The Mortuary in New Orleans is known for thrills and chills as one of the city’s most popular haunted houses, but the history behind the building is almost as eerie as the sights that lie behind the front door.
Mortuary owner Jeff Borne said he has worked with haunted attractions his entire life, and the idea for the Mortuary started when he wanted to go off on his own to make a haunted house he could call his own.
“The company I was specialized in audio and lighting, and we did projects all over the world,” Borne said. “In particular we took part in many theme park projects where we helped create dark rides and other attractions. That experience led me to creating a world-class attraction in New Orleans.”
Borne said the perfect building and location were crucial in his decision to create The Mortuary. After Hurricane Katrina when Borne searched for the right place to build, he found the building at 4800 Canal Street.
The building was built and opened in 1872 and functioned as the next-door cemetery’s caretaker’s house until the 1920s when the cemetery and building were purchased by PJ McMahon and Sons funeral company. Over 20 thousand funerals were performed in the building between the time it was purchased to the funeral home’s doors closed in 2003.
After the funeral company walked away from the building, plans developed to convert the building into a day spa due to two expansions the building had during the funeral home era lent itself well to a large relaxation complex. In 2004, the spa company gutted the entire building leaving only studs to essentially start from scratch. In 2005, however, plans were abandoned during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the building sat vacant.
“When I first saw the building, it was decrepit,” Borne said. “You could stand in the basement and see all the way through the roof straight up through all three floors.”
Borne said after the storm homeless people moved into the building unofficially and used parts of the house to build fires for warmth in the middle of the floor and vandalizing the building.
“I have no doubt the building would have burned to the ground had someone not come in and saved the place,” Borne said. “The building is so important to New Orleans’s history, and is now considered a national historic landmark. Had we not stepped in to save it, the building would not even be here today.”
The building has evolved tremendously from 2007 when Borne purchased it, now responsible for bringing 30 thousand people to the site each two-month Halloween season, due to the special effects and atmosphere inside.
Borne has assembled a team of specialists across the planning spectrum to create an ever evolving story from season to season.
“Planning for each season starts almost exactly one year from the wrap of the previous season, and we have a team that makes sure we meet the goals we set for the next year,” Borne said. “Each person has a specialty, from set design to spacial constraints to special effects. We spend the winter time each year, our off-season, building anything custom we need to make for the season ahead.”
Once all the props and effects are built, a two-month process begins in July to set up the Mortuary to make sure it is ready for the start of the season in mid-September. The careful planning and thought put into the haunted house each year are a couple of the many reasons The Mortuary is known throughout the country so well. The Travel Channel has even featured the haunted house as one of the top haunted places to see in the country.
For one local, the atmosphere, tone and creativity sets The Mortuary apart from other haunted houses.
“I love how the house changes each year,” local New Orleanian and haunted happening enthusiast Leo Castell says. “Some places I’ve been to keep the same path year after year. It gets stale after one or two visits.”
The Mortuary is one of New Orleans’s staple attractions during the haunted time of the year. The location in the heart of the cemetery district with a cemetery right next door helps to immerse the thousands of attendees into an experience they cannot find anywhere else. The addition of escape rooms has helped keep the fun going all year long, bringing an estimated 50 thousand people to the historic site.
But for those who had loved ones pass on, the public holds many memories of the building from before its spooky days. Borne said the reaction to The Mortuary over the last eleven years have been overwhelmingly positive.
“People tell me all the time how sad their memories of the building once were,” Borne said. “They said they attended funerals of aunts and uncles, and their view of the site was so negative. Now they see it so full of life with the coming Christmas workshop and the Halloween antics and the escape rooms. We’ve taken this negative space and turned it into a fun environment, and people react positively to it.”