Most people would probably consider visiting the catacombs the creepiest part of making the rounds in Rome, but I think it’s pretty damn cool. Granted, I was raised on Night of the Living Dead and Tales from the Crypt, and my idea of a good time involves lots of red-dyed corn syrup, a couple friends and a camcorder, but still.
Funny enough, our tour guide looks the spitting image of Dario Argento, and his Italian comes out a lot more rapidly and incomprehensible than you’d expect for a guide, so after a while I just sort of tune him out and keep my eyes on the scenery. There are skulls everywhere. Centuries-old dust collects in wisps here and there, the kind that’ll make you sneeze uncontrollably if you breathe in even just a little too quickly. In its own way, it controls the very air you breathe.
There’s a chubby-paunched tourist who talks loudly on his cellphone while his other hand awkwardly clutches the sort of camera you’d see purchased by someone who wants the attention of being a photographer without doing any of the work, or else this guy. The Argento guide doesn’t pay him any mind as he zips along with his warp speed Italian, he must be all too used to this shit by now. He doesn’t even bat an eye when chubby-paunch drops his camera, which camera’s flash goes off all horror-movie-like and shines on one figure in particular as the tourist reverts to a Tourettic state.
The tourist picks up his camera and swears some more under his breath as its flashbulb dangles from a little wire. Our group moves up, until that figure I saw is directly ahead and foreboding as all get out.
Argento rounds a corner, speaking even faster as he goes as if the rapidity of his speech is dependent on making turns. The rest of the group marches on with chubby-paunch taking up the rear, but I stay behind. That creepy figure’s too damn awesome to just pass up.
The figure is a robed skeleton with neatly lined and ordered skulls behind him as if to intensify the impression he makes. The figure itself is well over six feet tall, and his billowing robe is a dark, dusky black that seems like it’s been cut out of the darkness itself. And there at the top of the robe, the figure’s skull stares through eye sockets that haven’t had eyes in them in well over two thousand years at least.
I feel at my shoulder, but I don’t have to: I find the strap of my backpack. My nearly empty backpack. Just the right size, one might say, for a pilfered skull, perhaps. I look this way and that, but no one’s watching. The only signs of life are the faint sounds of Argento’s lightning-fast speech and chubby-paunch’s loud cellular convo.
The skull comes off with a satisfying snap and sends up the same nefarious dust I told you about earlier. I cough and wheeze as it enters my lungs, some kind of instant karma or something. But curses be damned: before long I’ve got old giant Roman’s cranium in my backpack and I’m running along down the narrow corridor to catch up with my group.
I pant as I go, and move to round an upcoming corner. As I do, I slam hard into something and topple over on the ground. I look up, and there’s a skeleton with a sword in its bony hand, fully clad in Roman-appropriate armor. Its eye sockets light up with a fire when it sees me, and it’s all I can do to not let out the contents of my bladder and bowels all at once.
I get up slowly and kind of back away from the thing. Its hand reaches toward the wall as I do, and it clutches a weird lever of some sort as I turn and start to run away. And then, before I even know what the hell’s going on, a trapdoor’s opened up and I’m freefalling into pure darkness.
I’m still alive. Thank Romero. But the fuzzy feelings fade when I turn on my phone’s flashlight app and realize what it is that’s broken my fall: the belly of a once-snoring but now very awake Cyclops.
The big guy jumps up with a start, which sends my sorry ass down and off of him with a far more painful thud than the one you just read about. Faint torchlight sends glimpses of the beast’s form my way, but I kind of wish it didn’t, as that whole bladder-emptying thing I told you about has already taken effect and I’m worried the bowels will come next.
The behemoth swings for me and just barely misses my head as I drop down onto my stomach. His swing catches a mummified Roman warrior instead, and said warrior’s sword goes airborne and lands dangerously close to my face. I get up to my feet and pick the sword up. I suddenly remember the Odyssey. I knew there was a reason I read that dusty old thing. I dodge the next swing just as narrowly as the first and run around to the beast’s back. Using its back hair as handholds, I scurry up to its head and plunge my blade deep into its solitary eyeball. As he cries out in pain, he grabs me and flings me up into the air, and by some lucky twist of fate I soar right through the same trapdoor I came down.
I’m not taking any chances this time. I run my ass right out of there and don’t stop till I see daylight.
I pause for a moment at the entrance to the catacombs, my breath ragged. I grab the skull out of my backpack, toss it back in like it’s the plague crafted into skull form, and hightail it out of there. A flash blinds me as I run away–good old chubby-paunch.