Call me crazy but I envision my voodoo tour guides to be plenty Erykah Badu. Witchy, women, imbued with a little something secret.
What I don’t expect is for them to be a gargantuan white man named Jerry waiting patiently outside Reverend Zombie’s Voodoo Shop, cheerfully welcoming people to a Haunted History tour in a bustling bit of New Orleans’ French Quarter.
James wants zero to do with voodoo, tours or anything that requires you so recklessly part with U$25 but he seems reluctant to leave me alone in a sea of Baron Samedi masks.
The tour operators are handing them out along with branded stickers and inform us that they are both fright fare and fan to move around some still air in the sticky New Orleans night.
Baron Samedi is the loa of the dead in Haitian Vodou and you can see him glowering all over the place. From store fronts, on posters and in costume stores selling his signature top hat, black coat and skeletal mask.
Jerry says that when it’s your time, Baron Samedi can usually be found at the crossroads between the world of the living and of the dead. He’s debaucherous, rum-loving and quick with a dirty joke but, when Baron Samedi is working, he’s greeting dearly departed souls and leading them to the underworld.
That’s the lesson in Erzulie’s Authentic Voodoo on Royal.
Jerry has led us in there off the street and our miscellaneous group of thrill seekers crowds in amidst the shop’s candles, shrines, mood bags, oils, soaps, potions and dolls.
The shrine that catches our eye is to Erzuli Freda Dahomey. It’s decked out in bottles of Moet & Chandon, pink and white bows, money and cigarettes to respect the loa’s penchant for the finer things in life. Erzulie Freda is your go-to Haitian vodou spirit, if you’re into financial windfalls and passionate love affairs and mental notes are made all around.
The owner peers at us from her perch overlooking the room and answers our questions with more than a little skepticism. My bet is that she’s seen her share of lookie-loos and detractors and it’s clear that she has great respect for voodoo, its gods and its spirits.
She’s owned Erzulie’s Authentic Voodoo since 1999 and welcomes anyone seeking genuine spiritual assistance and guidance.
James kills himself laughing at the “authentic” bit when I tell him about it over a couple of Hurricanes a few hours later. Our Haunted History badges allow us 2-for-1 at Finnegan’s post tour and Jim says they’re just trying to drown our disappointment.
His cackling reaches a crescendo when I tell him that the owner of the authentic voodoo store is from Rhode Island but I don’t join him in his laughter.
Instead I think of Marie Laveau, the 19th Century voodoo priestess known as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. A free born woman of colour with a snake named Zombi who cured mysterious ailments, seemed able to influence outcomes at City Hall and who was known as the most powerful and influential woman in Louisiana.
Some say she died with a smile on her face and continues to haunt St Louis Cemetery where she is buried, sometimes appearing in her signature turban levelling assorted voodoo curses at gawkers.
Our tour group stands outside her apartments in New Orleans, yes, gawking.
To the right Louis Armstrong Park sparkles in the night and Jerry leads us to a crack in the gate where we can glimpse a slice of Marie Laveau’s a courtyard. A place of snakes named for African Gods, voodoo and defiance of the Code Noir.
James laughs but I only shiver.
At tales of Marie Laveau and of another woman whose name I don’t recall. A tragic, horrifying figure who was so alarmed by a voodoo item left on her doorstep that she slit her children’s throats, was remanded to a lunatic asylum and died the minute they, having survived, came to ask her why she had done it.
Jerry tells us these stories with his eyes shining mischievously and I begin to reconsider any claims of “authentic voodoo”.
But only until James leads me into another voodoo den where a large black woman welcomes me in. She says she’s the real deal and laments the stealing of her culture by those from outside it but it’s late and I promise to come back the next day.
She confirms that with me twice.
But I don’t go.
The coughing starts the very next day.
Uncontrollable fits that wake me up at 3am for three nights straight and which each end with an eyelid image of the priestess’ face.