Whether Halloween be looming or no, Paris hides some genuine scares. A city this old is bound to be haunted by its past, but Paris is positively colonised by the phantoms of its bloody history. We steeled ourselves and ventured out to verify their existence. Read on for our countdown of the ten eeriest ghosts in the City of Fright.
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The Red Man
Catherine de' Medici, queen of France in the 16th century, had many enemies – so many that she'd periodically dispatch her henchman Jean the Skinner to whack a few. Fearful that Jean had come to know too much about her intrigues, she then had him killed outside her Tuileries Palace (oh the irony). Before long, aristocrats began to report sightings of a man in blood-red attire wandering the gardens. This generally signalled that a violent death was round the corner – Marie Antoinette is said to have seen him just before losing her head – though Napoleon appears to have maintained a working relationship with the ghost, getting him to predict the outcome of forthcoming battles.
Gérard de Nerval
The French Romantic poet and public eccentric Nerval is best known for his Orientalist travel diaries, his habit of roaming the streets of Paris with his pet lobster in tow, and his grisly suicide by hanging in a shady corner of the 4th arrondissement where the Théâtre de la Ville stands today. Haunted by demons in life, in death the poet visits the same fate upon the local theatregoers: spectators claim to have seen his form pop up on stage in a ploy to distract the actors (though the lobster doesn't appear to have accompanied him to the hereafter).
The Resistance Fighter’s Wife
Of the tragic tales of treachery and sacrifice that pepper the history of Vichy France, one has been elevated to the realm of the supernatural. Legend has it that during the occupation there lived a Parisian lady who juggled a Nazi lover and a hubby in the Resistance, using her position to funnel secrets about the former to the latter. One winter night, she was awaiting her husband on the Pont Marie; he failed to show up, and she froze to death. Her phantom has been known to stand sobbing on the bridge – hardly a just fate for a Resistance femme fatale.
Isauré de Montsouris
The grim history of the otherwise picnic-perfect Parc Montsouris is a fine mesh of fact and fiction. The name of the nearby Rue de la Tombe Issoire hints at its most durable legend: that of Isauré de Montsouris, the brigand who resided here in the 9th century, terrorising passing travellers. After his head was lopped off by William of Aquitaine, the rest of him lived on in spectral form, and was often spotted hanging out by the Parc's Palais du Bardo observatory. Sceptics will scoff, but a twist in the tale may give them pause: in 1991 the Palais was controversially sold to the government for restoration, but burned down mysteriously before work could commence…
Albert le Grand
Theologian, alchemist, sometime necromancer and all-round funky mystic, medieval scholar Albert le Grand lived up to his epithet by operating across a dizzying range of academic disciplines. His legacy today is threefold: his influence on his student Thomas Aquinas (who found him a bit weird), his surviving sorcerer's manual 'Petit Albert', and his enduring presence on the eponymous Rue Maître Albert in the shadow of Notre-Dame. Nocturnal visitors may well encounter the master in full occultist dress; sceptics can opt instead to toast his memory at the gastronomic restaurant that bears his name.
At No. 1b on the unassuming Rue de Bièvre – one along from the Rue Maître Albert, as it happens – there once stood a shabby old boozer. During the Second World War, the publican would receive the odd visit from a shady gypsy who insisted on reading his fortune. Impatient, the publican would turf him out every time – until his pets and relatives started dying in bizarre circumstances. Soon after, his wife ran off with the gypsy, never to be seen again. Perplexed, and not a little spooked, he closed shop; the following year the Nazis razed the building. Developers have steered clear of the accursed site, and the empty lot – now overgrown with weeds – can still be spied through the bars of a front gate that never opens.
The Devil’s Hands
During the construction of Notre-Dame, an ambitious young craftsman by the name of Biscornet was commissioned to produce decorative ironwork for two of the cathedral's three doors. Biscornet soon realised that it was too immense to complete alone; so he made a Faustian pact and called on Satan to help him achieve his masterpiece. While he slept, the ironwork magically appeared. The catch: the devil took his soul, and once finished the doors could only be opened with liberal helpings of holy water.
The Demon Barber
It's curious that Sweeney Todd evaded suspicion for so long, given that a Parisian barber had committed exactly the same crime half a millennium earlier. In the 14th century, the Demon Barber of Rue Chanoinesse – not as catchy as Fleet Street, granted – literally got away with murder for years before the local constable smelled foul play (or, more to the point, decaying flesh). Like his English doppelgänger, the barber made the elementary mistake of passing his dead meat on to the local butcher's, whose odd-tasting pies aroused misgivings among consumers. Stand outside No. 20 today, and your ears may well pick up faint screams from the past.
The Phantom of the Opera
Decades before Andrew Lloyd Webber created his musical adaptation, the Phantom of the Opera was immortalised in the eponymous novel by Gaston Leroux, who in turn drew inspiration from reports of strange goings-on beneath the foundations of the Opéra Garnier. But where the book features a vast subterranean lake surrounded by a labyrinth of tunnels, the reality is more prosaic: the opera house sits on an artificial tank created after numerous failed attempts to pump the site dry. Water letdown.
The Man in the Black Coat
On a warm evening in 1925, as Jean Romier sat reading in the Jardin du Luxembourg, a genteel man in a black coat approached him and invited him to a chamber concert at his home. Intrigued, Romier followed the man to his apartment on the Rue de Vaugirard, where he was treated to a spirited evening of music and poetry. On his way home, Romier realised that he'd left his lighter in the apartment. He returned and knocked on the door, but got no response; a passing neighbour pointed out that the apartment had been unoccupied since the passing of its previous tenant, a musician, twenty years previously. Many since – including one of us at Time Out Paris – have been extended the same invitation by the same genteel man within the park's precincts. Few have dared accept.