Joseph Furey raises up the gods and ghouls of Halloween in New Orleans Voodoo
Halloween decorations in the French Quarter, New Orleans – Photo: Jake Cunningham
Though the subtropical fall of New Orleans doesn’t much resemble the autumn of John Keats, a mellowness of a kind has returned to my adoptive home. Summer here is a thug and, except for clearing up after hurricanes, there’s nothing to do outside from May to September that doesn’t come without the sensation you’re drowning in hot glue. By October, however, the streets have cooled enough for the city to reassert itself, get back to doing what it does best – dressing up and putting on shows the whole world pays good money to see. Voodoo
The first such show is Halloween, which in normal – that is, non-Covid – years can run for up to five weeks. Some 25 years ago, when I was first renting a room here – in the Bywater neighbourhood, which the French Quarter bleeds into, becoming more residential block by block – I asked Jeom, who lived a few doors down from me, why Halloween started so early in New Orleans. He replied with a suspicion of smirk: “Because we understand that it takes more than an evening to raise the dead.”
But he knew more than he was letting on. From the adolescent spookery of Anne Rice’s vampire novels to the widely-held conviction that the city is a portal to the underworld, New Orleans has been exploring its dark side since its founding just over 300 years ago. A place steeped in otherness, unlike anywhere else on earth, and proudly alien to the rest of America, it seems to exist to prove the impossible is nothing of the sort. It should come as no surprise to you to learn that my neighbour was a Vodou practitioner; a Haitian born former priest who fell out with his “church” and performed cosy ceremonies for close friends and family in his shotgun cottage near the crossroads of Dauphine and Desire.
It’s all in that last sentence, which would simply roll off the tongue of anyone who’s spent more than a lick of time in the Big Easy, as if Jeom were a plumber. What to me were once fables have become facts. Without thinking about it, as easy as hiccuping, I have worn gris-gris bags around my neck, hexed enemies and sketched vèvè drawings, used to invoke spirits, on the backs of cigarette packets. You don’t have to be a believer in such things for them to become your reality. The keyhole to my front door is upside down, the better to confuse any one of an assortment of ghouls who may be looking for a place to crash or a soul to suck.
Synonymous with the city, Voodoo, to give it its American spelling, first came to Louisiana with enslaved west Africans (it was known then as “Vodun”, which means “spirit” in the Fon and Ewe languages of Benin and Ghana). Their religious rituals soon became syncretised with those of the local Catholic population and the followers of Vodou, a close spiritual relative, who fled Haiti for New Orleans after the revolution there in 1791. Voodoo is a creole religion, then; one without a formal creed or specific sacred texts, and no central authority governs its worship. Which has allowed it to morph in many interesting ways – some practitioners now incorporate elements of Judaism, Hinduism and Cuban Santeria, while others have gone back to its Haitian or African roots.
The spread of Voodoo was made possible by Congo Square where, under French and Spanish rule during Louisiana’s colonial era in the 18th century, slaves were allowed to gather on their Sundays off to sing, dance, play music and express themselves spiritually
The spread of Voodoo was made possible by Congo Square, now located in Armstrong Park in the Tremé district, where, under French and Spanish rule during Louisiana’s colonial era in the 18th century, slaves were allowed to gather on their Sundays off to sing, dance, play music and express themselves spiritually. (Later, for good reason, the site would be given the name “the birthplace of jazz”.) The screen, both silver and small, has found New Orleans – largely reflected in a funhouse mirror version of Voodoo – irresistible since Victor Halperin made White Zombie in 1932 (with Bela Lugosi starring as zombie master “Murder” Legendre). But then, without a dab of makeup, the city, all artfully decayed mansions and live oaks trailing Spanish moss, resembles a film set. Voodoo plays a major role in such movies as Angel Heart and Cat People, the FX TV series American Horror Story: Coven, even a Disney animation, The Princess and the Frog. And we know some of the faith’s pantheon of spirits through their cinematic depiction.
One of them is Baron Samedi, a demi-deity who, tasked with keeping the living out of the land of the dead, guards the gates of the underworld with his six other incarnations. In corpse paint, top hat and tails, he cuts a familiar figure, not least in the Bond film Live and Let Die. The former President-for-Life of Haiti, François Duvalier, aka Papa Doc, is said to have modelled his brutal cult of personality on Samedi, often wearing dark glasses and speaking in a pronounced nasal voice.
Of course, Covid has put a big dent in October’s festivities this year (though it didn’t stop the Naughty N’Awlins swingers’ convention becoming a dumpster fire of infections last November). Among the casualties are the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage and French Quarter festivals, the BUKU Music + Art Project, and the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience. But just as our bottom lips were starting to tremble, our dear mayor, LaToya Cantrell, announced that the Krewe of BOO! French Quarter parade had been given the city’s permission to roll out on October 23. The feeling is, if this, the first float parade in New Orleans in 18 months, goes off without birthing another plague, the odds will tumble on Mardi Gras 2022 taking place. I won’t tease myself with the idea, though, not quite yet. Besides, I have a costume to consider – provided I can find the right pale green dress, blonde wig and pearl choker, and magic a murder of crows out of papier-mâché. I’m thinking Tippi Hedren as she appeared in The Birds. Oh yes.
It’s storming as I sit on my porch in Hollygrove, a poor, majority-black neighbourhood where the rapper Lil Wayne grew up. Plenty of thunder – sometimes soggy, like a foot going through rotten timbers; sometimes abrupt, like a firearm going off in your face – but it’s all sound, no fury. Hurricane season is all but over*, which is just as well because, post-Ida, we’re still struggling in places for power and phone reception, though we were told that the $14.5 billion system of fortified levees and floodgates, built after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the metropolitan area sixteen years ago, had done a sterling job.
In my personal theology, the gods of New Orleans – a cast of characters drawn from Voodoo, Native American and Irish mythology who have long forgotten who used to be responsible for what – aren’t a vengeful lot, but they can be feckless. I imagine them camped out on Bayou Teche, pretending to fish, playing cards, drinking sloppily-made sazeracs and listening to the local weather report to find out what they’re supposed to be doing. Whoever owes the most at double-deck pinochle that day has to make it happen.
So occasionally we get unlucky, too. But in the great ledger of the lives of most of the New Orleanians I know, that’s the only entry in the debit column – and the credit column is full. Centuries of cross-cultural pollination have given the city some of the best music, food and street life, and easily the most resilient people – people who understand how community works and that friendship is a practice, not a presumption. I feel honoured to call it home, and perhaps next year Halloween will last a couple of months.
*On October 28, 2020, Hurricane Zeta bettered the record held by the Tampa Bay hurricane of 1921 as the latest date in a calendar year that a major hurricane made landfall in the continental United States.
Joseph Furey has lived in New Orleans as long as he’s lived anywhere. Something of a hobo-journalist, his credits include The Times, Telegraph, Independent, Guardian, World Nomads and Vice. He’s currently writing a non-fiction book best described as “travels with Charley in a Toyota Sienna with the back seats ripped out”