This Old (Scary) House
Clearing out bad vibes.
Jane Sanders Illustration
If you’ve lived in New Orleans long enough, there’s a chance you or someone you know has dealt with unwelcome houseguests. Not the kind who show up at the last minute for Mardi Gras – rather, the kind that give you the heebie-jeebies late at night.
New Orleanians have always loved tall tales, and that includes good ghost stories. Since Madame LaLaurie’s sadistic treatment of slaves came to light in the 1830s, an ever-expanding list of horror stories has been attached to the LaLaurie mansion. And one of the city’s most famous personages, Marie Laveau, went from being remembered at the time of her death as a kind-hearted herbal pharmacist to being cast later as the queen of an orgiastic and manipulative voodoo cult.
It’s possible that we exaggerate sometimes.
But beyond legend and folklore, the firsthand accounts of so many hauntings down through the years and the city’s true association with black magic point to something. And for certain people, that something may be a house full of problems.
Ghost, Demon or HVAC?
Adam Blai, a peritus (Church-decreed expert) in religious demonology and exorcism, says people in New Orleans should take the supernatural seriously and take precautions accordingly. “New Orleans has such a strong occult history,” Blai says. “It’s my sense that there’s a lot going on down there.”
Based in Pittsburgh, Blai travels the U.S. assisting priests with exorcisms, both of people and places. He has visited houses where unseen hands slam doors and break them off their hinges, where unseen feet trudge up and down staircases, where objects glide around of their own accord, where black clouds materialize and move about, and even where residents are violently attacked. For him, these are not curiosities or matters to be sensationalized; they are real burdens upon homeowners that, as a practical matter, must be addressed.
The good news is that many people are mistaken in perceiving their houses as haunted. It’s because “they don’t know how a house works,” Blai says: how the HVAC system operates, what settling does to a house, the sounds that rodents can make, the effects of an electro-magnetic field.
Furthermore, actual human spirit hauntings are not that common, Blai says; those that do occur often result from dramatic deaths. A typical human ghost, he says, is a soul in purgatory. And it’s probably making itself known only in order to ask for prayer or help. It doesn’t want to hurt you.
Unfortunately, Blai says many of the hauntings that do occur are “demonic.” Unlike a human spirit, a demon will attempt to draw the resident into a relationship, he says. The demon is like a “con artist” who is attempting to interfere in your life as much as possible.
Human spirits, by contrast, don’t do anything blasphemous or destructive, and they don’t play “20 Questions.” “No soul in purgatory is going to have an ongoing dialogue with you,” Blai says. “Anything beyond a signal that ‘I’m here’ or ‘Help me’” and an affirmation of an offer of prayer is an indication that a demon is posing as a human spirit in an attempt to lure you into a relationship. Blai advises avoiding any dialogue with spirits, and he warns against paranormal investigation.
Blai says the history of a house will often reveal the root of any problems. A demon will attach itself to a house only if a previous owner “did something to give a spirit permission to have access,” he says.
That’s where the old connections with black magic in New Orleans have created danger. Blai says people get into trouble by calling on “lesser spirits” to empower them or “do something nasty” on their behalf. “When you’re messing with spirit communication, it’s like you’re picking up the phone and dialing a number at random and giving somebody your Social Security number. You have no idea who is on the other end of that line.”
Blai notes that sometimes homeowners can bring the problem home by purchasing an object that has been used in a black magic ritual. In that case, the demon is attached to the object, not the home.
Cleaning the Spiritual Slate
Blai recommends that people have their houses blessed, to clean the “spiritual slate,” starting from the time they move in. “It would save so much trouble for so many people if they were to do that,” he says. “It will clear out a lot of the spiritual baggage.”
He also recommends placing religious symbols in visible places throughout the home.
Blai is Catholic and works only within that tradition. But other faiths, such as Muslims and Vietnamese Buddhists, have longstanding rituals for blessing or protecting a house.
In Judaism, there is the practice of dedicating a new home with a blessing and affixing a mezuzah to the right side of the doorpost. The mezuzah is a sign of God’s watchful protection over the home. In addition, a traditional blessing and prayer of thanksgiving called the shehecheyanu may be recited at the housewarming.
In Orthodox Christianity, there is an old tradition of blessing the home each year on the Feast of Theophany, Jan. 6. The family gathers to pray to rid the house of evil and for the living and the dead of the family. The priest visits the homes of his flock to bless them with holy water.
For Catholics, the largest religious group in the New Orleans area, a thorough blessing involves prayers, burning incense and sprinkling holy water in every space in the house, even in attics and closets. Blai says this used to be a common practice when people moved into a house, but “it has fallen away along with other sacramental aspects of life.”
Even those who strongly doubt the existence of anything beyond the material world as documented by science might consider a blessing as a precautionary measure. Otherwise, they might find out they’re wrong, the hard way.