Enter at your own peril: Our MA Public History students visit York Dungeon!

Blood and Terror!

What is our relationship with death and violence in the past? What are the ways we talk about death, now and historically? What are our responsibilities to the dead? What are the ethics of making plague, war and violence into a consumer spectacle?

Manchester’s MA students studying Public History took a trip on Friday to York Dungeon in contemplation of these issues. York Dungeon offers a 75 minute theatrical experience of death, fear and violence in the city of York’s past. We met Vikings, rebels against Henry VIII, the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin, Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators, a medieval anatomist, the ghost of a hangman, a familiar looking witch from nearby market town Pocklington (York Dungeon maximises audience participation). If the ‘Horrible Histories’ series of books has encouraged generations of children to engage with History in all its gory glory, York Dungeon’s version of ‘Horrible History’ for grown ups is history-lite, using the past rather more as a stage set with actors in funny costumes for japes and jumpiness.

Most of the scholarship on ‘Dark Tourism’ or ‘Thanotourism’ argues that tourist attractions that exploit the bloody past help consumers give meaning to death, violence and fear. This may well apply to sites such as former concentration camps or ground zero but, even here, we need to engage with the serious ethical implications of the voyeurism and titillation intrinsic in the commercial exploitation of sites or events associated with mass death.

In York Dungeon, mass death and violence are a source of comedy. Is this laughter out of place? Or is it possible that, with violent and mass death clearly a contemporary problem too, the nervous laughter that resonates around a recreated torture chamber from indeterminate ‘olden days’ enables us to express in a visceral way the nervous anxieties embedded in everyday media about global crises? Sadly, York Dungeon doesn’t encourage any meaningful reflection on the experience of ‘Blood and Terror!’ – but you can buy souvenirs in the gift shop.


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