What’s Haunting the Swamps and Bayous?
The following is an excerpt from Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana by The History Press, written by my twin, journalist and ghost chaser Cheré Coen.
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 unbaptised 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 in to 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 Route.
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.”
For more information on Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana by Cheré Coen, along with her other books, visit her website.