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SPIRITED | Stepping into the Spirit World: A Skeptic Visits a Town of Mediums

SPIRITED | Stepping into the Spirit World: A Skeptic Visits a Town of Mediums

Here’s an important distinction to make at the outset: Mediums are not necessarily psychics. This much was made evident when a medium canceled our appointment due to "unforeseen circumstances."

I don’t consider myself superstitious. I sporadically read my horoscope, in jest and at the end of the day to test its veracity. And yet somehow I found myself venturing from New York City to the opposite side of the state on a mission to visit a town full of mediums — a town expressly of and for mediums — and I was trepidatious. Did this irrational fear mean that I, in fact, believed in the powers that mediums purport to possess?

Tucked into Chautauqua County, about an hour’s drive south of Buffalo and roughly 15 miles from the State’s westernmost border (otherwise known as Lake Erie), the hamlet of Lily Dale is in a small and remote location; an arrival there is usually purposeful and unlikely to be accidental. The New York Times’ Frank Bruni wrote in a 1997 profile on Lily Dale: “For more than a century, Lily Dale has been a center of a relatively obscure religion called Spiritualism, which holds that death is merely a transition from a physical entity into a nonphysical one, and that trained mediums can bring messages from people who exist only in spirit back to those stranded in the flesh.”

Established in 1879, Lily Dale is the “oldest Spiritualist community in America and probably the world,” asserts Lily Dale expert Christine Wicker in her book, “Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead."

The reasons for flocking to Lily Dale are many, though grief is often a motivator. My impetus was curiosity, elicited upon viewing the 2011 documentary, “No One Dies in Lily Dale”. In the film, visitors acknowledge an indescribable energy from standing on the town’s hallowed ground. Ms. Wicker’s recounts in her book that, "Several Lily Dale houses are said to contain energy vortexes, and a spot in the woods is supposed to be so charged that the hair on your arms will stand up … Many people told me that the land Lily Dale sits on was once sacred to Native American tribes."

Click play to watch "No One Dies in Lily Dale" trailer.

There’s no question that Lily Dale benefits from an incredible natural setting that can stir one’s emotions. The turn off of any main highway wends along the sparkling Middle Lake to the southeastern coast of Cassadaga Lake, where Lily Dale sits. The attractions in this tiny “camp”— a classification to which it is sometimes referred, a carryover from an earlier era — include a Fairy Trail (said to be inhabited by sprites, and for whom visitors leave small gifts), the outdoor Forest Temple (where daily services are held), the indoor Lily Dale Auditorium (home to Sunday services and larger workshops during the high summer season) and, most sacred, the Leolyn Woods. As one enters the Woods, the path forks: the left leads to the Pet Cemetery (“Just as the human spirit lives on beyond physical life, our cherished pets find peace and joy in the afterlife”), and the right leads to Inspiration Stump, a cement platform said to enclose an energy-bearing tree remnant.

The Lily Dale website alerts visitors, “It is not unusual to become more aware of the spiritual energies while in this open and receptive state at the Stump.” During twice daily services held in high season, mediums stand before Inspiration Stump and the congregation, open themselves to Spirit and call upon audience members for whom a message is being delivered from the Spirit world. More conversational than threatening or ominous, this process is a far cry from the turban-wearing, crystal-ball reading clairvoyants in movies.

Inspiration Stump in Lily Dale.

I visited Lily Dale twice, in each instance just after the end of high season. Driving past the entrance gate, I passed an incongruous Neighborhood Watch sign. The town was quiet; the 20,000 or so summer pilgrims are long gone, as are many of the mediums even if they live in town.

An interesting and perhaps legitimizing aspect of life in Lily Dale is that only members of the Lily Dale Assembly are permitted to own property in the town, and only Assembly-approved mediums who have passed the requisite exams are sanctioned to advertise themselves as such. Unaware that sessions would be a hot ticket even in the off-season, I wandered the streets in search of a medium with an available appointment.

Individual sessions are held in the private homes (invariably a Victorian-era cottage) of each medium, and hanging in front of house after house I encountered signs proclaiming “Full Today” and “Medium Out.” The custom when a medium is “in” is for he or she to place a sheet of open time slots onto a table in the enclosed porch that precedes the entrance to the home; visitors fill in their names and report for duty at the time of their appointment. I luckily nabbed a time.

A Victorian-style home in Lily Dale.

Where I expected voodoo and histrionics, I was met with calm. The medium with whom I met began our session, held in her cozy living room, with a prayer — not unlike what I was accustomed to from my own religious upbringing; the difference is that her higher power was the Spirit World, a prayer of gratitude to thank the spirits for allowing her to explore their realm. She seemed shy, spoke softly and continually commented on how cold she was, with indications that her chill resulted from the energy-sapping efforts of Spirit-tapping.

She often looked into the distance, making comments (“Ok, ok”) and occasionally laughing in her private communications (“Men are really funny when they come in and show me their hairline”) with the Spirit World. She spoke of a “really lovely blue color” surrounding me, apparently an indication that I was working on communication, relationships, and balancing my own needs with the needs of my family; I assume this is generally true of most people at any given time.

After laying the basic groundwork of who I am and my recent and upcoming experiences, two people “[stepped] in from The Spirit.” She explained that, "When spirit communicates with me, they think at me, but they think at me in pictures … sometimes they'll be very, very specific … and sometimes they'll be a bit more vague depending on the personality there."

The first message from these two was an admonition for neglecting my exercise routine: “We're trying to encourage you here because you kind of slacked off a bit, which is very human of you.” She continued, “You just seem to do better and you're able to work through problems when you're in motion ... a walking meditation.” Maybe. Or maybe, as a resident of NYC, my time spent thinking usually overlaps with all of the time I spend walking everywhere. She nailed some things.

One of the two spirits with us was a man, “from father’s side of the house … father’s father,” who “crossed into Spirit” from a chronic illness. Yes, my paternal grandfather died of lung cancer. The other spirit was a woman, “from mother’s side of the house,” who indicated that “Either your mom was one of six, or you're one of six grandchildren." Close; my mom was one of seven children. She missed others. My grandmother didn’t die of a stroke, nor did she hang sachets around the house (she was Chinese; that wasn’t her thing). My sister doesn’t live close enough for me to travel to see her in an evening and return back home that same night. When I mentioned that some of what she was saying didn’t ring true, she admitted she was “wondering if maybe I misinterpreted.” There were also “facts” that later proved untrue.

An insistence that I would take four or five major trips over the next four months, plus additional “travel by water”? Nope. An assertion that a close family member would announce a pregnancy five months hence? Ditto. But she tried to guide me through the session ("Does this make sense to you? It's always ok to say no to me, too”) and provide comfort. She told me my grandmother is “very much trying to kinda support you … and to let you know that she is around." She concluded our time together by telling me “In the future, I really feel like you're gonna get everything you want, you just have to decide what you want. That's gonna be hard to say … You have a vague impression of what you want long-term. It's the mini-goals until then. Don't get too bogged down by it." Generic, to be sure, but nice to hear nevertheless.

I remain skeptical, but am no longer afraid of Lily Dale. If it seems like a place where you might seek and find clarity, it’s an incredible resource right here in New York. Just be sure to make an appointment, and don’t be surprised if it’s canceled.

Considering a trip to Lily Dale? If traveling in the summer months, refer to the Lily Dale Assembly website for the schedule of events and ticket information. In non-summer months, you can schedule appointments with registered mediums, and attend services and events at the Lily Dale Spiritualist Church and the Church of the Living Spirit. Regardless of when you travel, arrange your session with a medium in advance.

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