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House of Wax 

Here's how my job goes: You decide what you want to write about, then you write about it, then you hit "send." Repeat. Pretty simple, really. Except when what you want to write about vexes you, confuses you, taunts you, offers no clear point of understanding.

  I'm building this up like I want to weigh in on the Charity Hospital morass downtown or examine some financial chicanery stalled in committee at the statehouse, but all I'm trying to do is tell you a story about the Wax Museum.

  That's it. The Wax Museum. How hard can that be?

  Well, first are the many questions about it, most of which neither I nor anyone else can answer: Why isn't this place more famous? How come it's never crowded? Why have my three children collectively been to the Audubon Aquarium on 11 field trips but not one has ever gone to the Wax?

  And, mainly: What is it about the place that — in a city with no shortage of freaky destinations — makes it perhaps the freakiest?

  Personally, I love the place. But it's weird: I have friends who not only have never been there, they don't even know it exists. Which is a shame because I've never seen anything like it. Not even close. Entertaining in a mind-bending manner. Extremely informative. Direct to the point of discomfort.

  And very, very dark. I cannot imagine any building in the world — anywhere — that would be scarier to get locked into overnight.

  The Musee Conti — its real name (on Conti Street, between Burgundy and Dauphine streets) — is a world unto itself, lost in time. And that time stands still here — very, very still.

  First of all, when you think "wax museum," you think Tina Turner, Princess Diana and Abraham Lincoln. But the Musee Conti, which opened in 1963, eschews all that to concentrate on exquisitely realistic tableaux that tell the history of New Orleans, back to the 17th century.

  Instead of Beyonce and Obama, you get Iberville, Bienville and Lafitte.

  Edwin Edwards and Pete Fountain pretty much stand in for the entirety of the past five decades. What can you say about a museum where Huey Long is still considered one of the "recent acquisitions"?

  Yeah, time stands still.

  Funny, back when it opened in 1963, its marketing motto was: "The first family attraction in New Orleans." But this place can really freak kids out. It can be hard to explain the whores and the gamblers, and some historical acts of violence portrayed are discomfiting, disturbingly graphic. The zombie-like stares and postures of wax figures add to the whole macabre ambience.

  I took my kids there last weekend. This was the third time I've brought them there but the first time we made it all the way through. The other times, at least one of them, if not all three, ended up getting so creeped out we had to leave.

  And, in those prior, incomplete visits, we hadn't even gotten to the haunted dungeon yet!

  Go figure.

  The haunted dungeon is pretty much an afterthought, an isolated exhibit off to the side of the main museum, in its own chamber, a clear message from the founders that Dracula's got nothing on the wholesale lynching of Italian men in 1891 after the assassination of the New Orleans Chief of Police David Hennessy.

  The owners brought in the haunted exhibit back in the 1980s to try to "modernize" the Wax and maybe draw more families, but when you're telling the stories of the Louisiana Purchase, the 18th-century fur trade on the Mississippi River and the voodoo rituals of Marie Laveau, "modernize" can be a relative term.

  But this place, it gets to you. My kids were able to stare the Wolfman in the face for 10 minutes but had to turn away from a slavery exhibit — a tableau showing the separation of a family on the docks of the city. My kids' tears were a provocative blend of terror, fear, sadness and confusion.

  "What happened to those families?" my son asked me.

  The Children's Museum, this ain't.

  It's violent in there. But life can be violent. It's sinister in there. But life can be sinister. The Musee Conti trades in anger, despair and dread. The Musee Conti does things I have never seen a museum perform before.

  It's the freakiest freak show in town.

  And, there you go! That's the reason I wanted to write this story: So I could tell you to go.

  They just don't make "family attractions" like they used to.

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