The haunts of Cajun Country
Excerpted from “Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana” by Cheré Dastugue Coen, published by The History Press
The swamps of South Louisiana can be a cacophony of noises, from frogs singing to alligators bellowing and everything in between. Or it can be eerily silent with nothing but the sounds of your paddle plying the placid, muddy waters. Add the soft touch of Spanish moss on your head or the dropping into your canoe of one of the many resident snakes and Louisiana’s wetlands provide quite a scare.
It’s one of the reasons horror filmmakers come to the Bayou State to shoot.
But there may be some substance to the legends and tales that come out of the swamps and bayous of South Louisiana. Take the unusual lights that appear in woods or swamplands at night. Cajuns call them feu-follet, small balls of light that hover over land and water. Are they evil, as some believe? Or perhaps the souls of unbaptized children destined to haunt the nighttime. Either way, you don’t want to follow these phosphorescent lights.
“The feu-follet, sometimes called simply follet, is an evil spirit which pursues its victims and causes them to lose their way in marshy places or in the dark and winding bypaths of a forest,” according to “Early Louisiana French Life and Folklore” of the Anonymous Breaux Manuscript, one of the few early writings about Cajun life.
The young author was returning home one night when a light resembling a lantern burst forth from a “bramble patch.” Entranced, the young man followed the light to the edge of a deep swamp. At the last minute, he managed to break free of its trance before it did him harm. He threw his hat into the water so the light would follow it instead and, while it was preoccupied, ran for home. The next day the hat was found floating on the water.
“It (the feu follet) was taken as an evil omen, and when seen approaching one’s house, a knife had to be driven into the gatepost to keep harm from coming to the family within,” wrote Damon Veach in “Acadiana’s Eerie ‘Feu Follet’” in the Dec. 23, 1979, Sunday Advocate of Baton Rouge.
On the other side of the Atchafalaya Basin from Lafayette is the small town of Gross Tete, which literally means “Big Head” in French. Residents have seen a light floating at the hump of a deserted road and claim it’s the ghost of a man beheaded by a moving train.
“As a child, I often recalled my grandmother and mother talk about these lights,” writes Louisiana native and paranormal investigator Brad Duplechien in Paranormal Uncensored. “According to them, if you would see one of these strange lights, it was an omen that something bad was going to happen. When describing the lights, they simply said they looked like glowing balls of orange light, about the size of a volleyball, which could be seen literally bouncing across fields, most commonly near cemeteries.”
Duplechien once spotted a strange ball of light crossing Highway 29 near Bunkie, about an hour north of Lafayette. At first, he thought the light to be an approaching motorcycle or car, but then a car made the turn up ahead and he witnessed the light for what it was — a feu follet.
“The strange light then continued to literally float on to the other side of the road and faded into the overgrown weeds,” he wrote, adding that he stopped and saw no signs of lights, fire or smoke. “As I began to roll off, I looked to my right and there, to my surprise, was a small cemetery.”
Scientists claim these lights, also known as “will-o-the-wisps,” are the result of gases being released from rotting vegetation. Since South Louisiana contains miles of non-moving water sources, feu follets would naturally thrive here.
“Numerous references in chemical texts refer to the light appearances as luminescence,” writes Veach. “Louisiana woodlands, marshes, and swamps offer ideal settings for these almost instantaneous lights. Another term applied to this strange glow is directly related to a fermentation process, again part of nature’s ability to break down particles into new forms.”
But for some residents of South Louisiana, feu follets are simply evil.
“Et le monde avait une frayeur que si le fufollet aurait tombé sur eux, il les aurait tués,” is an expression recording in the Dictionary of Louisiana French. In English, “And the people were terrified that if the will-o’-wisp landed on them, it would kill them.”
Another favorite tale Cajuns love to share with their children is that of the loup garou, a Louisiana French werewolf if you will. Cajuns describe these hairy creatures as shapeshifters, monsters who terrorize people, and dance in the moonlight on St. John’s Eve, June 23, at Bayou Goula near Baton Rouge.
“The loup-garou is a man-wolf that can walk upright on two legs, has large red eyes and a pointed nose, and appears to be a wolf in every other respect, including having shaggy hair and long, pointed nails,” writes Christopher K. Coleman in Dixie Spirits: True Tales of the Strange and Supernatural in the South.
The Dictionary of Louisiana French defines it as a “werewolf, weredog, or other man-to-animal transformation of Louisiana folklore.”
Cajun filmmaker Glen Pitre recalled a tale told to him by his parrain or godfather in Swapping Stories: Folktales from Louisiana. Some oyster fishermen were concerned when they headed off to work in the morning to find their oysters separated and culled, many of them eaten, with no evidence of it being done by humans. One day a fellow ran into camp claiming he had seen a “creature that was huge and hairy and moved very quickly.”
The oyster eating stopped but not for the one who saw the creature. His nightmare just began. The creature haunted him, visiting him alone in his bed at night. He became so obsessed that people stopped listening to him and his financé pulled out of the wedding. He grew to be an old man until one day he accidentally cut the loup garou on his shoulders with the edge of an oyster shell — and ironically lost the only friend he had.
Cathy Landry of Alexandria told me of the time she and a group of five ventured to the Mississippi River side of the levee near the Belle Chasse Research Center in Belle Chasse, outside of New Orleans. This was the 1970s, they were young and they had traveled to the levee to retrieve something from her brother’s car. For some reason, the car had been over the levee and was lodged in the trees by the river.
It was three in the morning and the group stood on the levee top, shining flashlights into the trees in the hopes of locating the car. Naturally, they longed to retrieve the item and get out of there quickly.
And that’s when the creature appeared.
“We saw two red glowing eyes, about a foot apart,” Landry recalled.
At first, they thought it was a reflector on the car door. “But then the two lights we thought were on the door starting standing up,” she said. “It turned out to be about six feet and it kept going.”
The group hightailed it out of there but not before hearing this “dark shadow” of a creature ripping the car door off.
In the morning they returned. Sure enough, the car’s door had been peeled back like a banana.
“We all saw it,” Landry insists. “And a lot of other people have seen it out there.”
Author Rita Monette calls it the “Rougarou,” another name for the hairy beast, this time an all-white creature who roams causing havoc until someone attacks him and draws blood. This allows the rougarou to turn back into a man. This old South Louisiana legend inspired her to write her young adult novel, The Legend of Ghost Dog Island, in which a ten-year-old hears howling coming from a nearby swamp island.
“This legend is said to usually happen within the smallest of towns in Louisiana, because of this the rougarou is often already known by its killer,” Monette wrote on her book blog.
“Before the dying man takes his last breath of life he will warn his savior that he can not mention a word of the incident to anyone for one full year, or he too will suffer the same fate, and become the rougarou.”
Monette recounted a story of a boy who was followed by a white dog, napping at his heels. Frustrated, the boy slashed the dog with his knife. The animal then turned into a man, claiming he had sold his soul to the devil for money. He warned the boy not to speak of the incident, lest he suffers the same fate. Being a young kid, the boy told his friends. Immediately, the boy started disappearing at night until one day they found his body in the town’s streets.
Unexplained creatures have been spotted across the nation, but when Matt Hoyle wrote Encounters With the Strange and Unexplained, he used the photo of “Denty” on the cover, a man who claims to have seen a swamp monster in the Honey Island Swamp near New Orleans.
“I was deep in the heart of the swamp on Honey Island when I saw the beast,” Denty explained. “He was crossing a stream to the underbrush and at first I thought it was a bear, but when I got closer I saw the shape of it — more man than animal. I remember his eyes — amber and set far apart and his arms were really long. I didn’t want to shoot and miss this one and I didn’t think one bullet would do it so I got out of there as fast as I could. I’ll never go to that place in the swamp ever again.”
Une Grosse Bétaille
“If you hear a dog howling, someone you know is dying.” — Kaplan, Louisiana, superstition
In the 1940s there was a jaguarandi reported in Florida, a wild cat native to Central and South America and sometimes into southern Texas. The animal sports short and rounded ears, short legs, an elongated body and a long tail.
When an article surfaced of the Florida cat in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Louise Veronica Olivier of Arnaudville, Louisiana, contacted the paper to report of her own unusually hairy animal — this one sported along Bayou Bourbeau in St. Landry Parish, just north of Lafayette in Cajun Country. She called her creature “une grosse bétaille.”
The Rev. Jules O. Daigle in A Dictionary of the Cajun Language defines bétaille as “almost all unknown bugs or animals, also for humans to denote bestial qualities.” The Dictionary of Louisiana French has several definitions for the word, but also bug, worm, beast, and monster. Naturally, a GROSS bétaille is an animal or bestial man of large proportions.
Olivier explained that Rameau Quebedeaux had spotted une grosse bétaille at midnight in June 1942, but no one believed him, chalking it up to “whiskey talk.” Then Antoine Lanclos admitted to seeing a dog “with evil intent” while plowing his fields.
“He said he had called his own dog ‘a la recousse,’” Olivier recounted in The Times-Picayune article. “In the interval between his dog and the encroacher, Antoine made good his escape.”
Unfortunately, his dog was never seen again.
Someone in nearby Prairie Basse claimed a wolf was killing the resident dogs and “dragging them to the bayou banks.” Chickens and turkeys were disappearing and cows and calves being spooked for no reason. As word spread, people avoiding going out at night.
One night a group of residents was gathered together when they heard the distressing cries of dogs. They grabbed their guns and headed out. “In the thicket of weeds and brambles was la grosse bétaille feasting on Ti Louie’s Fido,” Olivier recalled.
The animal was described as resembling a police dog with a large mouth and neck, heavy coat, and a slender body that tapered to the rear. When approached that night it let out a ferocious growl. The resident who plugged the creature when it let out a yell later recounted the story to the parish priest.
“As they also confirmed the facts for all who know the French-speaking folk who live along Louisiana’s bayou: For while they might stretch the truth in ordinary conversation, none would have dreamed of speaking except in utter sobriety to le bon Pere who ministers to all their spiritual needs,” Olivier concluded.