The ‘cataphiles’ are a community of young Parisians brought together by a shared love of illegally exploring the city’s creepy catacombs
If you wander the streets of Paris at night, you might come across a group of young people crawling out of a manhole, keeping an eye out for police as they quickly close the opening behind them. It’s just another Friday night out for them – ‘cataphiles’, the dedicated explorers of Paris’ underworld.
The Catacombs of Paris were created in the 18th century after diseases began to spread from Paris’ overflowing cemeteries. The networks of tunnels underneath the city – the result of years of underground limestone quarrying – were repurposed as ossuaries, and quickly became lined with bones. Now, it’s estimated that the remains of over six million people are housed there.
While Paris offers an official tour of the catacombs to tourists and curious locals, these don’t even begin to cover the depths and treasures of the centuries-old underground city that stretches over 280km. It’s been illegal to broach any unofficial entry point to the tunnels since 1955, but that hasn’t stopped self-professed cataphiles from risking their lives to explore this hidden underworld. “There’s something surreal about going down there, and the fact that not everyone knows how to enter,” 20-year-old Leo* says. “It’s like the upside down from Stranger Things.”
Leo was introduced to catacombs exploration a few months ago by a friend whose father was an active cataphile in the 80s. “There was the first big wave of people entering the catacombs back then,” Leo says. “Then things quieted down for a while. Now, it seems to be coming back.”
Despite the discretion of cataphiles, nocturnal visits to the underground city are hardly a closely-guarded secret. 40-year-old Eliott* has been exploring the catacombs for more than eight years and says Parisians are used to it: “When people see us going in or coming out, they don’t care.”
A lot of young people had no idea what they were getting themselves into the first time they entered the site. Getting dragged along by friends and accidentally falling in love with this secret world is a common cataphile origin story. “You get to rediscover streets of Paris that you know by heart,” says Elena*, 20, who discovered the hobby back in January and has been “addicted” ever since.
While to outsiders, the catacombs might appear claustrophobic and disturbing, Eliott finds that there’s actually a warm atmosphere inside. “Usually when you come across someone, there’s music,” he says. A trip down a manhole – or ‘une descente’ or ‘descendre’, as cataphiles call it – often includes playing music and drinking. In some corners of the catacombs, beer bottles are neatly lined up, like rocks stacked by hikers on trails. Some people even throw parties in the catacombs: birthdays, Halloween parties, carnivals, concerts and even dinners.
Claire*, 25, has been a cataphile for over three years. By now, she knows almost every corner like the back of her hand, and can talk for hours about the site’s history. She’s attended and organised many catacomb parties before. “For me, it’s somewhere to get together with my friends more than anything,” she says. “We’ll have raclette or fondue inside.” Elena adds that the isolation from the rest of the world is part of the appeal, too: “there are no rules. I can walk around in my bra if I want and no one cares.”
Many also take part in ‘catasprints’, races organised underground that have taken place for generations. “It used to be that you’d enter somewhere and had to come out through another exit as fast as possible,” explains Eliott. “But now we try to avoid all contact with the surface. So, you start inside and there’s a final destination [underground] that you have to reach as quickly as possible, with passage points being added along the way.”
Regularly, entrances are sealed shut by police, only to be pierced through again by tenacious cataphiles. To make the most of every descent, Elena generally spends long nights, often up to seven hours, underground. “If I’m going to risk getting caught, it’s not just for one or two hours inside,” she says. Currently, the fine for illegally entering the catacombs is 60 euros.
It’s worth caveating that catacomb exploration is illegal for good reason. This niche hobby comes with dangers that can’t be glossed over. Claire was reminded of this fact the hard way, and once woke in a hospital after sustaining a serious injury underground. “There are real risks, which shouldn’t be minimised, because it’s when you’re not paying attention and you think you’re safe that you end up getting hurt.”
“There are no rules. I can walk around in my bra if I want and no one cares” – Elena*
Inside a labyrinth of tunnels without any phone service, it’s easy to get lost too. Cataphiles say that you should never enter the catacombs without someone who can act as a reliable guide, and Elliot adds that bringing a map is also essential. Maps are crafted and updated by cataphiles themselves when a new passage is dug or an alleyway becomes flooded, but are difficult to read for anyone unaccustomed to navigating the underground tunnel network. “You also need water, something to eat and light,” says Eliott. Claire adds that to avoid getting lost, “you have to study your surroundings, and do your research on the catacombs beforehand.”
There’s one common thread between all cataphiles’ advice: it’s imperative to have a deep respect for the catacombs. “It’s really clean, compared to exploring the sewers,” Leo says, explaining that it’s because most people are “respectful” of the place. “Cataphiles hate journalists,” Claire adds. “They hate articles, videos and photos posted on Instagram with hashtags,” she says, because when a video revealing a secret entrance to the illegal catacombs goes viral, it often draws the wrong kind of attention. “You can find skulls inside, but most of them have been stolen by YouTubers or reporters looking to go viral, and who don’t necessarily know or respect underground customs. Then, we’re left with abandoned trash, broken glass, and too many people getting hurt.”
To think of cataphiles as elitist ‘gatekeepers’ would be dismissing their safety concerns as well as downplaying their respect for their city’s secret history. Essentially, if they can keep out the careless, cheap-thrill and viral-content-seeking visitors, they can help preserve the magic of the underground city and the community that’s sprung up around it. “Not everyone you meet is amazing. The cataphile community has the same assholes you find everywhere,” Claire says. “But I love life underground. It’s another layer to Paris. It makes the city more interesting.”
*Names have been changed