Notes From the Paris Catacombs

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One hundred feet beneath Paris lies over 300 kilometers of tunnels, secret passageways, and special rooms fashioned in the ruins of Roman-era limestone quarries. The catacombs are a burial site, illegal party spot, graffiti museum, and unusual respite from the city rolled into one, accessible only by climbing through sewage drains and down manholes. Filmmakers Marielle Quesney and Jean “Turf One” Labourdette spent four years trailing graffiti writer Psyckoze through this haunting underworld for their 2006 documentary Dead Space (Bully Records, $15). We asked for their thoughts on one of Paris’ most secret spots.

XLR8R: What was the scariest moment you had in the catacombs?

Marielle: When I realized that I was 100 feet below the surface of a bustling city, below the subway and sewer systems. And as we walked on–or, rather, tried to keep up with Psyckoze, who runs through the tunnels like a nutty little elf-man–the walls and ceiling became tighter and tighter until we were at a crouch; the air thicker with every step, the weight of solid rock on my back, and darkness around very corner. When I realized that I could not leave the space without my guide, I discovered that I was a little claustrophobic. However, I managed to suppress my insanity, heavy breathing, and cold sweats, and some 10 hours later I crept out of a tight hole onto an abandoned train track. I felt like I was born again.

What was the most surprising thing you saw in the catacombs?

Marielle: Nothing can survive down there, nothing lives down there. It is earth and stone. I thought I would come across a rat or something, but there was nothing.

Jean: I was very surprised to see how people behave and interact in a place where the notion of society is supposed to be completely absent. How they recreate their own rules, codes, structures, and conflicts. Also, every single aspect of a person takes on a huge importance down there and almost shapes the energy of the place around this person. The space is neutral but becomes an amplifier for every individual’s persona.

What was your favorite moment of making the film?

Jean: My favorite moment was discovering the catacombs, running through the tunnels for hours at a time. For someone who loves abandoned spaces, it was the ultimate playground.

Marielle: The experience of living in Paris and documenting something unknown to most of its citizens was pretty cool. Most of the people didn’t know about the catacombs; a few had heard mythical stories but very few had actually ventured down there. It was like we were really discovering something...

Did Psyckoze get lost often?

Marielle: Psy is a crazy dude. He used to take LSD and go down there without a map or any source of light and let himself get lost, and eventually find his way out again. Talk about facing your demons... It is also how he came to know the place like the back of his hand. In the 15 or so times that we went down, we only got lost once and only because he was too drunk to even walk straight, let alone find his way out of a labyrinth.

Did you find the catacombs as relaxing as Psyckoze does?

Jean: I had a few occasions to stop filming, turn off the lights, and wander by myself a little further into the darkness of the tunnels while listening to the absolute silence. That’s when I had a chance to experience the very intense energy of the place. It was very strong and peaceful at the same time.

Marielle: It’s crazy and intense and surreal, but I wouldn’t call it “chill”.