NEW ORLEANS – The margarita Diane Spieler sips during her nocturnal masquerade on Bourbon Street (search) perfectly matches the glow-in-the-dark green of her hideous face, airbrushed in dreadful detail with reptilian scales and skeletal hollows. Is she a radioactive ghoul? An alien sea serpent?
"If somebody asks me, I just tell 'em I'm Katrina," the 57-year-old New Orleans (search) accountant says, glaring through ghostly pale contact lenses beneath hair molded into spikes. "Doesn't it look mean and freaky?"
Two months after the monster hurricane's horrifying rampage, Halloween (search) has brought back the French Quarter's thirst for theatric horror and debauchery, its Mardi Goth mojo in the heart of a city long known for its reverence for voodoo and Anne Rice's glamorously gothic vampire novels.
"Halloween is the best kept local secret. It's shoulder-to-shoulder, just like Mardi Gras, but everybody's in costume," Spieler said late Saturday, the spooky celebration in full swing two days early. "It's the first big, fun drinking night since the hurricane."
Much of New Orleans remains a ghost town, but the French Quarter teems with wicked witches and pimps in purple velvet. Elvis struts the sidewalk flanked by Supergirl and Marilyn Monroe. An Amazonian blonde's skimpy cop outfit flirts with indecent exposure. Others share the Katrina theme, dressing as discarded refrigerators and the blue tarps that cover broken city roofs.
"Enough clean-up — time for a drink!" says Bobby Hughes, 23, a Loyola University graduate student sporting a blonde pigtailed wig, a plaid skirt that is too short on his 6-foot-6 frame, and a blouse knotted above his waist that bares traces of a red bra.
"Helga's my name tonight," says Hughes, joined by girlfriend Kat McKibben, a "love bug" with floppy antenna, feather boa, butterfly wings and fuzzy slippers. "You're hot!" a passing man tells Hughes.
Spared the brunt of Katrina's wrath and the flooding that followed when levees ruptured, the French Quarter has steadily revived since reopening a month ago. Its bars, restaurants and T-shirt shops have been kept afloat by a transient stream of construction workers, relief volunteers and journalists.
Trash cans overflow with discarded beer cups. Shoes stick to sidewalks lacquered in spilled liquor. Outside the Bourbon Street Blues Company, a woman lifts her shirt in return for a shower of beads tossed from the balcony.
"Different parts of the city, the Garden District and everything, are not the same at all," said Dawn Carroll, 33, dressed as a "Tool Time" character from the sitcom "Home Improvement," only with a naughty tool belt. "This makes you think that it's going to come back. It'll be back full-force."
Bourbon Street may not be kid-friendly and many neighborhoods remain too wrecked for door-to-door trick or treating, but children haven't been neglected.
Outside De La Salle High School in the Garden District, little Batmen and butterfly-winged fairies fill sacks with chocolate bars and lollipops from bowls on tables lining the sidewalks. Indian braves and cheerleaders dance to zydeco music, oblivious to the downed power lines in the median of St. Charles Avenue.
"Mom, give me a Sweet-Tart," 14-year-old Philip Oncale calls to his mother. His fingers are wedged into gloves with glued-on 7-inch foam blades — Edward Scissorhands has trouble feeding himself.
Cherly Oncale worked on her son's costume for two weeks during their hurricane exile in Atlanta. Their flight from Katrina took them to five hotels in five cities. They returned two weeks ago, to a friend's house — their own home, she said, is still "a mold incubator."
"We need a good party right now, to kind of reground us," says Oncale, a 52-year-old dermatology nurse. "Because everybody is kind of functioning from a Twilight Zone. At least that's how I feel."