- The Washington Times - Friday, October 24, 2003

New Orleans has been immortalized in horror movies and constantly ranked as one of the nation’s most haunted cities, and it has a history steeped in turmoil, plagues and death.

Besides claiming numerous voodoo practitioners, New Orleans is home to more than 42 cemeteries, some dating to the late 1700s. From the haunted houses of LaLaurie and Beauregard-Keyes to the footsteps of the St. Louis Cathedral, the Vieux Carre has long been a playground for the paranormal.

It’s no surprise that New Orleans is quickly becoming one of the nation’s most popular Halloween destinations. From cemetery tours and haunted houses to back-alley voodoo rituals and vampire balls, history and horror are always lurking around the corner, and there’s no better time to visit than October.

Outside of Haiti, New Orleans has one of the highest concentrations of voodoo practitioners (simply known as “voodoos”) in the world. According to the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, it is estimated that 15 percent of the city’s population participates in the practice in one form or another.

There is no credible documentation of the introduction of voodoo in North America, but most scholars agree that it was first imported to New Orleans. The practice came to New Orleans with the introduction of the slave trade around 1510 as human goods were imported from French colonies such as Guadeloupe, Martinique and Santo Domingo as well as Africa. Unable to practice their own rituals out of fear of death, slaves quickly recognized the similarities between their religions and the Catholicism that was practiced in New Orleans.

Substituting the names of their African deities with the names of the Christian saints, they disguised their religions from the general public. Even today, this multifaceted aspect is an integral part of voodoo in New Orleans, where most practitioners are also devout Catholics.

Voodoo in Louisiana has a matriarchal structure of female voodoo queens and male witch doctors that is embedded in the mystery and lore of New Orleans. Doctor John, also called “Bayou John,” was a master drummer. Described as a large man with a face tattooed with red and blue snakes (the tribal markings of the Senegalese royal family — he claimed to be a prince), Doctor John was sought out by blacks and whites alike for his herbal medicines and fortune-telling.

The most famous voodoo queen, Marie Laveau, used a variety of talents to establish herself as the reigning queen and gain the respect and confidence of New Orleans elite.

While voodoo is similar to Catholicism and a number of earthly religions, it has a significant image problem, often being dismissed as primitive or evil because of the portrayal of it in films with human sacrifices and bloodletting rituals. Nevertheless, it’s the mysterious image that arouses the curiosity of travelers,

While local voodoos show disdain that their beliefs are portrayed as evil, many are quick to sell tourists voodoo dolls and potions to conjure up revenge. Snakes, skeletons, altars and alcohol still play a large part in traditional New Orleans voodoo rituals, a few of which are accessible to intrepid travelers.

Originally founded in 1972 by Charles Gandolfo, the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum claims to be the only privately owned museum dedicated to the practice of voodoo in the world, and it is a great place for travelers who want to learn more about the religion. The original museum and a prominent new site on Decatur Street present an excellent history of the integral part voodoo has played in the Creole culture of New Orleans.

Along with St. John’s Eve — which occurs near the summer solstice and is a mix of pagan, Catholic and voodoo — Halloween night is one of the most important nights of the year for voodoos, a time to honor spirits and ancestors. A number of rituals are held around the city, including Voodoo Fest, which has informational seminars on voodoo, live music acts, drumming, dancing, food and arts. (It’s not to be confused with the Voodoo Music Fest, which runs Friday through Nov. 2 this year.)

CITIES OF THE DEAD

Few cities honor their dead like New Orleans. Often referred to as “cities of the dead,” the city’s cemeteries and their tombs and crypts generate talk of mystery, danger, disease and horror. Enclosed in rusty ironwork, the ghost-white, stained tombs are adorned with crosses and statues of angels, surrounding visitors with a world of mystery.

Since the city’s founding, it has been difficult to keep the dead underground. Corpses buried on the banks of the Mississippi River frequently washed into the city, and those buried within the city often rose to the surface during floods and heavy rains.

Various methods were tried to remedy this problem, such as planting rocks on top of the graves and boring holes in the coffins. It wasn’t until Esteban Miro, governor of New Orleans, adopted the Spanish-style wall vaults in the late 18th century that New Orleans finally kept its rotting corpses and skeletons off the streets.

These vaults formed the basis for many of New Orleans’ above-ground burials. Today, the New Orleans area has about 42 cemeteries, all with interesting stories, histories and a world of mystery that can keep visitors occupied for days.

The famous St. Louis No. 1 (there are two other St. Louis cemeteries) was founded in 1789 and is the city’s oldest. The many historical figures buried there include Ernst Morial, the city’s first black mayor, plus the inventor of craps and the famous voodoo queen Marie Laveau, whose tomb is often marked with X’s. The central Italia tomb, one of the largest in the city, was the location of a morbid sexual scene in the film “Easy Rider.”

Metairie Cemetery, built in 1872, is on what once was the Metairie Race Course. One local legend has it that Charles T. Howard, one of the cemetery’s founders, was not allowed to join the Metairie Jockey Club, which owned the racetrack. When refused membership, he vowed that the racetrack would become a cemetery. His tomb is located on Central Avenue.

Metairie, also the name of a nearby suburb, was the first cemetery to be patterned after the park cemeteries of the Eastern states. It has more than 150 acres of mystifying tombs, statues and grass fields. Especially interesting is the Briede tomb, modeled with Egyptian influences, and the towering Army of Northern Virginia, Louisiana Division, tomb.

Other highlights include the stained-glass windows of the Chapman Hyams tomb, designed after a Greek peripteral temple; the Lefebre vault tomb; and the Menge tomb. It is perhaps one of the most peaceful and safest cemeteries in the city, and the roads make it easily accessible to vehicles.

Another of the city’s best-known cemeteries, Lafayette No. 1, has been the filming location for a number of movies, including “Double Jeopardy,” “Interview With the Vampire” and “Dracula 2000.” Built on the Livaudais plantation in 1833 and originally established as a cemetery for the city of Lafayette, this was the city’s first planned cemetery and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a setting in many Ann Rice novels, and a number of German and Irish yellow fever victims are buried there.

A few of the other popular cemeteries include St. Roch No. 1, which is noted for its Ex-Voto room in the cemetery chapel, where replicas of hands, feet and crutches depict answered prayers. Holt Cemetery was founded in 1879 for the black population. The location was farther away from the center of the city so the indigent dead would not have to be carried through the streets.

LIGHTING OF THE GRAVES

Forty-eight miles north of New Orleans, the small community of Lacombe carries on an All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) tradition that is very similar to Central Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) tradition, where locals decorate graves and bring food to the cemeteries and altars. Skeleton toys and trinkets are popular as residents exchange candy skulls with their names on them and hold nighttime vigils under the light of thousands of candles.

The Lighting of the Graves, as it is officially known in Lacombe, is an amazing sight to behold: Residents come out at dusk to place hundreds of candles on graves in the town’s cemeteries. Often preparing during the week before, residents clean out undergrowth from the cemeteries and paint and repair decaying tombs. At dusk on All Saints’ Day, they light candles one by one until each cemetery often appears as one beautiful flaming mass.

Just off Highway 190, La Fontaine Cemetery is one of the most picturesque and accessible. Sitting on a small hill and enclosed by a wrought-iron fence, this cemetery is famous for the hundreds of candles that glow eerily against the backdrop of moss-covered oak trees.

After dusk, priests and altar boys make the rounds of the cemeteries to bless each one with holy water and speak homilies on the meaning of All Saints’ Day. It all ends at a small church where residents gather to honor the dead.

A town of a few more than 5,000 residents, Lacombe is a rural settlement of camps and houses perched beneath towering pine trees and moss-covered oaks. The All Saints’ Day traditions are mainly carried on by blacks and Creoles of color, although it is often disputed where the traditions originated. In the 19th century and the early part of the 20th, New Orleans and other Louisiana cemeteries often were packed with people on All Saints’ Day, a celebration that originally was imported from France as la Toussaint. Other theories have it that the tradition came from the use of torches and pine knots to light the way to the graves for boats, as most Lacombe cemeteries are on or near a bayou.

HOUSES AND THE PARANORMAL

There are a number of reportedly haunted houses in New Orleans, many of which can be seen easily by foot in the French Quarter. The Beauregard-Keyes House, one of the most famous, was the former home of Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant de Beauregard, the commanding officer of the Southern troops at the battle of Shiloh.

It is said that at 2 on moonlit nights, he and his troops materialize in the hallway near the ballroom.

Other famous haunted locations include the Laveau House, former house of Marie Laveau, and the three-story LaLaurie House, which had trouble keeping residents throughout the 1800s and 1900s because of ghostly activities. La Petite Theatre du Vieux Carre also is said to be home to a number of ghosts that do mischievous things around the theater and sets.

No place in Louisiana has received more press about hauntings than the Myrtles Plantation in the small town of St. Francisville. At least 10 suicides and homicides have taken place on the property since it was settled in 1796. Especially chilling is the Mystery Tour offered by candlelight after sunset. Paranormal events have been documented widely here, and the house remains on the Smithsonian Institution’s list of the most haunted places in the world. Those who dare can opt to spend the night in the adjoining bed-and-breakfast.

Visitors looking for a terrifyingly good time will find a multitude of other theatrical haunted events that take place this month, such as the notorious House of Shock. It has often been recognized by national media as one of the largest and scariest interactive haunted houses in the country.

Visitors make their way through a 17,000-square-foot warehouse that is filled with hundreds of actors depicting brutal scenes of horror. Along with a pyrotechnics stage show, creators work year-round on the elaborate artwork and scenes. The House of Shock attracts thousands of visitors every year, but it’s not for the weak of heart.

• • •

Fun begins week before Halloween

Halloween 2003 is Friday, so massive costume contests and other festivities began this week, while some of the haunted houses, such as the House of Shock started programs earlier this month.

Among a number of reportedly haunted hotels in New Orleans:

• Le Pavillon Hotel, 833 Poydras St., New Orleans, (800/535-9095 and www.lepavillon.com) is known for its Old World charm and unique traditions. Rates start at $149 per night.

• International House Hotel, 221 Camp St., New Orleans, (800/633-5770) is the only hotel in town with a voodoo altar in the lobby. There will be offerings and an altar in celebration of All Saints’ Day. The gothic Loa Bar is often filled with visitors, and the rooms are distinctively top-notch.

Tucked away in the corner of the state, about 1½ hours from New Orleans, the Myrtles Plantation, 7747 U.S. Route 61, St. Francisville (225/635-6277 and www.myrtlesplantation.com), has often been recognized in national publications as one of the nation’s most haunted homes. Those who dare to stay there will find 11 rooms, starting at $115 per night.

Hotel Maison de Ville, 727 Rue Toulouse, New Orleans (504/561-5858 and www.maisondeville.com), reportedly has a ghost in cottage No. 4.

Chef Emeril Lagasse’s newest creation, Nola, 534 Saint Louis St., New Orleans (504/522-6652), often has a long wait, but it also has an amazing menu, including items such as smoked duck pizza, filet mignon and cedar-plank-roasted redfish.

Belle Forche, 1407 Decatur St., New Orleans (504/940-0722), lies on the edge of the Faubourg Marigny and combines traditional New Orleans architecture with modern design. Creole specialties include frog legs, mahi-mahi, buckshot duckling and barbecued salmon.

With excellent local fare and a great perch for people-watching, Maspero’s, 601 Decatur St., New Orleans (504/522-4440), is a favorite with locals and visitors alike, specializing in all of New Orleans’ unique staples, including red beans and rice and fried seafood.

Haunted History Tours (504/861-2727 and www.hauntedhistorytours.com) offers a number of spooky excursions to the Garden District and cemeteries. Tours start at $15.

New Orleans Ghost Tours (504/524-0708 and www.neworleansghosttours.com) offers two-hour tours to haunted spots in the French Quarter. The guide even dresses in vampire garb. Tours are $18; children go along for free when accompanied by an adult.

Voodoo Fest, 217 N. Peters, New Orleans (504/581-3824 and www.voodoomuseum.com), is held Halloween night and features voodoo lectures, drumming, dancing and singing, along with musical acts.

Most cemeteries can be explored easily without guides, but visitors should take precautions and never go there after dark.

Some of the more popular locations include St. Louis No. 1 (400 Basin St.); Metairie Cemetery (5100 Pontchatrain Blvd.); St. Roch No. 1 (corner of Derbigny and St. Roch streets); Lafayette Cemetery (Washington Avenue and Chestnut Street) and Holt Cemetery (635 City Park Ave.).

More information is available from the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.neworleanscvb.com and 800/672-6124).

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