Last week, 41-year-old Aaron Joel Mitchell broke through a security perimeter during the nine-day Burning Man Festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to throw himself into the middle of a blazing fire. At this time, it remains unknown whether he'd ingested a drug, but hospital personnel who tried to save him said there was no evidence of alcohol abuse.
It’s possible that he’d sought an extraordinary spiritual experience via death-by-fire. He wouldn’t be the first, and some such suicides require specific rituals and locations.
This is one of two forms of “suicide tourism.” (The other involves traveling to a country where euthanasia or assisted suicide is legal.) A person decides to die in a specific place, often an impressive bridge, a natural wonder, a spiritual location, or a famous building. Some of these “suicide shrines” acquire reputations as suicide magnets. Among them are the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the London Underground, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Australia’s Gap Park, Britain’s Beachy Head cliffs, Japan’s Aokigahara Woods, either side of Niagara Falls, and the Empire State Building.
Similar to the type of contagion deaths that a celebrity’s suicide can trigger, a single romanticized suicide at a certain type of place can precipitate many more. An aura builds up, primed by the poetic romance of despair, which can be attractive to people already at risk for self-annihilation. For example, in 1933, a 21-year-old woman, grieving over a forbidden love, jumped into the crater at Mount Mihara. She’d left a poignant farewell note. The Japanese media published it, attracting people to the site. From the top of the active crater, they could see the lava. During that same year, the emotionally charged narrative attracted more than 900 others (mostly males) to perform similar fatal feats, with more to come.
Other volcanoes have a similar draw. This past July, Leo Adonis, 38, left a suicide note in a backpack at the Crater Rim Trail near the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii. His body was found near the bottom, after a drop of 250 feet. In 1998, a group of 30 was foiled from committing a mass suicide on Tenerife’s Teide Volcano. They had expected to transform into spiritual beings to travel by spaceship to join others in their cult at a better place.
Sometimes, the suicidal person seeks an audience, or media attention. Certainly, a popular festival provides this. The sheriff who spoke about Mitchell’s Burning Man death estimated that about 50,000 people had gathered to watch the 50-foot wooden effigy go up in flames. Several had recorded Mitchell’s final moments, not quite believing what they were seeing.
Although suicides are quite rare for the festival, a few years ago, at the regional Element 11 festival in Grantsville, a three-story wooden effigy that resembled a creature from Where the Wild Things Are was set to flames. It burned for half an hour, to the delight of more than one thousand festival participants. Then around 11 PM, Christopher Wallace broke through a safety barrier, danced wildly, and ran full speed into the flames. Wallace had warned people that day of his plan. Grantsville police reviewed video footage from witnesses before deciding that his death had been a deliberate act.
So, what’s in a location? Some have romantic or mystical stories attached, making them magnets for the depressed or heartbroken. Some present “certain death” drops too far to survive. Some provide a “suicide identity,” in that the suicidal person is joining a “community” of others who have gone before in that same place, so he or she is not alone. Some will generate publicity, lifting the person from a feeling of being a nonentity, and others seem to be portals of transformation or enlightenment. The choice can depend, in part, on the person’s beliefs and needs.