PhD student researching how dark tourism and history collide

The Kingston Penitentiary is one of the sites PhD student Kat MacDonald is looking into for her work on narratives around tourist sites with dark histories. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press - image credit)
The Kingston Penitentiary is one of the sites PhD student Kat MacDonald is looking into for her work on narratives around tourist sites with dark histories. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press - image credit)

A doctoral student at Queen's University is taking her love of ghost stories and delving into the connections between dark tourism and history.

Kat MacDonald said dark tourism is nothing new — the term was coined in 1996 — and since then has become an "ever-growing field of scholarship."

"The concept of visiting sites that have a tragedy, suffering etc., have been occurring for some time and certainly didn't start just because the term was coined," she said.

"I think in more recent years, the public has also shown a great interest in sites that are labelled as such."

I think it's important to recognize that yes, we do have this dark history. - Kat MacDonald

MacDonald wants to make sure the tales aren't too tall, so she is examining how tour companies use the narratives with a focus on their accuracy.

No city is without its dark chapters

MacDonald, who was born and raised in Kingston and has lived there for most of her life, is looking at two of the city's biggest dark tourism attractions: The Kingston Penitentiary and the Rockwood Asylum.

She said she wants her work to shine a light on these institutions and the narratives they portray, so people can ask the right questions and be better-informed about the dark side of their histories.

Chloé Fedio/CBC
Chloé Fedio/CBC

"Kingston wants to be seen as a very moral, orderly British city, and once you start digging deeper into that, of course it's not necessarily the case," she said, adding no city is without its dark history.

She said she has just started her work and can't draw any conclusions so far, but she wants to look into parts of the narrative like the types of history being told, and why the chosen narrative works.

"The process of analyzing the tour scripts/narratives could then be turned into a framework that other tourist and heritage sites — or even cities — could use to examine their own narratives," she said.

"Given the amount of tourist sites in Kingston, it is a great case study for this research, but Kingston isn't the only city whose narratives should be examined."

As she has started digging, she said, some facts have been relatively easy to validate (like when the Kingston Penitentiary opened), while others can present a daunting task.

"The idea of truth is a tricky thing when it comes to studying and doing history," she said.

Tourist sites often contribute to an identity for a city, helping make a destination more appealing, she said, but it's not a bad thing to ensure the truth is reflected.

"I think it's important to recognize that yes, we do have this dark history — just by hiding it, it's going to come out eventually and perhaps come out in a way that it's going to be really detrimental," she said.

"If we work together with communities who have been marginalized and build trust back in those relationships and work together to reconcile with that history, I think it can benefit everyone."

MacDonald said she hopes her work will create a framework that any city in Canada could use to examine the narratives around these macabre tourist destinations, as well as pertinent questions people should be asking.

"I think there are ways to make the narratives more balanced and rounded. This would consist of including voices and stories of groups that haven't been included in these narratives thus far," she said.

"Tourist narratives can be more balanced and should be looked at to ensure that they are not harming marginalized groups that have historically been harmed at these institutions."