An actor dressed as the Phantom tells his sorry tale. Picture: Le Manoir de Paris

Strolling down the delightfully named, but rather shabby, Rue de la Fidelite in Paris' 10th arrondissement, my friend Diana and I cross a busy boulevard and enter Rue de Paradis.

It's another street that fails to live up to its romantic, evocative promise and, about halfway down, we spot an old wench sweeping the pavement and making ghastly, ghoulish faces and noises at passers-by.

On closer inspection, she's not very old at all. The masses of make-up on her face - including a congealed blood-like liquid smeared around her eyes and cheeks - obscure the fact that she's probably only in her 20s.

As she shakes her broomstick and generally conveys the impression of being barking mad, a tall, gangly man in a suit and cravat, similarly caked in make-up, stumbles out of an archway.

He comes within millimetres of my face and croaks a sound like one of the orcs from Lord of the Rings - prompting me to recoil and Diana to yelp, giggle and clutch my arm. You don't expect to encounter such unsophisticated behaviour in Paris. But Le Manoir de Paris is unlike anything else in the French capital.

A five-minute walk from Gare de l'Est, this quirky attraction bills itself as a living museum-cum- interactive theatre which brings the murky, horror-fuelled history and legends of Paris to life through a series of painstakingly prepared sets, props and actors.

It took 18 months to put together and is directed by a Belgian, Adil Houti, who spent much of his life in the US, where Halloween and horror stories are deeply ingrained in the national psyche.

Inspired by working in a haunted house in Austin, Texas, Houti decided to bring the concept to continental Europe, adding a Parisian twist.

"A straightforward American- style haunted house wouldn't work in Paris," he says.

"We had to offer something distinctive and we think this reveals a different side to Paris than the one people normally see. Instead of showcasing the City of Lights, we're doing the City of Frights. We play on people's phobias and want it to be both informative and entertaining."

While you get a taster of the Manoir's macabre madness in Rue de Paradis (courtesy of the diabolically made-up duo), the main action takes place behind the archway, in an old pottery and ceramics emporium decorated with magnificent tiled mosaics.

The 13 legends are detailed, in French, on the walls of the foyer (and in English in a pamphlet you're given when you buy a ticket). Alongside the more obvious legends - Quasimodo and the Phantom of the Opera - there are stories you'll have never heard of and it's advisable to read through them so you know a little of what to expect, unless you want everything to blur into one, indistinguishable, incomprehensible gore-fest.

"Fresh meat," cries the young woman manning the barrier, as she beckons us into a pitch-black passage. She'd told us that the self-guided tours last about half an hour, though it's not unknown for panic-stricken souls to scream, running out within a few minutes.

As Diana hides behind me and an Australian-German couple, I creep ahead, with a luminous stick hung around my neck. This is to indicate that we're an English- speaking group, so the costumed actors won't bombard us solely in French.

Pulses are raised as we enter the first room - mocked up as the cavernous catacombs of Paris. Like all the sets in Le Manoir de Paris, it's superbly put together and periodically lit with strobe lighting.

Before we can truly admire our surroundings, a heavily made-up figure leaps out in front of us, ranting in French-tinged English. He's telling us about Philibert Aspairt, who, in November 1793, entered the quarries below the convent of Paris' Val de Grace, never to return.

Eleven years later, his decomposed body was discovered in the tunnels under the street of l'Abbe de L'Epee. His skeleton was only identifiable by the set of keys on his belt. Moving further into the catacombs, we spot a skeleton, which begins to shake as we pass. Cue screams from the girls in our group.

Fairly calm in the first room, I'm a bag of nerves in the second. My heart almost jolts through my chest and my feet do a silly jig as a model crocodile pops out in front of us.

In March 1984, city workers in the sewers under the Pont Neuf, the bridge that spans the River Seine, discovered a Nile Crocodile. The croc - believed to have been an escaped pet - had been surviving on rats and trash.

In the next room, we meet the Phantom, the disfigured monster said to haunt Paris' Opera Garnier in the late 19th century. Then we come face to face with the Man in the Iron Mask, a prisoner held at the infamous Bastille prison for 34 years. He died in 1703 and his identity remains a mystery.

After escaping the clutches of a vampire - Lestat de Lioncourt, a noble, yet fictional, 18th century Frenchman with a lust for blood (he appeared in Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles) - we're led into a Paris Metro carriage by a young woman in a green dress and white hat. When we enter the door, the woman is slumped on the floor with a knife in the back of her neck. As we edge past her, she jumps up, crying: "Who killed me? Who killed me?"

Laetitia Toureaux was murdered in 1937, her body discovered as the train pulled into Porte Doree station. Her killer was never found.

We squeeze through one claustrophobia-inducing passage, breeze through a mini replica of the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, where black masses are said to be held, and enter the 14th century bakery of a man who used to make pate with the bodies of people killed by his friend, an insane barber. The baker, with his basket of fake body parts, is brilliantly vile and has us simultaneously laughing and retching. After dodging the hunchback in Notre Dame cathedral, the last room unlocks the legend of the Count of Le Manoir de Paris, a rich, eccentric character who supposedly held lavish parties at 18 Rue de Paradis - where we stand today.

One day he was suddenly overcome with fever. Sores broke out across his body and doctors diagnosed him with the plague. Once courted by all of Paris, the Count was transformed into a hideous monster, abandoned and left to his fate. His ghostly form chases us towards the exit, and into a gift shop with macabre souvenirs, coffins and City of Frights T-shirts. After a quick browse, we're back out in the foyer, where the fearsome twosome are terrorising the next batch of guests amid a now familiar medley of orc sounds, giggles, yelps and screams.

Entertained by this offbeat slice of Paris, Diana and I are now ready for something more conventional. A stroll by the Seine will be lovely. Fingers crossed, there are no crocs about.

FACT FILE

Suitable for people aged older than 10 - those with weak hearts, epilepsy and pregnant women are advised not to go - Le Manoir de Paris, at 18 Rue de Paradis, is usually open 6-10pm on Friday, and from 3-7pm on Saturday and Sunday. Check the website for the latest times, which are subject to change, and extend around Halloween; lemanoirdeparis.com.

Entrance is €25 ($38) for adults, €18.50 for children (up to 15).

For general Paris tourist information, see en.parisinfo.com.

Steve McKenna was a guest of Le Manoir de Paris.

The West Australian

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