Written by Madoline Markham
Photography by Elizabeth DeRamus
Nancy Miller Heard sometimes creeps herself out while creating the ghoulish scenes she envisions.
At one estate sale, she found shelves full of doll parts in a garage. A few rooms over, there was an eerie clown painting. “It was scariest thing I’ve seen,” Heard admits. “I can’t handle dolls or clowns.”
To complete the collection she and photographer Elizabeth DeRamus pulled together fake eyeballs and a set of old dentures DeRamus’s friends found under a floor board in an old house in New Orleans they were refurbishing. Heard would only touch the dentures—gold teeth and all—while she wore dishwashing gloves on set.
Although she admittedly doesn’t like haunted houses or horror films, Heard loves Halloween and creating a “creepy elegance” in the characters she brings to life: a ghost bride, a banshee, zombies. The duo, who are also good friends of more than 20 years, are working on a collection of 13 characters, each with a corresponding still life image and cocktail created by chef and mixologist Maureen Holt, for an upcoming book.
Their process is ongoing in all seasons as they hunt for clothing and props at estate sales and scout backdrops. Lately, they have been collecting skulls for a still life. “We’re always creeping people out,” DeRamus says.
When one of Heard’s friend’s trapped a rat in her attic, Heard had to ask: “Can I have it?” She also picked up road kill on the way to the beach and put it in her trunk. “It stunk,” she recalls. “It was so horrible.”
Now both carcasses, along with several rattlesnakes DeRamus’s husband killed and other animals they collected from friends who hunt, are in her backyard decomposing until they are ready to be added to the growing skull collection in her laundry room.
Meanwhile, DeRamus once met a vet who had been turkey hunting and, naturally, asked for its wings and stuck them in a Styrofoam container to bring home so Heard could use the feathers. The baby bird baby skeleton in the second still life (on page 102) was one their friend Andrea Hubbert’s daughter found.
“Our friends are used to it by now,” Heard says. “But at the beginning they were like, ‘You want what?’”
The bat skeleton on Heard’s neck in the vampire shot in the Alabama Theatre, however, came from Etsy. “You’d be surprised what you can find on the internet,” Heard says.
While DeRamus shoots photos for the project, Heard crafts the characters, creating the costumes, doing the makeup in the backseat while DeRamus drives to shoots, and even modeling herself. DeRamus describes their creations to friends as “Martha Stewart on acid,” but for Heard, it’s all about bringing the characters and stories she dreams up to life.
“It’s my love letter to imagination,” she says. “Imagination is my happy place.”
Cocktail Recipe: The Banshee
1 ounce Kahlua
1.15 ounce Allspice Dram Syrup (see recipe at below) or St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram
1.25 ounce Cathead Vodka
2.5 ounces half and half
Fill the Collins glass with ice, and then layer Kahlua at the bottom, then vodka, then cream. Use a straw to break up the Kahlua for a spooky spider web effect.
Allspice Dram Syrup
Yield: 3 cups
5 whole allspice dried berries
2 whole star anise
2 whole clove
1 cup white granulated sugar
1 cup water
¾ cup Captain Morgan White Rum
Roast the allspice, star anise, and clove in a medium saucepan for 4 minutes. Remove and place them in the saucepan with sugar and water. Bring to a simmer for 30 minutes and strain. Let cool to room temperature, and add rum.
Recipe by restaurant consultant Maureen Holt, former owner of Little Savannah.