Up close with ghouls of Gaul

Steve McKenna discovers the dark side of the City of Light as a frighteningly good attraction opens its doors in Paris.

Strolling down the delightfully named but rather shabby rue de Paradis, I see 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 The Lord of the Rings - prompting me to recoil and my companion, Diana, to 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.

I'm a bag of nerves when a model crocodile pops out ...

A five-minute walk from Gare de l'Est, this quirky new 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 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 diabolical 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 - are stories you'll have never heard of, so 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. As Diana hides behind me, I creep ahead, with a luminous stick wrung around my neck. This is to indicate that we're an English-speaking group, so the 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 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 heavily French-tinged English.

He's telling us about Philibert Aspairt, who, in November 1793, entered the quarries below the convent of Paris's 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 identifiable only 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 our group.

Fairly calm in the first room, I'm a bag of nerves when a model crocodile pops out in front of us in the next. In March 1984, city workers in the sewers under the Pont Neuf, a bridge that spans the River Seine, discovered a Nile crocodile. The beast - believed to have been an escaped pet - had been surviving on rats and rubbish.

And so it goes on. 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 we're back 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.

The writer was a guest of Le Manoir de Paris.

Trip notes

Suitable for people aged over 10; pregnant women and people with weak hearts or epilepsy are advised not to go. Le Manoir de Paris, at 18 rue de Paradis, is open Fridays, 6-10pm, and Saturdays and Sundays, 3-7pm — with extended hours for Halloween. Entrance costs €20 ($25) for adults, €15 for children (aged up to 15). lemanoirdeparis.com.