31 Days of Halloween – R. Ann Siracusa

The Roman Catacombs
What could be a more appropriate activity for Halloween than visiting a cemetery?  Dark.  Spooky.  Dead bodies.  The catacombs of Rome are all that and more.

Actually, the catacombs are early Christian and Jewish cemeteries.  Simple as that.  Okay, cemeteries are good Halloween fodder.

The word catacomb comes from the Greek katà Kymbas meaning near the hollow.  The Romans originally used the word to refer to a specific area around the Appian Way where there were caves for the removal of tuff blocks (consolidated volcanic ash) for building and paving.  When the Christians began excavating underground cemeteries in that area, the term was applied to those as well.  It wasn’t until the ninth century AD that the definition of catacombs was extended to apply to all Christian and Jewish underground cemeteries in other locations such as Naples, Umbria, Tuscany, Sicily, and north Africa.

Why Were Cemeteries Built Underground?
The Romans cremated their dead, and Roman law didn’t allow burial within the city walls, most likely for health reasons.  While I can’t verify that, the Romans were very health conscious and many of their old laws reflect that.  Because of religious beliefs, the early Christians didn’t want to cremate their dead.  In order to bury the deceased, the corpses had to be interred outside the urban perimeters of the city.  Common burial sites were excavated in the countryside in the vicinity of the ancient Appian Way because of the tufacious soil there.

How many and how big?
The catacombs consist of vast systems of galleries and passageways (underground tunnels) on many underground levels.  There are forty known catacombs in Rome, covering an area of about 600 acres, and an estimated 1.7 million people were buried there.

The galleries and tunnels of the catacombs are about three feet wide and eight feet high, with niches carved into the walls like shelves.  Corpses were placed on the shelves wrapped in a sheet or shroud, and the “shelves” were closed with a slab of marble, usually fixed with mortar. The steps connecting the various floors are narrow and in some places open shafts with ladders connect the levels. 
Believe it or not, these underground cemeteries fell into disuse and were lost to memory by about 900 AD and not rediscovered until 1578. Today, the catacombs are visited by thousands of tourists and pilgrims from all over the world.  And there is nothing really very scary about themunless you find a way to wander off the beaten track.  Thenwatch out!  There may be 1.7 million ghosts stalking you.

Keep in mind this is where Harriet Ruby, Tour Director Extraordinarie, is conducting a tour on the day of Halloween.


ISBN# 978-1-934657-54-6
E-book only – 9K
Harriet Ruby: Tour Director Extraordinaire, had had some real winners when it came to tourists, but this group, wearing Halloween costumes on an all day tour of Rome, took the cake.  Well, it was Halloween, but these folks were seriously different. 

When nine of them decide to explore on their own and take off down a restricted tunnel of the Roman catacombs, Harriet has to find them…for their safety and her reputation…and ends up involved in something she never expected.
A blast of cold air sliced through me.  “Yikes!” I screeched with surprise and almost dropped the flashlight.  My body trembled, and I tightened my grip on my young charge.
“W-what w-was that?” Calogerus stammered.
For a moment my chattering teeth kept me from speaking.  I had no clue.   “An air vent, probably.  They have to get fresh air down here somehow.”
Still shuddering, I inched forward, dragging the boy with me.  “We should be close to the steps to the next level, so be careful.  What were these people thinking, taking off like this?  You’re absolutely sure you saw them go into this gallery?”
“Yes.  I’m sure.”
“Then—aiii!”  My foot slipped on a loose rock.  I stumbled to one knee, flapping my arms for balance, and ripped my hand from Calogerus’s.  The flashlight sailed out of my grip.
Smash!  Ping!  The light went out.
Swallowing the string of curses that rose in my gullet, I crawled to my hands and knees and felt around for the lost light.  “That’s just great.  Are you all right?”
“I’m okay, but I think your flashlight is toast.”
Right.  Okay, Harriet, now what?  “Well, we can’t go any further without a light.  We’ll have to go back and let the security guards find them.  All we have to do is follow the wall.  We didn’t make any turns so—”
“They went that way,” the boy cried and tugged on my arm.  “C’mon.  Let’s go.”
“What?  How do you know?”  With one palm against the cold damp wall for balance, I scrambled to me feet.
“I told you, I can see in the dark.”  I sensed him move away from me and almost screamed.
In an instant, he returned to my side.  “Here.  Open you hand.”
In a frightened daze, I complied, and he placed something soft in it.  “What is it?”  I fingered the object, like pulpy but thin vegetation.
“It’s an apple blossom.”
Whatever I might have said to that morphed into a startled gasp as an uncanny inhuman howl resonated through the enclosed space, coming from a distance in front of us.
“Let’s go.  We’re running out of time.”  Calogerus grabbed my hand and pulled me unwillingly along behind him.  “Hold onto me.  I’ll lead the way.  Be careful on the stairs.”
An apple blossom?  The stairs? 
Two brownie points for Calogerus.
            What could I say?  This was going to be a tough one to explain, even to Will.  Okay, God. You and I need to talk.  This is all about the sex without marriage, isn’t it?  You know we’re working on that.
            We clambered down the steps as fast as we could with a night scope-equipped ten-year-old leading the way and me as blind as a bat without sonar and shivering with trepidation.
            On the last step, I smelled it.  My stomach churned as though I was about to hurl.  Formaldehyde?  L’Amour’s aftershave.  Squeezing my lids tight, I swallowed hard and forced the sense of sickness back into my belly.  When I opened my eyes, a faint glow shone from a room at the end of the long hall.
            We both ran toward the light and the smell, and in seconds burst into another wide cavern with pictures and symbols painted on the walls.
            I skidded to a stop, and wrapped my arms around my middle against the frigid damp air, which mitigated the surge of panic I’d experienced.  Burning incense sticks filled the space with a dim, diffused luminosity and the exotic scent of sandalwood, reducing the intensity of the essence of L’Amour.
My nine missing tourists stood with their backs against the walls, watching the old woman Bria, on her hands and knees, drawing a large circle in the center of the dirt floor.