A ticket for a four-hour tour tracing the crimes committed by the Manson Family costs US$75 (RM315) and includes visits to the scenes of some of the most infamous murders in the United States.

In total, seven people were killed during the murder spree instigated by cult leader Charles Manson, the most prominent of whom was actress Sharon Tate, wife of director Roman Polanski.

“We go to the crime scene and experience everything about the brutal murders through video and audio recordings,” says Helter Skelter

Tour guide Terry Bolo. It’s a “peculiar and horrifying” story, but also part of Los Angeles’ history, he says.

The tour, put together by Manson expert Scott Michael, is often fully booked. Those who take part are also known as “dark tourists” – people who like to visit places associated with death and destruction.

The term was coined in 1996 by British tourism researchers John Lennon (not THAT Lennon) and Malcolm Foley.

Scott Michael’s “Dearly Departed Tours” takes visitors through the darker side of Los Angeles, visiting sites associated with death and tragic stories. Photo: Justin Gill/Dearly Departed Tours/dpa

But an exact definition is difficult, says Peter Hohenhaus, himself a well-travelled dark tourist who runs a website with tips and potential destinations for like-minded people. There are lots of forms of dark tourism, he says – a place might not necessarily have links to death or disaster in order to have a “dark appeal”.

And dark tourists can be as varied as their destinations, says Hohenhaus, who has visited some 700 places in 90 countries.

“I can hardly believe that that which makes somebody visit Verdun, or other World War I sites, is the same thing that drives someone to visit Chernobyl or Iceland’s volcanic moon landscapes,” he says.

He rejects the idea that dark tourism is a form of scandal-mongering and himself draws a line at “slum tourism”, the touring of poor neighbourhoods. “In my view this is something fundamentally different, because it’s not about historical, past misery but about something that’s still happening,” he says.

When something is long in the past, it becomes less problematic, in terms of emotion as well as culturally and politically, he says.

Dark tourists are allowed a close-up examination of genuine human remains in the catacombs of Paris. Photo: Henri Garat/Paris Tourist Office/dpa

“From an ethical point of view, it becomes really difficult with regard to catastrophes that have only just taken place,” he says, using as examples the Grenfell Tower disaster in London or the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off Italy.

He admits, however, that he would probably have gone to have a look at the shipwreck if he had happened to be nearby – but he would not have taken a selfie.

But he knows that not all dark tourists would behave like him.

“It’s undeniable that there are ‘bad’ dark tourists who, for example, don’t behave appropriately at concentration camp memorials,” he says.

A dark tourist seriously interested in his destination will have researched it beforehand, he says. In some places, there’s not much left to remind people of the suffering that took place there.

All that’s left at the former estate of infamous Colombian drug boss Pablo Escobar is a zoo and water theme park, though there is also a small museum that examines the atrocities carried out under his rule.

The billionaire head of the Medellin cartel dominated the international trade in cocaine in the 1980s and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. At Hacienda Napoles, he once held wild parties, and as well as the zoo, the estate featured a landing strip, a bull-fighting ring and artificial lakes.

In the city of Medellin, tourists, such as US rapper Wiz Khalifa, often visit his former homes and pose in front of the Monaco building where he once lived.

The city authorities are very unhappy about such tourism.

Tourists regularly visit the grave of Pablo Escobar, the billionaire head of the Medellin cartel, which dominated the international trade in cocaine in the 1980s. Photo: Georg Ismar/dpa

“When people who have caused so much damage are made into idols, it really angers me,” says Mayor Federico Gutierrez. “Not just as mayor but also as a human being.”

That’s why Medellin is planning to rip down the Monaco and create a park in memorial to Escobar’s victims in its stead.

One reason people might choose to visit such sites is the confrontation it provides with their own nightmares, says Hohenhaus on his website. It makes them think about how they themselves would behave in a catastrophe.

Philip Stone, a researcher at the world’s first Institute for Dark Tourism at the University of Central Lancashire in Britain, has another idea.

In Western secular societies, death increasingly takes place behind closed doors, he writes in a study. Dark tourism provides a kind of “social filter” between life and death.

Charles Manson, who was sentenced to life in prison, died in jail in 2017 at the age of 83.

Since then, his estate and legacy has been the subject of a legal battle. But the 50th anniversary of his crimes in 2019 suggests profits from the Helter Skelter Tour of LA’s dark side will be booming. – dpa