GHOST: The Catacombs of Paris Entry and Photograph by Valentina Flora Angelucci

I love horror movies. Part of what makes them so great is the frustration you feel at a character when you know they are about to do something stupid, like walk into a dark forest, or explore an abandoned building. This happens because in these cases curiosity trumps logic. But we all know what curiosity did to the cat…

Not too long ago I found myself standing in the dark in front of a heavy stone door way with a sign above it that read “Arrete! C’est ici l’empire de la mort”. As the story goes, I followed my morbid fascination and walked through the threshold, casually shrugging off the sign warning me that I was about to enter the realm of the dead. I guess I felt I was in too deep already anyway, 20m underground and I didn’t want to walk back up all those stairs. The only solution was through the 2km tunnel that lay ahead of me, one of the largest ossuaries in the world, the Catacombs of Paris.

Don’t worry it wasn’t as scary as it sounds; dark and gloomy is not scary when you are surrounded by so many tourists. Clearly my morbid fascination is not so unusual. Despite the tourists, the catacombs themselves are strangely beautiful and compelling. The walls are lined with neatly stacked and categorized bones, forming a dense enclosure from the remains of over 6 million people who lived in 18th century Paris. There are the usual elements you’d find in any mausoleum – poems carved in stone, marble fonts and archway – and then there are the more quirky elements – skulls embedded in bone walls to form a heart shape. Clearly someone had a sense of humor about the interior decorating.

Jokes aside, this curious ossuary came about as a practical response to serious problems facing Paris at the time. Paris was developed over large regions of limestone buried deep in the ground. This limestone was mined to create the beautiful structures of Paris that we still admire today such as the Notre Dame. One of the results of this intense mining effort was a network of deep underground tunnels, many of which began to collapse and cave in as a result of the city growing above it. Another problem facing the city was the huge overcrowding of cemeteries, and the subsequent spreading of disease and illness. These problems turned out to be complimentary, with the one resolving the other, filling the tunnels with bones.

After the 2km underground walk (it’s difficult for me to even walk 2km above ground I’m so unfit) and the hike back up the stairs I reemerged on the charming streets of Paris, happy to find myself only 2 doors away from my own apartment building. What a relief! It was less of a relief when I couldn’t sleep that night knowing 6 million, long-dead people slept just below me. And at 12pm there were no tourists to buffer my curiosity and distract from my fascination…