Big Easy


Death is very much a part of life in New Orleans and horror is a tourist commodity. The city’s inhabitants seem blessed with a joie de vivre, but underneath lurks dark memories of a distant past when they seemed to be more interested in more sinister goings on. Even as a tourist you cannot escape the feeling that death is pervasive in New Orleans, especially when you walk among the eerie overground tombs in one of the city’s forty or so cemeteries. In these cities of the dead, you feel you might bump into the infamous vampire Lestat or one of his zombie cronies. If the Hollywood portrayal of New Orleans is to be believed, everyone in the city is into sticking pins in voodoo dolls and carrying out black magic. In fact most of the people in the city don’t even practice voodoo. For those fifteen percent or so that do it is not at all as sinister as it sounds and is more based on doing good.

Voodoo in New Orleans (sometimes called hoodoo) is a mix of traditional Roman Catholicism, the worship of spirits and animals that was brought to the city by Yoruba slaves from Nigeria and a kind of herbalism. In practice it is mainly about ensuring good luck through using charms, herbs and potions. It is more about accentuating the juju (positive) rather than the mojo (negative).

Two women have had most influence on the mythical dark reputation of New Orleans that has sparked the Hollywood horror directors’ imagination. The city’s most infamous daughter, Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen born in the 1800s, was a feared voodoo practitioner and her mythical feats have done much to promote the negative reputation of New Orleans voodoo. There is much mystery surrounding her life and whether many of her activities were indeed down to black magic or a shrewd business head and a penchant for collecting all the city’s gossip is unclear. She had fifteen children and two husbands and was reputed to have had more than a few lovers in her time. A hairdresser by profession and a devout catholic, she was also a psychic and read fortunes and cast voodoo spells. She was revered and feared by all. Her tomb is in the Louis I cemetery near the French quarter and voodoo practitioners will leave gifts of flowers, candles or coins. Some believe it lucky to mark a cross with chalk on her tombstone, turn around a few times and make a special wish. There is even doubt about when she died (some of her followers even believe she remains undead) and there is some confusion as to whether she or her daughter Marie is buried in another cemetery altogether.

The second is the Irish-American author Anne Rice and she is still alive and writing her vampire chronicles and witch stories. She has cult status and is revered by Goths all over the world. The film adaptation of her novel Interview with a Vampire directed by our own Neil Jordan starred Brad Pitt as Louis and Tom Cruise as the vampire Lestat. It was filmed in the Lafayette cemetery (filled with the graves of Irish and Germans who died of yellow fever) in the Garden District and as you wander among the tombs you can imagine a thirsty Cruise jump out on you.

The crumbling cemeteries of New Orleans are in themselves a tourist attraction and they are pretty eerie even during the daytime. The elaborate overground tombs and crypts contain the remains of many members of individual local dynasties who were all buried together. Burying the dead straight in the ground was abandoned many years ago when sudden increases in the already high water table after a rainstorm would cause decaying bodies to pop up out of the ground – just like zombies in the movies – or to suddenly appear floating down the river. For decorum sake and to stave off disease it was decided to try putting rocks in the graves or putting holes in the coffins to keep the bodies down. This didn’t work so the elaborate overground tombs and crypts were built for the rich. The poor were put in stone vaults and the remains of whole families were placed in the one vault. The vaults were usually rented out for a year or so (the time it takes to decay in these parts). If the rent wasn’t paid by your relatives on time, you were turfed out and chucked in the river. This would be enough to create a barrage of unsatisfied souls wandering about the place.

The cemeteries are not the safest places to visit and there are reports of robberies being common in some of them. The thieves hide behind the tall tombstones but some even hide inside crypts that have fallen into disrepair. The angel statues and iron crosses that adorn the graves are not even safe, as they are often pilfered to sell to decorate the gardens of the wealthy all over America. 

New Orleans exploits the dollar potential of the magical and the macabre. You can visit the touristy Marie Laveau House of Voodoo or one of the many other souvenir stores if you want to pick up some voodoo dolls or some lucky charms or potions. There are many tours that take you on scary midnight trips to the cemeteries on ghost hunts and that teach you about voodoo rituals and even show you some ceremonies, but it is doubtful if they are truly authentic. In the French Quarter at Jackson Square there is a long queue of fortune tellers waiting to read your tarot cards. Even the local zoo in Audubon Park does not miss out on the horror attraction. In the reptile house there is a sinister looking strange monster-like creature that presumably represents the mythical wolfman (loup-garous) that allegedly lived in the bayous years ago.

New Orleans offers much besides voodoo to the visitor. You can stroll in the French Quarter and marvel at the Spanish architecture, browse in the antique shops on Royal St or ogle at the stalls in the French Market and perhaps buy a souvenir. You can take a sunset trip on a steamboat on the Mississippi or head out to the Garden District to look at the stately southern homes of the local gentry. Impromptu jazz performances in Jackson Square and orchestrated period fashion parades are regularly staged solely for the benefit of the tourist.

Indulgence in the nocturnal revelry of the French Quarter until the wee hours is a necessary activity for the visitor to the city. The party atmosphere continues all year long and is not just confined to the world famous Mardi Gras or Jazz Festivals. Bourbon street is where the action is at night and where you can “Let the good times roll” as the locals say. You can drink beer while walking on the street; something that is illegal in all other American cities. The traditional local drink is called a hurricaine, which is a rum and passion fruit juice concoction, and you only need a few to enter the party mood, cover yourself in Mardi Gras beads and dance about the place. At dusk Bourbon street fills up with tappers and buskers looking for your money and the music of all kinds blasts out from the bars. New Orleans lays claim to be the origin of Jazz and was the home to one of its most famous exponents Louis Armstrong, but the Bourbon Street stuff usually tends to be a bit mediocre. You will need some local knowledge to hunt out the best jazz in the city unless you are lucky enough to be there during the jazz festival.

The food in New Orleans is not healthy but is very good. The city’s inhabitants lay claim to be America’s fattest and it is not surprising. The food ranges from the weird to the wonderful. Spicy gumbo dishes, raw oysters, deep fried fish, the rather odd tasting fried alligator tail, pickled okra or pig’s feet and of course the Po Boy are all New Orleans specialties. Po boys are supposed to be snacks but are calorie laden French bread sandwiches brimming with meat and gravy or deep fried prawns and they come straight up or dressed with salad and tomato and dripping with mayo. Po boys are difficult to eat and you will make a mess, but they are really tasty. For me the oysters are the best food to be had in New Orleans. In Acme’s Oyster house, a guy next to me ate three dozen in one sitting, with horseradish and lemon juice and crackers, washed down with beer while watching the College World Series baseball on the TV. Even if you have been up all night partying on Bourbon St and have a hurricaine hangover it would be a sin to miss breakfast in New Orleans. Café du Monde in the French quarter is the place for a café au lait and beigneit, which are deep fried doughnuts dipped in powdery sugar. The sugar goes all over your clothes and into your hair but it is worth putting up with the mess cause it tastes heavenly.

So when you visit New Orleans do get your tarot cards read and your future told, but be careful of voodoo spells and vampires. Don’t forget to visit voodoo queen Marie Laveau’s grave and make an x or cross on her tombstone if you want some good luck – but only if you dare!

This article was written before Hurricane Catriona devastated wonderful New Orleans. It is  a great place to visit aand I ope to one day return.

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