If your traveller’s eye has been piqued recently by the opening of infamous street artist Banksy and his morbid theme park for adults, Dismaland, then you’re in luck. That work of large-scale dystopian art is just one of many dark and macabre tourist destinations alluring tourists. Those keen to experience something a little bit more twisted than what the travel guides may recommend would be wise to keep an eye out for these wicked and warped locations, just in time for Halloween.
#1 Victoria’s Way Sculpture Park in Ireland
Oh sure, this nine-hectare property some 45 minutes out of Dublin is meant to be a place of reflection and solitude to discover oneself, but amid all the lovely green fields and large granite statues of Indian elephant god Ganesha are some truly disturbing works of art that seem to work against the park’s creator’s mission of spiritual enlightenment.
Once inside you’ll spot The Split Man in which a man slices his body in two with a dagger. There’s also Ferryman’s End showing a man, his body ravaged by disease and death, standing waist-deep in a bog. There’s also the statue of a vampire screaming in pain as she breastfeeds a small child. Perhaps strangest of all, the park is dedicated to Alan Turing, the genius mathematician who was persecuted by the British government for his homosexuality despite being directly responsible for the end of WWII.
Or… creepy art is everywhere like The Big Giving in London, featuring rock-encrusted men vomiting (they’re actually water fountains) or the Calamita Cosmica in Rome, which is one hell of a big skeleton (28 metres long and seven tonnes, actually).
#2 Grand Central Cafe in Texas, USA
If you’re in Texas, then you can’t leave without having had a serving of baby back ribs or a big ol’ steak and hot wings. It’s like a law or something. And since you’re down this way, why not make it a treat and visit the Grand Central Cafe in Kingsland. A little over and hour from Austin and nearly four hours from Dallas, the macabre foodie will want to visit this beautiful manor house restaurant as it was the filming location of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 40-years-ago.
A change in ownership means the connection isn’t as prominent anymore (for instance, the once-beloved Leatherface dummy is no longer seen haunting those on a trip to the bathroom). Nevertheless, the thrill of eating barbecue in the same room that a family of chainsaw-wielding cannibals once ate people is still there. You’ll need a napkin.
Or… For more cinematic goodies, why not visit Colorado and stay at the Stanley Hotel that not only inspired Stephen King’s novel The Shining, but which also plays the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film on a continuous loop through all hotel rooms.
#3 Isla de las Muñecas in Mexico
In English, the name of this haunting Mexican location is the island of the dolls. So, it’s like a Barbie museum, you ask? Not quite. 28 kilometres south of Mexico City are the beautiful Xochimilco canals, which you should take a boat trip through no matter what. If you wanna get the heeby-jeebies, however, you must specifically ask your boat driver to let you off at this particular destination as it’s not an official tourist stop.
Once there, you can walk among trees, bushes, fences and walking paths that have been scattered with old, discarded dolls, many of them decaying and deformed with severed limbs grotesquely hanging and tied. The legend goes that the island’s former inhabitant found the body of a young girl so he used dolls and doll parts he found floating in the canals to appease her restless soul. Whether it’s true or not, the island is a chilling must-see.
Or… If you like hopping on a boat to experience your frights then get to the Manchac Swamp in Louisiana, USA, and spot eerie places like the Frenier Cemetery and the Hanging Tree while listening out for the ghost of a voodoo princess names Julie White. And that’s not even mentioning all the werewolves.
#4 Wonderland in China
Wonderland was meant to be the largest theme park in all of Asia – China’s answer to Disneyland – across 120 acres just outside of Beijing. But when developers pulled out due to financial concerns, it was ultimately neglected and left to rot, abandoned by everyone except curious sightseers and local farmers who have returned to their land. What remains are the chilling concrete skeletons of a dream draped ever so ominously in the Chinese smog. You’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Carnival of Souls.
Or… Those who enjoy these sort of locations should look up the abandoned Ukrainian villages like Pripyat, lost to Chernobyl, or any of the many ghost towns down America’s route 66 and across the gold rush region, all of which are now protected by the parks departments. Much closer to home is the closed down Fantasy Glades theme park in Port Macquarie, inspired by the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.
#5 The Catacombs in Paris, France
Don’t let Hollywood fool you (OK maybe you should) because the catacombs underneath Paris aren’t home to body-possessing demons or soul-sucking monsters. That doesn’t stop you from going down there and pretending that they are, though. The catacombs have actually been a tourist destination for centuries, and they have a deep and dark past to them that will delight history and horror buffs alike.
It’s a place where the skulls of the dead line the walls like bathroom tiles, making it the world’s largest grave. Interestingly, the macabre site has now been fully incorporated into the city’s art world, hosting exhibitions and inspiring Parisian artists. Just don’t go off the beaten track, okay? Even though people hold unofficial (aka illegal) tours, who really knows what ghouls and goblins lie beyond it?
Or… For those more calcium deficient tourists, you may also want to investigate the Capuchin Catacombs on the island of Sicily in Italy, the Capela dos Ossos in Portugal and the Sedlac Ossuary in the Czech Republic. Their bone-centric works of architecture are essential spooky travel detours.
(Lead image: Alejandro De La Cruz/Flickr)
Glenn Dunks is writer from Melbourne who recently returned from living in New York City. While in America he got to visit more states than many actual Americans. He is predominantly a film and music critic and has written for many Australian online and print publications including Junkee, SameSame, Metro Magazine and The Big Issue. Internationally he’s written for Vanity Fair, Dutch website biosAgenda and can occasionally be heard on the Monocle 24 digital radio network out of London. In 2014 he won an award from the Australian Film Critics Association for his work.