New Orleans: Havin’ fun in ‘The Big Scary’

By Bob Schulman

Bacchus float in the Mardi Gras parade. Photo: New Orleans CVB/Cheryl Gerber.

New Orleans is known around the world by its nickname, “The Big Easy.” But for some the city has another, not-so-well-known tag: “The Big Scary.”

New Orleans offers all kinds of ways to have fun. Photo: New Orleans CVB/Jay Combe.Between the jumpin’ joie de vivre of Mardi Gras, the brassy jazz festivals and letting the good times roll in the French Quarter – especially on anything-goes Bourbon Street – it’s hard to imagine that the city is packed with haunted houses and the like (even a haunted old-time brothel). What’s more, New Orleans has some of the spookiest cemeteries on the planet.

Local tour operators took a few liberties with an old Scottish prayer to let you know they’ve got excursions showcasing “everything from ghosties and ghoulies to long-leggedy beasties to things that go bump in the night.”

Haunted History Tours, for example, takes guests to sites covered in the company’s best-selling book, New Orleans Ghosts, Voodoo & Vampires. Among highlights of various tours offered by HHT are stops at the city’s legendary St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, actual Voodoo altars, the tomb of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, the home of Anne Rice (author of lots of scary books including The Vampire Chronicles), a “vampire tavern,” buildings where documented hauntings took place and many other spooky spots.

Bloody Mary’s Tours is another specialist in the dark side of the city. Guides unveil its haunted history on walking tours from the French Quarter and the Treme to the Garden District. Stops along the way include three cemeteries, a “vampire lair” and reportedly haunted bars, restaurants, hotels and what was once a ghostly house full of shady ladies.

Among other top tour operators, French Quarter Phantoms offers ghost- and vampire-hunting adventures combining “fun with a hint of serious history.” Groups explore eerie attractions like the Andrew Jackson Hotel, where the ghosts of five boys who died in a fire there in 1788 (the building was a boys’ school at the time) are said to haunt the building.

A word or two about Voodoo

Visitors party with locals in the French Quarter. Photo: New Orleans CVB/ Jay Combe.Think of Voodoo, and chances are images of glassy-eyed dancers shaking rattles and doing awful things to chickens to the frenzied beating of African drums come to mind. That’s about what you’ll see – albeit with a kinder handling of the chickens – on some specialized tours of New Orleans.

Tour guides will tell you that Voodoo came to these parts in the early 1800s when a large number of Haitians living in the Caribbean (who’d earlier imported their folk religion from Africa) migrated to Louisiana.

A city spokeswomen shares a bit of local history: “For hundreds of years, many residents of New Orleans have feared the dreaded Voodoo curse and its malevolent magic, which some believe can destroy their enemies and alter the course of their lives. Veiled in mysticism and superstition, Voodoo legends have influenced the city’s culture and inspired songs, books and movies.”

She tells the story of the city’s first Voodoo Queen, Saint Dede, a slave from Santo Domingo who bought her freedom while living in New Orleans. Another queen was Marie Laveau, who incorporated “holy water” and candles into Voodoo rituals. According the spokeswoman, “Ms. Laveau’s pact with a parish priest and her practice of encouraging customers to attend Mass formed a permanent bond between Voodoo and Catholicism in the city.”

Tour guides tell chilling tales about zombies and religious rituals that blend history, facts, myths and folklore. You’ll learn about Voodoo’s connection with Mardi Gras and its link to jazz, and the reason for jazz funerals.
 

Mosey around the city, and you’ll see all kinds of shops selling candles, herbs, powders and oils related to Voodoo rituals as well as “gris-gris” amulets and dolls that can be used to bring good luck, ward off evil and settle conflicts. A tip: Don’t miss the Voodoo Museum’s displays of artifacts chronicling the history of the religion.

‘Let the good times roll’

.  Maison St. Charles Hotel and Suites. Photo courtesy of the hotel.Spooky spots aside, New Orleans’ booming French Quarter (also known as Vieux Carré or just “The Quarter”) is the city’s big draw for tourism -- thanks in no small part to an 1897 city ordinance that OK’d a legal “red light” district just outside The Quarter. Authored by a councilman named Sidney Story, the measure led to the creation of a 16-block maze of wide-open brothels, jazz joints gambling halls, drug dens and the like. New Orleans’ version of Sodom and Gomorrah came to be known as Storyville

For 20 years, good French creole families living in The Quarter (the oldest section of the city) and elsewhere around New Orleans were spared the sight of such goings-on, the city’s vices having been confined to Storyville.

Then came World War I, and officials in Washington were shocked to learn that sailors from the New Orleans naval station were wallowing in debauchery in Storyville (said one admiral, “What would their mothers think?”). So in 1917,  under pressure from U.S. Secretary of War Newton Baker, Storyville came to an end.

Consumer demand for the Storyville “product” didn’t end with the demise of the district, of course. The brothels, jazz joints, opium dens and so on just relocated to other spots in the city where, although illegal, local officials pretty much looked the other way when their new neighbors moved in.

One of the city’s legendary cemeteries. Photo: Haunted History Tours.Many simply moved their rip-roaring bars and bawdy businesses a few blocks away into the adjacent French Quarter -- turning what had been a quiet, old-world residential area into a wide-open playland for visitors looking for naughty nights on the town. The heart of the 13-block-long Quarter, originally tagged Bourbon Street after France’s ruling family of the 18th century, became more associated with the booze of that name.

Local lawmakers tamed down Bourbon Street and the rest of The Quarter over the years, but – despite efforts to turn it into a kind of creole Disneyland -- it’s still a place where you can enjoy mingling with merry-makers day and night, bars with no closing hours, incredibly spicy food (much of it straight out of the Louisiana bayou) and arguably the best jazz in the world.

No wonder New Orleans’ motto is laissez les bon temps rouler – let the good times roll.

Staying there: The city has some 160 tourist-class hotels, many of which feature the charm of old-world French and Spanish decor (but with modern amenities). Among popular properties in the latter category is the 128-room Maison St. Charles Hotel and Suites (http://www.maisonstcharles.com), which is located amid antebellum homes on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line in the lower Garden District, making it easy to get to the French Quarter.

More info:

New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.neworleanscvb.com)

Haunted History Tours (www.hauntedhistorytours.com)

Bloody Mary’s Tours (www.bloodymarystours.com)

French Quarter Phantoms (www.frenchquarterphantoms.com)

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