Grief Tourism

Travel to areas affected by natural disasters, places where people were murdered, etc.

Tragedy at Soham & Tourism in Cambridgeshire, England

10th June 2006

The town of Soham in the English county of Cambridgeshire is a peaceful village of approximately 9,000 people.  Since 1944, crime of any sort was practically non-existent, and certainly, the media had taken little notice of Soham until August 4, 2002.  The disappearance of two local 10-year old schoolgirls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman and the discovery of their badly decomposed bodies two weeks later in a remote area near RAF Lakenheath Suffolk, changed the quiet town to a scene of tragedy.  Holly and Jessica attended St. Andrews Primary school where Ian Huntley was a caretaker at the Soham Village College and his girlfriend Maxine Carr was a teaching assistant at St. Andrews.

Three years before the crime, the police had identified Huntley as a dangerous serial sex attacker.  He had been charged with 11 different allegations of sexual assault, but sadly enough, the reports were erased and Huntley was cleared for his caretaker job at Soham Village College.  A London court convicted Huntley of the crime in December 2003, after hearing his confession, and he began serving two concurrent life sentences, with no eligibility for parole for 40 years.  Maxine Carr, on the other hand, received a much lighter sentence of three and a half years, for the obstruction of justice in providing an alibi for Huntley’s whereabouts on the day of the girls’ disappearance

The tragedy soon became a media circus, as the tabloids went wild with photographs, conflicting reports, and graphic details of the horrific crime at every  newsstand in England.  People arrived by the busloads, carrying stuffed toys, cards, and gifts, in a frenzy to be the first on the scene.  Some brought flowers and candles; others brought lawn chairs and picnic lunches.  It was, for many, the most exciting event that had happened in some time, the perfect outing for a summer day.  The town of Soham was fast becoming a bigger tourist attraction than Cambridge itself.  Silent contemplation, genuine grief, and sympathy were lost in the crowds of gawkers and vicarious thrill seekers. published the following picture of tourists checking out some floral tributes to the murdered girls:

 The scene of a tragedy was now a carnival, a tawdry and unbelievable display.  By the time the memorial service was held at the end of August, many of the tributes had disappeared, including books of condolence messages, stolen apparently by some curious onlooker.

It wasn’t until April 2004 that Ian Huntley’s house and the hangar where he had cut up and hid the girls’ clothes on the grounds of Soham Village College were finally destroyed.  The site that was once viewed by the thousands as a tragedy is now a serene, beautifully landscaped area of green, enclosed with iron railings and protected by increased security.  The crowds are gone and there is little to remind us of the heinous crime.  In May 2004, Maxine Carr was released on probation to assume a new identity under the witness protection law.  Attempts by the media to revive interest in the Soham tragedy through reporting on Carr have been banned, so far, only in England and Wales.

The village of Soham today has resumed a normal way of life, for the most part, although there are a few who continue to return, those with an incurable and insatiable curiosity about the darker side of life.   Just what it is they are looking for or hope to find, we can’t be sure.  The grieving parents, on the other hand, are left with only the memories and silent memorials of two young girls whose lives ended far too soon.  As far as the media and the public are concerned, they seem to have moved on, perhaps to wait for the next tragedy to occur.

Sharon L. Slayton

4 Responses to “Tragedy at Soham & Tourism in Cambridgeshire, England”

  1. Chris Wilbert Says:

    I quite like your site for seeking to do something, to provoke, draw atention to practices of cosumption. But, your definitions seem at once broad, but also convoluted, whilst not being very clear.
    As you say: Our definition of grief tourism is rather broad. This broad definition is similar in range to Macmillan’s definition of grief tourist: “a person who travels specifically to visit the scene of a tragedy or disaster”.
    But, I would argue it is not broad at all. You say that grief tourism in England is limited to the Soham horrors. Yet, surely by your definition it should include people visiting -say – the 1970s pop star Marc Bolan’s car crash site, which people do (but not like the James Dean crash site in the USA). It would also include houses of celebrities where they died – like the comedian Frankie Howerd that has had quite alot of media coverage recently.
    Your definition is distinctly different from the Dark Tourism attempt by Lennon & Foley, that argues for a more serendipitous visitation. I am not sure I agree with them, but I think there is more between your attempt at a definition of grief tourism and their dark tourism attempt at a definition. As such, it seems your definition is actually quite narrow – as your use of just one unpopular form admits. There are many sites of ‘grief’ in the UK. Grief being a very hard thing to isolate or define.
    The use of Soham does not seem to aid your definition at least how you talk about ‘england’.
    I can think of many places that would fit your broad definition in the Uk, for a variety of reasons. They would not necessarily fit Lennon & Foley’s somewhat strange idea that things are only dark tourism if they occur in the lifetime of a survivor/witness. Obviously, in their view there is something going on between memory and history – that memory is ‘better’ or truer, being less fixed than institutionalised history. This raises hugely interesting points, yet that is as far as they go.
    So, is time a factor in grief tourism, how does memory work in your definition. You seem to hold to a popular culture view of the recent in the examples given?
    Anyway, just some thoughts, idly. Keep going on.

  2. Philip Stone Says:

    I too quite like this site, in the sense it seeks to provide rudimentary case material to a diverse and eclectic ‘product’ range. In saying that, some of the academic rigour of the cases is perhaps suspect… but a very useful site nevertheless!

    I would tend to agree with Chris’s assessment of the term ‘grief tourism’. The term, journalistic in nature, is rather bespoke as it appears to describe a particular facet of the wider dark tourism phenomenon. I’ve called this (narrow) type of product ‘Dark Shrines’ in a recent journal paper, which outlined a conceptual framework under the banner of a ‘Dark Tourism Spectrum’ (see ). This conceptual framework highlights the temporal, spatial and political apsects of dark tourism supply, as well as outlining particular ‘dark product’ features and characteristics. The paper essentially examines the notion of ‘dark’ and ‘darker’ tourism….

    ‘Dark Shrines’ or grief tourism, or whatever you wish to call it, has wider implications and consequences for society in which we reside. It could be argued of course, that so called grief tourism is nothing more than ‘recreational rubbernecking’. The case of Soham in the UK is an often cited example of grief tourism. Whilst there was undoubted grief and anger at the time, the status of Soham as a ‘grief’ destination is perhaps unfounded ensuring the longevity of these ‘grief sites’, for the masses in any case, are temporal and fickel in nature – in the same way Gloucester (UK) was when in the mid 1990’s the Cromwell Street murders were discovered. The media and some of the moral panics they instill is often at the heart of so-called grief tourism. In a ever fractious and fragmented world that appears to spin ever faster, the media, through their coverage and tapping into a national psyche, perhaps ’emotionally invigilates’ our behaviour in cases like Soham. As Chris states, how then does memory work in the ‘grief tourism’ concept? Perhaps we become less emotionally inviligated as Lennon and Foley’s ‘chronological distance’ sets in (??).

    On the other side of the coin, and using the defintion of grief tourism on this site, could a visit to Gracelands, the site of Elvis Presley’s death, be construed as grief tourism? In some cases perhaps, but many who visit Gracelands (my wife included) are more interested in his life (and end of life). Similarily, as Chris Wibert noted, the same reasoning could be applied to Frankie Howard and his ‘memorial house’.

    Many issues remain, and without getting into a protracted debate over the meaning of meaning, it is important to consider terminology and the parameters of that terminology. I personally consider grief tourism as a subset of the wider dark tourism phenomenon – but even this term is emotive. Perhaps, Tony Seaton’s use of the term ‘thanatourism’, if not awkward, is more precise.

    Whatever terminology we use, websites like this one, which seek to explore and expose tourism products with a death, suffering or a macabre theme, are worthwhile and useful. Keep it up….

    University of Central Lancashire, UK

  3. James Trotta Says:

    I appreciate the thoughtful comments. Regarding the definitions, please keep in mind that my goal is to describe how the term grief tourism is used. I have no intention of writing a prescriptive definition and trying to force the rest of the world to use it.

    What I mean to say is that while the term grief tourism may have a convoluted meaning this is because no clear pattern of use has emerged.

    There are a few other things I’d like to clarify. First, regarding Chris’ comment: “You say that grief tourism in England is limited to the Soham horrors.” Where do I say that? I certainly don’t mean it!

    Regarding Philip’s statement, “It could be argued of course, that so called grief tourism is nothing more than ‘recreational rubbernecking'”, I see grief tourism being used for more than that. For example Ground Zero in NYC has been described as a grief tourism destination. To many Americans, this is a far more meaningful experience than recreational rubbernecking.

    Regarding Philip’s question, “Could a visit to Gracelands, the site of Elvis Presley’s death, be construed as grief tourism?” (this will repeat my point above about being descriptive rather than prescriptive): whether visiting Graceland is grief tourism or not is for people who use English to decide collectively.

    In other words, the answer is: Yes, visiting Graceland could be construed as grief tourism if that’s how people refer to it. However, I’ve never heard of Graceland used as an example of grief tourism. In some ways I doubt that visiting Graceland will ever be considered grief tourism. There was no tragedy there (since Elvis never died). On the other hand some people do go there to have a good cry…

    Finally, to anser Chris’ questions: “So, is time a factor in grief tourism, how does memory work in your definition. You seem to hold to a popular culture view of the recent in the examples given?”

    I have seen people refer to visiting former Nazi concentration camps as grief tourism even if they were not alive during the 1930s and 40s. Some factors that seem to influence the use of grief tourism include time, memory, nationality, and religion. Regarding popular culture, I’ll have to think about that one some more. Since I’m looking to current language use to describe how grief tourism is used, though, I think it’s safe to say that popular culture will be a great influence on this site.

  4. Kenneth Skaggs Says:

    My personal opinion is that “Grief Tourism” like beauty is in the eye of the beholder!

    I found myself at the USS Arizona memorial not grieving for the dead sailors but, for the inability of nation states to work toward a common goal. At the University of Texas, I would walk near the Tower and find myself wondering where in the dark recesses of a human mind could come such inhumanity!

    Most of you would not think of Camp David as a site of grief. I do when I think of the inanity of the “Accords” that supposedly would bring peace to the Middle East. When, in actuality, they have prolonged the conflicts!

    If you want a site of “Pure Grief”, drive along a Texas highway and stop at one of the crosses where a person has lost their life due to a pure accident. Not at a sight where some terrorist,megalomaniac or nation state has wielded whatever power they could against unsuspecting human beings.

    “Grief Tourism” is probably a better label than “Reflective Tourism”!

    Keep up the good work. I enjoy Sharon’s articles.


    Ken Skaggs