Michael Whalen pitched fellow producers Doug McKay and Cindy Bond an idea: “You know, we really should develop a movie about my house…”
McKay and Bond, who co-founded Faster Horse Pictures last fall, are longtime friends of Whalen’s. So when they heard him say “my house,” they already knew how creepy a movie about it could be.
Whalen owns LaLaurie Mansion—the infamous New Orleans estate where socialite and psychopath Madame Lalaurie tortured and murdered slaves in the early 1800s. The mansion has attracted eccentrics for generations since—Nicolas Cage was its proud owner for two years until he lost it to foreclosure—and today remains a star attraction on tours of the French Quarter’s “haunted” history.
“Much has been made of the fact that there’s no public access to the house,” McKay told Dread Central at the Sundance Film Festival. “They talk about that on all the tours. So, out of respect for Michael, I just assumed that he’d be too private to want to do this.” Since the mansion is the “grand finale” of many of these tours, “you could have eight or 10 different tour groups with a few dozen people each all surrounding it on any given day of the week,” McKay explains. “It feels as if people are coming to see a concert or a sporting event, but there is no event. They’re just there to look at the house.”
The circus-like energy in Whalen’s backyard could have scared him off from turning his property into a production. But instead, it only strengthened his belief that LaLaurie Mansion could become one of horror cinema’s iconic settings. Now that Whalen was ready to open its doors, the producers needed the right moviemakers to tell its story.
“In that first conversation, Cindy said, ‘You know who would be good directors: the Hayes brothers,’” McKay says. Chad and Carey Hayes, the creators of the Conjuring franchise, have been friends with Bond for 20 years. They returned her first phone call to them within 20 minutes, and as soon as she said “LaLaurie Mansion,” they cut her off within the first five seconds.
“They said, ‘Cindy, we know all about this mansion. We’ve been on the ghost tours, read all about it, been fascinated by it for years.’ And they also immediately identified that this was more than just one movie—that there was enough raw material there to design a franchise out of it. About three days later, the whole group was down there for research,” McKay says.
And for a project of this scale, part of the team’s “research” involved becoming temporary residents of the house.
McKay says the locals gave him ominous warnings about how some people mysteriously pass out if they get close to the mansion. “I always thought that those were just stories tour guides would tell, but the truth is, it wasn’t a fun place to spend the night. Aesthetically, it’s a beautifully decorated home, but there is an unsettling atmosphere in and around the place.”
One research trip in particular really messed with McKay’s head. “We had an appointment to interview somebody, it was nearing the time we had to leave… and I was overcome with this overwhelming feeling of nausea,” he recalls. “It was really intense. I started thinking, ‘I’m not gonna be able to join the interview,’ but I decided to push through and go anyway. I walked downstairs to where we had parked the car, and truly—I’m not making this up—the very second I walked out of that house, the nausea went away completely.”
“All of us who were there either heard things or saw things, and the housekeeper, who’s the only one who’s lived there full-time, is full of stories of creepy things that have gone on there,” McKay adds. “But I think I was the only one to experience this.” No one can prove that his upset stomach had supernatural causes. But his experience at least suggests that certain fears conjured up by LaLaurie Mansion can influence the mind and body in uncanny ways.
As of this writing, the Hayes brothers are living at the mansion on an extended stay as they flesh out the series’ first script. Allowing the place to get under their skin, says McKay, is key to crafting scares that will span multiple movies.
“Having been through the experience making the Conjuring films, these guys are really adept at understanding what has the legs to be a franchise—how you map out a property in that way,” McKay says. “We have a rare commodity: something that so organically has what it takes to become a franchise from the outset. We’re taking care with each step of the process and we’ve done a lot of development to lead up to scripting. Now that we’re in that phase, I think it’s good for them to be sitting in that atmosphere. There’s a different feel in there.”