As both a historical and cultural entity, the city of New Orleans has long-maintained a reputation as a centre for hedonistic and carnivaleque pleasures. Historically, images of mardi gras, jazz, and parties on the shores of the Mississippi have pervaded the cultural vision of the city as a “mecca” for “social life” (Marina 2), and successfully fed its tourism narratives. Simultaneously, however, a different kind of narrative also exists in the historical folds of the city’s urban mythology. Many tales of vampire sightings and supernatural accounts surround the area, and have contributed, over the years, to the establishment and mystification of New Orleans as a ‘vampire city’. This has produced, in turn, its own brand of vampire tourism (Murphy 2015). Mixed with historical rumours and Gothic folklore, the recent narratives of popular culture lie at the centre of the re-imagination of New Orleans as a vampire hub. Taking this idea as a point of departure, this article provides culturally- and historically-informed critical considerations of New Orleans as a ‘vampire city’, especially as portrayed in The Originals (2013-2017), a contemporary television series where vampires are the main protagonists. In the series, the historical narratives of New Orleans become entangled with – and are, at times, almost inseparable from – the fictional chronicles of the vampire in both aesthetic and conceptual terms.
The critical connection between urban narratives and vampires representation, as far as New Orleans is concerned, is profoundly entangled with notions of both tourism and fictionalised popular accounts of folklore (Piatti-Farnell 172). In approaching the conceptual relationship between New Orleans as a cultural and historical entity and the vampire — in its folkloristic and imaginative context — the analysis will take a three-pronged approach: firstly, it will consider the historical narrative of tourism for the city of New Orleans; secondly, the city’s connection to vampires and other Gothicised entities will be considered, both historically and narratively; and finally, the analysis will focus on how the connection between New Orleans and Gothic folklore of the vampire is represented in The Originals, with the issue of cultural authenticity being brought into the foreground. A critical footnote must be given to the understanding of the term ‘New Orleans’ in this article as meaning primarily the French Quarter – or, the Vieux Carre – and its various representations. This geographical focus principally owes its existence to the profound cultural significance that the French Quarter has occupied in the history of New Orleans as a city, and, in particular, in its connection to narratives of magic and Gothic folklore, as well as the broader historical and contemporary tourism structures.
A History of Tourism
Social historian Kevin Fox Gotham agues that New Orleans as a city has been particularly successful in fabricating a sellable image of itself; tourism, Gotham reminds us, is about “the production of local difference, local cultures, and different local histories that appeal to visitors’ tastes for the exotic and the unique” (“Gentrification” 1100). In these terms, both the history and the socio-cultural ‘feel’ of the city cannot be separated from the visual constructs that accompany it. Over the decades, New Orleans has fabricated a distinct network of representational patterns for the Vieux Carre in particular, where the deployment of specific images, themes and motifs – which are, in truth, only peripherally tied to the city’ actual social and political history, and owe their creation and realisation more to the success of fictional narratives from film and literature – is employed to “stimulate tourist demands to buy and consume” (Gotham, “Gentrification” 1102). This image of the city as hedonistic site is well-acknowledged, has to be understood, at least partially, as a conscious construct aimed at the production an identity for itself, which the city can in turn sell to visitors, both domestically and internationally. New Orleans, Gotham suggests, is a ‘complex and constantly mutating city’, in which “meanings of place and community” are “inexorably intertwined with tourism” (Authentic 5).
The view of New Orleans as a site of hedonistic pleasure is something that has been heavily capitalised upon by the tourism industry of the city for decades, if not centuries. A keen look at advertising pamphlets for the city, dating form the late Nineteenth century onwards, provides an overview of thematic selling points, that primarily focus on notions of jazz, endless parties and, in particular, nostalgic and distinctly rose-tinted views of the Old South and its glorious plantations (Thomas 7). The decadent view of New Orleans as a centre of carnal pleasures has often been recalled by scholars and lay observers alike; this vision of he city indeed holds deep historical roots, and is entangled with the city’s own economic structures, as well as its acculturated tourism ones. In the late 19th and early 20th century one of the things that New Orleans was very famous for was actually Storyville, the city’s red-light district, sanctioned in 1897 by municipal ordinance. Storyville quickly became a centralized attraction in the heart of New Orleans, so much so that it began being heavily advertised, especially through the publication of the ‘Blue Book’, a resource created for tourists. The Blue Book contained, in alphabetical order, information on all the prostitutes of Storyville. Storyville remained very popular and the most famous attraction in New Orleans until its demolition in 1919 Anthony Stanonis suggests that, in its ability to promote a sellable image for the city, “Storyville meshed with the intersts of business men in the age before mass tourism” (105).Even after the disappearance of Storyville, New Orleans continued to foster its image a site of hedonism, a narrative aided by a favourable administration, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. The French Quarter, in particular, “became a tawdry mélange of brothers and gambling dens operating with impunity under lax law enforcement” (Souther 16). The image of the city as a site for pleasures of worldly nature continued to be deeply rooted, and even survives in the following decades today, as visible in the numerous exotic dance parlours located on the famous Bourbon Street.
Simultaneously, however, a different kind of narrative also exists in the recent historical folds of the city’s urban mythology, where vampires, magic, and voodoo are an unavoidable presence. Many tales of vampire sightings and supernatural accounts surround the area, and have contributed, over the years, to the establishment and mystification of New Orleans as a ‘vampire city’. Kenneth Holditch contends that ‘”New Orleans is a city in love with its myths, mysteries and fantasies” (quoted in McKinney 8). In the contemporary era, these qualities are profoundly reflected in the city’s urban tourism image, where the vampire narrative is pushed into the foreground. When in the city, one might be lucky enough to take one of the many ‘vampire tours’ — often coupled with narratives of haunted locations — or visit the vampire bookshop, or even take part in the annual vampire ball.
Indeed, the presence of vampires in New Orleans’s contemporary tourism narrative is so pervasive that one might be tempted to assume that it has always occupied a prominent place in the city’s cultural fabric. Nonetheless, this perception is not accurate: the historical evidence from tourism pamphlets for the city do not make any mentions of vampire tourism before the 1990s, and even then, the focus on the occult side of new Orleans tended to privilege stories of voodoo and hoodoo — a presence that still survives strongly in the cultural narrative city itself (Murphy 91). While the connection between vampires and New Orleans is a undoubtedly recent one, the development and establishment of New Orleans as vampire city cannot be thought of as a straight line. A number of cultural and historical currents appear to converge in the creation of the city’s vampire mystique.
The history and geography of the city here could be an important factor, and a useful starting point; as the site of extreme immigration and ethnic and racial mingling New Orleans holds a reputation for mystery. The city was, of course, the regrettable site of a huge marketplace for the slave trade, so discussions of political economy could also be important here, although I’ll leave them for another time. As a city, New Orleans has often been described – by novelists, poets, and historians alike – as being somewhat ‘peculiar’. Simone de Behaviour was known to have remarked that that the city is surrounded by a “pearl grey” and ‘luminous’ air” (McKinney 1). In similar fashion, Oliver Evans claims the city carries “opalescent hints” (quoted in McKinney 1). New Orleans is famous for having a quite thick mist, the result of a high humidity levels in the air. To an observing eye, New Orleans seems immersed in an almost otherworldly ‘glow’, which bestows upon its limits an ethereal and mysterious quality (Piatti-Farnell 173). While this intention here is not to suggest that New Orleans is the only city to have mist – especially in the Southern States – one might venture to say that this physical phenomenon, joined with other occurrences and legends, has certainly contributed to the city’s Gothicised image.
The geography of the city also makes it sadly famous for floods and their subsequent devastation, which over centuries have wrecked parts of the city irrevocably. New Orleans sits at a less than desirable geographical position, is no more than 17 feet above sea level, and much of it is at least five feet below (McKinney 5). In spite of its lamentable fame, hurricane Katrina was not the first devastating geo-meteorological phenomenon to hit and destroy most of New Orleans; one can trace similar hurricane occurrences in 1812 and 1915, which at the time significantly damaged parts of the French Quarter. The geographical position of New Orleans also owes to the city’s well-known history of disease such as the plague and tuberculosis – often associated, in previous centuries, with the miasma proper to reclaimed river lands. In similar terms, one must not forget New Orleans’s history of devastating fires – primarily in the years 1788, 1794, 1816, 1866 and 1919 – which slowly destroyed the main historical parts of the city, particularly in the Vieux Carre, and to some extent opened the way for regeneration and later gentrification as well. As a result of its troubled and destructive history, Louise McKinnon claims that the city ‒ perhaps unlike any others in the United States ‒ hinges on perpetual cycles of destruction and regeneration, continuously showing “the wear and tear of human life” (McKinney 6).
It is indeed in this extremely important element that New Orleans finds a conceptual source in its connection to notions of the undead, and the vampire in particular. Historically, one can identify the pervasive use of Gothic terminology to describe New Orleans, even if, the descriptions themselves were more attuned to perceptions of the city’s architecture and metrological conditions, rather than the recollection of any folklore-inspired narratives of unread creatures. Because of its mutating, and often ill-maintained historical architecture – especially in the French Quarter - New Orleans has steadily maintained a reputation as a city of “splendid decay” (McKinney, 6). This highly lyrical and metaphorical approach plays an important part in building the city as a site of mystery and enchantment. Its decaying outlook functions as an unavoidable sign of how New Orleans continues to absorb, and simultaneously repel, as McKinney puts it, “the effects of its own history” (6).
Nonetheless, the history of New Orleans as a cultural entity, especially in terms of tourism, has not been tied to vampires for centuries, as many imagine, and the city itself insists in its contemporary tourism narratives. Although a lot of folklore has survived around the city in connection to magic and mysticism, for a number of reasons, vampires have not always been in the foreground of its publicised cultural narratives. Mixed with historical rumours and Gothic folklore, the recent narratives of popular culture lie at the centre of the re-imagination of New Orleans as a vampire spot: most scholars claim that it all started with the publication of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976), but actually evidence shows that the vampire narrative for the city of New Orleans did not fully explode until the release of Neil Jordan’s cinematic adaptation of Interview with the Vampire (1994). This film really put New Orleans at the centre of the vampire narrative, indulging in the use of many iconic locations in the city as tied to vampire, and cementing the idea of New Orleans as a vampiric city (Piatti-Farnell 175). The impact of Rice’s work, and its adaptations, has also been picked up by numerous other examples of popular culture, including Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire mystery series, and its well-known television adaptation True Blood. Harris herself states in one of her novels: “New Orleans had been the place to go for vampires and those who wanted to be around them ever since Anne Rice had been proven right about their existence” (2). In spite of the fact that popular culture, rather than actual historical evidence, lies at the heart of the city’s cultural relationship with vampires, this does not detract from the fact that vampires themselves – as fabricated figures lying somewhere between folklore, history, and fiction – represent an influential part of New Orleans’s contemporary tourism narrative, building a bridge between historical storytelling, mythologised identities, and consumerism.
The Originals: Vampires in the City
Indeed, the impact of popular culture in establishing and re-establishing the success of the vampire tourism narrative in New Orleans is undeniable. Contemporary examples continue to capitalise on the visual, cultural, and suggestively historical connection between the city’s landmarks and vampire tales, cementing the notion of New Orleans as a solid entity within the Gothic tourism narrative. One such successful example is The Originals. This television show is actually a spin-off of the Vampires Diaries, and begins with three vampires, the Mikaelson siblings (Niklaus, Elijah, and Rebekkah) returning to the city of New Orleans for the first time since 1919, when they were forced to flee by their vengeful father. In their absence, Niklaus's protégé, Marcel, took charge of the city. The storyline of The Originals focuses on battles within the vampire factions to regain control of the city, and eliminate the hold of other mystical creatures such as werewolves and witches (Anyiwo 175). The central narrative here is that the city belongs to the vampire, and there can be no other real Gothic presence in the Quarter. One can only wonder, even at this embryonic level, how this connects functions in a multifaceted way, extending the critique of the vampire’s relationship to New Orleans from the textual dimension of the TV show to the real life cultural narrative of the city itself.
A large number of the narrative strands in The Originals are tied to city and its festivals, its celebrations, and its visions of the past, whether historically recorded, or living in the pages of its Gothic folklore. Vampires are actually claimed to have made New Orleans what it is today, and they undoubtedly rule it. As Marcel puts it: “The blood never stops flowing, and the party never ends” (Episode 1, “Always and Forever”). Even the vampiric mantra for New Orleans in The Originals is tied to the city’s existing and long-standing tourism narrative, as “the party never ends” is a reference to one of Bourbon Street’s famous slogans. Indeed, the pictorial influence of the city’s primary landmarks in The Originals is undeniable. In spite of the fact the inside scenes for The Originals were filmed in a studio, the outside shots in the series reveal a strong connections to the city itself, as viewers are left with no doubt as to the show’s setting. New Orleans is continuously mentioned and put on show – and pervasively referred to as “our city”, by the vampires. So much so, that New Orleans becomes the centre of the feud between supernatural forces, as the vampires fight witches and werewolves – among others- to maintain control over the city’s historical heart. The French Quarter, in particular, is given renewed life from the ashes of history into the beating heart of the vampire narrative, so much so that it almost becomes its own character in its own right, instrumental in constructing the vampire mystique.
The impact of the vampire on constructing an image for the city of New Orleans is made explicit in The Originals, as the series explicitly shows vampires at the centre of the city’s history. Indeed, the show’s narrative goes as far as justifying the French Quarter’s history and even legends through the vampire metaphor. For instance, the series explains the devastating fire that destroyed the French Opera House in 1919 as the result of a Mikaelson vampire family feud. In similar terms, the vampires of the French Quarter are shown at the heart of the Casquette Girls narrative, a well-known tale from Eighteenth-century colonial New Orleans, where young women were shipped from France to the new Louisiana colony, in order to marry. The young women were said to bring small chests – or casquettes – containing their clothes (Crandle 47). The Originals, however, capitalises on the folkloristic interpretation that perceives the girls’ luggage as coffins potentially containing the undead, a popular version of the tale that can often be heard if taking part in one of the many vampire tours in New Orleans. One can see here how the chronicles of the French Quarter in New Orleans and the presumed narratives of the vampire in the city merge to become one and the same, blurring the lines between history and fiction, and presenting the notion of folklore as a verifiable entity of the everyday (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 25) It is essential to remember, en passant, that, as far as giving the undead their own historical chronicles in connection to New Orleans, The Originals is not alone in doing this. Other TV series like American Horror Story have provided Gothicised histories for the city, although in this case more connected to witchcraft, hoodoo, and voodoo, rather than vampires.
What one can see taking place in The Originals is a form of alternate and revisionist history that is reminiscent of several instances of pulp and science fiction from the early 20th century, where the Gothic element lies at the centre of not only the fictional narrative, but also of the re-conceptualisation of historical time and space, as not absolute entities, but as narratives open to interpretation (Singles 103). The re-interpretation here is of course connected to the cultural anxieties that are intrinsic to the Gothic – of changes, shifts, and unwanted returns - and the vampire as a figure of intersections, signalling the shift between stages of existence. If it is true that, to paraphrase Paul Ricoeur’s famous contention, the past returns to “haunt” us (105), then the history of New Orleans in The Originals is both established and haunted by vampires, a pervasive shadow that provides the city itself with an almost tangible Gothic afterlife. This connection, of course, extends beyond the fictional world of the television series, and finds fertile ground in the cultural narratives that the city constructs for itself. The tourism narrative of New Orleans also lies at the heart of the reconstructive historical imagination, which purposefully re-invents the city as a constructed entity that is, in itself, extremely sellable. The Originals mentions on multiple occasions that certain bars — owned, of course, by vampires — host regular ‘vampire themed events’, to “keep the tourists happy”. The importance of maintaining a steady influx of vampire tourism into the Quarter is made very clear throughout, and the vampires are complicit in fostering it for a number of reasons: not only because it provides them and the city with a constant revenue, but also because it brings a continuous source of fresh blood for the vampires to feed on. As Marcel puts it: “Something's gotta draw in the out-of-towners. Otherwise we'd all go hungry” (Episode 1, “Always and Forever”). New Orleans, it is made clear, is not only portrayed as a vampire hub, but also as a hot spot for vampire tourism; as part of the tourism narratives, the vampires themselves — who commonly feign humanity — actually further ‘pretend’ to be vampires for the tourists, who expect to find vampires in the city.
It is made clear in The Originals that vampires often put on a show – and bear in mind, these are vampires who pretend to be human, who pretend to be vampires for the tourists. They channel stereotypes that belong in Gothic novels and films, and that are, as far as the ‘real’ vampires of the series, are concerned, mostly fictional. The vampires that are presented to the tourists in The Originals are, inevitably, inauthentic, for the real vampires themselves purposefully portray the vision of vampires put forward by popular culture, together with its own motifs and stereotypes. The vampires happily perform their popular culture role, in order to meet the expectations of the tourist. This interaction — which sociologist Dean MacCannell would refer to, when discussing the dynamics of tourism, as “staged authenticity” (591) — is the basis of the appeal, and what continues to bring tourists back, generating profits for vampires and humans alike. Nina Auerbach has persuasively argued that the vampire is often eroticised through its connections to the “self-obsessed’ glamour of consumerism that ‘subordinates history to seductive object” (57).With the issue of authenticity brought into sharp relief, The Originals also foregrounds questions of authenticity in relation to New Orleans’s own vampire tourism narrative, which ostensibly bases into historical narratives of magic, horror, and folklore, and constructs a fictionalised urban tale, suitable to the tourism trade. The vampires of the French Quarter in The Originals act as the embodiment of the constructed image of New Orleans as the epitome of a vampire tourist destination.
There is a clear suggestion in The Originals that vampires have evolved from simple creatures of old folklore, to ‘products’ that can be sold to expectant tourists. This evolution, as far as popular culture is concerned, is also inevitably tied to the conceptualisation of certain locations as ‘vampiric’, a notion that, in the contemporary era, hinges on intersecting narratives of culture, history, and identity. Within this, New Orleans has successfully constructed an image for itself as a vampire city, exploiting, in a number ways, the popular and purposefully historicised connection to the undead. In both tourism narratives and popular culture, of which The Originals is an ideal example, New Orleans’s urban image — often sited in constructions and re-constructions, re-birth and decay — is presented as a result of the vampire’s own existence, and thrives in the Gothicised afterlife of imagery, symbolism, and cultural persuasion. In these terms, the ‘inauthentic’ vampires of The Originals are an ideal allegory that provides a channelling ground for the issues surrounding the ‘inauthentic’ state of New Orleans a sellable tourism entity. As both hinge on images of popular representation and desirable symbols, the historical narratives of New Orleans become entangled with — and are, at times, almost inseparable from — the fictional chronicles of the vampire in both aesthetic and conceptual terms.
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