New Orleans Is Halloween

Published on September 29th, 2008 in: Culture Shock, Halloween, Issues |

By Lisa Haviland

lisa h gangster

The first time I drove my new-resident ass down Pine Street in 2000, dodgin’ craters, I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell I’d done, even as I knew I belonged in this witchy, subtropic gingerbreadland. Halloween is much better as an ethos, a lifestyle, than a holiday whose significance ebbs with age, and Halloween had manifested in the form of this secret city. Constraints didn’t exist in New Orleans the way they did elsewhere—to where they swallowed you, to where people somberly did their day-to-day and duty trumped joy after all. The thick air vibrated me right out of regular America’s orbit.

The haunted, otherworldly air had thinned post-apocalypse. There was a hole, some terrible but intangible gash in the city’s psyche that extended well beyond the desolation and damage so often cited as the source of the new malaise. Enroute to a party on New Year’s Eve ‘06, I became lost in a literal fog, rather than the eerie euphoria that normally characterized my Crescent City. The anti-atmosphere felt resplendent not with mystery, but dread; a universe of unanswered screams, extinguished existences. This would be the flip side of Frenchmen and Decatur Streets on New Orleans’ official Halloween.

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The harder they pounded on the bathroom door at d.b.a. that particular October 31st, 2004, the harder we laughed. I was costumed as the prototypical slasher-flick victim—blonde wig and blood-streaked limbs—while my friend was a veiled black widow wielding marijuana. Hundreds of people—Alice in Wonderlands, nymphs, Ghostbusters, pirates, even Don Knotts—were out in force and unlike Mardi Gras, this one was for the locals. Bands were costuming and playing as other bands; adjunct English professors were wilding out more than students they hoped not to encounter; cops were standing off to the side, observing all these antics without any real interest; bartenders were sexing up tips; and Hansel and Gretel were tucked away, fodder for some gutter punks.

Several October 31sts later, after the city’s gaze had shifted apocalyptic, I was making my way down Decatur as an Edith Bunker-like mother’s helper when I was accosted by the Donnie Darko bunny; he was wielding a sword that traced the length of my neck, fake-slashing my jugular, and finally tipping my chin so concealed eyes held a strangely erotic New Orleans moment. 28 days. . . 6 hours. . . 42 minutes. . . 12 seconds. That. . . is when the world. . . will end.

Hours later, the Roman Empire was reborn down on Frenchmen Street. Two burly, Texas-born security guards had found God here, had rolled in after becoming disaster-enchanted like so many otherwise-empty Americans, and were now busy ridding Halloween of a five-foot, four-inch terrorist with red rouge on his cheek. Hundreds had inadvertently gathered to bear witness to this sacrament, this ritual, this beating. It was total inversion, and the last Halloween I would bear witness to as a resident.

The advantage of being a voyeur must be that you rarely find yourself beaten before a crowd or alone in the fog under an overpass, a little out of your head if you’re being honest with yourself, which you really can’t afford—or avoid—at this juncture. Everyone enjoys mocking that girl: the one who makes foolish decisions like hanging out weeping under a bridge because she is too paralyzed to run, move, fight the man with a hook for a hand. The starring role is far from glamorous in this case, and it’s America at large that doubled as the jeering audience vis-à-vis grainy transmissions. Which is more ghoulish: New Orleans post-federal flood or new millennium Americans who like to watch, who chirp for Gustav to hit during the Republican convention?

It’s land of the living dead out here.

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