Our Woman In Paris: Ectoplasm ain't what it used to be
Alex Duval Smith
16 November 2004
The fact that Parisians refer to the Phantom of the Opera by his real name, Erik, says it all. Fairies are out of fashion, levitation has fallen flat and ectoplasm is not emanating from mediums like it used to. In this era, in which ghosts have a negative effect on property prices, it is years since anyone admitted to attending a good séance.
Yet this city hosts the Père Lachaise, possibly the world's most eerie cemetery. In August police discovered a private horror cinema, set up by "cataphiles" in the rabbit warren of limestone quarries under the French capital. Don't believe the Cartesians - mystery, illusion, telekinesis and even the odd ghost still account for the occasional cold draft and slamming door.
Under the respectable and mainstream banner of the capital's annual Photography Month, one gallery has assembled 250 prints from the 19th and early 20th centuries that show what happens when technological progress meets irrational thought. Called Photography and the Occult, the exhibition at the Maison Européenne de la Photo celebrates the fantastic in a series of montages and double-exposure prints.
They date from a time when poltergeists were milling about in Paris, the world capital of spiritualism. After a rush on the ever-after during the First World War, eminent scientists, including Pierre and Marie Curie, became fascinated by telepathy and clairvoyance. At dinner parties, guests compared their best ghost stories.
Paris still has a few exorcists, and African immigrants have brought in their own marabouts to banish evil spirits. The Service de l'Exorciste at the Diocese of Paris receives about 1,500 calls a year from people who are afraid that Satan has got a grip on them. Father Maurice Bellot, 73, says nearly half of his clients are simply in a bad way - they just believe they are possessed. Of the rest, however, he insists: "We are not talking about hysterics but of the work of the devil.'' The antidote, he says, lies in exorcism sessions, including prayers of deliverance.
One man who has called on a religious exorcist is Patrick de L who wished to remain anonymous when he told Nouvel Observateur magazine of the spooky goings-on in his 19th-century neo-gothic house at 1 Avenue Frochot, in the 9th arrondissement. When he bought it in 1986, the house was haunted by a female servant who had been knifed to death on the staircase 100 years earlier. Builders working for Patrick reported the sound of steps and one claimed he had felt someone's breath on the back of his neck as he used the stairs. "I called on a friend who is a priest to sort out the problem with the house. I myself do not believe in ghosts,'' he claimed, but added: "I don't live in the house. I just use it for concerts and parties."
A woman who for 15 years has lived in Rue des Fossés-Saint-Marcel in the 5th arrondissement said two inexplicable deaths and "a strange atmosphere'' dominated the street until she found a skeleton in her cellar and arranged for its burial. "I discovered that the street used to contain the entrance to an 18th-century paupers' cemetery. After the skeleton was reburied, I organised a mass for souls erring in purgatory. Things have been normal since then," she said.
To get really close to the spirits of the past the best bet remains the Père Lachaise cemetery. On its Chemin du Dragon, it is impossible to miss the gargoyles and sculptures adorning Princess Demidoff's mausoleum. Its black door, adorned with a huge cross, has been locked to prevent ghouls from trying to take on a challenge set by the Russian aristocrat, who died in 1818. According to legend she promised a large sum to anyone who dared spend 365 days in her tomb. The caretakers of the cemetery say that those who tried - before the door was put up - never managed more than one night.