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Louisiana’s Thriller: Rougarou Fest 2015

 “It’s close to midnight, and something evil’s lurking
In the dark
Under the moonlight you see a sight that almost stops
Your heart
You try to scream, but terror takes the sound before
You make it
You start to freeze as horror looks you right between
The eyes
You’re paralyzed” – Michael Jackson’s Thriller

Strange creatures reside in the bayous of southern Louisiana. The region’s folk traditions tell of swamp monsters and wandering spirits, beasts with the ability to tear men limb from limb and powerful mists leading travelers to their death deep in the cypress forests.

The Rougarou Festival in Houma sets out to preserve and glorify these horror stories of the Cajun canon.

Before European settlement Chitimacha and Attakapas tribes in the region spoke of “wolf-walkers,” man-eating creatures part human and part beast. Legends of werewolves persisted following French settlement as tales of the loup garou spread throughout the marshes. Cajuns in the area eventually interchangeably referred to the creature as both loup garou and Rougarou, an amalgam of French and Frankish meaning “A man who turns into a wolf.” Accounts vary but the majority describe a bipedal beast, covered in shaggy black-brown fur with talons as fingers and toes and the head of a wolf or dog. Said to be a terrifying sight to behold, the Rougarou’s eyes glow an eerie red or yellow above razor sharp teeth filling an elongated snout.

As part of Rougarou Fest, Houma’s residents dress and reenact Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
As part of Rougarou Fest, Houma’s residents dress and reenact Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
It is an unlikely mascot for a family festival in a small town, but Rougarou Festival founder and executive director of the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center Jonathan Foret says folk legends like the Rougarou connect festival attendees to a disappearing Cajun culture. “The Rougarou lives in the swamp. If we lose the swamps then what happens to the Rougarou? We want to teach our traditions to local youth as well as share them with visitors in an effort to preserve them,” he says.

The two day event is held October 24-25 in downtown Houma. In addition to the Rougarou, the festival celebrates other Cajun legends like the Lutin – a trickster character responsible for disappearing car keys and inexplicable minor inconveniences.
“The Lutin is the spirit of a deceased child who was never baptized and engages in mysterious tricks on the living. We use a Leprechaun cardboard cut-out to represent him at the festival. It’s not scary for kids, but they learn about the name and get the essence of the legend,” Foret says.

The Wetlands Discovery Center’s philosophy emphasizes the connections between Cajun culture and the environment of southern Louisiana. “Folklore is inevitably tied to the land, and that’s what we want to communicate. How does coastal land loss impact our culture?” he says.

The first day of the festival focuses primarily on what Foret calls “the gross and creepy.” There will be a haunted house, a zombie fun run and a parade celebrating the wetlands and the creatures within. Participants dress in costume, wearing flag football belts and running through downtown evading zombies.

During Rougarou Fest, residents in the City of Houma dress in elaborate costumes as a way to connect with tradition and the swamp lands surrounding their region.
During Rougarou Fest, residents in the City of Houma dress in elaborate costumes as a way to connect with tradition and the swamp lands surrounding their region.
The Krewe Ga Rou parade is a grand spectacle. Foret recalls one memorable float requiring five people to support it. “Standing back behind most of the crowd, all I could see were white wings spanning the width of the street. It was a giant egret that looked like it was flying through downtown Houma,” he says.

In addition to floats, large groups costume and perform choreographed dances together, tossing candy to attendees. Zombies from the day’s earlier run provide the finale: a tribute to Michael Jackson’s thriller music video. Community members comprise the group, rehearsing in advance and performing together in full makeup and costume.

“Day two is more about relaxing and enjoying music and a bloody mary,” says Foret. “The entire community unites in preparation. We start picking blackberries for the blackberry dumplings in early spring and summer. It might be on the side of the road or at your grandma’s house. Then, we get together and juice them. We freeze that until it’s time. We do the same with our Pop Rouge ice cream (a concoction flavored with strawberry soda and condensed milk), after the threat of hurricanes has passed.”

Other seasonal culinary offerings include jambalaya and seafood gumbo. Hundreds of pounds of crabs will be picked clean; dozens of coolers of shrimp will be peeled. “We get together and we laugh and we clean shrimp. It’s a reason for us to come together.”

Want to go?

Houma’s Rougarou Festival is scheduled for October 24-25. Proceeds from the festival benefit the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center, where Foret hopes to teach the region’s residents how to maintain their cultural traditions as the environment changes. For more information, visit rougaroufest.org.

Story By Meghan Holmes
Courtesy Legends Magazine

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