Along the Bayou Teche, a 135-mile waterway that stretches out from the Mississippi River, the warm late September air buzzed with the sounds of mosquitoes and crickets.
Daylight dwindled as a small group of mask-clad people followed tour guide Steven Mora to the edge of the bayou in Franklin, Louisiana.
Mora took several socially-distanced steps away from his guests. He safely raised the clear plastic face shield and began the first in a series of haunted tours he would lead in this quiet 200-year-old city.
Any other year and the tour would have been markedly different. It certainly wouldn’t have begun with no contact temperature readings, face mask requirements and reminders to stay 6-feet-apart.
Mora and his partner Chad Boutte, own and operate a small tour company based in New Orleans called Tours by Steven, where since 2014, they’ve led walking tours through historic neighborhoods across the city. Last year, after buying a historic home, over an hour away in Franklin, they wanted to expand the business to their new city. The expansion would include walking tours of the antebellum homes and neighboring bayou starting spring 2020.
COVID-19 changed their plans.
“Tourism stopped, it came to a crashing halt,” Boutte said. “We lost our international market completely because they couldn’t get here.”
The original launch date for the tour landed around the same time New Orleans began reporting a surge in COVID-19 cases, effectively shutting down the tourism industry in the region. In early March, New Orleans became one of the largest hotspots in the South. As a result, music venues, bars and restaurants that lured nearly 20 million visitors to the region last year, have remained almost entirely closed.
Tourism during COVID-19:Southern tourist destinations warily welcome back visitors
Celebrate safely:Tips to celebrate Halloween during the COVID-19 pandemic
Boutte and Mora suddenly had more time to learn more about the quirky nearly 200-year-old home they bought in the heart of Franklin’s historic district a year earlier.
Neighbors started sharing some of the unusual occurrences they’d seen at the home over the years. The property sat vacant for nearly 20 years before the couple bought it. However, people claimed to have seen a woman staring down at them from a third-floor window as they walked past the front of the house.
Others mentioned seeing the shape of a man walking through the rear of the house when it was still vacant. One night, after living in the home for several months, two antique clocks that hadn’t worked suddenly started ticking and chiming at the same time in different rooms, Mora said.
Then a call came in from the mayor’s office with the City of Franklin.
“They told us a team of paranormal investigators with Louisiana Spirits was coming to town to investigate hauntings on several properties and were interested in coming to our house. So, we thought why not!” Boutte said.
The team visited eight locations around Franklin this summer, including their home, capturing recordings and readings of reported hauntings. Boutte and Mora decided to recreate the experience and reimagine their home tours.
“We were definitely not planning for a ghost walk but it lined up,” Boutte said. “Here we were in the middle of COVID, we had all these ideas for history-based tours of Franklin. But we realized we could talk about this experience that has happened right in our home and time it right for October to launch it.”
The historic district in Franklin provides perhaps the perfect backdrop for a ghost tour. The streets are eerily quiet at night, lined with century-old homes and brick buildings. The few businesses that remain open along this stretch of Main Street close early.
But as public health restrictions start to lift, the city is also starting to see a wave of visitors travelling from other parts of Louisiana. Tours of the historic district and antebellum homes are in the works to start in November.
“Things are popping up. I really feel like there is new energy here,” said Glynn Bradley, a resident of Franklin for nearly 20 years, who joined the ghost tour on its inaugural night.” It’s a gallant effort. Their success is our success. Not only for me personally but for everyone here. It helps bring in more revenue and more people and like I said more things for us to do here.”
The tour ended in the dark auditorium of the historic Teche Theater for the Performing Arts, long-rumored to be haunted. Guests sat in isolated pods wearing masks.
Mora placed a device used by paranormal investigations to detect energy fields in the center of the stage.
“If you were a props person, are you here?” he asked.
“Were you a stage manager?”
Silence and then a beep and the red light blinked.
Maria Clark is a general assignment reporter with The American South. Story ideas, tips, questions? Email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @MariaPClark1. Sign up for The American South newsletter.