From Ghost Hunting to Palm Reading: A Guide to the Mysticism of New Orleans
Picture the scene – you’re strolling down the cobbled streets of New Orleans, the scent of spicy Cajun food fills the air, the smooth notes of a live saxophonist delight your ears, then in front of you, you see the open door of a dimly lit Voodoo temple. Dare to go in?
Many people associate New Orleans with jazz and fine Southern cuisine, but take the time to delve deeper, and you’ll discover the darker side of this city and a plethora of unsolved mysteries. As well as being the home of jazz, New Orleans has the reputation of being the most haunted city in America. Many of New Orleans’ residents are very superstitious and rely on spiritual guides to help them make decisions about their future. The French Quarter is thriving with psychic readers and Voodoo shops, not to mention an abundance of haunted buildings.
To satisfy my curiosity about what makes New Orleans such a hot bed for paranormal activity, I went on a journey to explore this treasure trove of magic and mysticism…
Ghosts and haunted places
New Orleans is known as the most haunted city in America. Some people believe it’s due to the many catastrophes the city has suffered over the past 200 years, such as the devastating hurricanes, yellow fever epidemics, brutal wars, and two major fires that destroyed the city. Others believe it is due to the abundance of Voodoo practitioners, who focus on communication with the spirits. With its deserted neighborhoods, humid swamp lands, above-ground graves, and historic mansions, this city has long been the ideal setting for a horror movie.
The buildings and burial sites of New Orleans have attracted many ghost hunters over the years, and as soon as I got to my hotel, Le Pavillon, I was presented with a sealed letter titled: “Le Pavillon Hotel. History & Paranormal Investigation.” Let’s just say I didn’t read it before bed.
Le Pavillon Hotel was built in 1907 and is often described as the most haunted hotel in New Orleans. The script contained a detailed report of the paranormal investigations that have occurred at the hotel, floor by floor. There have been over 100 reported sightings of ghostly figures, strange noises and apparitions seen at the foot of the bed. There are even rumors that there’s a certain floor that the cleaners refuse to go on. Sightings at this hotel have included a crying lost girl wearing rose perfume who laments that she needs to get to the ship terminal before disappearing suddenly. It is believed that she is the ghost of a girl killed in the 1800s by a runaway carriage just before she was due to board a ship with her family. Other people have reported seeing a ghostly couple wearing clothes from the 1920s and the hotel’s paranormal report stated they particularly like the 2ndfloor and room 221. I was staying in the room next door, but thankfully they didn’t float through the wall to give me a fright in the middle of the night!
Another building famous for being haunted is the LaLaurie Mansion at 1140 Royal Street. Delphine McCarty LaLaurie and her physician husband Dr. Louis LaLaurie lived in this mansion from 1831-1834. They fled the city in 1834, never to be seen again after their shocking secrets were exposed to the public. In 1834, a fire broke out in the mansion, and when volunteer firemen got to the house, they made a series of gruesome discoveries – dozen of slaves had been chained to the walls of a secret attic room and had been victims of appalling torture and brutal medical experiments conducted by the couple. Seventy five bodies were found under the floorboards in the years to follow and it soon became known as “The Haunted House.” The property remained vacant for many years, as whenever people bought the house, they reported terrifying incidents and believed there was evil karma associated with it. People heard the sound of screaming voices and rattling chains, witnessed translucent human figures, doors slamming, flickering lights and personal possession were destroyed without explanation. The mansion was once owned by Nicholas Cage, but it is rumored he never spent a full night there, and the mansion is believed to have recently been bought by Johnny Depp.
If you aren’t afraid of stepping into the “cities of the dead,” which is another name for cemeteries in New Orleans, you should check out St. Louis Cemetery No 1. The cemeteries are referred to by this name because over ninety percent of all New Orleans burials are in above ground graves that resemble small houses. This graveyard is famous for being home to the ancient Voodoo master Marie Laveau. She was born in 1794 and people pay their respects by performing rituals and leaving gifts at her grave, in the hope of being blessed by her supernatural powers. A common ritual that visitors would perform at her grave was marking three X’s on the tomb with red brick or chalk and making wishes. When their wishes came true, they returned and drew circles around the X’s. This practice has now been banned by conservationists due to the damage it was causing to the tomb.
Since 1881, there have been several reported sightings of Marie Laveau’s ghost, often wearing a red and white turban with seven knots in it. People have described seeing her floating between the tombs and muttering a Voodoo curse to cemetery trespassers. Some people also believe she returns in the form of a black crow that flies above the cemetery.
If you are curious about your future and want to get a psychic reading –The French Quarter is the place to be. Look in between the antiques and art shops and you’ll find clusters of tiny shops with in-house clairvoyants offering different types of psychic readings. I visited a place called “Bottom of the Cup,” a famous tea room that has been open since 1929 and offers three different types of psychic readings – either tarot reading, tea leaf reading or palm reading. When you enter the building, you are greeted with a choice of over 100 different exotic teas.The usual custom is to sit and drink your tea at the front of the shop and you can then book to go for a reading in the curtained rooms at the back. I went for a tarot reading with a sweet old Southern lady who was full of wisdom and positivity. She told me a lot of interesting things about my trip and the people I’d meet, and then left me with some advice. These are some of the things that stuck with me:
“Don’t doubt yourself…ever. At least give it your best try, and your best try might be magnificent.”
“All you have to have is the idea and the desire – and when you know you can do something, you can’t fail.”
New Orleans is often referred to as the Vampire Capital of America and several famous vampire movies and novels have been set in the city, such as Dracula 2000 and Anne Rice’s famous series of books “The Vampire Chronicles.” The fascination with vampires began in the late 1800s, when French girls arrived at the Old Ursuline Convent bringing their belongings over in coffin-shaped suitcases which were stored in the attic. After some of the suitcases were found to be empty, imaginative stories began circulating that the “Casket Girls” had actually smuggled vampires into the country and the city’s obsession with vampires grew.
One of the vampire legends of New Orleans is Jacques Saint Germaine. He was an eccentric yet highly intelligent Frenchman who spoke six languages, and regularly hosted dinner parties. The strange thing about these parties is that he refused to eat and only drank red wine. It was only after raiding his apartment following reports he had attacked a woman by biting her neck that police found his homemade wine collection was laced with human blood. However this isn’t the only eerie thing about him. An individual of his exact description was spotted many times between 1710 and 1930 and many believe the legend that he is immortal.
Today New Orleans has become a gathering place not only for vampire fans, but also people who actually believe they themselves are vampires. If you want to see a unique shop – Boutique du Vampyre provides a full range of unusual vampire clothing and accessories. Also, if you’re visiting in October, be sure to check out the annual New Orleans Vampire Film Festival. The best way to get a lowdown on the history of vampires and to decide for yourself whether they are fact, fiction or folklore is to go on a Vampire Tour to take you to all the vampire ‘hot spots’ such as the famous Lafayette Cemetery and Ye Olde Original Dungeon.
The magic of Voodoo
Voodoo is prevalent in New Orleans as a religion and a dominant part of its culture and history. It arrived in New Orleans at the time of the Haitian revolution (1791-1804) when many Haitian refugees fled to the city. It is thought that around fifteen percent of New Orleans residents still perform Voodoo rituals and its main purpose is to heal, protect and influence life events. The power of Voodoo lies in understanding the processes of nature and connecting with spirits and ancestors. A key concept is worshipping the “Loa,” which are the Voodoo spirits that represent different aspects of life, such as the provision of food, work and love.
Marie Laveau is the most famous Voodoo figure in North American history and she mixed Haitian Voodoo and Catholic beliefs to make the practice more acceptable to upper class members of society. She was a devout Catholic and went to Mass at St. Louis Cathedral almost every day, then carried out her Voodoo rituals afterwards. She was admired by many and quickly won the approval of the local priest by encouraging her followers to go to church. As a Voodoo priestess, she healed the sick, told people’s fortunes, sold potions and taught powerful spells.
You can find several Voodoo shops in the French Quarter and one of the most famous is Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo. When you enter the shop, it feels like you are entering another world. The place is adorned with candles, Voodoo dolls, amulets, statues, ingredients for spells and gris-gris bags; the traditional good luck pouches that New Orleans residents often wear on their belts. The store also offers psychic readings and several of the psychics who work there believe Marie Laveau’s ghost still haunts the building. Another place to go is The New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple, which is a beautiful temple fragranced with incense and delicately spiced oils. The altar room is decorated with colorful tapestries, African masks, religious statues and altars with offerings. This is the place to go to if you want to get a feel for an authentic Voodoo experience. The Temple offers private consultations, lectures, workshops, blessings, African bone readings and even Voodoo weddings.
If you want some background information on the history of Voodoo you should visit New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. Its exhibits trace the origins of Voodoo, reveal special rituals and contain fascinating illustrations and artifacts relating to the religion’s most famous practitioners. Also, if your luck is in you may just bump into Jolie Vert, the famous in-house ceremonial albino Burmese python.
Whether it’s a resident snake, a ghost or maybe even a vampire, there’s always a surprise around the corner in “The Big Easy.” So go on your New Orleans adventure with an open mind and prepare to be amazed…