Ghosted In New Orleans

Tourists only thirsty for the bloodiest history don’t see the city at all

By Sarah Jaffe

Photographs by Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun

Overexposed photograph of a white figure opening a door

I moved back to New Orleans 20 years after I’d left, and it is exactly the same, and yet entirely different. The parts of the city the tourists see, well — they haven’t changed, or they’ve been rebuilt, often shoddily, plaster and paint slapped over the mold, the broken pieces passed off as romantic. It is the broken places that draw the sightseers, that are sold in movies and on TV and in best-selling novels as charmingly gothic, that create a nearly unending market for the “spooky history” tours that circle my neighborhood. But my neighborhood isn’t Disneyland; it’s a part of a living city, where real people live and come to work and pause for a post-work drink with friends. 

I live in the French Quarter now, made more affordable by a partial ban on short-term rentals that took my little apartment, half a block from one of the main attractions of the spooky-history tours, off the market to tourists. When I leave the house around sundown, I often find the tours choking the corners, led by guides telling a more or less embellished version of the history of the Ursulines Convent.

The story goes, depending on which tour guide you believe, that the nuns at the convent offered to help find brides for the men who had colonized Louisiana. Finding brides, of course, meant bringing nice white Catholic girls from France, so among the ships importing humans for forced labor was one bearing young French women promised new lives in the colony. These women were assured that New Orleans was absolutely not a mosquito-ridden swamp. (It was.) The French government gave them each one box to bring their things in — a long, narrow container about the size of a body — and did not send the ship with enough food, particularly not enough fresh fruits and vegetables, so all the girls got scurvy. When they were unloaded from the ship in the port of New Orleans, they were brought off at night so their prospective husbands could not see their emaciated condition. But someone saw them all the same — pale girls coughing up blood, staggering to the convent alongside casket-like boxes — and spread a rumor throughout the town that the nuns had brought in VAMPIRES! Mayhem ensued. The nuns did some fast talking to prevent an angry mob from burning down the convent, and the windows on the top floor, where the girls were kept, have, supposedly, been nailed shut ever since. Once, while walking home, I saw one of them cracked open. But whatever. It’s a good yarn.

Buried in this tale, as in so many New Orleans stories, is a story of white supremacy, colonialism, superstition, and, always, the intimation of violence. But the stories the tourists eagerly consume — there is a restaurant on my street where you can pay to sit at a table set for the former owner’s ghost, and the “haunted” hotels are always full — smooth over the real violence that haunts the city. As Leila Taylor writes in Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul, “America’s haunted history is Black history.” You can take a tour of the French Quarter’s relatively distant brutalities, or you can take a “Katrina tour” of much more recent Black death. You can walk, escorted, through St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and drop a token at the grave of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, marked with red X’s for luck and blessings, and you can walk, escorted, past homes that were marked with a different red X after the storm — an X that told rescue workers the home had been searched, and how many people, alive or otherwise, had been found.

The tours help keep it alive even as they make of its many deaths a spectacle, something to consume, along with crawfish and Hurricane cocktails.

I wonder: What’s really being sought here? Is the search for ghosts itself cruel, a way to commodify suffering? Is it just kitsch? In answer to this last, I don’t think so. As historian Tiya Miles writes, “Ghost stories make it a point to render what is taboo, frightening, and alien to mainstream society. This means that the ghost story is not only a form of historical narrative; it is potentially a form of radical historical narrative that can dredge up unsettling social memories for reexamination.”

The question, as always, is what are those ghost stories telling us?

Last October, a friend, someone I’d waited tables with the first time I lived in New Orleans, was back in town, so we looked up the spooky tour that seemed the least likely to be utter bullshit and signed up. Our guide made sure to say that he had a history degree, and delivered the ghost and vampire stories with a wink and a nod, not really expecting us to believe them, while digging into the real New Orleans history with relish. He started us off in Jackson Square, which — if the name honoring the architect of Indigenous genocide isn’t violent enough — used to be known as the Place d’Armes, where executions took place. Our guide invited the braver tour participants to put a hand on the spikes atop the square’s iron fence, before telling us that the heads of the executed had been displayed there. What our guide did not tell us (but the new Interview with the Vampire TV series, with the vampire Louis reimagined as a Black Creole during the Jazz Age, does) is that some of those killed in the Place d’Armes had been rebellious slaves, including — as I soon learned elsewhere — participants in Louisiana’s largest slave uprising, in 1811.

The main attraction on any of these haunted tours is, like the Ursuline Convent, located in my part of the French Quarter: the Lalaurie Mansion on Royal Street. Madame Lalaurie has also made it from tour to television in American Horror Story: Coven, played by Kathy Bates alongside Angela Bassett’s Marie Laveau, and the stories told by tour guides range from the mild to the gruesome. Our guide pointed to an upper-story window, or rather, where a window had clearly once been, now walled over, and told us that this had been the Lalauries’ torture chamber. When a fire began in the kitchen in 1834, rescuers found horrifically mutilated enslaved people, still alive in this room, he told us. When people from the community saw what had been done to them, they rioted, and the Lalauries barely escaped.

While there have been many stories about Madame Lalaurie, our guide claimed to be citing a primary source.  He told a story I will not repeat because it turned my stomach and because, of course, I still cannot prove it was true. To retell it in all its spectacularly visceral horror feels like participating in the exploitation; it feels like a chance to titillate with some particulars that maybe happened, maybe didn’t.  

Before the tale of the Lalaurie Mansion torture chamber was sold on ghost tours, it was spread far and wide by an abolitionist who wanted to confront her readers with the horrors of slavery. Miles, in her book Tales from the Haunted South, recounts what we do know about the Lalauries from primary sources and other research: that Madame Lalaurie had faced investigation for cruelty to her slaves and then sold six enslaved people immediately afterward; that Lalaurie had made complaints of her own that her (third) husband abused her; that after they reconciled there was indeed a fire in the kitchen, which was part of the service wing of the house; that horribly injured people were indeed found in the house during the fire and removed; that a mob ransacked the house and perhaps — this the interesting part — thought about taking their anger further and going after other slaveholders in the neighborhood.

In other words, the Lalauries were seen as both exceptional and unexceptional, a contradiction that encapsulated the cognitive dissonance that living with slavery required. They had to be monstered in order for other enslavers to keep the mob from their own doors. And yet this was the only spooky story about slavery that we heard on the tour. Perhaps it was a choice that itself highlighted the viciousness of the system and also served to absolve it: After all, New Orleans found Madame Lalaurie unseemly, a little too obviously enthusiastic about the power afforded her by her wealth and whiteness. The tours now allow participants a thrill of bodily horror, a vicarious indulgence that they can then deny and condemn, as Miles writes, and thus absolve themselves.

How fitting that on ghost tours devoted to the unseen, so much goes unseen. I once passed a guide who was telling his group, dramatically, “And that’s why they call New Orleans the Necropolis!” “Bullshit!” I couldn’t help calling as I maneuvered around the crowd, because no, no one calls it that, just like no one calls it “N’awlins.” And how particularly disgusting it is, I felt in that moment, to call it a city of the dead when the city is and has been struggling to stay alive in the wake of Katrina and decades of organized abandonment.

Here is one of the conundrums of New Orleans: The tours help keep it alive even as they make of its many deaths a spectacle, the other side of the jazz performances that bring tourists to town; something to consume, along with crawfish and Hurricane cocktails. Tourists are less interested in the sanitation workers’ strike for protective equipment during the Covid lockdown, the defiant march from the Fifth Circuit courthouse after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the housing activists demanding a limit to how many necessary homes can be turned into Airbnbs.

The city is haunted, too, by its probable future, as the U.S. continues to drill for oil.

And here is another: The haunted approach to history does at times acknowledge the reality of slavery. As reporter Chenjerai Kumanyika put it on a recent episode of This American Life, investigating ghost tours in Savannah, “It’s almost like if you turn critical race theory into a book of ghost stories, all the white folks who hate it would love it.”

Horror stories feel appropriate in New Orleans, with its aboveground cemeteries and broken streets and humidity, but they are in so many ways the wrong ones. There are horror stories everywhere you look in the city today, but the ones prepackaged for tourists keep actual horror held at a safe distance. New Orleans has all the best and the worst things about the U.S., amplified: It was the birthplace of jazz and is still the home of an incredible music scene and culture that is like nowhere else, unmistakably the product of the mixing of cultures that began on a slave ship. It is poor and suffering a sky-high murder rate, and so many people who left after Katrina have never come back. Post-storm, gentrification has meant that housing is still hard to come by for many people, and there are tent cities and encampments under overpasses. Many tourists pass by those on the way into town, but I doubt they stop and say hello.

The city is haunted, too, by its probable future, as the U.S. continues to drill for oil as though climate change isn’t already here. To live in New Orleans now is to live with the awareness that it will not be here forever; it is to have friends remind you, when you leave town during hurricane season, to bring anything with you that you cannot afford to have washed away. Climate change is part of the long legacy of industrial capitalism, of the system that brought those settlers and their slave ships across the ocean, to seize land to produce the commodities that would fuel profits for centuries. The Shell refinery in Norco, about a half-hour from New Orleans, is built on land that used to be a plantation — the very place where the 1811 uprising began.

As Kumanyika said, the problem with these tours is not just that the real lives of real Black people are absent from them. What is missing is that slavery was not just a system for torturing people the way the Lalauries did; it was a system for generating wealth, and that wealth remains concentrated and continues to produce death around the world. 

You want to see New Orleans’ ghosts? You don’t need a tour: There are ghosts in every storm.

Sarah Jaffe is the author of Necessary Trouble and Work Won’t Love You Back. She is currently writing a book about grief.

In their ‘Right to Return’ series, Calhoun and McCormick’s transformative photos depict New Orleans and its denizens through salvaged negatives, waterlogged and damaged by Hurricane Katrina.