Grown-up Trick or Treating, A Boo-tiful Thing
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It was a few days before Halloween last year when the witch from Philadelphia deplaned at Louis Armstrong International Airport, rented a sedan and set off down the highway for the city proper. Outside a hotel on St. Charles Avenue, the vampire in ruffled lace cuffs and burgundy waistcoat waited with a bloody Mary in one hand and a tourist guide in the other for the streetcar to take him to the French Quarter. Downtown at sunset, a cab stopped at the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann streets to unload four middle-aged men dressed in identical Snow White costumes, who then gleefully skipping into the pulsing disco nearby.
Welcome to Halloween season in New Orleans, a time when costumed fun and make-believe fully take over a city where fantasy is never too far from reach even under normal circumstances.
Halloween in New Orleans is more than a one-day holiday, an excuse for a costume party or an obligation to dish out candy to the neighbors’ kids. Grown ups from around the country and farther abroad come here to cut loose all year round, but during the week or so leading up to Halloween the every-night party on the streets and in the clubs and ballrooms takes on new energy. And over the years, as New Orleans’ popularity as a tourist destination has grown, the holiday has evolved into a social happening to rival some of the city’s signature celebrations, both in terms of numbers of visitors and in creative energy devoted to the pursuit of good times.
Do You Have a Costume Box?
This is, after all, a town where many residents accumulate “costume boxes” of random garments and props, from capes and crowns to feather boas and man-sized sequin gowns - leftovers from Mardi Gras or New Year’s Eve - which can be recombined in an instant for an impromptu costume. For visitors, the town’s reputation as a place where different rules apply is only amplified by Halloween, when vampire lore, Creole ghost stories, the European ambiance of the Vieux Carre and the exotic, if often deeply misunderstood, local traditions of voodoo combine in a mystifying brew of libertine possibility. Anything can happen, it seems, when you don a simple mask.
As with most of the city’s big celebrations, the center of the action is in the French Quarter, where the streets explode with costumed characters and clubs throb ‘til the wee hours with special events. In particular, Bourbon Street becomes a promenade of costumes, a fashion catwalk for the creative threads of the witching season. By late October, the weather in south Louisiana is usually perfect for cavorting outdoors and, thanks to the city’s permissive open container laws (glass containers are banned, but anything else is okay), revelers can duck into just about any establishment they choose for a refreshment “to go.” The Halloween mantra of “trick or treat” takes on a whole new meaning when the treats are armloads of beads dandling above from Bourbon Street balconies and the tricks are open to interpretation.
Nighttime Vampire Balls
Vampire legends are particularly strong in New Orleans, fostered in large part by the writing of local novelist Anne Rice. Several organizations, including the Louisiana Area Vampire Association, hold vampire balls during Halloween with strict costume rules for admission. More free form is the gothic scene that convenes around Jackson Square at night, with numerous fortune tellers and other mystics offering their services by lamplight amid Spanish colonial architecture with sounds from the river drifting over the nearby levee.
The annual Voodoo Music Festival, held in City Park about five miles from the French Quarter, has been growing steadily and attracting more well-known performers as well as greater numbers of music lovers. Local clubs throughout the city has been booking bigger acts themselves to keep the party going at night.
It’s hard to beat the free show going on along the streets of the French Quarter and beyond however. Decatur Street, where the small bars, boutiques and restaurants are virtually stacked upon each other, teems with costume shoppers by day. By nightfall, these same people have returned to show off their creations, while passersby stop one another to admire their handiwork and take photos.
Downriver in the Marigny
In recent years, the Halloween celebration has grown especially lively along Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny, the next neighborhood downriver from the Quarter. Like Bourbon Street, the dense concentration of bars and music halls here makes for a raucous and vividly colorful street scene, though your fellow revelers are much more likely to be locals.
The gay community is also out in full force during Halloween in New Orleans, which has evolved over the years into a major party event for gay travelers. Various social and nonprofit organizations hold gay-oriented costumed balls, while the section of the Quarter known as the Rainbow District (centered on Bourbon Street from St. Ann Street to St. Philip Street) is the center of the all-night party in the dance clubs, balconies and sidewalks.
Whether Halloween marks a first visit to New Orleans, or another chapter in an ongoing Crescent City adventure, a costume, whether simple or elaborate, is all anyone needs to feel like they’re part of the party.
Ian McNulty is a freelance food writer and columnist, a frequent commentator on the New Orleans entertainment talk show “Steppin’ Out” and editor of the guidebook “Hungry? Thirsty? New Orleans.”