The afternoon of the last day of October -- mere hours before the merry mayhem begins -- and I'm in Dark Entry, a one-stop dungeon shop on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, trying to get an answer to the question that's been bugging me ever since arriving in this city notorious for bad behavior and bizarre attire.
Halloween in New Orleans: How can you tell?
Seems this would be a good place to inquire, since the kinds of things for sale (wait, isn't that illegal?) would suggest that the people who work here have probably seen it all, and then some.
"It's a lot more acceptable to people, especially tourists, to come into a shop like this around this time," a young, black-clad salesman behind the counter tells me. "On Halloween, everyone can be a little goth."
"So these aren't your usual customers," I say, referring to the dozen or so middle-aged men and women in running shoes, colorful shorts and tops trying on steel restraints and leather master/slave outfits as many other young, black-clad shoppers mill about.
"Definitely not," he replies with just a trace of a malicious grin.
I ask his name: It's Marc David Chapman. When I note that despite the different spelling, people may always associate him with Mark David Chapman, John Lennon's murderer, he says, "I know. Sweet."
Everybody raves about Mardi Gras, but this little interlude is more supporting evidence for my suspicion that Halloween may be closer to the true soul of New Orleans, known to many as the Crescent City, but known to -- and loved by -- just as many others as the City of the Dead.
After all, the dead have a special place here -- above ground, often in gorgeous, decaying crypts. The city's mud foundations make below-ground burial impossible. Cemeteries -- some crumbling and dangerous -- are a huge attraction here.
Moreover, New Orleans's dead have a reputation for restlessness. Indeed, tourism literature and Web sites of all kinds claim that this is "the most haunted city in America." Just about every house, establishment and neighborhood boasts a wandering spirit. Even the bed-and-breakfast I'm staying in -- a sprawling Victorian manse in the Garden District -- has a room with a ghostly occupant that refuses to leave, according to the owners.
New Orleans is also Voodoo Central -- the main port through which the West Indian religion entered the United States, a result of the slave trade. Both as product and spooky belief system, voodoo remains alive and well here. The Quarter is even home to a voodoo museum.
Speaking of slavery: Witnessing New Orleans's tragic practice of it, particularly the auctioning of new arrivals, was one of the principal motives that drove one-time resident Harriet Beecher Stowe to write "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Need more? Horror novelist Anne Rice lives in the Garden District. The best-selling vampire Lestat, as well as a supporting cast of demons and evil spirits popular with millions of readers everywhere, were born here. And just outside of town, beneath the Huey P. Long Bridge on the way to Metairie, stands the House of Shock, described by a local paper as "the over-the-top horror experience, haunted house, freak show and pyrotechnic extravaganza that's been scaring the hell out of New Orleans for . . . years."
As I make my way down a side street, people in costume are already appearing, even though the sun is still up. Suddenly I see the Incredible Hulk in his car, looking for a parking space. He agrees to pause for a picture.
New Orleans is one of those cities where there's almost too much to do, a point made graphic even in just trying to decide which supernatural tour to take. Vampire tour? Cemeteries tour? Voodoo tour? Garden District ghost tour?
After reading a brochure promising "an eerie, chilling yet fun-filled adventure" complete with a visit to "a haunted bar along the way," I opt for "Ghosts of the French Quarter," an after-dark walking tour. The thought of a glass of wine to go with what I hope will be a splendidly cheesy evening is too appealing.
I know I am in capable hands when I arrive at the meeting point -- Rev. Zombie's Voodoo Shop on St. Peter Street -- to be greeted by a guide who goes by Midian, a name charged with both Biblical and occult meaning. Despite the humidity, he sports a long scarf, a tall hat and a tattered coat and tails. He solemnly gives each of us in the group a set of cheap, white plastic beads, which, he says, "have been blessed by a voodoo priestess for good luck. Don't lose them." This alone is worth the $18 ticket.
A great part of the Quarter's charm is, of course, its thick atmosphere of history. The Vieux Carre formed the original settlement of the city, and the French and Spanish influences are still evident, most obviously in the architecture. Wrought-iron balconies and wooden shutters, some in better condition than others, festoon stucco buildings along narrow streets. Sometimes garish and overlit, many of the buildings look like spectacular showboats in dry dock.
Gas lamps -- or electric lamps skillfully made to look like them -- seem to be everywhere. Papier-mache skeletons and witches strung from post to post between buildings serve as a sort of cartoon evocation of the Quarter's centuries-old decadent spirit(s).
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the Quarter's ghosts are steeped in its history, which is as grand and grotesque as it gets. The LaLaurie Mansion, for instance, is a gray, antebellum monstrosity on the corner of Royal and Governor Nicholls streets. Midian says that in 1834 a fire broke out in the mansion, and as rescuers entered the attic they found buckets of blood and human limbs along with the mutilated bodies of seven torture victims, barely alive.
Suspicion fell first on Dr. Louis LaLaurie, who, it was said, conducted depraved medical experiments in the attic. But "experts," Midian says, now believe his wife, Delphine, was a vengeful, homicidal maniac because the victims were all slaves: As a child she had seen her father decapitated in a slave riot. But the LaLaurie family escaped before they could be arrested.
No one lived in or went near the mansion for 40 years, when Italian immigrant families moved into it. Soon reports of blood-covered apparitions and midnight screams became common. One young mother swore she awoke in the middle of the night to find a sock shoved into the mouth of one of her babies. Locals still refer to the LaLaurie horror as "the blemish of our city."
"Oooooooooooooooh!" a voice calls out in mock fear. A heckler leaning out of his car window as he cruises by. "Yeah, yeah," Midian says, turning toward him as if about to give him some unsolicited advice. Instead, Midian then turns back toward us and says, "Shall we move on?"
We stroll to Jackson Square, essentially the courtyard of the Quarter, where the Place D'Armes Hotel and several dozen other hotels, restaurants and shops are located. Midian says some vacationing guests at the Place D'Armes, upon returning home, have had their film developed only to discover that someone, or something, took photos of them asleep in their hotel bed.
On Chartres Street we come up to the Beauregard-Keyes House, which Confederate Gen. Pierre Beauregard called home in 1865-66. Midian says that in the 1940s a woman who worked there claimed to have seen the spirit of the old general tending to ghosts of horribly wounded soldiers (faces blown off, bleeding stumps) from the Battle of Shiloh. Similar reports continue to this day.
Back on Royal Street, Midian leads us to the Bottom of the Teacup Tearoom, where, he tells us, "A long time ago, an older man accidentally caused the death of his 16-year-old girlfriend, Julie, who used meet him here. He drank himself to death out of guilt. Both their spirits have been seen, especially hers." In fact, he adds, a television documentary was made about Julie. "During the filming, one of the cameramen said she appeared and flirted with the whole crew."
Time for that glass of wine! Fortunately, we now arrive at the Jean Lafitte's bar on St. Phillip Street, which crosses a far end of Bourbon Street. Basically a sagging 18th-century brick hut, it was originally a blacksmith shop built and owned by the nefarious pirate whose name it bears. Tonight the staff is dressed as vampires, and Barry White blasts from the stereo.
After getting our drinks, we gather outside around Midian, who then informs us that after closing time, bartenders have regularly heard what sound like voices in the basement, audible through the house intercom system, arguing in Spanish and French, and it always ends the same way -- "with a throat-cutting."
I decide against wandering back inside and asking any of the bartenders if that's true. Why ruin a good story?
Wonder Woman with a fruit daiquiri. Cat Woman with a beer. Baby Huey with a drink he can't identify. Death with beads. Pinhead with, well, pins.
Yes, it's Bourbon Street, just before midnight. Amid the writhing throngs of costumed bodies -- some trying to move, others just trying to stand up -- scores of people in normal street clothes walk, gawk, snap pictures and shoot video. On the balconies young men entice women on the street to lift their tops. Some oblige. No, make that: Many oblige. And every time a top goes up -- as it does now, courtesy of a pregnant nun -- a dozen camera flashes explode as beads rain down and the crowd whoops and hollers.
Sensory overload is the theme. Live music blasts from bar after bar after bar. Blinding neon flares everywhere. The smell of booze mixes in the air with occasional whiffs of . . . never mind. Two things come clear almost immediately: Costumed or not, you don't want to wear good shoes, and you never want to look down.
Still, residents say this is a calmer crowd than during Mardi Gras. Halloween, they claim, is more about acting out a fantasy and being seen, pretty much as it is anywhere else. But nowhere else has a kinship with the dead like New Orleans. Ghosts are to this city what art is to so many others.
Okay, maybe this is the art of excess. But maybe it's excessive because the presence of death is so palpable. Or maybe because people simply don't know how to control themselves. Whatever the case, this is the only city I know that feels haunted by its past anytime you come here. Halloween is just a massive get-acquainted party that New Orleans's undead throw for the living.
William Triplett last wrote for Travel about a Beatles tour in Hamburg, Germany.