It is sometimes challenging to separate facts from long-held rumors about the Paris Catacombs. As an underground cemetery holding the bones of millions of people below Paris, the catacombs are the stuff of nightmares. In many ways, however, the mass grave site is the least disturbing aspect of the underground labyrinth. There is much gossip about Nazis, vengeful spirits, and secret societies supposedly in the catacombs.
With nearly 200 miles of gloomy tunnels, it’s easy to imagine getting lost in the Paris Catacombs and never making your way out. Today, any visitor can embark on a guided tour, and learn all kinds of information about the historic burials. However, this tour is only about 45 minutes long - it doesn't even take you deep into the illegal sections, where the secrets dwell.
You’ve already read about tales of haunted catacombs, and perhaps strolled through the mysteries surrounding murder dumps. The Paris Catacombs are a mix of both: an allegedly haunted area where the dead rest in astonishing numbers and few know how deep the darkness goes.
While the catacombs might seem like an endless maze of tunnels just waiting to end you, there are a few surprises in store for experienced explorers. Over the years, intrepid visitors have discovered naturally occurring pools appearing like something out of a fantasy.
The pools are a favorite haunt for a select group of adventurers who spent years journeying into the tunnels, becoming unofficial experts on the twists and turns of the catacombs. Some people take scuba equipment to explore the waters further.
Experts have a difficult time trying to figure out exactly how much ground the catacombs cover, and what unexplored corners may still exist underground. The Paris Catacombs go at least 300 feet deep. Additionally, chambers and chasms became filled with water over the years, but there’s not much technical information to go off of from there.
Because of the catacombs' hazardous nature, the city sealed off much of the underground passageways, and only about one mile of tunnel space is open to the public. Officials recommend guides even for this section, but don't mandate them. Visitors should refrain from venturing beyond the tunnels available to the public. It is too easy for someone to get lost if they were to go off on their own.
The catacombs are an inherently unnerving place to visit, and also dangerous to the ill-prepared. There is no definitive map of the dark, unstable passageways beyond the small section open to the public. Accordingly, a single wrong turn is enough to disorient someone to the point of becoming lost. It's a terrifying prospect, wandering underground, surrounded by bones, with no idea how to find daylight.
However, this isn't necessarily a death sentence, as a 17-year-old and 16-year-old found out in 2017. The teens spent three days lost in the catacombs. Fortunately, the authorities saved them after rescue dogs tracked them down. The pair went to a hospital for hypothermia treatment.
When tourists visit the catacombs, they can look forward to a few exhibits arranged for public consumption. There's the "Workshop," which harkens back to the original quarry, and the Port-Mahon corridor showcasing sculpted works by a skilled quarryman. It all leads to the ossuary, which is likely what most people picture when they think of the Paris Catacombs. Here, people can see the skulls and bones arranged in a decorative display - it's equal parts alluring and unsettling.
An inspector organized the display in the early 1800s as an alternative to how the original remains were in piles. If you glanced behind the wall of bones, you would see heaps of remains going back to the edges of the cavern.