Inside New Orleans’ Fascinating Voodoo Tourism Scene
New Orleans isn’t just one of the best cities in the world for food, music and architecture – it might be the only place in North America where tourists make a beeline for the dead. Every day, hundreds of visitors tiptoe through the cemeteries of New Orleans, weaving between tombs and stopping to take photos beside crumbling mausoleums. Here, the dead are laid to rest above ground, and with good reason – Nola’s early settlers learnt the hard way that bodies couldn’t be buried underneath the city’s swampy soil without eventually floating right back up to the surface.
But the unique architecture isn’t the only reason New Orleans’ cemeteries have become one of the city’s top attractions. In St. Louis Cemetery #1, the city’s grandest burial site, you’ll find the resting place of the world’s most famous voodoo queen. Now, over a hundred years after her death, believers still come to pay their respects – and ask her spirit for favours.
Voodoo was born in Louisiana in the 1700s, when enslaved West Africans merged their spiritual beliefs with those of the local Catholics. It reached its zenith in the 1800s, had been turned into Hollywood fodder by the 1930s, and in 2018, it’s morphed into a major cultural attraction. Come to the Big Easy today and you can busy yourself following the voodoo trail – hitting dedicated museums, historic sites and souvenir shops selling love potions, voodoo dolls and amulets. Is it commercialised? You bet. But it’s also one of the most fascinating ways to peer into the often-dark history of New Orleans.
And St. Louis Cemetery #1 is the most important pitstop of all. Inside its gates lays Marie Laveau, the former reigning Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Laveau gained fame during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1853, when she purportedly saved the afflicted as a faith healer while medical doctors stood by stumped. She became one of New Orleans’ most revered residents and in the years that followed, international elites as high ranking as Queen Victoria are said to have sought her help in matters from business to love.
Today, devotees still come to visit her grave – some drawing “X” marks on it, thanks to a persistent rumour that Laveau’s spirit will grant wishes to those who mark the tomb, perform a ritual and leave an offering. It’s a tale city officials aren’t fond of –those wishing to visit the cemetery may only enter on a guided tour, a measure implemented in 2015 to limit vandalism of the tombs. (Though a few cross marks aren’t the worst thing to have ever happened to Laveau’s mausoleum – punk band The Misfits were infamously arrested and accused of attempting to exhume her body after a concert in 1982.)
Voodoo-inclined visitors can also hit the Voodoo Spiritual Temple on North Rampart Street, where founder Priestess Miriam offers special blessings, spiritual consultations and prayer requests. Around the corner are two pivotal voodoo sites: Congo Square, where voodoo ceremonies were commonly held in the 1800s, and the temple at St. Louis Cathedral, where Laveau is said to have held public rituals. Happily, both spots also happen to rank among Nola’s architectural feats.
On Bourbon Street, capitalism does its bit to keep her memory alive at the Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo gift shop, while fellow French Quarter institution Esoterica Occult Goods sells potions, oils, herbs and ritual tools – but locals will tell you that the real deal for spiritual supplies is F&F in Treme.
Also in the French Quarter is the cosy three-room New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, which is dedicated to dispelling the myths around voodoo as well as preserving its past. You can forget everything Hollywood taught you about voodoo priestesses casting hexes and raising zombies – practitioners do commune with the spirits, but never with evil intent. The uncomfortable reality is that fearful depictions of voodoo as ‘black magic’ have their roots in little more than racism.
That hasn’t stopped voodoo working its way into legends like that of the LaLaurie Mansion, the site of which stands as one of Nola’s must-sees. High society socialite Madame Marie Delphine LaLaurie was infamously found to be torturing and performing medical experiments on slaves in her French Quarter home in 1834, a sadistic piece of Southern slave history most recently fictionalised in a season of American Horror Story. Some theorised that her husband, Louis LaLaurie, was the true mastermind of the killings, and had been experimenting with voodoo potions to create more obedient slaves. (Fun fact: the rumours that it’s haunted didn’t stop actor Nicolas Cage, who also owns a crypt not far Marie Laveau’s in St. Louis Cemetery #1, from purchasing the mansion in 2007.)
The LaLaurie Mansion is one of the key stops on guided ghost tours that depart from – you guessed it – the French Quarter’s voodoo shops every night. In New Orleans, famous graveyards, morbid tales and voodoo legends are all just part of the experience.
Published 30 October, 2018