Let’s take a little adventure into the dark unknown. You pass through a doorway on the streets of Paris and see a tiny spiral staircase up ahead. The steps hold no more than one person, and are smoothed over and slippery. You make your way down, ever wondering when the dizzying staircase will end. Finally you stumble into a long, dim hallway. The air is moist, and water drips from the ceiling forming dirty, shallow puddles on the stone. You can see into the tunnel, but not where it ends. The eerie yellow light is your only guide into the deep.
The hallways stretch on and on, twisting and turning until you’ve lost all sense of direction, as you cling to the path that will bring you to safety. Suddenly, you enter a larger room with round, stony pillars, and a doorway straight ahead. The sign above the door reads “Stop. This is the Empire of the Dead.” At last, you enter the infamous repository of 6 million people across French history, the Catacombs.
As a child, I loved watching and reading about spooky things. From my first taste of the supernatural watching “Goosebumps” and “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” on television, I developed a complicated interest in all things scary. Though I could only watch these shows in broad daylight and would have nightmares about them at night, still I wished to see how the stories would unfold for the unsuspecting characters in every plotline. Eventually I stumbled onto the Catacombs, which surprisingly was one of the first things I learned about Paris (apart from the Eiffel Tower of course). The Catacombs are the resting place for French civilians when the cemeteries became overcrowded. Rather than finding land elsewhere, the bones of already interred people were shoved deep underground, in an abandoned mine. The depressing history and unsettling feeling of displeased spirits in the Catacombs was more than enough to convince me to visit, if I can muster up the courage that is.
When I entered the Empire of the Dead, my brain was already on full alert. Dark, suffocating passageways deep underground are enough to send my brain into overdrive, but the thought of crossing paths with millions of skeletons added another element of fear. When I laid eyes on the first wall of bones, I had a mild panic attack. Internally of course, I couldn’t show the rest of the group the fear. Still, the sight was beyond creepy, on so many levels.
Every side of the wall was covered in rows upon rows of human bones, with skulls laid halfway up and at the very top of the walls. It wasn’t so much the bones themselves as the thought that someone physically did this. Someone separated the bones of a skeleton from each other, and created the walls out of human remains. I wonder what those spirits would say, if they were to say anything at all.
These pictures don’t do justice to the atmosphere of the dark, gloomy corridors, filled with the bones of people of long ago.
As I climbed up another dizzying spiral staircase and took a lungful of fresh air, I began to see just how silly my fear of the catacombs were. In all reality, it wasn’t that scary. However, I anticipated a scary scene, and so my fear mode was already fully engaged by the time I actually saw the skulls and bones. What caused this anticipated fear-event fear response, so to speak? I found my answer when I began reading an article about different versions of a gene that can cause an enhanced fear and anxiety responses (Glotzbach-Schoon et al., 2013). Reading the experiment has helped me understand why I reacted the way I did, learning something a little more about my brain and fear responses in general.
This study examined the role of variants of 2 genes, 5HTT and NPSR1. Previous research has shown that the 5HTT gene is involved in anxiety disorders, while the NPSR1 gene has an important role in anxiety and fear responses. The researchers studied two forms of each gene, entitled either S+ or LL for the 5HTT gene and T+ or AA for the NPSR1 gene. The patients had a combination of each copy, with 4 different combinations in total. They used a virtual reality simulator to test for fear conditioning (developing a fear for something). When conditioning the fear response, patients in one virtual office room were given an unpredictable, mildly painful electric shock. Those in another virtual office room did not have the same electric stimulus. The researchers examined fear and anxiety responses with the behavioral technique fear conditioned startle reflex, which studies the increase in startle response when in the fear state. They measured the startle response with Eyeblink Electromyogram (EMG), a fancy name for tool to measure eye blinking.
Results of the study indicate that patients who had both S+ and T+ variants of the genes exhibited a higher startle response when in the electric shock office room. However, patients that had the AA variant regardless of the forms for the 5HTT gene were more anxious in the experiments. The results are interesting because they not only show that different forms of the same gene can influence our behavior, but also they demonstrate possible gene interaction for the startle response, whereas only one form of the gene affects anxiety.
Maybe I have the double S+/T+ combo because I had a higher startle response when seeing the bones than I had expected. Or maybe I just have the AA gene and was more anxious to see the human remains when entering the deep. In either case, though I knew what was coming at the end of the long, dark tunnels, still I couldn’t control my fear when I finally entered the Empire of the Dead. Despite my weird love for the fear state, I don’t think I will disturb these bones again–the Catacombs is one place that I wouldn’t mind skipping on my return to Paris. At least I can cross this frightful experience off of my bucket list. Check mark.
Glotzbach-Schoon E, Andreatta M, Reif A, Ewald H, Troger C, Baumann C, Deckert J, Muhlberger A, Pauli P (2013) Contextual fear conditioning in virtual reality is affected by 5HTTLPR and NPSRI polymorphisms: effects on fear-potentiated startle. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 7:31
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