Rougarou Fest Photographers (except where noted)
It’s quite a scene here in Houma, a wee city of about 32,000 sunk so far south in Louisiana the next stop is pretty much the Gulf of Mexico. Drifting along the street with surprising grace and no little beauty is a papier-mâché egret, perhaps twenty feet long and white as snow, a tribute to the birds that call the surrounding bayous home. There are other massive puppets—like the egret, all created by local citizens—making an appearance tonight too, including a replica of a sugar skull and a Jack Skellington look-alike. They’re whimsical and wonderful, but by no means the only highlight of the parade, which also includes a platoon of dancing witches, a float filled with mermaids, and a flash-mob-like coterie of zombies that replicate Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” moves.
Pulling up the rear, helping lead the zombies when not cavorting with the masses lining the sidewalks, is the rougarou, the creature that inspired both the parade and the two-day festival during which the parade takes place. The most celebrated of all the critters that fill Cajun folktales, the rougarou “is like a swamp werewolf,” says Melissa Durocher, destination development manager at the Houma Area CVB. “When we were growing up, every Cajun child understood that if you didn’t listen to mom and dad, or you misbehaved, the rougarou would come and get you. Even when you were playing outside, mom would say, ‘Come in before dark or the rougarou is going to be out.’”
But this rougarou—most years made flesh by former Louisiana state senator Norby Chabert, who owns the hirsute costume familiar to festivalgoers—has little bark, much less bite. That’s thanks not only to the family-friendly nature of the fest but also the cause which it supports, the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center, a nonprofit Houma organization that educates kids and teens about the issues facing the Pelican State’s coastal communities. While the rougarou was once the star of a children’s cautionary tale, he’s fast evolving into a symbol of the fight to protect Louisiana’s precious bayous against coastal land loss from subsidence and sea-level rise.
“The rougarou has become our Smokey the Bear,” says Jonathan Foret, executive director of the Discovery Center and founder of the festival. “Smokey the Bear says, ‘Only you can prevent forest fires.’ Our tagline is, ‘If the rougarou doesn’t have a place to live, then neither will we,’ because the rougarou is known to live out in the marshland. When I was a kid, we were taught to be afraid of the rougarou, but what’s been interesting is that through the festival and our work he’s sort of turned into a protector of the swamps. He isn’t quite so menacing. It’s more that he’s protecting his home, and we need to help him, because that in turn protects our home.”
It’s only keeping with tradition that the beastie’s intents and interests should morph over time and place. Rougarou folklore evolved from European tales of the loup-garou, a werewolf. French settlers brought the legend with them to Canada; their descendants, the Acadians, imported it to South Louisiana, where they resettled after they were expelled from their homeland by the British in the mid-18th century. According to Chabert, who grew up in the countryside outside of Houma and calls himself “about as bayou as it gets,” the rougarou legend, much like a recipe for shrimp okra gumbo, invites all to tinker with it. “In the rougarou tale you have these consistencies, no matter where you go,” Chabert says, “like it’s a werewolf creature, it lives in the marsh all the time. And then you hear it only comes out in the full moon and other different things. As you go into the Cajun communities, you hear various versions of what the rougarou tale is, but it’s a very predominant part of Louisiana folklore. Even the rednecks in north Louisiana know of the rougarou. They may have a different telling of it than we have down here, but it’s still very much a Cajun swamp monster.”
There is no doubt Rougarou Fest is helping keep the legend alive for future generations. Foret says it’s not uncommon now for parents to pass along school reports and shoebox dioramas their kids have made about their favorite werewolf. But the festival, which debuted in 2012 and takes place the weekend before Halloween, preserves more than myth. It’s also about helping ensure the survival of an entire culture. The traditions of the French Louisiana people, a group that includes not only Cajuns but Native Americans and Creoles, are richly and authentically celebrated at Rougarou. This is no coldly calculated corporate event.
“Jonathan’s leadership has really enabled the festival to grow in the direction the patrons want it to grow,” says Houma resident Shannon Eaton, who was last year’s Rougarou Fest queen. “Instead of having these third parties come in and tell us how it should be done, we’re able to make it truly something that the community dictates. I love the way Jonathan brought back the personality of Houma that I remember from growing up here.”
Perhaps more than anything else, Foret has taken his vision for Rougarou Fest from a long-lost, much-beloved fair called Lagniappe on the Bayou, which was held in Chauvin, just down the road from Houma. A fundraiser for the local Catholic church, the annual event was discontinued in the mid-1990s but lives on in the hearts of all who attended it— and through Rougarou.
“When you went there was every kind of Cajun food you could imagine there—bacon-wrapped shrimp, jambalaya, gumbo, beignets. You name it, there was a food booth for it,” says Raegan Creppell, president of the board of the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center Foundation and Rougarou Fest’s storyteller. “In addition to that, there were rides and games and Cajun music,” he says. “It was absolutely community and family-focused. Everybody came together and worked probably harder than they worked all year long on anything else for free because it was so important to our culture. It really had a huge impact on who we were as Cajun people.”
Foret has brought back some favorites from Lagniappe on the Bayou (Lagniappe is a Louisiana French word meaning a small, unexpected gift), including a beloved ice cream that was made from Pop Rouge, a local soda pop. “Jonathan got with our ice cream parlor owner, and they re-created it to sell at the festival,” says Eaton. “Another thing he revived is blackberry dumplings. He actually found the family members of the people who would cook it for Lagniappe and asked them if they wouldn’t mind setting up a booth at Rougarou. They drop the batter into hot oil, and it creates a dumpling, and then they drizzle the fresh blackberry syrup over it and it just melts in your mouth. So there are two treasured treats from way back that a whole new generation of little kids gets to experience, which is so great.”
Even better is that almost everything is provided by locals, from the volunteers who pick blackberries from the bushes they’ve planted in their backyards, squeezing the fruit and freezing the juice to save for the dumpling syrup, to the fishermen who donate the shrimp and crab used to make the festival’s gumbo and jambalaya. Along with incredible food, Rougarou Fest offers plenty of live Cajun music and games for children too, like the cypress knee toss, which gives kids the chance to throw rings around the swamp trees’ most distinctive feature. There’s also Creppell’s storyteller, who spins tales of the rougarou and other mythical bayou creatures, and the Louisiana French tent, providing those who speak the language a place to converse and those who don’t an opportunity to learn it.
An estimated 15,000 people now attend Rougarou Festival, which still manages to provide a very genuine peek into a culture and a land unlike any other in the world. “I think that there’s magic in the swamps that’s celebrated at Rougarou,” Foret says. “The swamp is often seen as a dangerous place, with dangerous animals and everything sort of rotting. You hear people use the phrase ‘We’re going to drain the swamp,’ as if that’s a good thing. The swamps are a beautiful, magical place that do so many things for our ecosystem. They filter the watershed! And we should learn to respect them and honor them.”
After a pause, Foret adds, “And it’s bigger than the Discovery Center too. Certainly, the funds that we raise go into educational programs, but I think we started this out thinking it’s going to be a fundraiser, and it is, but it’s turned into something much more important. And that is bringing a community together and celebrating who we are as a people in southern Louisiana. It is so much work, but there are so many benefits on so many levels.”
For more information, visit rougaroufest.org