Crouched in the brush, you wait downwind for your prey. When you spot movement in the distance, your senses focus. You set your aim, tracking your prey as it flees for new cover. Your finger curls around the trigger. You squeeze. A shot rings out. In the distance, a human falls to earth, sending up a cloud of dust and death.
Hunting other humans is one of the last ancient taboos, on par with cannibalism and torture chambers, yet the idea of it continues to entrap our imagination. Many of us first learned about such gruesome recreations when we were forced to write papers on Richard Connell’s classic The Most Dangerous Game in secondary school. Today, the ugly taboo continues to provide source material to story tellers, most recently surfacing as the backdrop of HBO’s huge hit Westworld, which takes place in an Old West theme park that encourages real humans to shoot and kill ultra-realistic humanoid robots.
The hunt for humans also serves as the dark heart of Gael Garcia Bernal’s latest film, Desierto, in select theaters now, which pairs the concept with a very modern human rights issue: illegal immigration. In Desierto, an American named Sam discovers a van of migrants attempting to cross the southwest wasteland that borders Mexico. He then stalks off into the desert with a high caliber rifle and goes full vigilante, deciding to solve the immigration problem all by himself, one bullet at a time. To Sam, the Mexican migrants are like animals. His choice to hunt people signals his loss of his humanity.
The film’s setting is a not-so-subtle comment on the Trump era but its premise, although jarring, is nothing new. Humans hunting humans has become a hallmark in films as of late. Consider films like The Running Man, The Purge series and the Hunger Games franchise. There’s also the Japanese film Battle Royale that tells another tale of kids hunting kids, which many believe was the inspiration behind the Hunger Games books.
It may be fun to watch these scenarios play out in movies and on TV, but just as life imitates art, reports of people hunting innocents in real life—and specifically, rich people hunting poor people—occasionally surface. For instance, reports have emerged of wealthy people paying to “volunteer” as a sniper on the front lines of an active battle. According to one Ukrainian soldier from the Azov squadron captured by Russian forces, he met such volunteer snipers from Sweden, Georgia and France on the front lines of the Battle of Ilovaisk. “What they saw, they shot. Shooting was like a leisure interest for them. They stayed for two to three weeks, just for kicks, and then left.”
Public executions used to be a form of entertainment, after all.
Two decades before Russia invaded Ukraine, the United Nations reported the same thing happening during the Bosnian civil war in the former Eastern Bloc nation of Yugoslavia. During the Yugoslav Wars in the early 1990s, foreigners bribed military leaders to serve as volunteer snipers. These visitors didn’t care who won the fight; they only wanted the chance to hunt and kill humans while disguised as soldiers. Then, in 2011, two Ohioans men, ages 52 and 16, were arrested after they posted on Craigslist a fake employment ad for someone to watch over farmland. The twist is that they then abducted the three men who responded, turned them loose in the middle of nowhere, hunted them down and eventually killed them.
These stories suggest that humanity is a patina—one that can be scratched away with little effort—but could such a dystopian way of life really become our reality? Hollywood and science fiction storytellers seem to think so—and as Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World and 1984 have proven, sometimes those predictions come true. That’s what’s scary. To make sense of why such deathly scenarios continues to inspire so many, Playboy sent Zaron Burnett III to the United Kingdom to interview Professor Daniel Wright, who has made the psychological, cultural and philosophical studies of dark tourism—or when people travel recreationally to sites that revolve around death—his life’s work.
Professor Wright is an associate lecturer in tourism management at the University of Central Lancashire in the United Kingdom. In June 2016, his academic paper on dark tourism, published in a small journal, went viral after seizing the imaginations of readers and media worldwide. British tabloids like the UK’s Mirror had a field day with his bold claims, announcing, “Hunting Humans Set to Become Big Business for the Super Rich Within Next 100 Years”. That’s because the academic paper read like the title crawl for a summer blockbuster.
Present day: 2200…We now live in a dystopian future where the impoverished and worthless masses of society exist beneath the high tech super wealthy-elite of the world. Due to the depletion of natural resources and the ever-growing impacts of natural disasters on the fragile and vulnerable geographical locations of the globe, global population is constrained to the limited amount of landmass that is suitable for human survival.
Wright goes on to describe a future where amusement parks are bloodied playgrounds, a world where “human safaris” are team-building exercises for a work retreat:
The locations in which ‘hunting humans’ activities take place are seen as modern day tourism entertainment parks (however, they are the home of the poor masses). Due to the growth and expansion of technology, the act of hunting humans in these theme park–esque locations often resembles a computer game, as the tourists (hunters) do not actually have to come into contact with their victims, thus, there can be a sense of detachment.
In a village pub in Shrewsbury, Wales, Wright discussed with Burnett his theories, identifying the societal trends that could lead us to such a bleak future and what led him to go public with his bold claims. He cites the delicate braiding of cultural drivers as a potential cause—drivers as widespread as environmental disasters, civil wars and advanced genetic engineering. It’s not totally far-fetched, as Burnett reports: “When Wright and I walked through the quaint streets of Shrewsbury, the professor pointed out a bridge over a river that separated England from Wales. According to ancient tradition—and possibly it was still a law—on one specific day each year you could kill a Welshman on that bridge and it was totally, legally cool. The bridge was a cultural artifact from the bloody past of this charming little British country village. Looking to the past, it’s not hard to imagine the rich hunting the poor in the future. Public executions used to be a form of entertainment, after all. The Dark Ages that followed the fall of Rome is just one example of how culture can regress when the context of society changes radically. But does that really mean we could reach such a severe point of economic stratification, environmental collapse and refugee crises that we’ll return to such barbarity? What must happen between now and such a future to make murderous behavior socially acceptable? Professor Wright had the unsettling answers.”
You define dark tourism in your paper as “the act of travel to sites associated with death, suffering and the seemingly macabre.” Beyond that thumbnail description, what is dark tourism?
I don’t like the term “dark tourism” that much because it tries to capture too much. One of our lecturers, Phil Stone, has done a lot for the field and that’s his definition. He brings it together under this spectrum of dark tourism, where he has darker and lighter aspects of tourism. You have categories of things that are associated with death and things that are actually of death. The London dungeons are a representation of death, while Auschwitz is a death site. They’re very different places with very different types of emotions and histories. When you bring in the disaster sites, or the Dracula tours and ghost tours—that would all fall under the idea of “dark tourism.”
Dark tourism’s historical precedents include gladiator battles in Rome and public executions almost everywhere else. Why does death as a spectacle keep popping up in various formats and theaters?
Blood sells. We like to be touched in all ways, and fear and provocation are powerful.
People now have holidays where they go and partake in getting attacked by zombies. It’s the idea of ‘I want to play with death.’
Professor Daniel Wright
Your concept of “humans hunting humans” as part of dark tourism in the near future originated from you isolating drivers, or major trends, in global culture—from war to climate change to disease to artificial intelligence—and synthesizing their impacts. The end result, you predict, is a dark future where hunting humans has become a normal type of tourism. How did you come to that conclusion?
I had already been researching the field of future tourism and was looking at other academics like Ian Yeoman, who created this book of scenarios in 2050. I was looking at how he predicted sex with robots in Amsterdam and future technology in Edinburgh. I started my paper with the title “Hunting Humans in the Year 2200: the Future of Dark Tourism,” but I was like, it’s not the future of dark tourism. It’s the future of plain old tourism. So, I started to wonder, “What is it that may lead us to a future where we’ll be hunting humans? What the fuck is wrong with society right now? Look at these trends.” The tabloids missed that aspect.
Most of what I wrote about–the trends—are ones that I was already teaching. I bring in the whole entertainment side of it, using Disney as an example. I was teaching first-year students about the role of theme parks, entertainment and amusement parks and what they mean across time and space, how they’ve evolved over the last 200 years from fairs and smaller attractions in local towns to how we go to Disneyland to experience that same mix of fantasy and reality in an attempt to merge those two together. The other trends were just things that I find interesting–things like natural disasters and the degradation of our environment.
My paper was published about two days before the U.K.’s referendum vote on Brexit. A lot of the people were jokingly saying, “We should be hunting politicians.” Some people said, “This has been happening for hundreds of years. This is happening already. This is happening now.” Some thought I was a lunatic. My idea was that I want to make people aware that this might be where we are going and I don’t want us to reach that level. We shouldn’t reach that level. I may have inadvertently created the idea in the minds of business-types…“Hey, that’s a good business model!” But I don’t want the scenario I envisioned. I never wrote this paper with the idea that this is what I believe I want to happen. I don’t want that future. The idea was…”Fuck, wake up!” Let’s see what we can achieve that’s not this future scenario.
Your list of possible drivers that might lead to dark tourism include drought in urban areas, diseases like Ebola or the Zika virus, artificial intelligence turning against humanity, riots and terrorist attacks, contaminated food resources, hacking, technological accidents and hurricanes and tornados. Which gives you the most pause?
All of the drivers are worrying, but the biggest problem is that humans have never lived without violence. What I’m asking is, if we cannot move away from violence and transcend our violent ways, what will violence look like in the future? Warfare will still exist in some form or another. Humans killing humans will exist whether we label it “humans hunting humans” or not. I just paired that idea with entertainment. If entertainment exists, and suffering and violence still exist, what will those look like together? Once you bring in other trends like global population increases, outpacing water and supplies, using up energy…it’s like, whoa.
The idea and foundation of your theory is that when you pull on a few strings, you can see the whole fabric of society move. Do you think some of the cultural drivers parallel each other? Are some already interacting, intersecting and accelerating each other?
We’re fueling globalization yet we’re ignorant to it. We’re ignorant to the impact we’re having on the world. We build in areas where the human species is vulnerable to natural disasters. And then whom do we blame? No one. We know it’s our fault, but we carry on making the same mistakes. Our impact on the environment and natural disasters are coming together. We’re using up all the oil. We’re using up the water that slakes the thirst of so many people. But it doesn’t stop us. We’ve become a world of consumers–and that makes for a selfish society, doesn’t it?
Is your theory a cautionary tale of how our choices today might lead to nightmare scenarios tomorrow?
Well, the Coliseum wasn’t there for lollipops and laughs. It was there for men to fight animals and other men. The crowd wanted to be entertained, to watch that happen. It wasn’t long ago that people watched public executions on the street. We’re not far from that. Horror films are a good example. Horror films are a way for teenagers to confront sex and death in allegorical terms. But as you get older, your concerns about death widen and deepen. When we lie down at night alone, we think about it. It touches us in so many different ways. It scares us in so many different ways. Maybe we think that by looking at other people’s deaths, it helps us realize more about what it means to be alive and who we are. What does death mean to us? What is the end of life to us? What is the end for relatives and friends? What does it all really mean to us? I think even if people don’t realize it at first, that’s a major pull.
If you visit the killing fields of Cambodia, where there was a massacre of humans, you see all these skulls and it’s palpable. It’s powerful stuff. Same with Auschwitz. We can talk about Auschwitz. We can read about Auschwitz. We can look at photos. I haven’t been myself, but I hear it’s only when you go there, you know, that you can really experience the true essence of what happened there. Whether it’s a natural disaster area or a site of an atrocity, that kind of attraction really pulls people in because people love to contemplate death. People struggle and they need to ask questions of their own death.
Where do you put entertainment-meets-death concepts like zombies on the spectrum of dark tourism?
It’s still a part of dark tourism because it has that element of death, even if it’s a fun factor. People now have holidays where they go and partake in getting attacked by zombies. It’s like, “TV has given us that fantasy. Now I want to experience that in reality. I want to know what that’s like to be one of those guys on the Walking Dead and run away from zombies.” Even if just it’s for a fun time, it’s the idea of “I want to play with death. I want that experience.”
That is the idea behind HBO’s Westworld, which presents a Western playground of death populated by humanoid robots who can be killed over and over again without consequence. The show makes dark tourism seem like a fun fantasy, not a murder holiday.
The idea that life will get any easier in the future…I don’t know. Films like The Hunger Games–those dystopian films, they raise the question: What if that’s our future reality? And why can’t it be? And why wouldn’t it be if we’re portraying it that way now? Are we normalizing this behavior in the minds of people? You don’t see a lot of films portraying the future as being nice with everyone living in like a utopia.
It might be that over time we learn to live harmoniously on this planet. Perhaps we limit ourselves to our local resources and not much beyond, potentially. There is so much good in the world. People are protesting every day about things that they’re unhappy about. They want a better world. They want other people to be happy. They want issues and problems to be explored, discussed and debated. Why can’t that happen? That is the ideal way? Slowly, we find ways to live together.
You avoided ethnicity in your paper, but it will likely shape your future scenario. You may not say it’ll be rich white people shooting poor brown people in the future, but that’s what most readers will imagine.
I was never going to make this a racial issue. It doesn’t need to be a racial issue. In my mind it was never about white, black, Chinese, Italian, because we’re already quite multi-cultural.
You don’t think readers are imagining white people shooting people of color in the future?
I never stated where my closed environments might be. In my paper, though, there’s more of a contest between the global North and the global South. But I didn’t think I needed that racial element. Why would I? Will there be more of an ethnic battle in the future? I think it’s already here. We’ve got Syrians and Tunisians; we’ve got Northern Africans desperate to migrate. I guess that’s the thing–your ideas are driven by where you’re from, right?
Critics say you’re over-confident that humans will still be the dominant creatures on Earth in 2200. What if AI and robots turn out to be the real nightmare scenario, as Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates have alluded?
Robots hunting humans is an even bleaker scenario, but it’s just another future scenario, isn’t it? It’s funny. When I was writing the narrative of my scenario, I did consider that robots might be hunting humans. There might be humans in captivity released be hunted by robots for the entertainment of other humans. At the end of the day, I think that wealthy, elite humans will still be in charge. There will still be humans who continue to be in charge for some time to come. They won’t allow themselves to be ruled by robots—but they may use robots to control everyone else. The elites are already using technology to control us. Think about how drones watch over us. Why not have robots kill us? Maybe AI robots will take control and show us a better way. Maybe they’ll be like, “Do it this way, you fucking idiots.” (laughs)
Everyone talks about robots taking over and ruling the world in a bad way. But maybe they can show us a better path. There’s one for Hollywood: robots showing humans how to be better humans.