By Rene Cizio
During my first few nights in New Orleans, I participated in the traditional cemetery excursion, went on a haunted French Quarter walking tour, met a voodoo priestess, and visited the plantation houses. Somewhere in there, I picked up a ghost.
I know this because it didn’t come with the house I rented, but at some point, I started to feel someone watching me from the corner of the bedroom. The visitation mainly occurred at night, after I had shut the old glass-and-wood double bedroom doors, and came with wild dreams, a lack of sleep, and a sense of unease.
It probably happened when I was using the dowsing rods in the cemetery. I shouldn’t have done that, but it had seemed interesting and harmless, and you never expect a ghost to follow you home. Besides, aside from throwing salt over my back, I had taken precautions to avoid it. At least, I thought I had.
The truth is, I’d been creeping around over half a dozen different cemeteries since I got to New Orleans. I didn’t seem able to stop myself. Even without the dowsing rods, let’s face it, I was courting them.
I think I caught the ghost the night I took the drunken cemetery tour. I met up with a small bus of people in the French Quarter. As soon as I boarded, a big man, taking up the entire front seat meant for two, said, “Ya want a beer?” Being New Orleans, I took it, and everyone cheered. Then we started bumping down the road to the jazz music playing from musicians we passed outside.
In New Orleans, they believe in all sorts of things the rest of the country has long ago forgone, and they believe in nothing more than letting the good times roll. So, the group, as expected, was rowdy and loud. This cemetery tour would not be the one the ghosts would show up for, or so I thought then.
Here, on this swampy land, we rolled past cemeteries called cities of the dead. They’re housed on blocks like subdivisions, made like miniature mansions, these large, ornate tombs complete with wrought iron fences, stained glass, and marble stairs. Some, now centuries old, have gone to the moss and live oak roots. They’ve disfigured these tiny homes into something differently beautiful. As we drove around, stopping at bars and driving past cemeteries, our guide, Trish, told us the history and gave us some warnings. I wish I’d paid better attention.
Inside one cemetery, she told us the tombs act like cremation ovens in the Louisiana heat. After a year, the body disintegrates to ash. In this way, these tiny mansions can hold many bodies. Dozens of names are etched on their doors. Though the cemetery may only have hundreds of tombs, they hold thousands, maybe millions of souls. We walked around the tombs, reading the inscriptions from the 1800s, admiring the poetic language, the effusive prose, and the romantic adoration that marked a different time. A time when semi-drunk people coming to ogle in a cemetery would not have been done.
I’ve always been comfortable in cemeteries. As a child, I was my gram’s right hand several times each summer when we’d go to the big old cemetery to clean our family graves. We had many and would spend the entire day with a bucket, plastic grocery bags, and hand tools, pulling weeds and planting flowers dug up from our yard the day before. Gram, and thus I, only went three places: church, the doctor, and the cemetery. The cemetery was my favorite.
“When I’m gone, you’re still going to come and take care of the kids, right?” she’d ask, regarding the two smallest graves. They were next to each other, covered each year in tiny purple flowers. Her two children, a boy and a girl, age one and two, had died two days apart from each other, years before my own mother was born.
I hated thinking of her cold and dead in the Michigan ground, but she already had her little plot in the new section on the other side where we didn’t have any people. “This is where I’ll be,” she’d say, pointing at the empty square of land. As stood by, I’d lie there on top of her grave and pretend it was the same as when we lay together in bed at night. But staring up at the old Sycamore tree branches, creating black cracks in the sky, I couldn’t picture it.
“Yes, Gram, I promise, I’ll always come.”
Growing up, a cemetery was never a place to fear. But in New Orleans, Trish told us we should be careful, not even to so much as sneeze while inside one. While we walked around reading the inscriptions, she said your heart stops for a split second when you sneeze. She said if you’re around the dead, like in a cemetery, when it happens, a desperate spirit could attach itself to your body. If anyone sneezed, we were prepared to say, “God bless you,” as protection for their soul.
I’ve always believed in ghosts. When I was seven, I saw one when I was lying in bed waiting for Gram, staring past the open door into the hallway. Suddenly, my kereszpapa, Bart, was standing there. He had died when I was just two, but I knew it was him. He wore dark work pants and was shirtless the same as in the many pictures I saw of him. He was alcohol bloated with dark-circled eyes, full glossy hair, and a dark beard. He stood there and stared at me, not scary, but not very interesting either. I pulled the blankets over my head and fell asleep.
In the morning, I told my kereszmama, who was thrilled, wondering what message he was trying to give. I couldn’t figure, but I learned then that ghosts need energy to appear, they took more than they had to give, and ignoring them made them go away. At least, that’s how it works with most ghosts.
Our next stop on the tour was a series of cemeteries next to each other and the Hurricane Katrina Memorial. The memorial is a tribute to those who died in the hurricane. There are more than one hundred unidentified people in mausoleums surrounding the monument. They form a spiral around a large center stone representing the eye of the hurricane.
There’s always something disturbing about places with graves of the unknown dead. They don’t want to be unknown in death any more than we do in life. It is the ultimate letdown to die unrecognized, and these places are unsettled. So, it wasn’t the best idea to use the dowsing rods there, I see that now.
Trish gave each of us copper-handled dowsing rods and directions on using them. They’re a copper rod, thinner than a pencil and shaped like a number seven. The top is encased in a copper sleeve so the rod can freely move. Dowsing was used to look for groundwater, buried metals or ores, and psychic vibrations, among other things. People believe copper is sensitive to the energy vibrations of different elements, even the supernatural.
Others believe the rods, made of thin metal and held by human hands, merely respond to the unstable equilibrium of the person holding them. In this way, any slight movement gets amplified into a big movement. That’s true, but it’s not the only explanation. Like Ouija boards, or pendulums, dowsing rods are a tool for connecting to energy outside of yourself; some of it could be residual spirit energy from those who’ve passed beyond. Energy is real, and each of us has it, some more than others—during and after life.
If you’ve ever spent any time near an energy vortex, in Sedona, near any pyramids, Stonehenge and other sacred earth, you’ll understand this idea. There is a pulse in the air and the ground in these places. A thrum from some unknowable energy permeates the atmosphere, and if you are still and open, sometimes you will feel it like a presence around you.
Everyone at some point has felt watched, the sensation of a presence in a room, or being followed by a shadow in the street at night, or entered a room that felt fuller than it should be. You’ve seen someone flit past your peripheral vision when nobody is there. Everybody has sensed these things. Most choose to explain them away. There are often excellent scientific explanations for many occurrences, but not all.
The last light was fading as I headed off alone to the far back of the cemetery with rods in hand. It was darkest there, and the giant, old live oaks towered above me, their arms reaching, the viny growth on them like hair.
Any movements I made, no matter how subtle, would cause the rods to move too. My breathing, a heavy gust of wind, or my weight shifting from one foot to another would cause rod movement. But those weren’t the only things that would move the rods.
One moment, nothing was happening; then that changed. I was standing behind a series of tall, bare crepe myrtle bushes to block the wind in the unseasonably cold New Orleans winter. I was a statue, solid, unmoving, unbreathing, and focused on a freezing sensation that crawled up my right arm, lingered between my shoulder and neck, and exited from the top of my head. In my mind, there was a gasp, not mine, and the dowsing rods turned in on me, one touching each arm in a hug. I didn’t know that it was a hug, but I sensed that it was.
Like I’d awoken from a three-second trance I wasn’t aware I’d entered, I quickly startled awake, lowered the rods, and walked to the nearest group of people, seeking, I suppose, human beings.
“You gettin’ anything?” I asked one of the women.
“It’s hard to tell why they move sometimes,” she said.
“We shouldn’t be doing this,” another lady said with a laugh.
I laughed too. “Probably not.”
I walked backward out of the cemetery so no ghosts would attach themselves to me. I lay in bed that night, chilled to the bone, shivering and unable to get warm. That week I noticed the presence in my room. It wasn’t menacing or even imploring, but I sensed that it wanted my attention, hence the dreams of running through watery fields, unable to go fast enough, the shouting all around me that caused me to wake gasping for air. I knew if I gave it my attention, it would grow stronger, and I would learn about it, but to what end?
I’d been down this road before with my longest friend, Mary, which was unfortunate because she was coming to visit in a few days, so I needed to do something about this ghost before she arrived.
Mary and I have been friends since sixth grade. We once spent an entire summer using Ouija boards, trying automatic writing, and others to help us contact the dead. Together we had powerful energy, and we could contact a lot of ghosts, or whatever they were. In the end, we spent a lot of time giving our energy to lost souls who couldn’t do anything with it. They’d offer little tricks and insights that took far more energy than any value they could ever have in the grand scheme of life. That’s the sad thing about ghosts. They really can’t impact the world, no matter how badly they want to. You can spend a lot of time reaching them in their thick, foggy world, but there’s nothing to know. They’re just strong energy grasping onto something they once knew but barely recall.
Still, they can be troublesome and annoying to those sensitive enough to recognize them. I knew having Mary and a ghost in the house could be a recipe for disaster, so I had to get rid of it, and I did what anyone would do; I conducted a removal ceremony.
It was a pretty simple affair. I bought a bunch of white sage and walked through the house, burning it while I chanted, “Go away, I don’t want you here, I can’t see you or hear you and I don’t want to. Leave me alone, leave this house, go away.” I then lit a few white candles to purify the space. It wasn’t the most eloquent ghost-removal ceremony I’ve ever heard of, but it worked. After that, I no longer sensed the presence in the corner, Mary came and left, and my dreams returned to normal.
I told another friend about my bedroom ghost, and she laughed, unbelieving. Belief in ghosts, or spirits, is easy to dismiss because they’re easy to overlook and make excuses for. Lights do flicker sometimes, and candles do go out by unexpected wind gusts in a still room. Of course, they do. Belief in ghosts takes energy, and who has it to give? They vanish easy enough in the cold light of science, and most people of sound mind won’t debate the subject. There are too many other things much easier to grasp.
I understand that. Afterall, I’ve spent most of my life successfully closing off the part of me that sees ghosts, but I’m still curious and sensitive, and I do love a good cemetery. Even after I got rid of my ghost, I continued haunting the cemeteries in New Orleans; I couldn’t help myself. The history, beauty, and architecture pulled me in and wouldn’t let go.
It was in the Lower Garden District, not too far from Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 when I walked past a big, old, decrepit house with a For Sale sign. I picked one of the sales papers out of the box out front and stared at the house while I imagined moving to New Orleans. I would restore it, live in this old city, and join a Mardi Gras krewe. Then I saw a shadow flit past one of the windows. Immediately I tried to convince myself it was nothing. A flash of light, the glint of a car going by, the shifting of a tree branch, or wind from an open window moving a curtain.
But I knew better. Down here in New Orleans, they keep the past close, the music loud, and the spirits flowing freely. The good times are always rolling, but the ghosts are not so easy to ignore. So, I put the paper back in its case and kept walking.
Rene Cizio is an author and blogger. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Michigan and has been honored by the Michigan Press Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Originally from Detroit, she’s currently a solo nomad living in the United States. Find her at www.middlejourney.com or Twitter and Instagram @renecizio.