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THE EMPIRE OF THE DEAD - J. Prashanthi

“This school used to be a graveyard”

“A woman buried under that kitchen still haunts that abandoned house”

We can all relate to these spooky tales we heard as kids. For centuries, the remains of dead people and their vengeful spirts in living spaces have been the perfect premise for horror stories. But what if there were six million remains instead of just one person? And what if an entire city was built over it? The dead, perfectly preserved, peeking into generations of citizens…waiting.

I’m kidding, but what I just described are the Catacombs of Paris. And despite sounding super creepy, there’s nothing supernatural about this ossuary. The millions of bones underground were put there to address a very simple issue: too many dead people. Until the late eighteenth century, due to the expansion of the city, the cemeteries that were once in the outskirts were smacked in the middle of the city. As the centuries passed, the bodies accumulated. There were so many that their long-buried remains had to be exhumed, and their bones were stacked on the cemetery’ walls. Eventually, the central cemetery collapsed, resulting in a macabre sight as the deceased spilled into the streets.

Paris, was now in need of a glow up.

Interestingly, though, that wasn’t the only issue the city was having. On the left bank, an abandoned limestone mine was collapsing, burying entire streets underneath. During that time, the Inspection of Mines Service came up with a remarkable idea – the idea of disposing the cemetery bones by dumping them into the already crumbling mines. And thus began the construction of one of the most spine-chilling mausoleums to date.

At first, the bones were just moved into the tunnels. But Thury, the head of the quarry service, saw the potential and planned to turn it into a tourist attraction by modelling it after the Roman Catacombs. The bones were arranged in beautiful, intricate patterns of femurs and skulls. They were filled with ominous inscriptions, frightening archways, and warnings. The majority of the ossuary was made up of the bones of unidentified people, but there were also some crypts inside that contained the remains of notable people like Robespierre, Danton, and Pascal.

The Catacombs, naturally, have not been immune to urban legends conjured out of thin air. Stories abound of lost explorers, cult activities, vandalism, theft, and more surrounding this mysterious underground realm aren’t seen as something offbeat .

One of the most reknowned legends associated with the Catacombs of Paris is that of the ‘Phantom’. In the late 18th century, a man known as Philibert Aspairt, was appointed as the caretaker of the Catacombs. He allegedly became obsessed with the bones and skulls that surrounded him and eventually went insane. Aspairt’s ghost is said to still haunt the Catacombs till this day.

These tunnels are also said to be one of the seven gateways to Hell. According to legend, a group of Satanists once used the Catacombs as a place of worship, and their spirits never left. Visitors to the Catacombs have reported feeling an eerie presence and hearing strange noises, leading many to believe that the gates of Hell truly are located beneath the streets of Paris.

Majority of the tunnels are off-limits to the general public because they are not a part of the ossuary. However, there are secret organizations and “cataphiles” who, every now and then, come up with the most inventive ways to get access and make the most of the tunnels’ forbidden areas.

In 2004, an entire cinema theatre was found 60 ft. underneath Paris. The cops discovered 3,000 square feet of subterranean galleries, strung with lights, wired for phones, live with pirated electricity. The officers discovered a bar, a lounge, a mid-size workshop, a dining corner as well as a small screening area. The cinema’s seats had been carved into the stone itself, with room for 20 people to sit in the cool and chomp on popcorn. The crazy thing was, when the police left and returned with reinforcements, the gallery was empty; with only a note remaining that said “Ne cherchez pas”-DON’T SEARCH.

The murals, graffiti, and artwork created by rebels over the course of two centuries can be found in the mines’ non-tourist areas, and they are rumored to be breath-taking and well worth the trouble. But keep in mind that these catacombs are not for the faint of heart; few people are aware of which tunnels will cave in, which chambers will suffocate them, and which ones will flood. The sign at the entrance, “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort” (“Stop. This is the Empire of the Dead), should be warning enough, for what lurks inside has the power to haunt you. Forever.

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