Since I was a child, I have always found the idea terrifying of dolls that can be pinned, in precision -pointed places, to inflict their effigy’s counterpart with pain. Voodoo doctors with wild staring eyes who can drug you with powdered, poisonous exhalations and inter you while alive; the ‘zombi’ that then awakes and claws itself up from the tomb.
Excruciations transferred by a look, by mere suggestion….
Voodoo also fascinates. Snakes. The incessant, skin-fuelling drum beats that lead up to paroxysms of fevered, eye-whiting ecstacy: rhythm and dance to the point of delirium as the sweat begins to pour in rivers and the defenceless bird’s throat is slit, and spilled, in orgiastic, crimson cascades of ululation and frenzy.
The very point the conjured, awaiting spirit then enters…
Voodoo. That word is hallucinatory, a ferine heat of shivers and relinquishing…..
It intoxicates me.
But what if all the above, all this slathering about over ritualistic mumbo were nothing but hyperbole?
A product of Hollywood’s commercial need to plumb the frightening, the ‘heart of darkness’ and the ‘other’?
Could there, in fact, be more to it?
Or is voodoo nothing but…….hoodoo?
Being in New Orleans, the heart of the Southern Gothic, the place where the confluence of so many contrasting different cultures gave rise to the American version of Black Magic, and its tantalizing peripheries of tarot and fortune telling and voodoo shrines, I had to get a taste of this sensationalist and unfamiliar religion first hand, just a glimpse. To satisfy my fantasies. To have my little ‘Angel Heart’. Yet I was also quite reluctant, I must admit, to let it all touch me. To ‘dabble’.
Perhaps I am more superstitious than I am willing to admit even to myself, but I am really quite wary of séances and ouija boards, withanything even remotely to do with the demonic. I consciously resist such things. I will them away. And while I love a good horror film as much as the next person, the idea of being in the real presence of voodoo artefacts or religious sacraments, made me slightly afraid, even in the day time. I was afraid of what might potentially be unleashed.
We had decided to go on a voodoo and cemetery tour, a historical guiding through the French Quarter and its environs, on the last day of the year. The day before, when we wandered around the streets aimlessly, huddled in our coats and scarves, it had been sheets of cold rain, miserable weather, a day of cafés and bars and restaurants, but on this day, although puddles were congregated around the drains (they almost never dry, our guide told us), the sky was sharp and clear. Icy in the shade, warm in the sun.
An actual voodoo practioner who lived in the area, our tour guide was friendly, and as it turned out, hilarious (though she never took off her sunglasses). At least we certainly thought she was funny – for some reason, the rest of the tour group stood round the entire time completely stone faced. For us though, Jill’s raucous, camp and wisecracking humour, as she went through the basics on New Orleans history, was extremely amusing indeed, as we guffawed in the corner, with a well practiced ability to condense historical facts into nicely chewed soundbites that made you laugh, but put things into perspective.
We got to Congo Square, the place where the voodoo practioners of the past would gather to perform their ceremonial rituals under the blind eye of the local Catholic diocese, and were then given, as we sat in a stone semicircle, a rather fascinating insight into what our guide quite emphaticallly called a ‘very beautiful religion and a most misunderstood religion’, with its many links to Christianity, as well as to ancient African tribal traditions (she counts a local voodoo priestess as one of her close friends); its altars, and offerings, its sacrifices and its lua.
(And those dolls: according to Jill, the vast majority of voodoo dolls are in fact used to heal not curse, the pins like acupuncture needles from afar, to help loved ones with specific pains and symptoms. For Jill, the religion of voodoo, is far more benign, communal and lovingly spiritual than most would believe.)
The lua, and she listed the most important ones for us, are the spirits, the intermediaries, or ‘mystères’, to whom you pray for favours and interventions, each with his or her particular humours and specifications; coconut for this one, cash for another; rum for this one, meat for the other.
Perhaps this is why the crowd were so po-faced. Maybe they had come to be scandalized and horrified by evil tales of murder and satanic sacrifice, where instead we were being given the intriguing, and rather sensual, low-down on all the joys and pleasures of voodoo, by a woman actually doused in it on a daily basis, a lady who seemed very nice, and who was really quite cheery and passionate about her subject.
I was thoroughly in my element (quite an unusual way to spend the morning of New Year’s Eve, to say the least) and went with the flow. I was delighted to be hearing all this alluring information from a very different and personally informed perspective, particularly in the very place where believers had congregated, and still do, to listen to the hypnotic incantations and rituals of the specially chosen Voodoo Queen.
The ‘Voodoo Queen’. To me, I have to say, it sounded almost comical, like something from a I950’s B-movie, all Carmen Miranda ebonics , marimbas and mambo. But to her followers, she is revered and very real. Still. And more importantly, the most well known of these priestesses, and a woman that Jill herself seemed to hold in the highest esteem (“I seriously dig this woman”): if not the most famous person of all New Orleans (aside Louis Armstrong, whose statue was also on Congo Square) was the legendary Marie Laveau, entombed in the next stop of our visit – St. Louis Cemetery No. I.
We had actually already visited one cemetery – Lafayette, in the Garden District, a couple of days before. A cold, overcast and brackish day, we had had no guide at that time, but as we entered and I felt around the feeling of the place, I found that I wanted to be alone there. I let the others go off, and slowly meandered through the lanes of crumbling and overgrown tombstones by myself.
I don’t think that I am essentially morbid (though you may of course beg to disagree), and I am certainly not drawn to death – quite the opposite, I would say – but the very dense and eerie atmosphere of that place felt strangely suspended; listless: stock full and-fern coiled – a half light.
Also, I didn’t yet know about the special New Orleans system of burial, how thousands and thousands of dead people are laid to rest in a special system of interring, within family tombs or if they are unfortunate, with strangers, but the tombs I saw in that place above ground; cracked, in disrepair, were still obviously different. I felt as though I could peer inside into the darkness if I wanted, to view the occupant, or rather that, in those dark inner cavities, the inhabitant of each tomb could perhaps sense, and see me, from within.
Suspension is the best word for it. I felt slightly suspended between things, dipped in another realm. Of course, to some extent, I was talking myself into this ; ooh, I’m in New Orleans in the very cemetery where Ann Rice set her Vampire Lestat chronicles, I’m having a spooky moment, but even before the cemetery appeared in the street ( we didn’t know it was going to be there), we were looking at the magnificent ante-bellum houses, the reason we had gone to the area, the ‘Garden District’, but even so I had felt uneasy and detached, as I said – dappled in the uncoloured, redolent in-between. Despite the enviable wealth on display and the spectacularly particular architecture, those very recognizably American houses with their porches and balustraded balconies and locked behind closed, Christmas trees, it all felt quite unexpectedly sinister to me. As I said to Duncan as we walked along, there is no possible way that I could live here.
The next day at St. Louis it was crisp and cold and blindingly bright.
And with Jill gleefully leading us through the entombment processes with a glib, macabre maner – the open tombs, where the bodies of the deceased are stored in the highest tier of the stone and literally cooked by the Louisana afternoon sun at temperatures that can reach 200 degrees : a kind of natural cremation, there is nothing really left save bones and ashes, with the exception of the few cases that occur when a form of mummification instead takes place instead, the body not quite decomposing, and the graveyard attendants having to then then pick out the twisted ‘human jerky’ as she called it, and transfer it to the simple bag where their mortal remains are destined to be placed along with their other family members in the collective ancestral tomb: or, as she briskly put it, ‘your cosy condo for eternity’.
After hearing about these unusual process and the New Orleans funeral rites, and visiting a desecrated tomb of a supposed voodoo priestess, bricks removed, offerings left: three X’s graffitied all over the stone (an urban legend, she says, but you are supposed to leave the Xs , turn round backwards or something, before your wishes are granted, – occultists from all over the world come to do just that, even, according to Jill, encouraged by more salacious and spooksville guides, to actually break off bone fragments as holy relics).
As we looked around us, and at those creepy little crosses on the stone work, we were told explicitly that leaving the three X’s was forbidden (and obviously illegal). We would be prosecuted, and the fines would be quite high.
I looked at some roses, that were glinting in the searing morning light.
I took some photos of some tombs, and decaying graveyard flowers.
Before we then, turning the corner, sun streaming in our faces, came to the next scheduled stop on our tour of St. Louis.
The quite pristine, pyramid-shaped, imposing tomb of Nicolas Cage.
Yes, your read that correctly. Maybe you knew about this already, but there was a collective exhalation of excitement that ran through the group when this spectacular Hollywood insider info was announced, (with expert dramatic timing, by our tour guide. )
His tomb? He’s dead?
No, he is just ready.
A pyramid for Nicolas Cage. An extravagant and self indulgent act of Las Vegas-style megalomania that was nevertheless, for me as something of a fan of the actor, completely fascinating.
Nicolas Cage apparently adores New Orleans, the city where the brilliantly barmy Bad Lieutenant was filmed ( an off kilter police procedural by genius director Werner Herzog that I love), and it is a place he is said to visit quite regularly. And so, though still very much alive the last time I checked, it seems that the eccentric actor has already elected to spend the rest of eternity in St. Louis Cemetery No I, just round the corner from the queen of all the Voodoo Queens, Marie Laveau.
There was something a little gobsmacking about all of this. Few us face death so head on, not only connecting to a place where our mortal remains will be stored but actually commissioning a design for it, paying for its perpetual unkeep in advance, and being able hang out and have a picnic there if we so desire when we come down to visit with family and friends.
Hey look, that’s the place.
There is for me something so brazenly over the top about all of this that quite appeals to me: so larger-than-life, yet also curiously self-aware. So grandiose, and overbearing (just look at it, as Duncan captured perfectly its solar Nile aspirations in the photograph). So ridiculous. Yet I love it. I think Nicolas Cage is very much a love-him-or-hate him figure, one of those polarizing actors, and I imagine that many of you reading this will fall into the latter category. I know Daphne, Duncan’s mother hates him (“he’s evil“). I suppose, in a way, in that sense, he’s a bit like Angelina Jolie – one of those unconventional looking people, a bit unhinged or oddball (loving Elvis so much you marry his daughter), stars who you probably wouldn’t trust, who are so unspeakably themselves they don’t quite fit into the Hollywood mould, yet manage to become superbly affluent and accoladed megastars nonetheless. Personally I love them both. Angelina Jolie has such a scary, wild untrammeled beauty, I can watch her anytime, and Nicolas Cage is just so out there, virile and at times, really quite recklessly sexy.
I, personally, would have little resistance.
I love him in Wild At Heart. In Bringing Out The Dead and Snake Eyes, even in such action schlocker nonsense as Con Air, but particularly in the aforementioned Port Of Call New Orleans, all strung out,bug-eyed and feral – but I do also like him as a loveable, doe-eyed romantic hero in films such as It Could Happen To you, Leaving Las Vegas, and the fantastically feel-good-Cher-co-starring comedy, Moonstruck.
Sunstruck he will be though, one day, sequestered in his Pharoah-like, attention grabbing tomb.
Silent, finally, for eternity.
I was stunned. And as one younger member of the tour group, who had really perked up at this bit of celebrity fodder then said, ‘I can’t believe I have just seen Nicolas Cage’s tomb before he’s even dead’.
More famous still though, according to our guide, and the most visited tomb worldwide after Elvis Presley (really?), was the unprepossessing final resting place (perhaps)of Marie Laveau, rock-star of the Occult, Queen of the Voodoo Queens, and a most mysterious and compelling woman by all accounts. Brought up half Voodoo, half Catholic, hence her unfortunate and unimaginative entombment in a Catholic cemetery, she was taken up as a young girl, as the Creole mistress of a New Orleans gentried man of means (who later disappeared…….), had nine or so children, and lived into her nineties, a priestess who became venerated and celebrated as an oracle, a person of great psychic powers according to some, a phony to others, but who you could turn to, even now when she has been laid to rest, to grant your deepest wish. Duncan’s mother, told this, touched her tomb. I myself did not ( I want nothing to do with her). Still, it was intriguing to be standing in such a place as the sun beat down; cool shadows, and the stories we were hearing taking us fully to another time and place of the old New Orleans, and its salons, and sultry goings on behind closed doors.
There are other voodoo-linked cultural landmarks scattered around New Orleans – the interesting, if underwhelming, Voodoo Museum with its dusty collection of chicken-clawed curiosities, and also a cultural center, Voodoo Autentica, which sells potions and dolls and other practical paraphernalia. I looked, but again, I didn’t touch. It is something I want to know about, but not to let inside. Perhaps I have been brainwashed by Haitian clichés from my intake of bone-faced Hollywoodiana; the New Orleans jazz funeral and witch doctor of Live And Let Die (easily my favourite James Bond film as a kid, because who can resist a skeleton preening in a top hat?) the wall-dripping sensuality of the scenes with Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet in Angel Heart) but despite my steaming predilections I will not, you can be sure, be building any voodoo altars in my house any time soon.
Finally to perfume, though.
And returning again to Parfums French Bourbon, to see if the scent in the window display had any real mystery (a scent named Voodoo Love certainly has an appeal, though its scented reality doesn’t quite cut the mustard). Like Kus Kus, the shop’s most famous perfume originally created in the I840’s, this is a powdered, floral old timer, cloyed prettily with musks and flowers along the lines of Caron’s heavily petticoated Pois De Senteur De Chez Moi, any of those Caron classics like French Can Can, steeped in lady-like, not-telling things that are quite syrupy, dusted and laced; real perfumes from a disappeared age that smell a bit antiquated (though perfect in that setting, on Rue Royal in the French Quarter). Which is, of course, one reason to really want to wear them, though I couldn’t quite decide if they were necessarily distinctive enough to make me reach out for my wallet. Kus Kus did smell quite alluring, I must say, if a little amorphous and difficult to get an obvious take on (like Hové Parfumeur I didn’t really have sufficient time to truly get to know all the perfumes).
Voodoo Love, though, I did wear all afternoon, the day after we went to see Madame Laveau, both on the back of my hand, and sprayed on some card, and while nice, and convincingly sultry and chypreish ( a tiny bit Paloma Picasso), it didn’t really leave that much of a mark.
I couldn’t quite get a handle on it. Maybe subconsciously I didn’t really want to, though. As I sit here, people all around me sleeping on a night flight to San Francisco, to be honest, I can’t even remember at all, now, how it smelled.