Chasin' Down a Hoodoo There: The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum

Might, might, might have had a few walking Sazeracs before we visited.

June 22, 2016 — “That guy out there? He’s an asshole,” said a wizened old white man sitting at a desk. He was surrounded by wooden idols and dried chicken feet and little burlap dolls. He was talking to the museum visitor in front of me, who was waffling over whether to purchase tickets or not as I shifted on my feet in disbelief and frustration since I definitely wanted to purchase tickets. Because it was the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. The alleged asshole was a tall black guy with dreadlocks standing outside. He was surrounded by a tour group of 20, passing a gris-gris around.

What the wizened old white man was implying was that the voodoo outside was for tourists. What was in the museum was the real deal.

It’s an arguable assertion with no need to argue it.

The Voodoo Museum was opened by brothers Jerry and Charles Gandolfo in the 1970s. Their cypress roots went a few generations deep into the swampy Creole life, and due to their interest in the hodgepodge brew of African, Caribbean, and European religions known as voodoo, they amassed a collection of artifacts of varying levels of authenticity and stuck ’em in a museum.

The museum’s at 724 Dumaine Street, just around the corner from Bourbon Street. After we purchased our tickets we walked past one of the museum’s many altars and into a hallway lined with portraits and objects. Marie Laveau’s portrait was there, of course. You can’t have a New Orleans Voodoo Museum without the Voodoo Queen in it. They even had an old plank that a yellowing label called out as a part of Laveau’s actual kneeling bench. She gets her own post later, so I’ll leave her at that portrait and plank.

At the end of the hall, we discovered the biggest surprise of the Voodoo Museum. Well, the biggest surprise for those of us who don’t do any preparation in advance before visiting places. The museum has only two rooms.

But those rooms are packed. Like old attic packed. Little of it is labeled, nor is there any apparent organization to the exhibits themselves. It looks more like a private collection of the sort where the collector is more into the act of collecting than of having a collection. Like the second he gets his hands on a prized item, he just chucks it into a back room and then heads off on a quest for the next piece.

But all the boxes I was looking for were checked. A collection of voodoo dolls, human skulls, masks, macabre objects of a wide variety. Everything I expected from a voodoo museum except for a cardboard cutout of Bill Pullman with a cross painted on his forehead.

Speaking of which, though I don’t remember any rainbows, there was a serpent. Or at least a memorial to one. An empty tank stood as a testament to the long-deceased mascot of the museum, the “spiritual python” Jolie Blonde, who died in 2004, robbing me of the opportunity to write, “wizened old white man wearing an albino python.”

Now, the two rooms were small and crowded with items, but what really made the museum claustrophobic for us is that we mis-timed our visit to parallel with a tour. So instead of just squirming around top-hatted skeletons and bead-draped gods, we had to find our way through a group of high school boys who were being lead around by two women in tignons. Every once in a while the women would break into a dance that seemed to need an accompanying bonfire and some bottles of powdered puffer fish organs to fully do it justice, while encouraging the boys to join in, which they did. So what that took up in precious space, it made up for in atmosphere.

One of my favorite items in the museum was a dummy wearing a khaki shirt topped by a preserved alligator head. It held a wooden staff wrapped in snakeskin in one hand and had a pair of sunglasses tucked into its breast pocket. A beard made of Spanish moss trailed down from the alligator’s lower jaw. According to the placard thrown on top of it, the creature represented a rougarou.

I’ve always known that beastie as a swamp werewolf—head of a wolf, body of a human. For some reason, probably because they had it around, they topped their mannequin with an alligator head instead of a wolf’s. I assume that there is that version of the monster floating around, as well, somewhere. I gotta say, though, I find it less scary than an actual alligator. And I’m going to blame for that the Geico commercial where the alligator in business attire can’t pick up the check because he has short arms and is a jerk.

The placard describes it as a cross between a French werewolf, an African vampire, and a voodoo zombie. It said that on June 23, all the rougarou gather at the Bayou Goula and party at something called the Bal Goula. I’m putting all this down in detail because I’m hoping somebody finds this page while Googling the rougarou after running into one in the bayou and watching it kill half their friends. Sometimes I want OTIS to be like Giles’ library in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Oh, frogs and salt is what you need, guys. They’re scared of the former and burst into flame from the latter. So I suggest this.

Finally, we left through the same hallway we entered, dodging new visitors as they came in. Honestly, I didn’t learn to much about voodoo at the Voodoo Museum, but man, it sure felt like voodoo in there. Which is exactly what I was after.

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