It would be easy to see New Orleans’ fascination with Halloween as a mere extension of locals’ fondness for costuming and festivity. Certainly you could get that impression during a walk through the French Quarter on Oct. 31.
But the city’s affinity for this time of year goes deeper, to an inherent taste for the mysterious, the secretive and – dare we say it – the occult.
Local interest in the unknown may arise from Louisiana’s historic ties with Africa and the Caribbean region. Both are home to distinctive ritualistic behaviors and a belief that certain people have the ability to “know things” or to experience spiritual realities unknown to others. Such cultural roots have made south Louisiana, in particular, an ideal setting for the practice of voodoo.
Marie Laveau, a Creole voodoo practitioner of the 18th century, remains the region’s most famous priestess, and local fascination with “vodoun” spirits, as they’re known in West Africa, has lingered long after her death.
Today, many people associate New Orleans with mysterious spirits, and interest in the practice of voodoo remains alive, as evidenced by local enterprises that capitalize on it.
The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, which has been a fixture along Dumaine Street in the French Quarter for 40 years, is a font of information and history aimed at preserving the city’s voodoo culture.
The museum’s founder, Charles Massicot Gandolfo, is said to be descended from a man raised by a voodoo queen. Gandolfo opened the museum to help others explore the rituals, zombies, gris-gris and other icons of a world that fascinated him.
In the museum’s curio shop, visitors can buy voodoo dolls, ritual candles, books, oils and gris-gris bags – or perhaps a session with a psychic reader who can prognosticate about events likely to occur in the future.
Visitors can also sign up for a voodoo cemetery walking tour, which features a visit to Laveau’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. The tour includes Congo Square, St. Expedité and discussions of voodoo rituals and “the relationship between voodoo and the Catholic church,” according to the museum.
Also in the museum vein, the Voodoo Spiritual Temple on North Rampart Street, founded in 1990 by Priestess Miriam Chamani, a bishop of the “Angel Angel All Nations Spiritual Church,” is a haven for exploring the tools and practice of voodoo. Chamani performs weddings, blessings, removal of curses and “empowerment consultations,” among other services. Like other practitioners, she plans special events each June to “awaken the summer solstice” on St. John’s Eve, ahead of the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist.
Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo on Bourbon Street is popular with shoppers in search of items including talismans, worry dolls, love bath salts, bells that can summon spirits and egg shell powders “most commonly used for psychic protection and to guard against negativity.”
Voodoo Authentica of New Orleans, on Dumaine Street, bills itself as a “cultural center and collection” owned by a voodoo practitioner. Through a physical store and an e-commerce website, the establishment offers an extensive lineup of ritual kits, dolls and gris-gris, along with “spells” written by or passed down to local practitioners for specific “magickal purposes” including friendship, money, fertility, job-seeking, healing and spiritual cleansing.
Though many of New Orleans’ voodoo shops are located in the French Quarter, one that has rapidly gained a following outside the Vieux Carré is Island of Salvation Botanica, in the New Orleans Healing Center on St. Claude Avenue.
Founded and operated by “vodou manbo” Sallie Ann Glassman, the shop’s shelves are lined with items ranging from Dragon’s Blood Uncrossing Bubble Bath and chicken foot fetishes to Tibetan prayer flags, jinx-removing spiritual green incense and spiritual oils.
The shop also features many hand-crafted items, including Glassman’s own art works, Haitian beaded cloths, metal spirit sculptures and sequin flags.
Glassman, who lectures about voodoo, regularly performs psychic readings using either a crystal ball or Tarot cards that she designed. She also considers it her mission to help invigorate the St. Claude neighborhood where she and her husband, real estate developer Pres Kabacoff, built the Healing Center, a community center that houses retail shops, a restaurant, fitness center, book store and performance space.
In addition, Island of Salvation annually presents one of the city’s most popular fall events – Anba Dlo (Beneath the Waters). Appropriately for New Orleans, this Haitian-rooted event, billed as a “one-of-a-kind, costumed, interactive community festival,” is meant to honor the importance of water to life.
This year, the fifth annual Anba Dlo Halloween festival will occur on Oct. 20 at the Healing Center. Featuring a dozen groups performing music on several stages, the festival includes multimedia water-awareness installations, an arts markets a “drum circle and voodoo invocation of the mermaid spirit of the deep waters,” performances by dancers and acrobats and a parade led by the New Orleans Radical Faeries.