Thriller Thursday: The Catacombs of Paris

Thursday, September 1, 2011




Some of you know the storm drains of Las Vegas--an underground labyrinth of dark, dank flood channels doubling as housing for the city's homeless population--plays an important role in my novel Light and Dark. Hidden tunnels have always fascinated me. History is full of them, but none are more famous than the Catacombs of Paris.

The official name for the macabre place is "les Carrieres de Paris," or The Quarries of Paris. The underground chamber once served as limestone quarries in the Roman era and was converted into burial ground near the end of the 18th century.

18th century Paris was at the heart of the enlightenment. The city is bustling and the population is on the rise. Voltaire called the city "the whipped cream of Europe." But the place was dirty and stinky, and no social class went unaffected. Garbage littered the streets and provided a delicious fodder for the rats. Streets had open drains, and the sewers were filled with trash and human waste. The few public toilets were rare and usually overflowing. Disease ran rampant, and more people died than were born.

Victims of the black plaque, epidemics, starvations, of all the wars since the Middle Ages rest in the city's 200 cemeteries, piled up on several levels in the mass graves of the churches. Every day, new cadavers join the previous ones. Paris is flooded by the dead, the odor is unbearable. -- The Paris Catacombs

The entire city fought disease, but the Les Halles district was at the epicenter due to contamination caused by improper burials in church graveyards, particularly the Saints Innocents Cemetery, known as Les Innocents, (yes, the same one Anne Rice used in the Vampire Lestat). It had been used for nearly ten centuries and an estimated 80,000 cadavers were added during the last thirty years of the monarchy. In order to stave off the disease, city officials decided to remove the bones and house them in the abandoned quarries.

Anonymous painting of Les Innocents.

The removal of the bones began in April, 1786. Work was done under the cover of night and chanting priests accompanied the procession. The quarries were used to collect the bones from all the cemeteries of Paris until 1814.

The catacombs began as a bone repository but in 1810, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury began renovations to transform the caverns in to a visitable internment. He directed the relocation of skulls and femurs in the arrangements seen today and used the tombstones and cemetery decorations brought over from the old graveyards to complement the walls of bones.


Naturally legend and lore abound in the catacombs. Victor Hugo used his knowledge about the system in Les Miserables. The dead from the riots in the Place de Greve, the Hotel de Brienne, and Rue Meslee reside in the catacombs. Walls are decorated with graffiti dating back to the 18th century. During WW11, Parisian members of the French Resistance used the tunnel system to hide.


The underground system is a structural nightmare. The tunnels are carefully monitored and consolidation work continues. Because of the various safety issues, only a small portion of the quarries is open to the public. The system is complex and confusing. Some tunnels do have plaques indicating the name of the street above, but it's very easy to get lost among the bones. Although it's illegal to access the catacombs unescorted, secret entrances exist throughout the city. The system is accessible via the sewers, metro, and certain manholes.


And there are people who would love to explore the hidden system, myself included. As dark and sad as it may be, hundreds of years of history lies beneath the city of Paris. Journalist Matt O'Brien and author of Beneath The Neon: Life and Death in the Las Vegas Tunnels, told me the Quarries of Paris were high on his list to explore some day.


What about you? Would you venture underground to see the bones of the past?



21 comments:

Kelly Hashway said...

Creepy but very cool. I've gone through underground caves before that were completely dark but I've never been in catacombs.

catherinemjohnson said...

Wow that's fascinating! I've been to one famous french cemetry Père-Lachaise. I love Les Mis, how interesting about Victor Hugo.

cynthiarobertson said...

I've been Italy's catacombs, but didn't get the chance to visit the ones in Paris when we were there. I wish we had, but the Eiffel tower and Louvre beckoned.
We did visit one of the big, above ground graveyards in Paris...Montparnasse. Maupassant and Baudelaire are buried there. And a lot of other famous folks.

This reads like an interesting article in a magazine, Becky. Nice, authoritive style. And fascinating topic.

Girl Parker said...

That's crazy fascinating! Thanks for sharing, Stacy. I only knew they existed, but had no idea they had such a backstory.

catierhodes.com said...

I'd tour the catacombs. But, then, I'll do anything that's freaky. I love your research on this post. I had never heard of this, and now you've got me interested in digging. I wonder if any pictures exist. Delicious, delicious research.

I would guess there are no markings identifying the remains. I would guess this is like a mass grave. That is so weird and interesting.

Julie Glover said...

Absolutely, I'd go there! History is never so fascinating as when you stand or walk right where it happened. The stories come alive with visual reminders and one's imagination. What an intriguing place to go. Wonderful post, Stacy.

Julie Farrar said...

I've always wanted to do one of those Paris catacomb tours, but haven't managed to fit it in yet.

Stacy said...

Kelly
I haven't been in caves in about 10 years, but it's something I'd love to do again. Last one I was in was Crystal Cave, it was very cool. Thanks!

Catherine
I'm jealous; I've never been to Paris. I love Les Mis as well - I've seen it performed three times. Never ceases to impress. Thanks! Again, jealous. Would love to see the Paris cemeteries. Thanks!

Cynthia
I don't know much about Italy's catacombs - will have to look those up. Totally understand choosing the Louvre and Eiffel Tower first though.

Stacy said...

You're welcome, Girl! I didn't know much about the back story until I started researching. Thanks!

Catie
You and I would thoroughly enjoy the catacombs! I don't know about your hubby, but Rob would be running scared, lol. Lots of pics out there. Thanks, and glad you enjoyed!

Julie
I feel the same about history. I wish I had the time and money to take a year and travel to all the amazing historical places in the world. Thanks so much!

Julie
You'll have to me know if you ever make it to the catacombs. Thanks for commenting!

Laura Pauling said...

Catacombs are fascinating. Have you read Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly. Incredible story based in the past and present of Paris. Amazing. :)

Stacy said...

Laura
I haven't read that but I will be now. Thanks for the heads up! Glad you enjoyed the post:)

Donna Galanti said...

Stacy, loved this! I have a national geographic mag. from the past year that also does a huge spread on the underground life in the Paris catacombs - fascinating with the history and underworld there now. Here is the online story:

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/02/paris-underground/shea-text

yikici said...

Stacy, this was very interesting, I have not been to the catacombs but a few years back I visited a place in Turkey, Cappadocia, where most houses and churches were made out of volcanic ash. There was a church with dwelling below it, we crept down tunnels to wander through its maze -I have to say I freaked out at one point, but it was definitely interesting and I got great pics from that holiday; would I do it again, probably visit the region, not sure about walking through the underground tunnels...

Jessica R. Patch said...

I would venture underground for that, for sure. You write the best stuff! I love the wealth of cool knowledge you have!

Also, I must have Twilight on the brain b/c when you said, "Voltaire," I thought you meant the "Voltari" and then I thought, "When did they say that?" LOL It took a second and few swallows of coffee to get my brain going again!

Stacy said...

Donna
Thanks so much for that link! Looks fascinating. The graffiti reminds me of what's in the Vegas tunnels - some amazing artists.

Yikici
Matt O'Brien mentions Cappadocia in Beneath the Neon - he actually compares one of the drains to it. Very interesting, and sounds like a fascinating place. Going down there would be disorienting, but I think would be like walking bak in time. Very cool. Thanks!

Jessica
Thanks so much! I do a lot of research, lol. Ah, Twilight. Hard to escape, isn't it? Glad you enjoyed the post!

ellieannsoderstrom said...

I got to go to the Capuchin Crypt in Rome. It was a spiritual experience for me, and I'd love to go to these Parisian catacombs. Great post!!
-Ellie Ann

Stacy said...

Another place I would love to go. I can only imagine what the experience was like. Thanks so much for sharing!

tiffanyawhite said...

I would absolutely go to the Catacombs of Paris! Are you kidding me?

On a funny note, and relating back to TV because you know me, I first fell in love with the idea of exploring catacombs when I was a little girl watching General Hospital with my Mimi. I remember Frisco (Jack Wagner) hiding out down there....I thought if I could go down to the catacombs, I could be with Frisco. I was in love with him. I had his cassette tape and everything. You know, the one with "All I Need" - I'm a huge dork.

Stacy said...

Tiffany
That's so sweet! I can remember watching Guiding Light with my grandma, but I had to be really quiet. You didn't dare talk during the story, lol. LOL, Jack Wagner was cute back then, and I loved that song!
Thanks!

jamilajamison said...

Absolutely fascinating, Stacy! I've known about the catacombs in Rome (and I've wanted to visit those for aaaages now), but I hadn't heard of the ones in Paris. I love hearing about how they have served as inspiration for writers throughout the years. :D

Stacy said...

Thanks, Jamila. Glad you enjoyed it. Yes, the catacombs have been an inspiration for many. Hugo is my favorite, of course. It's just such a mystical place, I can't imagine what it would be like to see in person.

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