Swamps are spooky places. Even without a history of ghosts and weirdness, these damp, gloomy places just seem to inspire dread in those who look upon them. Is it the expanses of untamed, weed choked wetlands, the shining eyes of alligators and other things slithering through the brush prowling the dark, or merely the twisted trees that poke up through the misty murk? Whatever it is, swamps need very little to make them even creepier than they already are. Yet, some swamps have outdone themselves, and drawn to them legends and tales that propel them beyond merely creepy places into full blown epicenters of the paranormal and unexplained. One such swamp oozes across a portion of Louisiana, and has long been the origin of stories of shadowy ghosts, Voodoo magic, and snarling beasts of the night.
Manchac Swamp, located in Louisiana not far from the festive city of New Orleans, is everything one might expect a supposedly haunted place to look like. Here stagnant green waters choked with vegetation and algae and prowled by alligators meander through groves of trees draped in moss which stand over their domain like silent, sad sentinels. Along the snake and gator infested waterways with mud caked shores one can find decrepit cabins perched upon the mosquito choked water, cloaked by brush and giving no indication of whether they are inhabited or not. Snakes, alligators, and biting insects exist here in plentitude, coexisting within the morass of damp, dark, foggy wetlands and lying in wait for those who dare tread too close. This forsaken place perfectly lends itself to spooky tales and lore, and the Manchac Swamp certainly does not disappoint.
One of the most popular and persistent tales surrounding the swamp is the story of Julie White, a Voodoo priestess who resided here in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Voodoo was quite prominent in those days in Louisiana, having been brought to these shores by West African slaves during the colonial period, as well as refugees escaping the Haitian revolution of the 18th and early 19th centuries. So concentrated was the number of Voodoo practitioners within New Orleans that Louisiana soon evolved its own brand of the religion, which relied heavily on and is characterized by its charms and amulets, also known here as gris-gris, herbs, and poisons, and which gave rise to the infamous and creepy pincushion Voodoo dolls.
Louisiana Voodoo also brought about the reign of the Voodoo Queens, who were priestesses who held great power and influence in their respective communities. Some, such as the 19th century priestess Marie Laveau, were so powerful and respected that various prestigious members of society, such as politicians, judges, lawyers, businessmen, and wealthy landowners, all came before them for consultation before making important decisions concerning business or matters of the state. Some of these Voodoo priestesses were so well known that to this day their graves command respect and gather about them gifts from the faithful, and Voodoo continues to be a popular tourist attraction within the city of New Orleans, with people coming from far and wide to visit the graves and purchase amulets, potions, and powders from various Voodoo vendors, or to visit the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum.
The Voodoo priestess Julie White was more reclusive than most, although no less feared. It was said that White enjoyed trying to predict the demise of surrounding towns as she sat on the porch of her swamp shack, where she spent much of her time. She would also make arcane gestures at those who passed by, give people the evil eye, sing spooky songs about the day of her death, and generally freak people out. Despite her eccentric ways, White was seen as a potent oracle, and many looked to her predictions for signs of impending doom or misfortune. She was also known to deal out curses to those who wronged her, making her a figure who most people of the time were absolutely terrified of. One of her most persistent predictions was that there would be some sort of deadly cataclysmic disaster when she passed on, and she is often quoted as having said “One day I’m gonna die, and I’m gonna take all of you with me.” Chillingly, shortly before she died in 1915, White chanted this over and over again, and a horrible hurricane happened to hit the town on the day of her crowded funeral, causing a devastating tidal wave that swept through to kill hundreds of people and decimate three entire villages. According to the lore, Julie White, along with all of those who had been killed at her funeral, were unceremoniously buried in a mass grave somewhere in the swamp.
It is said that even to this day many bodies remain lodged within the slimy muck at the bottom of the swamp, and that even now occasionally a body will float up through the muddy swill to the surface. Since then, the voices of the dead and the apparition of White herself are said to haunt this swamp, with White’s ghost reportedly having the habit of repeating the same eerie chant she had sung before her death. Modern ghost tours of the swamp make Julie White’s old abode and the alleged mass grave a regular destination, and it is supposedly quite common for visitors to hear strange wailing or screaming emanating from the swamp in this area. It is also said that when White died, she placed a curse here, which is the purported cause of a fatal collapse of the Manchac Bridge in 1976, although the new bridge, a 120,440 foot concrete behemoth, has seemingly resisted this hex.
Another popular tale from Manchac Swamp is that it is the hunting grounds of the Rougarou, which is basically a Cajun version of the werewolf. The tales of the Rougarou have many variations, but it is mostly described as being a hulking beast, up to 10 feet tall, with the hair covered body of a human and the head of a wolf or in some cases a dog, often with pale white fur, and with very prominent fangs and red eyes that are said to glow, which stalks the swamps, bayous, and fields of Louisiana. Other tales say it is a more decidedly ghostly or spectral apparition which glows in the night, or a beast which can become immaterial or disappear at will. The mysterious beast is said to be able to change its shape back and forth, and can even take on other forms such as a werepig, werecattle, or even werecranes. The story of the Rougarou has many forms, with the most common being that it is a curse that has to be transferred to another by drawing blood within 101 days, and which can only be broken through passing it on to others. This is usually done by either viciously attacking someone or in other versions simply gazing into another’s eyes. In the past, it was common for people to look upon strangers or particularly odd people with great suspicion, as it was thought that they may be one of the feared beasts.
According to the lore, the afflicted are supposedly faced with some alternatives. The most common way to break the curse is to remain silent about the confrontation for a whole year and a day, after which the curse will be broken for both parties. One piece of folklore related to this involves a young newlywed wife who is waiting for her husband at the edge of the swamp on the night of a full moon. The woman is then confronted with a massive, wolf-like creature which locks its gaze with hers before stalking off into the night. The woman, knowing she has been infected with the foul beast’s curse, subsequently locks herself within a shed every night of the full moon, a fact which is not noticed by her new husband as he often works late into the night. After the year and a day have passed, the cured woman, who has remained silent about the encounter, is asked by her husband if she has ever waited for him by the edge of the swamp in the moonlight. The wife lies and says she hasn’t, after which the husband admits that he was in fact the creature she had seen and been cursed by, and that her silence on the matter had saved them both. Another way to lift the curse is with the help of powerful Voodoo spells.
Other versions of the legend say that the creature takes on the form of a large dog rather than a wolf-man, which makes sense since wolves are not native to Louisiana. In another tale, a boy who was on his way home came across a huge white dog which was acting aggressively towards him. After some time of the dog biting at him and snarling at him, the boy then supposedly took out a knife he carried in his backpack and slashed at the mysterious dog. The animal then transformed into a human being, and told the boy that he had been imprisoned by the devil into this form, and that the same would befall him if he was not careful. The stranger also warned that if the boy told anyone about the encounter he would become a Rougarou too. The boy promptly told all of his friends, and it was then that he began to disappear from his room at night, only to reappear in his room the following morning with no recollection of where he had been and sometimes spattered in blood that was not his own. After a year of this, the boy was allegedly found dead in the street one morning, and the authorities deemed it a suicide, but those who knew better claimed that he had been a Rougarou. There are numerous other stories of people being confronted by a large, vicious dog only to have it turn into a man right before their eyes, often after being struck or cut. In one story a pair is pursued by such a dog under the light of a full moon, only to have it leap a fence and disappear, being instead replaced by the figure of a large man.
Another popular story is that these were-creatures have the habit of rampaging through town and the wilderness to ravage those Catholics who have not observed Lent properly, and it is said that failing to observe Lent for a full 7 years in a row is a sure way to be transformed into one of the beasts, or at the very least incur their wrath. They were also said to be drawn to those who misbehaved or committed criminal transgressions, making them a popular story to tell to children in order to keep them in line and out of trouble. It was a common thing for a child to hear something along the lines of “Come home before dark, lest the Rougarou get you!” Indeed, those unfortunate people who went missing within the swamp were often thought to have fallen victim to the Rougarou.
As steeped in folklore as the stories of swamp dwelling werewolves might be, there are many reports of people actually claiming to see them to this day, or to hear their eerie howls piercing the night. Some rather dramatic reports have even told of the creatures chasing cars down the road or slaughtering cattle. Their large, hulking appearance and hair covered bodies have led to the theory that rather than werewolves, what is being seen is perhaps some Bigfoot-like creatures, yet there is very little evidence of the creatures one way or another. Nevertheless, if there are Rougarou out there, whatever they are, then Manchac Swamp is said to be one of their very favorite haunts.
Adding to the tales of werewolves and Voodoo curses are the various other strange phenomena reported from the swamp. Mystery lights, shadowy apparitions, orbs of light, and glows emanating from abandoned cabins are commonplace here, as are a few stories of monstrous alligators far larger than normal prowling through the remote areas of the swamp. Whatever is going on out here in this spooky place, it is hard to look upon Manchac Swamp and not get the feeling that it is a place with an atmosphere of doom and gloom that rightfully deserves its reputation as a cursed, haunted place, whether it actually is or not. Anyone who is interested in seeing the swamp for themselves can take one of the many ghost tours that operate in the area, which will gladly take you through some of the areas that are more allegedly paranormally active. Who knows, you just might see Julie Ward staring at you from the dim shadows of the trees, or a Rougarou prowling the night.