In the first scene of the most famous play set in New Orleans, the character Blanche Dubois neatly sums up the city's paradoxical allure: "They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, transfer to one called Cemetery, and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields."
There you have it: Sin, death and -- if you're lucky -- redemption, all for the price of a streetcar ticket.
Not much has changed in the half century since Tennessee Williams wrote those words. Visit New Orleans at opposite ends of the year and the fascination with debauchery and demise still resonates palpably.
For a hefty dose of sin -- call it an obsession with life, if you're feeling charitable -- visitors flock to the winter festival of Mardi Gras, weeks of officially advocated craziness before Ash Wednesday and Lent. At the other end of the year, during the pagan festival known as All Hallow's Eve or Halloween, the obsession with life turns flip-flop into a full-fledged preoccupation with death.
Nowhere does talk of the undead come quite so alive as at Halloween in New Orleans.
Crescent City visitors at this time of year can see sights unlikely to be glimpsed anywhere else in America: a Halloween tree -- like a Christmas tree, but decorated with skeletons, bats and spiders -- adorning the bay window of an elegant St. Charles mansion, authentic voodoo rituals in a swamp at midnight, a "Good Mourning" exhibit of death-related artifacts such as jewelry made from a loved one's hair, perhaps even a fleeting glance at one of New Orleans' famous ghosts.
"We probably have more ghost stories per square foot than anywhere [else] in the United States, probably the world. We've got more ghosts than places in Europe that are 10 times older than New Orleans," says Robert Florence, a local author and founder of Historic New Orleans Walking Tours.
That surplus of specters has fueled a mini-industry of ghost, vampire and "haunted history" tours of the French Quarter, Garden District and city cemeteries. Some tours are campy, some grimly serious, some -- like Florence's -- rooted more in history than supernatural lore.
"We tell a couple of ghost stories, but I think if you just take a straightforward historical or factual approach -- just tell what happened -- you can't make up a better story than what really happened," Florence says.
For those who prefer a dash of theater with their shrieks of terror, Haunted History Tours, Magic Walking Tours and other groups feature costumed guides who brandish wooden stakes and whisper ominously of ghouls, vampires and unidentifiable bumps in the night.
Some tours include only "real-life" ghost stories; others include fictional "haunts" and vampires such as those made popular by native daughters Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite.
Tombs above ground
Much of New Orleans' absorption with the ungrateful dead no doubt stems from the city's above-ground tombs, a necessity because the ground is only about 6 inches above sea level. "That death-laden mystique probably has a lot to do with the fact that we're just in much closer proximity to dead bodies," Florence says matter-of-factly.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, New Orleans residents learned the hard way about the problems of burying their dead in "ground" that was essentially swamp water. Caskets had the unsavory tendency to float right back to the surface. Early settlers buried in the river levee were "unburied" during the city's frequent floods.
Restless bodies, one might assume, make for restless spirits.
So it makes sense that many of the city's most famous ghost stories spring from the cemeteries. At suburban Metairie Cemetery, built atop a former racetrack in 1872, the tomb of Josie Arlington draws many curious ghost-hunters despite Metairie's modern, distinctly unspooky look.
Josie, who ran one of the most infamous and successful Storyville "halls of pleasure," commissioned the red-granite tomb in 1911, three years before she died. A robe-draped bronze maiden guards the tomb, and many visitors have reported seeing the lady wander away from her post to flit among the tombs.
For some time, a mysterious red glow lingered over the tomb, causing some to speculate that Josie felt more comfortable in a red-light district, even in death. The light was eventually traced to a toll barrier on a nearby street and blocked with shrubbery.
Though it lacks an official haunting, the Chapman-Hyams tomb at Metairie will give visitors a chill. Through the glass doors of the tomb, visitors can see the statue of a desolate angel, weeping atop the stone tomb and bathed in ethereal blue light.
At St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery, on the edge of the French Quarter fronting Basin Street, lie the remains of New Orleans' most infamous voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. Her crypt bears hundreds of rusty-colored chalk X's; legends say those marking an X for Marie will have their wishes granted. However, preservationists such as Florence say the practice is a recent development that has led to the defacing of historic tombs.
Vagrants sleeping in St. Louis No. 1 have reported seeing ghostly dancers around Marie's tomb, led by a tall woman clothed only in the coils of a huge snake. No word on whether these tales were the result of actual spirits or the kind found in go-cups on Bourbon Street.
The French Quarter, the oldest part of the city, has a seemingly endless supply of ghosts, vampires and other immortal denizens. Centrally located Cathedral Garden and Pere Antoine Alley, adjacent to St. Louis Cathedral, sport two of the creepier tales.
Early morning strollers through the Quarter have reported hearing the clash of swords in Cathedral Garden, site of many a 19th-century duel. And Pere Antoine, a beloved 18th-century priest, is said to stroll along his alley alongside the church, sending the strains of Kyrie Eleison echoing through the fog.
Two private residences, the LaLaurie House at the corner of Royal and Gov. Nicholls streets, and the Gardette-Le Prete House at the corner of Orleans and Dauphine, boast gruesome pasts that have led to their haunted reputation. Tour guides swear that rentals in these two buildings are the cheapest found anywhere in the Quarter but if you rent there, make sure it's a short lease because you won't stay long.
The Gardette-Le Prete House, on a quiet street behind the cathedral, was the home of a 19th-century "sultan" of mysterious origin -- he was called a "deposed potentate of a distant eastern realm" in a 1979 Times-Picayune article.
The sultan became famous for his lavish parties, which were exclusive to the point of rudeness. In the late 1870s, a blood-soaked slaughter took place there, possibly at the hands of disgruntled would-be partygoers. Police responding to neighbors' reports of blood running under the gate found mangled, decapitated bodies, and the sultan was discovered half-buried in his garden. The culprits were never apprehended.
The sultan apparently didn't want to leave, and as recently as the 1950s and '60s, residents reported being startled (putting it mildly) by a male figure dressed in bright oriental garb. Unearthly screams also drove several occupants to seek calmer housing.
At the LaLaurie House, a young black girl in 1833 jumped -- or was pushed -- to her death from the rooftop to the courtyard three stories below. The girl's death fanned the speculation that already swirled around the LaLauries. They had become popular party hosts in New Orleans' glittering society world, but even friends wondered privately why the LaLauries' slaves had such haggard, ill-kempt, terrified appearances.
Delphine LaLaurie, in particular, aroused suspicion by frequently disappearing from her own parties for hours at a time, only to reappear later in an entirely different outfit. Astute guests wondered what she could have spilled in such quantity as to require completely fresh dress.
The mystery was solved in 1834, when a fire broke out and firefighters discovered a half-dozen shackled, starving slaves in an upstairs room that bore evidence of bloody, horrific torture. The LaLauries fled an angry mob, but their legend thrives -- some claim Delphine buried many of her victims, not quite dead, in the home's courtyard, and the third-floor window of the "torture chamber" remains covered with brick and plaster.
Rumors at convent
Near the LaLaurie House are two more supposedly haunted sites. At the Old Ursuline Convent at 1112 Chartres St., one of the oldest French Colonial buildings in the Quarter, questions linger about the third floor, where virtually no one except diocesan officials are allowed. The building now serves as the archives for the archdiocese.
Rumor has it that in the 1960s, the New Orleans archbishop had all the third-floor shutters sealed with 8,000 blessed screws each, presumably to keep whatever's up there safely locked inside. Still, New Orleans police occasionally respond to calls from frantic Quarter residents who've seen the shutters flung open and the third-floor lights on.
At 1113 Chartres St., across the street from the convent, stands the Beauregard-Keyes House, supposedly still occupied by Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. The ghost of Gen. Beauregard, the Confederate soldier who ordered the first shots of the Civil War, has reportedly been spotted wandering the rooms after midnight amid spectral battles, muttering "Shiloh" -- peace -- over and over.
Other "otherworldies" at this house reportedly include an unfortunate mule that was shot through the middle with a cannonball -- its ghost sports a see-through hole at the site of the blast -- and an entire mob of Mafia henchmen who tried to gun down a family in the early 1900s.
Near City Park on Bayou St. John is Pitot House, an 18th-century West Indies-style plantation home. One of the home's early mistresses died giving birth to twin daughters in the master bedroom, and an inexplicable feminine, floral scent frequently hovers in the air there.
For those not sated on the ghosts of New Orleans proper, the outlying swamps and plantation homes along the River Road also are rife with supernatural lore. The swamps, still the site of voodoo rituals, have the added advantage of spooky-looking Spanish moss hanging in clumps from gnarled, ancient cypress trees.
Of the plantations, two of the most-visited -- and most-haunted -- are Destrehan, about 30 minutes from New Orleans, and Oak Alley, about an hour's drive away.
Destrehan, built in 1787-90, boasts an entire lineage of ghosts, stemming from tragedies that seemed to strike its occupants at an alarming rate. One of the most famous spooks is Nicolas Noel Destrehan, an early 19th-century family son who had a life marked by catastrophe -- his 15-year-old bride, Justine, died soon after their marriage, and Nicolas' right arm was cut off a few years later when the black cape he usually wore was caught in some plantation machinery.
Tourists at Destrehan say they've seen a one-armed, staring specter, most likely Nicolas. The ghost of his father, Jean Noel, has also been spotted, usually at the top of a staircase just above the present-day gift shop.
Oak Alley's many ghosts include a young woman in an old-fashioned dress who showed up in a tourist's photograph, and both plantations were used to eerie effect in the film version of Anne Rice's "Interview With the Vampire."
And if all this paranormal lore is just too grim, New Orleanians also use Halloween to do what they do best: Throw a party. The 13th annual "Ghostly Galavant," a tour of French Quarter patios usually closed to the public, is scheduled for today -- Halloween.
Joy Dickinson, a staff writer of The Dallas Morning News, is the author of "Haunted City," a guide to New Orleans for Anne Rice fans, and "Scarlett Slept Here: A Book Lover's Guide to the South."
WHEN YOU GO
* Ghostly Galavant tour of private French Quarter patios, Jackson Square, 1850 House, 523 St. Ann. 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. today; 504-523-3939.
* Haunted History Tours: 504-861-2727.
* Historic New Orleans Walking Tours: 504-947-2120.
* Magic Walking Tours: 504-588-9693.
* Metairie (Lakelawn) Cemetery: 504-486-6331.
* New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum: 504-523-7685.
* Save Our Cemeteries: 504-525-3377 or 888-721-7493.
* Beauregard-Keyes House, 1113 Chartres St., New Orleans; 504-523-7257.
* Destrehan Plantation, 13034 River Road, Destrehan, La.; 504-764-9315.
* Oak Alley Plantation, 3645 Highway 18, Vacherie, La.; 225-265-2151.
* Old Ursuline Convent, 1100 Chartres St., New Orleans; 504-529-3040.
* Pitot House, 1440 Moss St., New Orleans; 504-482-0312.
* Louisiana Office of Tourism Visitor Center, Jackson Square, 529 St. Ann; 504-568-5661; www.louisianatravel.com.
* New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1520 Sugar Bowl Drive; 504-566-5003 or 800-672-6124; www.neworleanscvb.com or www.nawlins.com.