I always had a dream of going to Paris. Not to see the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, or any of the typical tourist hotspots, but actually to see the Paris Catacombs. I had been urban exploring in abandoned buildings and cemeteries in my hometown of New Orleans since I was ten, and even traveled to a couple of other states just to document my findings. Normally, the scariest thing I would see would be a homeless person, or a creepy statue in a graveyard, nothing to feel that threatened by.
But in 2014, when my older sister told me that she would be travelling to Europe for vacation over the summer, I begged to come along. I was eighteen then, and desperate to get away from the humdrum of everyday life, and finally fulfill my childhood dream of going to the catacombs to explore. I had been planning it out for years, I would enter through the tunnel that I had seen YouTubers enter through online, bring a fishing reel with hundreds of yards of fishing line, and attach the end of the line to the entrance. I would let out the slack, attach the reel to my backpack and basically get lost. When I was done, I would simply reel my way back. It had made perfect sense to my narrow-minded teenage self.
I wanted to go to areas of the catacombs that people hadn’t seen in hundreds of years. To go where no one else had been before was my dream as an urban explorer, and to me, there was nothing more exciting than going where you knew nobody else would be. There’d be no more ruining the moment by bumping into a fellow “explorer.”
So after weeks of convincing, my college-age sister agreed to take me with her. It took a lot of talking to get her to agree to bring her little brother along, but with help from my parents, she decided she would make the best of it. First, we went to Dublin, then London (which to me, was pretty boring), then across the English Channel to our first stop in mainland Europe, Paris.
I tried to get her to come with me, but she noped right out of it, insisting on seeing the beautiful city instead, and who could blame her? While she went to see the Eiffel Tower and all that other good stuff, I stayed at the hotel and waited for evening when the weather cooled off a bit, and made my way to the entrance by myself, first by cab, then by foot.
As I made my way towards the crevice that led to the infamous Paris Catacombs, I felt eager, almost energized. I stood at the entrance and looked into the pitch black, and almost immediately crawled in. Once inside, I took the end of my fishing line, and tied it to a big stone, no way I was going to get lost. I turned on my dollar-store LED flashlight (cheap, right?), let out the reel, and started my journey. At first, I snaked my way through what seemed like dozens of rooms, covered with graffiti, and evidence of teenage parties that famously took place there. After what seemed like an hour of reading what were most likely French curse words all over the cave system and ghoulish figures spray painted on the ancient walls, there seemed to be what I was looking for.
At the other side of a large room I was entering, I could see bare wall, with no sign of human disturbance. Great, I thought to myself, now the work really begins. As I drew closer, there was a shallow tunnel on my left that seemed to go only about twenty yards before a dead end, rubble strewn about. So, I looked to my right, and saw a narrow tunnel leading directly away from the dusty room. It was so small that I would have to crouch just to walk through it, and somehow, no matter how much I shined my flashlight down it, I couldn’t see anything in the darkness. A total absence of light.
It was the first time that I doubted the journey. Up until then, it seemed like fun and games, but now the feeling of aloneness dawned on me. If I encountered trouble, there would be no one to help. But I felt drawn to complete my lifelong quest, and with a gulp, I cautiously made my way in.
Within ten feet inside, I noticed the bottom of the medieval passage had begun to fill with water. At first, I thought my water-proof shoes would do the trick, but I soon found myself crouched over, drenched and drudging my way through the tunnel with water up to my knees. The tunnel aimed gradually downwards, even further into the underworld beneath the city of Paris.
Too late to turn back now, though. I kept going, and after a minute, there was a fork in the passage. One got smaller, narrowing to four feet tall, and the other got bigger, I’d say about seven. Not too hard to guess which one I took.
I heard that the catacombs originally served as a mining system in the middle ages, but as I made my way further, the place seemed anything but an innocent miner’s workplace.
After about a hundred feet further, the walls on either side widened into what seemed almost like a lobby, and small rooms lined either side of me. I was beginning to feel very uneasy at this point. I had seemed so brave at the entrance to the “teenage party paradise” just over an hour earlier, but now, I could not help but feel…. watched. I didn’t want to know what was in these rooms, though I had a strong suspicion. My footsteps grew slower as they continued to kick up the centuries-old dust below.
I knew I had to leave. I took the fishing reel I had brought with me into my hand and started to turn the crank. But there was no tension. After a couple of minutes of praying to God that the line would pull tight once again, the end of the line slipped through my hand. I took my flashlight and examined it. It looked gnawed-through, like a dog had happily chewed through it like a play toy.
“I’m screwed!” I said to myself in desperation. All of a sudden, I heard a splash from the way I entered. At first, I thought maybe a rock had fallen into the water. I waited, and turned off my flashlight. Almost the second I turned off the light, I heard what sounded like sharp, clunky footsteps furiously running at me, and I bolted to my left towards a network of increasingly smaller rooms.
Each room I entered, I staggered over jagged items all over the floor. I have no clue how I didn’t trip, especially with my flashlight still off, but I traversed my way into room after room, the pile of objects becoming more difficult to manage each time, before a mountain of these things prevented me from going any further. In the pitch black, I could hear heavy, unnatural breathing about two rooms away. I bit my tongue, and begrudgingly took my flashlight out, and hit the button.
Before me stood a pile of human bones. Femurs, ribs, all the stuff you learn about in school, just stacked in front of me like Jenga Blocks. I looked to my right, and there was a three-foot-tall tunnel. I got on all fours and furiously crawled my way through the murky, foul-smelling water, flashlight clenched between my teeth. Finally, my stalker seemed to be gone. I couldn’t hear the thing anymore, but I knew I couldn’t go back the way I came. I was going to have to find another way out. With hundreds of miles of tunnels and passageways running below Paris, I knew this was a damn tall task, but I was not about to be caught by an unknown creature.
Sometimes the tunnel would open up and I could walk, other times it would narrow down again, and I would even have to crawl, laying on my belly just to make it through to the other end. I was getting desperately lost. I was unable to remember from which way I came, and the tunnels would often fork away and split, forcing me to make a gut-instinct decision on which way to go.
It was frigid now. My teeth clattered as I brought my soaking wet self slowly through the catacombs, now feeling as though these were my last minutes on earth. My limbs felt as though they were made of lead. It’s hard to believe that what was once my dream had turned into a person’s worst nightmare: lost underground in the world’s biggest cemetery. But I dragged my beaten self through the maze for hours, my flashlight starting to flicker. I would turn it off for minutes at a time trying to conserve the cheap, dinky battery inside of it, feeling my way through with my hands. I tried many times to see if I could get cell service, but of course, there was none. The last time I checked it, it said 4:17 A.M. I had started at around nine o’clock. I decided that it was over.
I plopped down in the water, sitting crisscross. I turned off the flashlight and closed my eyes. In my mind, I said goodbye to everyone I knew. All my family members, friends, and even acquaintances. I decided to look at a picture of my family on my phone. I clicked it on, and found the best picture of my parents, my sister and me, and stared at it. My sister was smiling in it, and I found my eyes welling up with tears. It made me feel worse that she would never know what happened, that her wonderful vacation would end up being a depressing disaster.
My mind went quiet, and my limbs went numb, and I accepted that this was the end. How fitting, for an urban explorer, huh?
Just when I leaned back against the wall behind me, I heard a familiar splash from about fifty feet away. I jumped up, grabbed my flashlight, and ran away like the roadrunner from the cartoon. With no bones to trample on, I was running at what seemed like an Olympic sprinter’s pace, and I felt hopeful as those same, clunky footsteps started to fade. I was starting to grin, when BOOM.
I collided headfirst with a wall. Dead end. Through my throbbing headache, I could hear the dreadful pitter patter growing louder. Finally, it seemed to stop about ten feet away, and that horrid breathing echoed in the passage around me. It stepped closer, and hands trembling, I decided to turn on the flashlight. If I was really about to die, I was going to at least know what finished me off and take it like a man. It flicked on, and the sight before me nearly scared me to death before it could even lay a finger on me.
It was dark gray. Withered. Ancient. Void of emotion. What I saw before me was a disgustingly hunched, yet still six-foot-tall skeleton, jawbone hanging down as though it was panting. Its empty sockets peered down at me, and though it had no eyes, I found myself in a staring contest with it. Soon, it started convulsing, and I could hear a small whimper emitting from its bones. It grew louder, into a chuckle, and finally, all-out hysterical laughing, the shriek echoing throughout the lonely catacombs. Its bones shook and rattled with every painful laugh; it didn’t seem to come from its mouth, rather it seemed to be vibrating from the skeleton itself. It sounded almost like a demonic Joker, “HA-HA-ha-ha…” until it grew silent.
It bent down from its already stooped position, unnaturally long arms stretched towards me, and sprinted at me at full speed. I was still collapsed on the ground with a throbbing head, and I did the only thing I knew to do. I leapt up, waited until it was a foot from me, and grabbed at its bony arm with my left hand, flashlight dropping into the water. I immediately took my right fist and slammed it with as much might as my tired body had straight into the skull.
Screaming like a middle school girl, I closed my eyes and heard a big crack. I was prepared to be attacked back in revenge, but silence followed. I slowly reopened them, and picked my flashlight back up, and pointed it around, arriving at the ground below. The skeleton had lost all life, now just a pile of bones front-first in the puddle at my feet. Its skull had been bent severely from its neck, now almost perpendicular to the spine.
Had I just killed a… skeleton? What was it even doing “alive” to begin with?
I stared down at my hand, which was surprisingly unharmed. “What the hell?” I asked myself in amazement. How did it not have a nasty gash where my aching knuckles made contact with bare bone?
I decided to powerwalk away from the scene, in case the thing could still come back to the “afterlife” and approach me again. I cautiously waited until I was about forty paces away to turn back around with the light. It was gone. There was nothing in the water. Not a single rib anywhere. If anything, this scared me even worse. I kept walking back the way I came.
All of a sudden, I felt my confidence return to me, like how it was when I entered the catacombs several hours earlier. I felt strangely good, like something was urging me, telling me that I could find my way back. Deciding to attempt a miracle and retrace my steps, I conserved the flashlight as well as I could, and after more hours of dragging myself through tunnels, after a combination of walking, limping, and crawling, I started to recognize where I was. Before I knew it, I was slithering my way back through the muddy passage into the endless rooms of bones. I turned on my flashlight to see the same pile from earlier, and even had the gall to laugh at it. “That’s nothing compared to what I saw earlier,” I thought to myself. I made my way through the rooms, through the hall, and back through the pitch black tunnel into the large room. Now I looked at the far side and felt like I won the lottery when I saw the crudely spray-painted SpongeBob on the wall. Civilization! Kind of.
I knew my flashlight was about to go out, but in its last moments of life, I somehow found the end of my fishing line. Of all things, it had gotten snagged on a broken wooden chair that some person had brought inside the room. I turned the light off and felt my way back to the entrance using only my hands and fishing line through the pitch dark. Not gonna lie, I tripped a couple times, and walked into a couple of walls, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me now. Before I knew it, I could hear and smell fresh air. As I reached the end of the line, I looked up to see the tunnel entrance, and with the last of my strength, I lifted my cold, aching body through the crevice and into the entrance above.
As I made my way into the morning light, I winced, my ears relishing the sound of the morning traffic and bustle of the city. I slowly walked through the streets of Paris back to the hotel. I had lost my phone in the process of being pursued and couldn’t order up a cab to pick me up, but I was just happy to be alive at that point. When I finally got back to the hotel room, I knocked on the door. My sister opened it. She had tears in her eyes, and looked as though she had been crying the whole night. She instantly through her arms around me and kissed me on the cheek, saying “I thought I’d never see you again, I was so worried.”
So, we ended up enjoying the rest of our European vacation, making sure not to lose sight of each other after that. I told her, and everybody else for that matter, that I had gotten lost, but I never mentioned the skeleton that attacked me. Sometimes I wonder if it was even real; maybe my mind started to play tricks on me in hysteria and tiredness… I don’t know, and that’s probably a good thing.
My urban exploration days are over now, but this experience has always nagged at my conscience. I came here because the memory and whole ordeal just haunt me. Sometimes I wake up at night screaming, having nightmares about being lost underground or being chased once again. Maybe by finally telling my story, I can finally put this whole thing to rest.