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Dark Tourism: The subversive world of the Paris Catacombs


As Robert McFarlane writes in his claustrophobic account of traversing the labyrinth of interconnected chambers below Paris, much of the city was “built from its own underland”. The earth on which Paris is built is rich in Limestone, a rock that was extensively quarried in order to build parts of Notre Dame Cathedral and the Louvre.

The popularity of limestone – in Paris, but also in France as a whole – left a trail of hollows and caverns that, over the centuries have been extended and reappropriated for various covert and subversive reasons. The most famous of these are the Catacombs themselves, which, if you find yourself on 1 Av. du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, you can explore with the help of an informed guide. However, these underground ossuaries, which hold the remains of over six million people, form only a small section of the sprawling web of tunnels that make up one of the biggest invisible cities on the planet. Indeed, as the author Victor Hugo famously wrote of his beloved city: Paris has “another Paris under herself.” Entry to the majority of this subterranean city is illegal, but that hasn’t stopped Paris’ fringe network of self-proclaimed Cataphiles from venturing into its depths, risking their lives and sanity to explore this realm of dreams.

If you’re lucky, and if you speak to the right people, you’ll be able to get a map of the Paris Catacombs. I’m not talking about the tourist map you can get for two Euros at the entrance to ‘The Catacombs of Paris’, I mean the 16-page document that has been illegal to possess or sell since 1955, when entrance into the hidden city was first criminalised. Such maps are mind-boggling in their detail, featuring an array of surreal place names, with ‘Crossroads of the Dead’, ‘The Boutique of Psychosis’, and ‘The Chamber of Phantoms’, being just a few of the most chilling examples. The first cartographer to put together a map of the hidden city was Charles-Axel Guillaumot, who was commissioned by Louis XVI in 1774 after one of the city’s ancient quarries caved in, swallowing up houses, shops, pedestrians and horses in one immense gulp. It was also Guillaumot who was responsible for transforming the vacant quarries speckled beneath the city into storage units for Paris’ endless supply of human corpses.

By the 18th century, despite efforts to maximise space by digging down into the Roman burial crypts beneath the Christian cemeteries, Paris’ burial sites were literally overflowing with the remains of the dead. Indeed, Saint-Innocents cemetery was so packed that one of the basements of an adjoining property caved in under the weight of the corpses behind it. In 1786, the exhumation and re-burial of the dead began, continuing well into the 19th century. During this period, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to see one of the horse-drawn funerary wagons tasked with hauling the remains of the surrounding cemeteries trundling through the streets of Paris.

An accessible tourist area of the Paris Catacombs. (Credit: Chelms Varthoumlien)

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Catacombs went an even more unlikely transformation. After finding a doorway into one of the crypts, a group of Parisian mushroom farmers discovered the dark dank tunnels were the perfect place to grow their fungi. By 1940 there were something like 2000 mushroom farmers working below Paris, at which time the Catacombs were reappropriated by the French Resistance following the occupation. Indeed, it would be here that Josephine Baker, the infamous dancer-turned-spy, would be taught to shoot a pistol by resistance fighters. Following the liberation of Paris, the Catacombs became home to individuals looking to pursue illicit pleasures; or perhaps to disappear completely. Subsequently, the Paris government prohibited entry in 1955, setting up a specialist police force known as ‘Cataflics or ‘Catacops’ responsible for patrolling the tunnels, and sealing many of the entrances. But, that has by no means stopped Cataphiles from accessing the underground city via one of the 80 or so secret doorways located around Paris, most of which are accessible through sewers, the Metro, or manholes.

The Catacombs aren’t what you’d call welcoming. Many of the tunnels are incredibly claustrophobic and, in some cases, flooded – forcing individuals to wade through waist-high water. What’s more, the Cataflics continue to arrest around 100 Cataphiles a week. So why the obsession? If the sheer number of Parisian subcultures that populate the Catacombs are anything to go by, it would seem the hidden city offers individuals somewhere to experiment, to transcend categorisation, and to explore new ways of being.

Underground places have always been primed for subversion, just look at Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; a book that sees the titular Alice enter an entirely illogical world via a hole in the ground, and which, rather revealingly, was originally titled Alice’s Adventures Underground. Likewise, The Anarchist theorist Hakim Bey has described the Paris Catacombs as a “temporary autonomous zone”, where individuals are able to liberate themselves from the political, gender, and social structures of the upper world. Cataphile networks around Paris tend to function in an equally transgressive way, ensuring that nothing is bought or sold between individuals, meaning that the only acceptable modes of transaction for, say, maps, are barter-exchange or gifting.

As well as being home to countless murals and art installations, the Catacombs have been home to illegal raves, a pop-up cinema, and even an official ‘University of The Catacombs’ dedicated to the preservation and mapping of the network. Admittedly, while they are hard to come by, maps are an essential commodity to the Cataphile, offering explorers the opportunity to venture into the subterranean depths without fear of losing their way, the threat of which – judging by the number of horror stories – is very real indeed. And yet, the Paris Catacombs continues to be regarded as a place, not of death, but of sanctuary; a zone where even the wildest imaginings might seem perfectly plausible.

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