Halloween 2016: New Orleans, Louisiana

by Sarah Birdsong

If you live in the south, and if you fancy yourself to be goth, you know one truth.

Spending Halloween in Louisiana is something of a pilgrimage you must take at some point. While I most certainly knew this for my twelve years in the south, I had yet to go.

Additionally, over the years I had heard of the annual Halloween Lestat’s Ball. The titular ball is dedicated to the well-known character of the same name, conceived by Anne Rice. And yet again, I’d never had a chance to attend.

That changed in 2016, the year of our Lord.

I told Sean early in the year that I wanted to attend the Ball this year. In spite of that, I’m not quite certain that he believed me. As I divulged my plans to our friends Sean and Nicole Barnes, I believe he began to understand the gravity of the situation. To differentiate between the Sean’s they will thusly be referred to as My!Sean and Other!Sean.

He definitely grasped the weight of my intentions by the time I had purchased our tickets and air travel. And as we boarded our plane poised to deliver us to the uttermost south, I spotted a portent of things to come.

A man sporting a full-blown mullet. Gloriously bleach blond with crispy ends in tow. A proverbial unicorn in his natural habitat made complete by his horseshoe mustache. Though I am no augur, I interpreted it as an omen for our weekend.

New Orleans, Louisiana: a Brief History

Louisiana, so named for King Louis XIV, is bordered by Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and the Gulf of Mexico. Hot and humid in the summertime, Louisiana is characterized by temperatures from mid-June to mid-September averaging 90 ° F (32 ° C) or more. Overnight lows average above 70 ° F (22 ° C). Sedimentary dregs form the countryside of the Mississipi River, birthing delta, coastal marsh, and swamp in abundance.

The biota is as rich as it is large. Sporadic tufts of carnivorous plants, Sarracenia flava (yellow pitcher-plant) and Sarracenia psittacina (parrot pitcher-plant), and the more gentle Calopogon pallidus (pale grass pink orchids) dot the marshlands that are no less inviting for the veracity of its flora.

The natural consequence of fire has formed sprawling savannahs of longleaf pine forests. Their sphere-shaped clusters that stand tall above the grassland are sparse and offer little protection from the withering overhead sun. These wetlands host a variety of wild and interesting fauna. Various waterfowl, civet cats, and alligator species all call this place home. Indeed, Louisiana is home to many species of endemic plant and animal life that can only be found within its borders, such as the leucistic alligator.

And despite New Orleans’ size and popularity, Baton Rouge is the crowned capital of the state, not two hours to the east. Finally, Louisiana has more Native American tribes than any other southern state.

Places to Visit in New Orleans

We arrived in New Orleans at 10:30pm. Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport greeted us by way of a small but charming terminal, ushering us into the balmy state of Louisiana. It was a far cry from our home Hartsfield International Airport, an airfield operating at all hours—franetic light and sound for 24 hours without respite. By contrast, Louisiana’s international terminal was almost asleep, lulling itself into a working pace.

A longtime friend of My!Sean’s, Nathan, retrieved us from the airport, determined to show us a good time despite the late hour at which we arrived. Other!Sean and Nicole planned to arrive the following morning. As such, we found ourselves indisposed for the time being.

Nathan saw us to the small restaurant of 13 Monaghan, where I had a swirled frozen Irish Coffee, lightly dusted with grounds and no less sweet for its famous Louisianian ingredient: chicory. Despite being so far south, New Orleans has no shortage of plant-based food options. My!Sean and I ordered a Mushroom Philly, which we were happy to share with our host, a vegetarian for the majority of his adult life. After our hunger was sated, it was time to adventure further into the city. Nathan decided that The Abbey presented the perfect welcoming committee for the Quarter.

As a dingy dive, The Abbey might not be the destination of choice for many. But My!Sean and I enjoy low brow establishments just as much as we enjoy their cultured counterparts. Just off Decatur St., The Abbey’s aesthetic is somewhere between “local neighborhood watering hole” and iconoclast-kitsch.

Stained glass windows decorated the walls and the ceiling, for artistic merit only as the only natural light found here comes from the door. The jukebox finds itself the hotly contested feature. Yet, it is hardly heard above the din generated over generous helpings of well whiskey and cheap port.  A cathedral for those who want to nurse their poison unharassed, The Abbey stood as a herald for the weekend myself and my party was to embark on.

The roundabout walk to our car revealed the element of the Quarter for its seedy grandeur; the walls of its Creole architecture weren’t peeling so much as they were shedding. Its forlorn underbelly pulsed with gutter punks and late-night revelers. Its natural seamy atmosphere found itself complemented by Halloween’s element, evocative of True Blood or The Skeleton Key.

The following morning saw two items for its primary objective; the Ball, and the Museum of Death. Being that the Ball did not kick off until 9pm, we had the entirety of the day to sweat and eat ourselves sick. Admission to the Museum will set you back $15, which grants you full access to the grave topics contained therein. Originally founded in Hollywood in 1995, the Big Easy location opened shortly after. Though I have a strong penchant for horror, it follows the supernatural assortment rather than its grisly peer. As such, I strongly felt that some of the more visceral collections might produce a fainting ovation.

With this in mind, I kept my distance from the recordings of autopsies that held My!Sean’s interest until his pallor was no longer his natural shade of Gaelic translucence, edging instead on keeling proportions. Collections range from shrunken head demonstrations to Jeffrey Dahmer crime scene forensic photography. Leaving the Museum gave me a strong appreciation for my own life and good fortune. To celebrate our continued incident free existence, we took lunch at Remolaude, a casual dining spot where nearly anyone of any dietary intake can find something filling.

Before we turned into prepare for the Ball, we paid the customary visit to Cafe du Monde. It was here that I discovered while beignets are quite delicious, they do nothing to mollify the bitter taste of Louisiana’s chicory coffee when not sweetened throughout the brewing process.

Things to Do in New Orleans: Lestat’s Ball

The appointed hour had finally arrived. Because our friends’ hotel was within walking distance of the Ball, we prepared in their room as we finished the final details on our costumes. I had chosen a red and black Victorian skirt from Victorian Choice and the since-discontinued blouse from Retroscope Fashions. To tie it all together, I wore the Long Red Brocade underbust corset from the Fashion Corset Shop that I believe has since closed.

The walk to the Ball was an adventure in its own right. Clad from head to toe in taffeta and brocade, my cabal was not the only band of oddities. Many late night revelers dressed as Baron Samedi, the patron Loa of the Dead in Haitian Vodou. Icons of glassless spectacles, rum, and cheap cigars proliferated the city. Iconography venerating Maman Brigitte, his wife, garnished the city; peppers, roosters, and rum, sidled with chalk depictions of her Vèvè. Though many more dressed Maman’s Brigitte’s husband, I did spot the occasional woman sporting a red wig with bright green contacts.

Tucked away in the Warehouse District, The Republic is a historic two-story venue originally built to house produce by the Mississipi River. Its raw materials are left thoughtfully unfinished, wooden beams crisscross the ceilings. Pipe and duct fixtures remain exposed. Its scheme is neutral, utilitarian, and maritime. Pearly chandeliers drip from the ceiling, casting a dim glow across the bare flooring. Though The Republic’s features are bare, plain even, the lassitude in its aesthetic lends itself to versatility. Because it is not overbearing, it blends with any arresting spectacle without detracting from it.

The featured performers of the evening were Skinz N Bonez, Pandora Black, Varna and DJ Seraph. Each artist’s performance was perfectly complimentary of the evening’s intended effect; dark, romantic, bewitching. The patronage was similarly dazzling, in full feather and pretense.

It was wholly worth the trip.

Things to See in New Orleans

While myself and my companions had plans to enjoy our breakfast at The Ruby Slipper,  I enjoyed something of a First Breakfast from the comfort of my hotel bed the next morning. While the coffee from Cafe du Monde did not survive the previous evening, the beignets did.

So did the pina colada daiquiri I’d retrieved on the way back to our room the night before. There was one thing I knew for certain—by the end of this trip, I was going to consume my body weight in some of New Orlean’s famous shellfish, come hell or high water.

But before we could get to that point, we had to visit what we considered to be the crown jewel of New Orleans; St. Lous No. 1. If you are interested in visiting this site yourself, you must know that following Marie Laveau’s tomb was painted pink, all visitors to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 are required to be accompanied by a licensed tour guide. Our tour guide was a Louisiana native and expertly knowledgeable about the city. In fact, he didn’t believe the painting of Marie Laveau’s tomb to be malicious.

Traditionally being vibrantly adorned, Vodou graves are emotional reminders of the beautiful contrast between life and death. The care the vandal took in painting the tomb combined with this knowledge lead our guide to believe the act to be one of veneration rather than desecration. Unfortunately, the latex paint irrevocably damaged the tomb and required many hours of restoration. Additionally, anyone wishing to take this tour would do well to remember that it clips along rather quickly.

We had lunch at Muriel’s, a historic and lovely dining opportunity to consume all of the Creole cooking I had been seeking. We spent the rest of our afternoon visiting locations such as The Historic Voodoo Museum, Reverend Zombie’s House of Voodoo, Hex. Along the way, we were sure to duck into corner bars and taverns for the customary pint and New Orleans Grenade Drink. Molly’s at the Market was the first location we were able to sit at where the crowds found themselves relatively tame.

During our travels throughout the city, I did notice one peculiar phenomenon; the city’s carriage service is carried not by horses, but by mules. My first query did not escape unscathed (“This is New Orleans!) by its driver. However, the second prompt received a factual answer.

Mules have a milder temperament and a greater tolerance for extreme conditions bred exclusively for Louisiana’s carriage business. My favorite mule was red roan and fantastically adorned: she wore a small Victorian themed hat, complete with lace fringe and cameo jewelry. Hooves painted a glittering red-gold and appropriately named Marie Laveau. Sweet in disposition and gentle to relieve you of tasty offerings, she made for an exemplary ambassador for her workforce.

Our final evening as a group saw us making the ill-advised journey down Bourbon. The sole purpose? To test the advice of walking Frenchman instead. Though I know that new visitors are unlikely to heed this warning as well, please remember:

You should avoid Bourbon at all costs and travel Frenchman instead. It is a Charlie Foxtrot of drunken fools and questionable odors.

Other!Sean and Nicole left Sunday, the day before My!Sean and I did. It was Sunday that I learned to never disrespect Georgia’s climate again. By 11am in October, Louisiana found itself at a raging 90 °F. We spent it by sweating our way through the Garden District, eating at SEED, witnessing our first Second Line, and touring Jean Lafitte National Park. Jean Lafitte proved to be lovely in a way that only Louisiana could. However, was unable to finish the entire trail due to a profound lack of planning on my part; I didn’t bring sunglasses, a hat, or enough water.

We recovered from our trek through the swamp by taking dinner at Oceana where I ate more shrimp than I previously thought possible. If you travel to Louisiana for no other reason than to eat your weight in seafood, it would be a worthwhile visit.

In summary, I would say that my trip to New Orleans was a reflection on the city itself; bewitching, pleasurable, inimitable.

I have every intention of returning.

ADDITIONAL READING

I have compiled a list of additional resources regarding this entry and its contents for researching the topics therein:

The Anne Rice Vampire Lestat Fan Club: as the primary reason for our visit, it is only fair that you should check out their page for more details on the Ball!

New Orleans Online: our visit was tailored to our predilections for grave interests, but this is a fantastic resource for anyone curious about how to start planning their own visit.

Groupon: we purchased our tickets to the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 tour on Groupon, which also has an extensive selection for you to choose from in terms of entertainment.

AirBnB: AirBnB allows its users to raise their prices six months out of a major holiday. As such, you should definitely plan well in advance. However, please keep an eye out for locations that are verified BnB’s versus a location that is simply being rented out: short-term rentals like AirBnB are bad news in New Orleans. It’s illegal and displaces people from the only homes they could heretofore afford. Be mindful of your plans.

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