Even though it’s not yet Halloween, suspense and horror movie lovers still get a treat at the theaters this week when As Above, So Below opened nationwide last Friday, August 29. The story centers around a team of explorers who ventures into the Catacombs beneath the streets of Paris, France, hoping to uncover the dark secret of the city of the dead.
What makes the movie truly terrifying for psychological thriller fans is that it was filmed in the actual Catacombs underneath Paris. Directed by John Erick Dowdle and co-written by his brother Drew Dowdle, As Above, So Below grabs the audience and leads us all down blindingly into Paris’s 180-mile underground world, a mass grave for over six-million people.
The low-budget production worked on a set that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build, complete with real buried skeletons of centuries ago. As Above, So Below made history since it was the first production to ever received permission from the French government to film in the Catacombs of Paris.
For the public, only a mile or so of the entire cave system is open, and the line to get in is usually very long. When asked about the difficulties and challenges of filming his movie in such a dark and claustrophobic setting, the director’s response didn’t help alleviate any of our fears:
“I mean it is genuinely scary down there. Our first location scout, we went through a tiny hole like the size a raccoon would climb through in the tunnels. We were in waders, we had water up to our chests with a stone ceiling at our heads. We went for close to five hours, and there were sections where we had to climb under giant rocks. It was genuinely scary. We got maybe as far away from the exit. There's no cell reception; there's no walkies that work. There were moments where the voice inside of me was screaming, ‘Run!’ One of the people in our initial scout totally lost his mind down there. He went crazy. It was scary. He was screaming, ‘We need to get out of here.’ And it just echoes.”
To film the movie, the crew had to crawl their way through narrow tunnels with the actors wearing head-mounted cameras as they navigated down the cavernous passages. Often the only light used on the set was on-camera lights. Because of so many on location constraints, the low-budget film shot mostly guerilla-style. With there being no electricity and cell service in the Catacombs, being on the set was even more real and creepy for the cast and crew. A perfect atmosphere for making a scary film.
For those of us who are extra-curious, there’s an official YouTube video giving us a behind-the-scene glimpse of what it was like filming in the Catacombs. Drew agrees with his brother on the creepiness of their film location. “Psychologically I have to say after more than 20 days people start to lose it a little bit, because the air is strange down here; the quality of sound is very strange down here,” said Drew. “It really starts to wear on you.”
History of the Catacombs
How did this Gothic labyrinth of graveyard come about? Parisians in the 17th and 18th centuries often complained of overcrowded, unsanitary cemeteries. When the wall of Paris’s largest cemetery Cimetière des Saints-Innocents (loosely translated as "Cemetery of the Innocent Saints") collapsed circa 1780 and human remains flooded the surrounding neighborhoods, residents decided to move all six-million bodies into the old underground mines. Burials continued in the Catacombs until 1860.
Parisians have always been fascinated with their city’s Catacombs, so much so that a counterculture of cataphiles (underground explorers) was formed. In the seventies, certain areas of the caves became popular spots for drug users. There’s even an underground art scene and a defunct restaurant-theater, both now eerily abandoned in the Catacombs.
Touring the Catacombs
If you’re ever in Paris and want to take a break from the glittery world above, sign up with Les Catacombes de Paris for your own adventure uncovering the Catacombs. Bring your best flash lights and be prepared to wait in line at least three to four hours.
Personally, I think It’s much safer to get my cataphile fix with As Above, So Below than to actually wander the abyss of the dead below.
Filming in Paris
For information on filming in Paris, France, visit the Paris Film Office.