that he’s impossible not to like just as another human.”
"Then obviously you look at what he did, and I think the thing that stood out to me that I knew about him was that he had shot and killed his girlfriend because Pablo Escobar told him to, because she was allegedly snitching on them.”
Farrier is still clearly reckoning with where Popeye sits with him, months after their interaction.
"He didn’t strike me as being particularly sorry about what he had done, purely because he was still using it to exploit his cult status. The only reason we were there filming with him was because he had [made YouTube videos], right? So, morally it all gets pretty messed up pretty fast. So, I think, yeah I really enjoyed hanging out with Popeye. I didn’t feel like I was in any danger, yet at times you could kind of see the wildness in his eyes in a way, and I think if someone really f***ed him off, I wouldn’t want to be in the vicinity.”
While his “morbid curiosity” appears to be the driving factor behind much of the series, Farrier does hope to shed light on ethically questionable 'attractions' in various parts of the world.
In an episode set in South-east Asia, he investigates a backpackers rumour about a military-run shooting range in Cambodia where one can, for the right price, shoot a cow with a rocket launcher.
He goes along to the site with a bunch of British “university types”, asks the right questions, and finds himself standing in front of a young cow with an assault rifle (the bazooka was offered, but he declined) in his hands.
"We discovered that you can shoot whatever you pay for, essentially,” he says. “If you go to these places where these things are happening that you disagree with on some ethical or moral grounds, or just the fact that you like cute animals, I think there’s no damage in showing that these things happen because I think there will probably be a groundswell of people rising up saying that it’s completely unacceptable.”
And while he does interact with morally suspect individuals, he and his team approach each individual journey with the required levels of respect and cultural sensitivity – avoiding further ethical dilemmas in the process.
In January this year, YouTuber Logan Paul infamously posted a video on his channel from his excursion to Aokigahara, which showed the body of a suicide victim. He was chastised on social media, taken off YouTube's Google-preferred ad service and forced into a month-long hiatus from posting videos. Normal service has since been restored, however.
Farrier and his team kept a close eye on the scandal as it unfolded, having already shot and edited their segment about the forest – they had not come across any such thing – but he assures me that there is a fundamental difference in the way that he and the YouTuber approached their subject.
"I think Logan Paul is probably one of the most despicable humans I’ve ever watched clips of,” he says. “He’s real trashfire of a human.”
What's the difference between what Paul is doing compared to Farrier's series?
"I think he lacks a cultural sensitivity going into it – he just lacks basic human respect in his approach, and I think our whole team took a very different line on that. Our approach was always to go in with Japanese team and Japanese people that knew that forest and just to tread in an incredibly respectful way.”
However, in the lead-up to the release of Dark Tourist, Farrier has received criticism from an unlikely source – comedian Dom Joly. The former Trigger Happy TV star had written a book in 2010 called The Dark Tourist, which saw him visit dark tourism hotspots such as North Korea and Chernobyl, and he lashed out on Twitter at the discovery that Netflix had not paid him what he believed to be his dues.
"Where on earth did you get that idea from?” he wrote, along with 25 other expletive-laden tweets, accusing Netflix and Farrier of plagiarism.
"Oh yeah – someone told me about that, and I haven’t bothered to read his point extensively,” Farrier says. “It’s strange having someone like that lashing out in such an intense way.”
"But Mark, the guy who – a New Zealand man – had the idea for the show and the show title predating the book that Dom wrote. So, yeah, I just honestly haven’t bothered to engage with Dom. He seems very passionate and I’m sure he’s a good writer and, you know, who knows, maybe our show will help sales of his book or something.”
He added that he is a “big fan” of Trigger Happy TV. “I loved that show back in the day,” he says.
Like Theroux, Farrier doesn't go out of his way to provide answers to the questions thrown up during the series, preferring instead to remain in the grey areas.
For example, I share with him that for a moment while watching the series I felt some sympathy for Popeye – a mass murderer – and it didn’t sit well with me. It came after he associated his crimes with his situation in life: born into poverty, surrounded by violence, offered few alternatives.
"As you say, he was born into a certain world,” Farrier says, “and there are certain pressures in that world, and that certainly plays into things – but you’ve always got a choice when you start killing people.
"But then you put someone like Jeffrey Dahmer into the situation and people that were close to him would tell you that he probably didn’t have much of a choice in what he did because it was such a compulsion. When you start to look at death in a show and the reasons people kill or are killed, it can get pretty disorientating pretty quickly.”
Dark Tourist is available to watch on Netflix now