Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort. / Stop! Here lies the empire of death.
These are the menacing words that greet you at the very entrance of the Paris Catacombs, warning you of the mass of death that lurks within its dark tunnels. Visitors must enter at their own discretion, mindful of any sensitivity to macabre or morbid images — but that certainly doesn’t stop it from being one of the biggest tourist attractions of Paris.
Inside these stone walls are the remains of over six million people from centuries past. Real human bones and skulls line the tunnels and are arranged into strange decorations that have attracted the interest of spooky-loving tourists for generations. This considered, it doesn’t come as a surprise to hear that paranormal activity, myth, and spooky lore are not far and unheard of when it comes to the Paris Catacombs.
Today, the Paris Catacombs hold an air of great mystery and intrigue for the curious tourist and travel junkie. In the beginning, however, these tunnels were used as a means of storage for the millions of remains that were transferred from the city’s cemeteries in the mid eighteenth century. Around this time, the population of Paris was booming and growing prosperous, causing cemeteries to begin filling up quickly and dead bodies to pile up with nowhere to put them. The smell and presence of decomposing flesh aggravated the Parisian public, spreading rampant disease in marketplaces and public places — and the city needed to do something fast. Thus, the Paris Catacombs were born, later becoming the very vessel that would transform Paris into the charming “city of love” that it is today, through tourism and thoughtful marketing.
The Lost Tourists
The Paris Catacombs extend to an estimated 320 kilometers, which would roughly equal about 200 miles. The tour only takes you around 2 kilometers — which takes about forty-five minutes. Now, ninety percent of the Catacombs are abandoned and forbidden to enter, as some parts remain uncharted territory that has never been mapped. That’s hours and hours of pitch-dark tunnels filled with nothing but human bones. That being said, if you’re not being careful while wandering with your group or on your own, you could end up like one of the missing tourists whose cases remain unresolved today.
Cataphiles are people who roam around the Catacombs illegally, entering through secret entrances. Not surprisingly, many of these trespassers end up getting lost and disoriented and soon go missing. In 2017, two teenage boys went missing for three days and were found safe but suffering from hypothermia. Others who have been unofficially documented also end up being found after a few days. While most missing persons usually are found before disaster strikes, there are also the rare cases where people aren’t so lucky.
One famous missing-persons story is of an unknown man who filmed his exploration of the Catacombs. His camera was discovered by a passerby and taken back up to the surface where the tape was examined by experts. The footage below shows him walking around the tunnels alone until he soon begins panicking over something unknown — perhaps the dawning realization that he was hopelessly lost, or maybe he saw or heard something threatening that made him fear for his life? The footage ends with the camera being dropped into a puddle of water, abandoned until it eventually ran out of batteries. Whatever it was, experts believe he never made his way out, as no body or other evidence was ever found.
In a place where millions of the dead rest in dark, damp corridors, the paranormal love to play. Tourists and locals alike have reported mysterious happenings in the depths of the Parisian tunnels such as ghostly voices and footsteps being heard and seen in the distance. Shadow figures are commonly seen wandering the tunnels — perhaps still looking for a way out. Many swear that after midnight, there are “disembodied voices that will try to persuade you to venture deeper into the Catacombs until you can’t find your way out.” Are these the lost ghosts of the six million people luring more victims to spend their last night on earth?
Ghost stories of the Catacombs date back to the Georgian era, with one of the most famous hauntings being that of Philibert Aspairt. A doorman at the Val-de-Grace Hospital during the French Revolution, Aspairt wandered, probably accidentally, into the Paris Catacombs when he intended to fetch some liqueur from a cellar. Aspairt’s candle blew out shortly after, leaving him in pitch black darkness and in total confusion. With no way to escape, Aspairt died without hope of being found until eleven years later, when a group of cataphiles uncovered his body and identified him by the doorman’s key still hanging on his belt. To this day, there are people who claim that Philibert Aspairt haunts the Catacombs every year on November 3rd.
Several myths circulate the Paris Catacombs, ranging from creepy to downright absurd. For one, many enthusiasts believe that a secret hideout lurks underneath the tunnels. For what? No one knows. The only evidence of this myth occurred when a group of police officers began exploring the restricted areas of the Catacombs until they began finding strange, unexplained things. A tape replaying the sounds of barking dogs over and over. Then the most bizarre of all — a cinema, bar, living area, workshop, and lounge all within the abandoned stone tunnels. They even noticed cameras in the corners that seemed to be recording their every move. When they went back with an investigation crew, everything was gone, almost as if it had never been there at all. The only proof that something had been there was a handwritten note that read, “Ne cherchez pas,” meaning, “Don’t search.” Someone — or a group of people – must have been watching them through the cameras and probably moved their hideout somewhere deeper into the tunnels where no one would dare to look after that ghastly warning. Shivers.
Honestly, even after hearing all these myths and ghost stories, one of the creepiest things to me about the Paris Catacombs is the fact that upon your exit, you are searched to make sure that you have not brought any bones with you. Seriously. That had to have been a pretty big issue to make them that cautious. Who in their right mind would want to bring an old and most likely haunted human kneecap or leg bone home with them? Yeah… I’ll just get an “I ♡ Paris” mug as a souvenir instead.
By the way, if you’d like to explore the Catacombs but don’t have the means for going all the way to Paris right now, then you’re in luck. You can take a virtual tour of the Catacombs for free on the Paris Catacombs website. Happy exploring!