No Rest for the Wicked: Grim and Ghostly Goings-On in Paris
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This is the second article in a series about haunted places in the City of Light. Read the first installment here
As above, so below
With its entrance at the sadly unassuming Barrière d’Enfer (Gates of Hell), visitors are invited to descend deep below Paris’ streets into the Catacombs. The Paris Catacombs are an ossuary filled with the remains of about six million dead, created in the 18th century as part of the effort to eliminate the city’s overflowing cemeteries. Some 200 miles of labyrinthine, skeleton-lined tunnels and chambers exist, but despite this vast length only a small two-mile section is open to the public. The official Paris Catacombs are the eeriest and most visited attraction in Paris. Urban adventure seekers have tested the limits of the Empire of the Dead, but getting lost in this creepy maze is beyond the imagination. Although the website makes no allusion to ghosts, it’s understandable why some believe these macabre tunnels containing the largest grave on record might be haunted.
1, Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy (place Denfert-Rochereau), 14th
Drink with the living dead
In 1892, an impresario based in Pigalle named Antonin Alexandre opened a club called Cabaret d’Enfer at 34 Boulevard Clichy, a café themed on Hell. Once through the yawning jaws of the entrance, eyewitnesses saw a giant cauldron suspended over a multi-colored fire, containing a combo of musicians playing a selection from Faust. Imps, with seemingly red-hot tongs, prodded the musicians who lagged behind. The original location was purchased by the illusionist Dorville and with the addition of two cafes opened a cabaret macabre. The Cabaret du Ciel proposed mystical illusions, angelic musicians, liberal sprinklings of holy water, and a shrine to a golden pig.
At the adjacent Cabaret du Neant – Cabaret of the Nothingness, of which the humble writer possesses souvenir postcards, the drinks were named after poisons or diseases and served in skull-shaped cups by waiters dressed up like monks or pallbearers. In a cavern lit with a chandelier of bones, the café created some alarming effects by means of the Pepper’s Ghost illusion, a well-used trick of light and mirrors. Seated on coffins, the guests watched a shrouded woman mystically decompose into a skeleton then slowly come back to life. These bars themed around hell and eroticism showed the attraction to the occult among Parisians at that time. That interest remains; it’s just gone a bit underground.
Not all sweetness and light
Not perfume or painting for this member of the Fragonard family but a darker art. Honoré Fragonard was a veterinary surgeon who practiced cadaver preservation. The Musée Fragonard, founded in 1786, has an ample collection of bones plus curious cabinets of dried and pickled organs, fetuses and limbs. Located just outside of Paris and just a little outré, the Fragonard collection also features what are called écorchés. Behind the main gallery is a display of skinless three-dimensional subjects, somehow preserved for 200 years. A flayed Horseman of the Apocalypse, based on a drawing by Albrecht Dürer, takes the centre stage and a selection of other skinned anatomical subjects like a clapping monkey and a human head with blood vessels injected with colored wax. It may be the scariest museum in the Paris region, but some of the displays once thought of as educational are now just tacky and tasteless.
École nationale vétérinaire d’Alfort – EnvA, 7 Av. du Général de Gaulle, 94700 Maisons-Alfort, France.
Butcher, baker, pie maker
Several ghostly stories circulate about ghoulish Parisian barbers, but this demon barber plied his trade at 20, rue Chanoinesse on the Île de la Cité. The barber, a 14th-century precursor to London’s Sweeney Todd, went a little too far with his straight razor and murdered many unlucky students. He sold their flesh to the baker next door. These specialties would had a real success with Parisians. King Charles VI himself was very fond of them too. This sinister partnership lasted three years, but finally these odd tasting pies created suspicion among the customers. A dog who waited relentlessly for his owner to reappear roused even more misgivings. Officials eventually uncovered a heap of human bones and flesh in the shared cellar of the two shops. Today some of the foundations of this ghastly cellar remain in the motorcycle garage at the Prefecture of Police.
Also on the rue Chanoinesse there are two cafes, one called Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole, pretty as a postcard and eminently Instagrammable. The other, Au Bougnat, is a classic Paris resto. The red door at Number 26 between these two addresses leads to a small courtyard where the floor is paved with mismatched slabs, cobbles and other stones carved with Gothic text. A closer examination reveals that they’re gravestones, belonging to long-gone churches repurposed as paving stones.
The Giant of Mount Mouse – Isauré de Montsouris
Back through the mists of time, in the 9th century, the parkland in the 14th arrondissement now known as the Parc Montsouris was owned by giant of a man called Isauré. He became rich due to the extensive quarries on his lands. With his pocket full of gold, he was set upon by robbers and murdered with an axe. Isauré’s headless ghost haunted the park for 12 centuries.
Neighbors of this pretty park have heard howls at night. The specter of Isauré is said to have haunted the Palais du Bardo observatory which was ravaged in 1991 by a never-explained fire.
Other myths have Isauré or Ysore as a brigand who deserved to have his head lopped off. No matter the veracity of the story, many of the area’s landmarks and a major thoroughfare had taken the “Tombe Issoire” name by the 18th century, perhaps derived from the name of the ghostly Isauré.
The City of Dark
If a jump-scare is more your style then a trip to Le Manoir de Paris will set your heart racing. Visitors claim it’s the best simulated haunted house ever. Set in the old workshop of a 19th-century ceramicist, this walk-through experience will test your mettle. Ghost and monsters will taunt you throughout a synthesized immersion into macabre French events. You are part of the show and the actors never break character. While Le Manoir de Paris offers new shows yearly, its flagship show, Les Legendes de Paris, reveals the dark history and terrible secrets of the capital and introduces you to the man inside the iron mask, Quasimodo, and the Phantom of the Opera.
8 Rue de Paradis, 75010 Paris
Le Manoir de Paris website
Lead photo credit : Catacombes (C) Wikipedia, Public Domain
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