The scariest part of the Paris Catacombs around Halloween is the warning before you even get to the ticket booth. “Not for people with heart conditions or who have nervous dispositions.”
What do they consider a nervous disposition? I scan the sign but there’s no indication. And heart condition? A few weeks ago, after inhaling a pile of tacos, I felt like a giant was using my heart as his personal stress ball. Thump, thump, the-ump.
How embarrassing would it be if I had grabber (heart attack) in the tunnel and tried to tell one of the guides. “Je suis malade! Mon coeur, mon coeur!” (Or is it ma coeur?)…
Madam. Did you not read the signs?
These chicly dressed guides I envision laugh at my pronunciation and shovel my corpse on top of a bone wall as a warning for thoughtless tourists and travellers who dare go into the catacombs with occasional bouts of heartburn.
“Do you think you could handle this?” The Husband points to the sign making my already-nervous disposition grow ever more … nervous.
“Shoot, I don’t know. Once, I cried at a haunted house, until the clown took off his mask to show me he was a normal guy. Only he had no teeth. I started screaming and we had to be escorted out.”
“But that was when you were a kid.”
“That was two years ago.”
I mentally list all the Totally BadAss Things I survived, excluding haunted houses. Trapeze. Cliff diving. White water rafting. A high school that could have been the setting for Dangerous Minds: metal detectors, roaches, knife-wielding teenagers and all. Like I said, Total BadAss.
A badass who just happens to have a nervous disposition.
So are the Catacombs really that scary?
Yes and no. The line is definitely scary. At least an hour and a half long, it wrapped around the block and we had to walk sheepishly past all the early birds who paid attention to the paragraph in the guidebook that recommends getting there when it opens at 8:00 am.
The remains aren’t that scary. And there’s a disappointing lack of orbs in my photos, so I don’t think it’s haunted. Come to think of it, if I were a ghost, I wouldn’t want to hang out there either. Too cliche.
What happens on the tour?
Tour guides lead you into the tunnel and then you’re left to explore. It’s a tight space. Now is not the time to do your zombie impression.
They allow flash photography in the beginning of the 2km tunnel, but once you get to the actual remains it’s prohibited, probably to prevent goofy, look-at-me-posing-next-a-skull-profile pics. As the lighting is dim nonexistent, I recommend taking practice photos in a closet and getting all your settings down.
You walk and walk and don’t see any bones, not even a rogue tibia or clavicle.
Then you come upon this freaky wall with the inscription: “Here is the Empire of the Dead,” and a warning about dropping your voice to a whisper (Americans, I think this is meant just for us). Beyond the wall, rows and rows of meticulously stacked bones.
As this is Paris, beautiful poetic expressions mark the burials:
I am proud to say I handled it better than the little kid behind me who sobbed uncontrollably, the entire time. His mom dragged him through complaining under her breath, knowing full well this little experience will end up in his future biography, The Catacombs Killer: I Blame Mother.
Now let’s get serious
You probably think I am a morbid mall goth for listing the catacombs one of my favorite attractions from the Great French Travel Adventure.
But the enormity of it blew me away. Visitors only see a slice of the underground burial network and it goes on so long, it actually gets boring.
If I see another skeleton, so help me…
Neatly stacked bones after neatly stacked bone. Nobility next to pheasants, men and women. Doesn’t matter what race or what nationality or how they died or how much money they had or didn’t have. They are neatly organized, but not individualized.
When you take away our successes, our failures, our clothes, relationships, countries, we’re all human. In death, there’s no hierarchy. That’s what I took away from the burial grounds.
That and a super sick skull magnet from the souvenir shop.
Do it like a pro: Wake up early. Wear athletic shoes and a jacket (god help the girl who wears heels in the catacombs).
Bring a book to read in line because the others in line will be too busy contemplating their own mortality/heart conditions/nervous dispositions to make small talk. Use the bathroom ahead of time to avoid what could be the most embarrassing moment of your life. There’s one in the McDonald’s across the street. Tell ’em I sent you.