If you’ve ever strolled through the French Quarter, you’ve seen ghost tours clogging
sidewalks, for sale signs warning of haunted houses, and, if lucky, you’ve overheard the locals
speak of paranormal happenings keeping them up at night. That’s the way of things here. Living
with ethereal intruders is as commonplace as beignets and showers every summer afternoon.
There isn’t a home, shop, hotel, museum, restaurant, bar, or streetcorner that has escaped having
at least one eerie encounter. Ghostly visitors even plague the iconic triple towers of St. Louis
Cathedral. They are everywhere—a constant reminder of our rich past. And no matter how quiet
or bothersome the haunting, we talk to them, nurture them, and celebrate their influence in a
variety of festivals, superstitions, and traditions.
My introduction to the other side began at an early age. I grew up in a Creole cottage in the
French Quarter and got a comprehensive education about those who inhabited this boggy land
before me. I was lucky enough to have a skilled tutor—the voodoo priestess who lived next door.
She performed rituals, sang soulful jazz tunes in her courtyard, and spoke to lots of spirits. She
described the divide between the living and the dead not as a physical barrier but one where our
emotional frailty keeps us from hearing those who wish to speak. Unnerving words for an eight-
year-old to hear, but mine was far from a conventional upbringing. In a city with a hefty thirst for
alcohol, unrivaled culinary renown, and an affinity for dancing in the streets until Lent rolls
around, being ordinary is the exception, not the rule.
I enjoyed learning about the scandals and heartbreaks suffered by those who once lived,
loved, and died on our street. Much of what I discovered was no different from what graced the
headlines of modern-day newspapers. However, the most intriguing account was of the Spanish
captain who built my home when he arrived in New Orleans to take charge of a garrison of
soldiers. He came with his wife and four children and soon lost them to the yellow fever
epidemic, which lasted through most of the 1800s. He buried his loved ones under the fountain in
our courtyard to keep them close. But death didn’t chase the family from their home. I’d often
see the captain in mirrors, dressed in his full military regalia. His children played in the
courtyard, and a nun, all in black, climbed the staircase in the carriage house, her spirit still
tending to her yellow fever patients. My first encounters left me terrified. Odd hints of sweet
perfume, banging, knocking, doors opening and closing, and cold drafts plagued the cottage. But
once I became acquainted with the tragedies behind the hauntings and saw the names of the
former occupants in historical documents, I was no longer afraid but intrigued. They weren’t
ethereal beings anymore but people. The odd activity turned into a friendly reminder that the
dead are just like the living—they want to be heard.
My experiences helped me understand why New Orleans is such a hub for paranormal
activity. It’s not the city’s proximity to water or the high manganese content in the soil that some
postulate, but its history. Over three hundred years of love, loss, suffering, and bliss imprinted
into every romantic wrought-iron balcony are bound to ripple through time. There is also the fact
that much of the city is built on top of old graves. They are unearthed every year under houses,
courtyards, and even beneath streets. We literally live on the bones of those who came before us.
If that isn’t fodder for phantoms, I don’t know what is.
Those close ties with the past make every apparition and their story matter. Even the ones
whose tales remain lost to time are still embraced by the city’s residents. Often, our legends are
reshaped by tour guides to entertain tourists. Tales of vampires, ghouls, and all magical
happenings have become big business, but the locals don’t mind—we know the truth. Still, many
find the idea of the dead coexisting with the living farfetched, even frightening. But like the
ancient Egyptians, death is life to New Orleanians. We don’t fear our spiritual residents because
they were who we are—souls passionate about a place unlike any other. And down here, anyone
bewitched by our sultry nights and humid, sunny days is considered family.