by Laura Diaz de Arce
Our tour guide leans on her umbrella as she reminds us to stay close on the sidewalk. It’s a sidewalk made of pavement stones that people have walked on for over a century. She brings up that New Orleans is a site of a lot of energy, a lot of tragedy, and therefore, will have a lot of hauntings. In my day-to-day, I am not given to mysticism, but the energy she talks about is palpable.
Earlier this month, I took my first Ghost Tour since our fourth grade class trip to St. Augustine. For those not in the know, a Ghost Tour is a tour that focuses on the (alleged) haunting of a place. They can vary from the factual to the fabricated and theatrical. We picked a more factual tour (I was out-voted) by New Orleans Secrets, which we stumbled on while wandering through the city.
Our tour guide took us through a number of sites, each marked with its own unique tragedy. A former convent that housed young women with scurvy, who were rumored to be vampires. There was the Continental, a current hotel and former military hospital, supposedly haunted by dying soldiers and their dogs. A restaurant that hosts a nightly dinner for the lord of the house. A former boarding school that now houses five dead school boys from an 18th century fire.
By the time we got to the most infamous location of the night, The LaLaurie Mansion, the streets surrounding it had filled up with other ghost tours. Each giving their version of the history, each a new travesty listed. Delphine LaLaurie’s cruelty laid bare on a chilly night.
This was my first time in New Orleans, and even by this point I had fallen in love with this parish. It wore its past in plain sight. Throughout the French Quarter, there are tiled signs memorializing the Spanish names of streets. Homes and hotels on historic registries are marked with metal plates. New Orleans is living its history, and I jumped at the opportunity to take part in something older than myself.
There is that overused Faulkner line, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” When you watch a hundred people breathe in ghost stories while on a several-centuries-old street, that each of us is making our own memory of those moments and weaving those stories into our lives, making our own mental mythologies of each story… No, the past is not past.
History is a living, tactile thing, and we can relish opportunities like this to be in it physically. But the interesting thing about a ghost tour is that it is community-building. When we partake in public [hi]story-telling, we create and reaffirm shared histories. Factual or not, those stories then become part of the cultural fabric both of that place and the memory of place for people that leave it. It’s how we create collective identifiers, by the (re)telling of individual and group experiences.
“New Orleans” can conjure up images of jazz music, of Mardi Gras, beignets, hurricanes, and yes, ghosts. These are images from popular manifestations rooted into our conscious and unconscious through our media. By going to a place, by partaking in that myth-making, those unconscious and conscious images become sharper, they get refuted, refined, refocused. When we experience this interaction of history and storytelling in person, we gain a nuance to our perspective of a place or event. We enlarge our culture, because we become part of the tapestry of that culture.
As far as mental health goes, the ability to be part of a community is actually pretty important.
We know that a feeling of belonging, of participating in community is part of mental health(1). We also know that the ability to connect to others is also deeply essential to our sense of self (2). Feeling a connection to culture, to place and (hi)story is also deeply important to our sense of self. Our experiences with places give our lives texture. Our connection to shared stories or history allows us to place ourselves either within or outside those histories.
While we may learn about history or culture through textbooks and lectures, it is a wholly different thing to begin to commit it to sensory memory. It is a richer thing to stand on pavement tread by generations of shoes. Or to look across to the former home of a gambling fop who is rumored to still reside there. Or to breathe the air that blows across the Bayou St. John, the same air breathed in by the pirates that traversed it. Each tragedy becomes more edged in humility when you’re physically dwarfed by the expansive LaLaurie Mansion, and each injustice that follows, more painfully acute.
We ended our evening at the side of the famous St. Louis Cathedral and a story about the Spanish rule of New Orleans, about undermining tyranny. According to legend, Père Dagobert stole the bodies of French rebels who were made to rot publicly during a hurricane in order to give them a proper burial. It’s a reminder of the small ways people will work around existing structures to be able to partake in their traditions. Sometimes even under the cover of a major storm. Now Père Dagobert is said to sing a hymn on stormy nights.
Is it Père Dagobert? Or perhaps it is the living memory of his act of rebellion that still resonates. Are these ghosts real? While I’ve mentioned before that ghosts are a great metaphor for trauma, we can remember that history is made of millions of pains and infractions, and sometimes moments of victory.
I can’t say learning about any of these frightening events helped me cope with my personal ghosts, but it did connect me to another community. It’s the type of community I’m familiar with both as a Latina and as South Floridian. It’s a community of layered colonization, wealth disparity, and racial oppression. But it’s also a community filled with music, arts, joyous celebration, and a collective identity. A sense of community, like a sense of self, is part of the process of self-actualization. I could have read about all these scary stories online, but to relive it was a privilege, an opportunity to give physical presence to ideas, and the chance to see how others of a similar history have coped.
It seems that no matter the weather, they found a way to make music, and it’s a lesson worth remembering wherever we go.