Haunting Memories

New Orleans: The Big Easy comes alive during Mardi Gras, but on Halloween, visitors experience more ghostly pursuits.

October 31, 1999|By Joy Dickinson | Joy Dickinson,Dallas morning news

In the first scene of the most famous play set in New Orleans, the character Blanche Dubois neatly sums up the city's paradoxical allure: "They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, transfer to one called Cemetery, and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields."

There you have it: Sin, death and -- if you're lucky -- redemption, all for the price of a streetcar ticket.

Not much has changed in the half century since Tennessee Williams wrote those words. Visit New Orleans at opposite ends of the year and the fascination with debauchery and demise still resonates palpably.

For a hefty dose of sin -- call it an obsession with life, if you're feeling charitable -- visitors flock to the winter festival of Mardi Gras, weeks of officially advocated craziness before Ash Wednesday and Lent. At the other end of the year, during the pagan festival known as All Hallow's Eve or Halloween, the obsession with life turns flip-flop into a full-fledged preoccupation with death.

Nowhere does talk of the undead come quite so alive as at Halloween in New Orleans.

Crescent City visitors at this time of year can see sights unlikely to be glimpsed anywhere else in America: a Halloween tree -- like a Christmas tree, but decorated with skeletons, bats and spiders -- adorning the bay window of an elegant St. Charles mansion, authentic voodoo rituals in a swamp at midnight, a "Good Mourning" exhibit of death-related artifacts such as jewelry made from a loved one's hair, perhaps even a fleeting glance at one of New Orleans' famous ghosts.

"We probably have more ghost stories per square foot than anywhere [else] in the United States, probably the world. We've got more ghosts than places in Europe that are 10 times older than New Orleans," says Robert Florence, a local author and founder of Historic New Orleans Walking Tours.

That surplus of specters has fueled a mini-industry of ghost, vampire and "haunted history" tours of the French Quarter, Garden District and city cemeteries. Some tours are campy, some grimly serious, some -- like Florence's -- rooted more in history than supernatural lore.

"We tell a couple of ghost stories, but I think if you just take a straightforward historical or factual approach -- just tell what happened -- you can't make up a better story than what really happened," Florence says.

For those who prefer a dash of theater with their shrieks of terror, Haunted History Tours, Magic Walking Tours and other groups feature costumed guides who brandish wooden stakes and whisper ominously of ghouls, vampires and unidentifiable bumps in the night.

Some tours include only "real-life" ghost stories; others include fictional "haunts" and vampires such as those made popular by native daughters Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite.

Tombs above ground

Much of New Orleans' absorption with the ungrateful dead no doubt stems from the city's above-ground tombs, a necessity because the ground is only about 6 inches above sea level. "That death-laden mystique probably has a lot to do with the fact that we're just in much closer proximity to dead bodies," Florence says matter-of-factly.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, New Orleans residents learned the hard way about the problems of burying their dead in "ground" that was essentially swamp water. Caskets had the unsavory tendency to float right back to the surface. Early settlers buried in the river levee were "unburied" during the city's frequent floods.

Restless bodies, one might assume, make for restless spirits.

So it makes sense that many of the city's most famous ghost stories spring from the cemeteries. At suburban Metairie Cemetery, built atop a former racetrack in 1872, the tomb of Josie Arlington draws many curious ghost-hunters despite Metairie's modern, distinctly unspooky look.

Josie, who ran one of the most infamous and successful Storyville "halls of pleasure," commissioned the red-granite tomb in 1911, three years before she died. A robe-draped bronze maiden guards the tomb, and many visitors have reported seeing the lady wander away from her post to flit among the tombs.

For some time, a mysterious red glow lingered over the tomb, causing some to speculate that Josie felt more comfortable in a red-light district, even in death. The light was eventually traced to a toll barrier on a nearby street and blocked with shrubbery.

Though it lacks an official haunting, the Chapman-Hyams tomb at Metairie will give visitors a chill. Through the glass doors of the tomb, visitors can see the statue of a desolate angel, weeping atop the stone tomb and bathed in ethereal blue light.

At St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery, on the edge of the French Quarter fronting Basin Street, lie the remains of New Orleans' most infamous voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. Her crypt bears hundreds of rusty-colored chalk X's; legends say those marking an X for Marie will have their wishes granted. However, preservationists such as Florence say the practice is a recent development that has led to the defacing of historic tombs.

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