Nine Rather Terrible Things That Have Since Become Sources of “Fun”

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As the saying goes, "comedy is tragedy plus time." One may also say, "a tourist trap or Halloween costume is tragedy plus time." Because there are some disturbing things that, decades or centuries later, have entered the realm of popular culture and are now accepted as entertainment. Here in Hollywood, for instance, there are tour bus companies that will take you to the sites of famous murders and suicides. Whee! All is not yet lost: most visitors still adopt a solemn attitude at places like concentration camps and Pearl Harbor. But the commercialization of the following nine things borders on the distasteful.

  1. The 1692 Salem Witchcraft Trials. Salem, Massachusetts is a beautiful seaside town with a rich history. But come October, its tacky witch-themed "museums" and attractions are swamped with tourists, some of them clad in pointy witch hats, and it seems as though Salem itself was created for Halloween. While one or two places actually take a thoughtful look at the tragic deaths of twenty innocent people in Salem Village (since renamed Danvers, the town where I was born - that's right, the trials and hangings didn't even take place in Salem itself), they are overwhelmed by the various haunted houses and souvenir shops that pop up every fall. Even the Salem police cars feature a cartoon witch on their doors.
  2. The U.S. Civil War. Over the last two decades or so, I have seen a tremendous increase in the number of adults playing "dress up". Personally, I don't get it. But that's a discussion for a later time. If someone wants to attend a Renaissance Faire, that's fine - even though the era they are celebrating was filled with filth and disease, it also gave us Shakespeare and Leonardo, so it's kind of cool. But there was nothing cool about the Civil War, where hundreds of thousands of Americans, many of them suffering from dysentery and typhoid, killed each other over the "right" to keep black people as slaves. So why all the grown men in Civil War uniforms, reenacting famous battles? That many of these ersatz soldiers are Southerners themselves puts a decidedly creepy spin on the proceedings.
  3. Pirates. Who doesn't love pirates? Answer: The poor souls who were raped, robbed, and murdered by them. But who should we blame for today's lovable image of the rascally privateer with the eyepatch and the parrot on his shoulder? Robert Louis Stevenson? Not really - his pirates were pretty terrifying. J.M. Barrie? Maybe. Walt Disney and his "Pirates of the Caribbean" designers? Probably. Funny thing is, real high seas piracy still exists today, but you never see children dressing up like Somalians toting AK-47s.
  4. The Tower of London. England takes a generally respectful approach to its history, even its darker chapters. You can take a Jack the Ripper walk in East London, but the killer's gruesome deeds are not played off for a laugh. The Tower of London itself, one of the city's most popular attractions, was designed as a fortress, not a torture chamber, and many tourists go there to see the crown jewels. But a major part of its appeal is its litany of beheadings, imprisonments, and suspicious deaths. The Tower of London was not built for public amusement, but there you go.
  5. Lizzie Borden. If you Google the name of this Massachusetts spinster, who in 1892 allegedly killed her father and stepmother with a hatchet (though she was acquitted), the first result that comes up is the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast, where you can stay in the very house where the murders occurred. Sick? Yes. But the bigger question is, considering the thousands of spectacularly grisly homicides that have taken place in the United States, why does this one comparatively ordinary case remain so celebrated, even over a century later?
  6. Pompeii. Many of the ancient sites around the Mediterranean have macabre pasts - the Roman Colosseum and its death sports; the Egyptian Pyramids, built by slaves as tombs for the wealthy - but we visit them for their visual impressiveness. Pompeii is visually impressive as well, and as an archeological wonder open to the public, it provides a rare opportunity to gaze into the distant past. But let's face it: the most popular attraction at Pompeii are the "ash bodies", those citizens killed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius whose preserved forms are on display. Pompeii was the site of a devastating loss of life. While the ruins themselves are hardly commercialized, their allure is somewhat ghastly.
  7. Bonnie and Clyde. These Depression-era bank robbers and killers were, frankly, white trash scumbags. If they were around today, they'd be wearing crappy T-shirts, covered in silly tattoos, and probably addicted to crystal meth. But even criminals looked snappy in 1934, and the publicity that Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow received during their crime spree elevated them to legends during their short lives. Arthur Penn's hit 1967 movie further immortalized them. Today you can go to Gibsland, Louisiana to watch actors annually restage the couple's bullet-riddled demise during the "Bonnie and Clyde Festival". Bring the kids!
  8. Tombstone. The 1881 gunfight at this Arizona town's O.K. Corral lasted just 30 seconds, and only three men died. In almost any U.S. city you can find spots where longer, deadlier battles between law enforcement and criminals took place. So why does this rather routine shootout retain its prominent stature in popular culture? Hollywood Westerns, I suppose. Tombstone itself is a well-preserved Old West town that's worth a visit even though it's really a tourist trap that draws most of its fame from that gunfight. Naturally, you can watch it reenacted at the O.K. Corral every day.
  9. Alcatraz. It's really just an old prison that happens to be on an island. I guess the romance of picturesque San Francisco makes everything there seem so attractive, even a half-day trip to look at some moldy old prison cells where a bunch of thieves and murderers once did time.