Overnight With The Dead In The Paris Catacombs
- [Helena] Oh my God. - Oh my God. There are bones everywhere. I don't know how many bodies this would be. Oh, did we go the wrong way? - [Helena] This is crazy. - [Aria] The fact that we're here like crawling on top of bones.
That's like something out of a horror movie. (ambient music) - [Narrator] Paris, France. City of light, city of love, city of... corpses? (sinister music) Five stories beneath the streets of this metropolis are the remains of some 6 million people, scattered throughout a massive network of underground tunnels and ossuaries commonly referred to as the "Catacombs of Paris". Today, over half a million tourists a year visit the one small part of the Catacombs open to the public. And while I certainly could have been one of them, I wanted an authentic Catacombs experience beyond the small fraction being seen by tourists.
Being the criminal that I am, I wanted to explore the labyrinth of closed tunnels that only a select few can navigate. That select few being a community of people known as "Cataphiles", adventurers who regularly explore the Catacombs, and who know the few remaining secret entrances that haven't been sealed by authorities. Furthermore, as an investigative filmmaker, I wasn't just drawn to the adventurous aspects of going into the Catacombs, but as well as my curiosity to understand more about this community of Cataphiles and the home they've made underneath Paris, hoping to get even just a small peak into their world. However, the Cataphiles are understandably a very closed and guarded community. As I experienced firsthand, when attempting to find a guide to take me into the Catacombs. After repeated failure in finding assistance and several hard feelings, it seemed as if the public tour was my only option, as it would've been incredibly reckless for me to go into this giant underground maze without a guide.
But just as my time in Paris was coming to a close, one of my sources came through. - [Pauline] Hey Aria, it's Pauline. So I just got the guy on the phone earlier and he's down to do it. (bright music) - [Narrator] So with less than a day's notice and accompanied by Helena Ernst, an American photographer that shared my fascination with the morbid, I was ready to dive into this once in a lifetime experience. Before meeting up with him, our guide had sent us a very extensive list of items to bring for our journey underground, including flashlights, long pants, water boots, and more.
- They're comfy. - Oh, I feel like that's too short. - [Helena] You think it's too short? - Yeah, it's too short. I feel like I need to protect up to my knees! - Thigh wader are €40.
- [Aria] You know what, we'll be fine. We'll be fine. - Yeah, we'll be fine. A little water doesn't kill anyone! - [Aria] Pretend you're wading in water. Oh, it's thick. The water's thick.
- It's cold. - [Aria] But are your feet wet? Are your feet wet though? - They're dry. Dry as a bone. - [Narrator] Our jovial nature was in large part helping to mask some of the fears that were beginning to surface, as we were certainly well aware of the risks that came with what we were about to do. Even if you ignore the accounts of previous deaths and trappings in the Catacombs, at the end of the day, I think it's safe to say that there is always a degree of danger when you're crawling through a claustrophobic underground maze. In fact, some say that Catacombs horror film "As Above, So Below" was partially inspired by an infamous internet video of a supposedly real found footage tape showing a man entering the Catacombs, and exploring them on his own, before seemingly going mad and disappearing.
While the authenticity of that video remains up for debate, what we did know for a fact was that in just a couple of hours, I would be underground, without signal, and being guided by a complete stranger who could absolutely rob me and leave me trapped down there. A fact I definitely made all too clear to my close friends on Instagram. - [Aria] What are your biggest fears going into the Catacombs? - Maybe being crushed by some cave ins. - I don't like the idea of, you know, us crawling somewhere and then uh oh, something falls down and then we're trapped and we're forced to eat each other. Do I have your consent? If you are to pass... - [Helena] You do have my consent.
- Yeah, really? - [Helena] Yeah. If I die first. - Yes, and likewise. If I die, you have my consent to... - [Helena] If neither of us die, it's a fight to the death.
- [Narrator] And after a quick stop to thrift some matching splunking outfits... - I look stupid. - [Aria] You look like Papa Smurf.
(they laugh) - [Narrator] ...soon enough, we were on our way to the meeting point our guide sent us to. - I'm nervous, I'm excited, but, you know, this is one of those times where it's really a once in a lifetime type of experience.
And again, don't do this. This is not me encouraging anyone to do this. You know, we're doing this with a trained guide, someone who's been kind enough to show us the ropes based on what he knows. You know, definitely don't go in there willy-nilly.
- [Narrator] In order to help maintain the secrecy of the Catacombs entrance we were brought to, I didn't film our initial meeting with our guide, and also kept my camera stowed away until we were already underground. But what I can tell you about our descent is that it involved crawling into a very tiny, very uncomfortable hole in the ground, and then roughly sliding down some craggy stone before landing in a puddle. However, once that discomfort passed, I was immediately taken by our surroundings. - We're here.
Oh, you hear that? An echo. That's how you know we're somewhere. - [Narrator] It also helped that by this point, we had spent a bit of time with our guide and another Cataphile who came along with him, both of whom were not only extremely experienced, but absolutely kind and helpful, immediately dispelling my fears of having my head cracked open, equipment robbed, and my remains becoming a tasty treat for the Parisian rat community. (he speaks French) (fast-paced classical music) - [Helena] This is crazy! - [Narrator] So I guess about now would probably be a good time for a brief little history lesson about this gigantic crypt I was now roaming through. In the late 18th century, Paris began to encounter public health issues caused by the cemeteries in the city and improperly buried bodies.
As a solution, authorities decided to move the human remains from some of the cemeteries to an underground location. But where oh where to? Well, quarries had been around in Paris since at least the 15th century, when they were used for their limestone. However, by the 18th century, the quarries had long been abandoned, leaving 800 hectors of tunnels snaking under the city. Well, what luck. And soon after the Tombe-Issoire quarries was chosen as the perfect place to relocate the deceased Parisians.
Between the year 1785 and 1787, the first group of remains were transferred into the quarry from Paris's largest cemetery. And on April 17th, 1786, the site was officially consecrated as the "Paris Municipal Ossuary" and transfers to the ossuary continued until 1814. It was during this period that the ossuary became known as the "Catacombs", a name which has never left it. - We are under Porte d'Arcueil, Boulevard Jourdan.
- [Helena] Have you ever gotten lost? - [Guide] Sometimes, but you are not alone a long time. - [Helena] Can you get out this way? - [Guide] No. (they laugh) It's locked. - From 1929.
- [Aria] Wow, graffiti from 1929. - [Helena] Wow. - [Guide] We are exactly under the "Orleans Gate". "Porte d'Orleans". - [Helena] Under the Metro? - Yes, yes. With all the cars, the tramway, and Metro.
No sound. No light. - [Helena] Wow. - [Narrator] I could easily ramble on about the dark past of these tunnels, but I also wanna stress more of my own emotional response to being there in person. Yet it is difficult to try and articulate the overwhelming sensation that came with the depth and scale of what we were experiencing. Being surrounded by history at every step, entombed amongst the dead, and marching through a place that only a tiny fraction of mankind will ever set foot. I mean, simply put, it was fucking surreal.
- You can wash your hands. - [Helena] Really? - It's the tradition. It's to wash your hands. - We're deep in there. - [Narrator] As we continued descending into this complex network of passages, we began finding ourselves in tighter spaces, feeling more chill in the air and a lot more water at our feet... - [Helena] Woo hoo.
- [Aria] Is it deep? - Yeah, it's in there. - [Aria] Is it in your- - Yep. - [Aria] ...and in our boots. - I can't even move my foot there's so much water in it. - Can see there.
It's in there. My socks are drenched. (Helena laughs) Oh, they have the waders! - [Helena] Yeah, that's what I told you. We should have got the waders. Thigh waders are €40 . - [Aria] You know what, we'll be fine.
We'll be fine. - Yeah, we'll be fine. A little water doesn't kill anyone! (they laugh) - [Narrator] But as we continue deeper into our journey, we were also getting more and more glimpses into the world of the Cataphiles, such as seeing the different salle, or rooms, they had built out and made into their own. - The name of the room is "Belier". Because there is a belier.
- That's fucking cool. - [Guide] As you can see, there's a table. - [Aria] Ah, benches. Benches.
- [Guide] Benches which are built by Cataphiles. - This would be a good room if you were a cult leader. - [Helena] So have you ever had sex down here? - [Guide] Uh, maybe! (they laugh) - [Helena] I feel like that's a bucket list item now. - [Narrator] After slogging through even more water, we were rewarded with seeing two of the room's most revered by Cataphiles. Starting with "La Plage". - [Aria] There are other Cataphiles here right now and Helena's feeling a little self-conscious.
- I am a little self-conscious. - [Aria] We look fucking great! - Do we look fucking great? Do we? I can't get it off! That is so much! You were walking around with that?! You freak! (they laugh) - [Narrator] In order to get to the next room, we had to navigate through a particularly maze-y route. However, despite the panic one might feel when possibly being lost underground... - [Guide] It's not exactly here.
- [Narrator] ...I'm gonna admit that I was never really ever in any fear, because by this point, I had complete faith in our guides and their knowledge of these passages. - [Guide] Ah! I was not so lost, okay? - [Narrator] May the Buddha bless them.
- No. Ahh! Oh my God, okay. - [Aria] Okay, okay. - [Helena] It's very small. - It's not too bad. It's like birth all over again.
(Helena laughs) That's bloody. - [Helena] Okay. Is there more? (they laugh) - [Aria] Oh wow, it is getting smaller. - Oh. - [Helena] Oh my gosh! It's a movie theater! - [Guide] Yeah, it's a cinema.
You have benches. There are some projections of films. The film, "Leon". - The name of this room is "Cinema" but there is another name which is "Soleil", "The Sun" and "The Sun" is for this.
And here you have many, many names of old Cataphiles which participate to restore Catacombs. Especially "The Rats." It's a crew very, very famous in Catacombs. - [Narrator] By this point, I think it's clear that I was already more than happy with what I'd been able to see and do.
And so I was caught off guard when our guides then told us that they were actually taking us to an ossuary, a room where we could see some of the very skeletal remains that make these infamous Catacombs what they are. - Wait, so we're going up there? - [Guide] You will have a lot of surprises. - Okay. (they laugh)
- [Aria] Oh wow. There are bone... Oh my God, there are bones everywhere. Me and Helena asked for bones.
I mean, there's actually no words for it. It's just, it's... I don't know how many bodies this would be. I mean, I'm just making sure it's respectful. I mean, it's just like, I mean there's one there.
- Holy shit. Oh my god. This is a lot of femur, isn't it? Oh my god.
A pelvis. Cool. Wait, I love it. This is the best part. This is what I was waiting for! That's not a knee? That's gotta be a knee.
Wow. We have to crawl over the bones? - We're literally crawling over piles of bones which I really didn't think we were gonna do tonight. This is... - [Helena] This is crazy. - Oh yeah, I just put my hand on someone's...
It's a skull. Oh, I feel bad. There are just pieces of bones and more pieces of skull everywhere. - [Helena] Wow. I feel bad crawling on it. Sorry.
- As a Buddhist... In Buddhism, it's very disrespectful to put your feet above anyone's head or anything like that. - Oh, right, right, right. - And so, you know, especially in Southeast Asian culture too, in general, like putting your feet above someone's head is very very disrespectful. So the fact that I'm like... I feel actually pretty bad just like walking on top of like these heads and body parts with my feet.
But I mean, it is part of the experience, I understand. But definitely part of me is like, oh man. - They would want you to do it. - I don't if they would, but... Oh, wow. - What? - It's a hip. Isn't it a hip?
- [Helena] Wow. Cool! - Oh wow, wow, wow. - This is so amazing. - Oh my god. Yeah, and it never ends.
- This is crazy. Holy shit. This is crazy. - [Helena] Wow! This is amazing! - Dust everywhere. Worst case scenario, if I couldn't find a Cataphile tonight to take us down, I said maybe I'll just do the, you know, the regular touristy Catacombs tour, which you should all do 'cause you shouldn't be doing this. So go do the tourist one.
But I thought I'd do that. And I know when I see pictures and videos of the tourist version of the Catacomb experience, there's a lot of skulls there. But when I normally see other videos of people exploring the Catacombs the Cataphile way, there aren't so many bones.
And so I did not expect to see, again, all these bones. The fact that we're here like crawling on top of bones, that's like something out of a horror movie. So this whole quarter, what would you say that is probably in length? - [Helena] I think a hundred meters? - [Aria] Since the light's there, it means they haven't abandoned us yet. How terrifying would that be? - [Helena] Don't even say that! We've gotten deep in like, we're not getting out. - Obviously, you know, it's very tempting to be like, oh, you know, let's take a bone or a skull home as a souvenir or something.
But I was saying, if everyone had that mentality, again, that contributes to kind of like the disrespect and destruction of this place. Like if I were just to grab this skull, and be like, ah. I mean like, let's be honest, this skull on my shelf would look fucking awesome, right? I mean, what a story. But of course as he says, you know, like he said. First off, the reason why there's so many more like, I don't know, just like these limb bones.
These other bones but not very many like whole skulls because people keep stealing the skulls. Being underneath Paris surrounded by bones, you know, as darkly curious travelers, darkly curious civilians. I mean you can't get any better than this, honestly. - [Narrator] Oh, but it can get better.
As our guides were sure to prove by taking us to another ossuary nearby. A smaller ossuary, yet one still packed full of bones. - [Aria] Wow! And then I'm gonna turn this off. All right, total darkness. - [Narrator] Look, I've been lucky enough to experience many incredible things as a filmmaker.
And perhaps what I'm going to say next will sound hyperbolic or saccharine. But as I record this narration months later, I can now look back and confirm with the clarity of hindsight that it was at this very moment that I knew that those precious few hours I'd spent underneath the streets of Paris, would become one of the greatest and most indelible memories of my life. (Helena exhales) - [Aria] Wow. We're back again. I don't know how long we were silent for but it felt like it went by so incredibly fast.
There was a moment where I thought, man, if our lights were to die, and that's like our existence underneath here in darkness, that'd be terrifying. But it wasn't. And then we turned it back on and that was a beautiful experience. - [Narrator] As if this night hadn't already blown away all my expectations, our wonderful, beautiful and generous guides had one final surprise in store for us. - [Aria] Did we go the wrong way? - [Narrator] Assuming we could find our way there. (classical music) (he groans) - Today it's really been like the ending of that movie "Men".
Just repeated... - [Helena] (laughs) Birthing through stone. - Yeah, I watched the movie. - [Helena] Oh no.
- [Narrator] After getting back on the right path, we were taken to L'Hotel, an intimate room used by Cataphiles to eat, sleep and relax, and a place where our guides had actually stashed hammocks, food, cookware, and even ambient lighting, to ensure that we got the very best of French hospitality. - This is nice. Get in, get in. - [Aria] I'm not too sure because it's gonna break.
(they laugh) That's comfy. - Wow. This is crazy.
This is so much fancier than I expected the dinner to be. - [Narrator] And of course, I broke out some treats of of my own. - Celebrate. We can celebrate tonight. (bright music) - [Guide] Open your mouth.
- [Aria] Ah, party lights! (Helena laughs) - [Narrator] Perhaps there was a lack of oxygen reaching my brain at this point, or perhaps I was just intoxicated by the company and the night I'd had, but I'm telling you right now, with all sincerity, that that? That was the tastiest goddamn crepe I've ever had. - [Helena] Cave crepe, cave crepe. - This was "The CataBurger".
Pasta carbonara. - That's amazing! Second crepe. What a dream! - What a wonderful experience. What a treat. (they laugh) - [Helena] You don't like it? - Nope.