David Bouchier: Strange Encounters

Jan 28, 2019

Perhaps the most curious phenomenon of tourism is the journey to see an event or situation that no longer exists, and perhaps never existed. This is as old as history. Pilgrims have always journeyed to places where religious visions might or might not have appeared, or famous people might or might not have been buried. But the ubiquitous cellphone has given it a new dimension of strangeness. The goal is not simply to visit nonexistent sights but to photograph them, preferably with one’s own face in the foreground. Above all it is about participating in the world of movies. Tourists want to visit a place where something was once filmed in order to film it again, minus whatever made it interesting in the original film.

Here’s an example. The small village of Porthothnan in Cornwall, England, was used as the setting for the popular romantic TV series called "Poldark." The stars and camera crews have long since departed, but the village is inundated and almost choked by fans who come to see where the stars were, and take pictures of the empty beach and the empty harbor. Another victim of this strangely vampiric form of tourism is Dubrovnik in Croatia, used as background in "Game of Thrones." The small port is absolutely overwhelmed by camera-toting people who perhaps imagine that they are taking a trip back to the Dark Ages and might meet the ghost of Lord Eddard. Millions go to Hollywood to see where old movies were made, and streets where and forgotten stars once walked.

On a more humble level a home repair show called "Fixer Upper" has made the small town of Waco, Texa, famous – as if it wasn’t famous enough already. Over two million visitors have made the pilgrimage. Everybody who's attempted to do real home improvement knows that it is just about the most tedious and unromantic task in the universe. But on television, apparently, it’s magic.

The magic of the screen is powerful. Pilgrims, for that’s what we must call them, come from great distances and go to great expense to see what isn’t there. Visitors travel all the way from China and Korea to photograph some chalk cliffs in England that were once featured in "Harry Potter." 

This is all perfectly harmless, of course, unless you fall over the cliff or drown in Poldark’s romantic cove. But it is interesting because it shows how many people believe that movies are somehow really real. This is deep, supernatural pagan stuff, but not hard to understand. It is a quest, in the historic sense of the word – like the quest for the Holy Grail. It’s a perennial theme of stories from "The Epic of Gilgamesh" and Homer’s "Odyssey" all the way to "Indiana Jones" and "Lord of the Rings." The child in all of us loves a treasure hunt and when we grow up and discover that all the real treasure is locked up in the bank we may look for a purpose elsewhere. These tourists are on a quest for something seen but unseen, real but unreal and, unlike the heroes of ancient times, they usually find what they are looking for – the very place where the illusion was created. Then they can take a selfie, and become part of the illusion themselves.

Copyright: David Bouchier