As I pass below the soot-streaked highway overpasses that mark the entrance to New Orleans, it’s easy to see how thoroughly the ghosts of New Orleans haunt the city. Here, the dead outnumber the living at least ten to one, and the devastating scars of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath are still festering like a slowly healing wound aching to return to its original splendor.
Some areas still exist as modern day Potemkin Villages; for every occupied home spilling opulent chandelier light and jazz music onto the cobblestone streets there’s one with a crumbling facade, long abandoned and marred with graffiti.
New Orleans is a place where death flourishes but life struggles to survive—yet survived and thrived it has. These two presences coexist here on a level I’ve never seen anywhere else—and I’ve lived in an apartment building that was originally hospital barracks during the Civil War. But here, the already flimsy veil between the worlds is virtually nonexistent on one specific night: Halloween.
Dukes and devils alike prowl the lamplight alleys 365 days a year, but especially during this spirit-laden season. As I stroll around the French Quarter below iron-wrought balconies, I can nearly hear the raucous beckoning of women of the night, hanging high above the gilded grime of the masses. The smell of shrimp and electricity is heavy in the air as an oncoming storm blows in from the bayou, causing the oil lamps to eerily flicker. Every few feet, I nearly trip over broken brick walkways. Maybe it’s the city’s way of bringing the already awestruck to their knees.
Voodoo’s mark on New Orleans
Night’s ecstasies are rivaled only by danger, though. I avoid the prodigious opportunities to have my fortune read or tarot told; there are some mysteries I’d rather leave in the hands of the spirits. However, there are those who specifically seek out liaisons with the spirit world: those who practice Vodou.
NOLA is one of the few places in the United States where Vodou—Americanized and more commonly known as “voodoo”—is practiced. The mostly misunderstood and miscategorized movement is a historical patchwork of Haitian Vodou, Roman Catholicism, and African magical rites with an emphasis on interacting with the spirit world through daily ceremony, offerings, music, and dance. For the uninitiated, Haitian Vodou differs from the Louisiana Voodoo movement in the same way that Episcopalian and Lutheran dogmas vary.
Witnesses to voodoo ceremonies could be excused for mistaking the century. The ancient, primal scenes they paint seem more likely to be taking place in a long-lost time and world than in modern day America. However, it’s the far-flung history that fuels the practice.
Practitioners don’t consider voodoo a religion; rather it’s a way of cultivating a personal relationship with spirits in service to a supreme creator. This movement has left tangible marks all over New Orleans—from triple crosses scrawled across voodoo queen Marie Laveau’s grave to lovingly tended sacred altars that pay homage to the spirits.
PRACTITIONERS DON’T CONSIDER VOODOO A RELIGION; RATHER IT’S A WAY OF CULTIVATING A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH SPIRITS IN SERVICE TO A SUPREME CREATOR.
Some of the spirits, known as the Gede, are considered the patrons of the dead. Sallie Ann Glassman, initiated Haitian Vodou priestess based in New Orleans and owner of Island of Salvation Botanica, explains how the Gede is inextricably intertwined with the city.
“Many people feel that the Gede are the patron spirits of New Orleans,” says Glassman. The festival paid in homage to them is known as “Fet Gede,” and coincides with the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations during the month of November. The invocation is specifically timed to take advantage of “when the veil separating the Living and the Dead is most diffuse,” according to Glassman. The first of November (also called All Saints’ Day) is the most important day of the ritual, and as many voodoo celebrations are, remain open to the public.
Each ceremony is unique, but all honor those who are not of this world. Clad in white, Vodouists ululate in tempo with pounding drums at private ceremonies as well as Voodoo Authentica’s 20th annual public Voodoo Fest in the Quarter. As the sun sets, the shadows grow longer in flickering candlelight and it’s easy to feel carried away by the spirit realm. Perhaps it’s the spirit realm that becomes indistinguishable from our own; it’s impossible to tell. Crickets shriek from foliage as chants grow louder and portraits of the dead gaze silently from the walls. The atmosphere is welcoming, but foreign to most—a familiar feeling in this city of the dead.
Cemeteries are for the living and the dead
Voodoo isn’t the only practice to haunt New Orleans during the Halloween season. As Celtic fall festival Samhain approaches, mystical happenings increase exponentially around the city, most notably near the “Gates of Guinee.” These seven gateways to the voodoo netherworld—believed to be physically present throughout the city—are often mistakenly called “The Gates of Hell,” but the concept is closer to Catholic purgatory.
Considered to be a place where the deceased temporarily reside before entering the final spirit realm, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are highly active times for the Gates. Though their locations are not readily disclosed, exercise caution when seeking them out, lest you get dragged from this world unwillingly.
But if you do find yourself in need of a final resting place, New Orleans’ cemeteries aren’t a bad place to spend the afterlife. Their famous monolithic mausoleums loom in the gloom of both day and night. Their accursed beauty makes barons and beggars equals in death; even the pauper’s graves of Holt Cemetery inextricably draw crowds like a moth to flame.
Here, “people still leave offerings for the dead and have typewriters, telephones, keyboards on the graves for ongoing communication with the dead,” according to Glassman. Offerings of this nature are commonplace in NOLA; Saint Roch Chapel is littered with prosthetic limbs and other artificial body parts, left by pilgrims praying for healing.
New Orleans’ oldest and most famous cemetery, St. Louis Cemetery #1, is bustling with both the living and the dead on Halloween. Crowds of tour groups squeeze between grave sites that are stuffed to the brim with human remains. The city is currently celebrating its 300th anniversary, so that’s a lot of dead bodies. Marie Laveau is famously interned here, as is civil rights activist Homer Plessy and (eventually) actor Nicholas Cage. Costumed partygoers pre-gaming with a trip to the cemetery dull the solemn air that permeates most consecrated ground, but hey, that’s New Orleans for you.
THERE’S ONE THING THE DEAD LIKE, AND THAT’S THE EXCITEMENT OF LIVING.
“There’s one thing the dead like, and that’s the excitement of living,” explains Jonathan Weiss, independent tour guide and historian. Halloween night in New Orleans is a whirlwind of masquerades, vampire bacchanals, and witchy gatherings that draw on the city’s energy during the witching hour. You’re as likely to witness a Satanic nun as you are innocent devil; this time of year, it’s difficult to distinguish good from evil.
Some places, however, are saturated with unmistakable evil. Places like the Jean Baptiste LePrete House, where a “human salad” was found by police in the mid-1800s Places like the Hotel Andrew Jackson, a hotel haunted by the spirits of several boys burned alive in 1794. But one place is unmistakably saturated in complete evil—the cursed Lalaurie Mansion.
I knew the story: A wealthy woman was discovered to have performed horrible mutilations and experiments on her slaves before escaping New Orleans and living her life in luxury abroad without consequence. To experience the corner “where light goes to die” (a direct quote from my tour guide) is a different experience altogether.
As the wind rises, there are unmistakable screams in the night—are they from the train or tortured apparitions? Honestly, as I absorb the hellish energy exuding from the lavish building, I’m unable to tell. A word of warning for those who seek the site: avoid walking below the balcony that wraps around Royal Street and Governor Nicholls Street. Nothing good can come of it.
Gloriously beautiful swamps
After a thorough drenching of nighttime horrors, I’m badly in need of some natural cleansing. I was told by many people that I couldn’t miss one of New Orlean’s famous swamp tours. It’s not just a tourist trap; the surrounding wetlands reflect the delicate balance between man and nature unlike anywhere else. “[Here], everything is being simultaneously born, reabsorbed into the muck and regenerated,” says Glassman. A 90-minute boat ride through Honey Island Swamp in nearby Slidell reveals this circle of decay and rebirth to be true.
This dichotomy of existence mirrors the contradictions of the city perfectly. New and old. Dead and alive. Passion and purity. God and the Devil. Everything lives, everything dies. This is especially true in the bogs of New Orleans, like Jean Lafitte Swamp and Manchac Swamp.
THIS DICHOTOMY OF EXISTENCE MIRRORS THE CONTRADICTIONS OF THE CITY PERFECTLY. NEW AND OLD. DEAD AND ALIVE. PASSION AND PURITY. GOD AND THE DEVIL. EVERYTHING LIVES, EVERYTHING DIES.
Jean Lafitte Swamp in particular “is gloriously beautiful, magical, and otherworldly,” in Glassman’s words. Manchac Swamp is said to be haunted by numerous apparitions, including voodoo priestess Julia Brown and a Cajun werewolf known as the Rougarou. Honey Island Swamp is a journey into the heart of the bayou, where residents live according to the whims of nature.
These lush landscapes requires forethought and effort; in short, a road trip outside the city. Weiss implores visitors to take road trips to “old, forgotten Louisiana” for more bone-chilling discovery.
It’s easy to stroll down Piety or detour through Desire, but to me, the true New Orleans is anything but accessible. The labyrinth of intensified magic encompassing this city of vices during Halloween gives me a false sense of acceptance, but I realize now that it’s simply a hunger—a never-ending hunger for souls that can never be filled. Don’t get lost in its web … or do.