The Paris catacombs have been called the ‘gates to hell’ for centuries.

Quick Notes:

  • The translation of the entranceway is where the name originated from.

  • Urban explorers continue to venture through the eerie tombs.

  • Folklore abounds, its mysterious tales have yet to be confirmed.

In the 1700s, Paris was a beautiful promise for big city life. But as people from the countrysides of France began to flock to the city, and the death toll rose due to illness, the city of love became overcrowded with dead bodies. When the city began to smell like the rot of loved ones passed and the graveyards could no longer handle the dead, officials were forced to come up with a new solution.

The old mines and underground quarries would be turned into catacombs to house the dead underneath the city’s cobblestone roads. The remains of everyone buried in the cemeteries across Paris were then dumped into the makeshift mausoleum. Over time, the bodies were organized in a neat fashion, and today, all those bodies remain.

The entrance was built at the Barrière d’Enfer

The old city gate led the way into the hidden tomb and was named aptly: Barrière d’Enfer. In English, this name roughly translates to ‘the gates of hell,’ giving the underground graveyard an eerie entranceway.

The naming of the entrance to the catacombs was on point and it rings true to the reputation that the catacombs now have in society today.

There have been numerous reports of people going into the catacombs and never surfacing again.

The eeriest example was of an explorer who allegedly managed to catch his whole ordeal on camera before disappearing.

What happened to him will never be truly known, as all that was found was his camcorder. Some skeptics believe that it was all an elaborate hoax to perpetuate the tall tale of the catacombs being a real entry point to hell.

The tomb explorers are known as “cataphiles”

Maps of the catacombs make their rounds in underground Paris circles and online, and tourists and locals alike indulge their inner wild sides by exploring the remnants of France’s passed souls without a tour guide. The winding roads of the underground tunnels are clearly outlined, with names such as The Boutique of Psychosis and Crossroads of the Dead.

There is no real path to follow along the illegal tour of the catacombs as they wind and dip, coming to complete dead ends down one direction or tight crawl-throughs down another. It’s a whole ‘Empire of the Dead,’ underground Paris’ bustling metropolis. It doesn’t come without dangers, though, and people who trail off the beaten path in the secret tunnels often end up needing rescue.


Although the entire maze of catacombs can’t be accessed legally, there is still a 1.5 km stretch that can be toured. With famous people abound in the ossuary, such as the French Revolution’s figures Georges Danton and Maximilien de Robespierre, the macabre tour is rich in French history, even if all that’s left are bones and skulls.

Underground Paris is full of folklore

Although those who created the catacombs dubbed it ‘the gates of hell’, there have been plenty of superstitious tales that help perpetuate its name. Stories of explorers going in and never coming out have given the tomb a supernatural reputation. It’s more likely that due to the extensive and often unsafe paths down in the ossuary, people got trapped in places they were never supposed to be and could not get help. The 2014 movie As Above, So Below was even made to further push the connection to an evil entity and hell.

With over six million skeletons buried in the catacombs today, the ‘gates to hell’ are still perfectly synonymous with their grandeur, albeit morbid, existence.

 A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101: