Setting Thesaurus Entry: Catacombs

Today we’re happy to host Joanna Penn, author of religious thriller novels Pentecost and Prophecy, and host of Never having visited any catacombs, we’re extremely grateful to Joanna for providing some insight into such an interesting and mysterious setting.

Catacombs are subterranean passageways used for religious practice. In modern times they house the homeless, in wartime they act as refuges, and in novels, they’re used for hidden treasures, cult meetings and sinister events. Many are under the streets of huge cities, like Paris and Rome, and they all have grisly histories that can be used as layers in your story.

I visited the Paris catacombs as inspiration for my religious thriller novel Prophecy. The corridors stretch for kilometers underground and contain nearly six million skeletons. The bodies were moved from public cemeteries at the end of the eighteenth century to stop the spread of disease from the overflowing mass graves. The dead were brought to the catacombs at night in order to save the people of Paris from the disturbing scenes. But there were the inevitable rumors of grave-robbers, the dead rising as zombies, and the hand of Satan hovering over the city.My overwhelming sense at the catacombs was that the skeletons had been witnesses to life but they had passed on. They were architecture now, forgotten individuals, but together they became a fitting memorial for the deaths of unknown millions in the Black Death and the poorhouses of Paris.In PROPHECY, the theme of bones and death is pervasive and I use crypts and ossuaries as well as catacombs for scenes in the book. In the examples below, I use text from PROPHECY to fill in the categories of the setting thesaurus.


Example 1 from Paris catacomb: “A multitude of bodies locked together in death, fitting perfectly like one enormous body. Skulls in decorative arches and rows broke up the pattern. Some had holes in them, some cracked and others smooth. All had the dull patina of age and they seemed to be cemented together, as if they had sunk into each other after years of standing here, sentinels to death.”

Example 2 from Palermo crypt: “The bodies exhibited here were fully dressed, some just skulls and others with brown skin stretched around screaming heads like mummified horrors. The bodies were stacked two levels high, hung on hooks to keep them stable in a minstrel’s gallery of mortality. Their clothes were mainly in tatters now, but Morgan could see that they were once fine fabrics with trimmings of lace and fur. She looked more closely at one of the mummies. His teeth were bared in a grimace, lips shrunken back. His eyelashes still lay upon leathery cheeks. He had been posed as if at prayer, in a tribute to the God he expected to meet.”

Example 3 from Sedlec ossuary: “Franco looked up at the great chandelier, which apparently contained bones from every part of the human body. It had eight candelabra, each made of a spinal column with vertebrae lining the arms. Femurs hung down, the balls of the knee joint rounded and smooth. Candles were cradled by plates of pelvis bones, each topped by a skull. Everything was nailed into place and that made Franco shiver a little. Bones don’t bleed but the nails were an offense, forcing these dead to their display of ashen grace. Ropes of skulls with crossed bones were draped around the vault, empty eye sockets peering down at the gathering crowd below. Franco grimaced. We are all reduced to this, he thought, just another femur, just another skull.”


The lack of sound was the notable aspect in the deserted catacombs. Dripping water was the only noise. There was no city noise that penetrated this deep.“She could hear the dull thwack of water dripping from a low ceiling nearby. Morgan listened intently. In the distance, she could hear voices muted by the heavy air.”


The ancient dead don’t smell and the earth has a clean scent. Certainly not unpleasant, more like a cave.
“Her fingers dug into the dirt. It smelled like peat, earthy and pleasant.”


Example 1 from Paris catacombs: “Her fingers brushed a cold wall and she moved to face it in the dark. She traced the ridged surface. It felt hard like concrete but the texture was unusual, a repeating pattern of knobs and notches with smooth patches between. She used the wall to pull herself up and then felt along the top of it. There was a gap so she reached an arm out, touching a pile of debris that lay on top. It was spiky in parts, with irregular shapes and some loose pieces. Picking one up, Morgan ran her other hand over the object. As she felt its smooth length with a ball on one end and scalloped notches on the other, she realized it was a human femur. Fighting the urge to drop it, she focused on the cool of the bone she held. After all, the dead couldn’t hurt her. The dead didn’t drug her and leave her here in the cold. This femur could be a weapon, a makeshift baseball bat.”

Example 2 from Palermo crypt: “She could feel the hard cold flagstones through her jeans and she shivered, and not just with the cold. This place was beginning to get to her. It had echoes of the past hiding in dark corners, nightmares of little children locked down here, their flesh decomposing over centuries. Perhaps it was unnatural, the way the physical bodies had remained so long after the soul had departed. It felt like Death’s trophy case, with bodies stolen from a world of light and life above.”

If you aren’t able to visit the places you want to write about, I recommend using to write from photos as well as the official websites you find. Flickr photos are more natural and often show detail you wouldn’t find out about any other way.

Joanna Penn is the author of action-adventure thriller novels Pentecost and Prophecy. Joanna’s site helps people write, publish and market their books and has been voted one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers 2 years running. You can follow Joanna on twitter @thecreativepenn


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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8 years ago

What a lovely post on Rome! You make my heart to go back to Italy ! You have a stunning blog ! I have always dreamed of visiting Italy!
I would love to enjoy Catacombs Tours in Rome!! Thanx for sharing excellent informations.
Rome Skip the line tours

Marigold Lott
8 years ago

Love this post. Thanks for the work you are doing. Incredible. I always need help on details!

Samantha Vérant
8 years ago

What an awesome setting! And an awesome way to work those details in! I’ve got to get to Paris soon! Lots of inspiration to be had! Joanna, your book sounds really cool!

Leslie Rose
8 years ago

Catacombs both intrigue and freak me out. I don’t think I’d ever have the nerve to go down there, but I love reading about them. Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly uses them as a portal. Very cool. Can’t wait to read Prophecy.

Becca Puglisi
8 years ago

Joanna, this is so totally cool. I was in Rome 5 years ago and never even knew the catacombs were there. Some tour guide I had. The possibilities with this kind of setting are so amazing. Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

SP Sipal
8 years ago

Meant to say, I’ve also used an ossuary in a story, but not in a catacomb. Will be interested to see how you use yours. 🙂

SP Sipal
8 years ago

This is right up my alley :-)! Thanks for the wonderful detail. And your book sounds like something I’d definitely want to read. Am putting it on my to buy list. Thanks Joanna!

8 years ago

Great entry! The catacombs are a fascinating setting.

Angela Ackerman
8 years ago

I would absolutely love to visit the catacombs one day–such an unusual and incredible location that screams out for clandestine events to unfold within. Great post–thank you so much, Joanna!


Stina Lindenblatt
8 years ago

Wow, this is a super cool post. I’ve never been to a catacomb before. 😀

Laura Pauling
8 years ago

Love this! Nice to know that this stands up to the research I’ve done on the Paris catacombs which are in my story!

8 years ago

This is exactly what I need for my wip!! It deals with a cult–and you guessed it lots of hidden catacombs. Thanks for the great entries/examples. They will be a big help!!