My mom and I arrive at the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association in central Florida on a Saturday morning to celebrate her birthday and hopefully contact the dead, in whichever order. Psychics and mediums have been a common interest of ours for years, and the appeal of an entire colony of mediums whose full-time jobs were to connect visitors with their deceased loved ones at the lower-middle class version of top dollar held more appeal than any other attraction in Orlando—even that theme park constructed around a pagan one-percenter with a facial scar.
“Oh, I can feel it,” Mom says about something or other when we get out of the car in front of the Cassadaga Hotel, which we will soon learn is the hub of the schism that stretches across the camp’s 57 acres. Make no mistake, Cassadaga isn’t how Conor Oberst describes it in his music, but neither was sex or weed. It’s a place divided in many ways, a sparring ground between the traditionally trained mediums entrenched in the traditions and history of Cassadaga, and the trendier New Age psychics that work the hotel more like your average crystal shop tarot reader. Across the street from the Hotel is the book store, a traditionalist venture that actively encourages visitors to engage with certified camp mediums over the hacks across the street. They’re all spiritualists, but some are more evangelical than others.
It’s fine, both sides assure us through the course of the day through clenched teeth. It’s fine.
Like any religion, the story behind spiritualism requires suspension of belief. Deeply rooted in the concept of the afterlife and the spirit world, the movement experienced its peak between the 1840s and early 1900s, reaching its height with the widespread popularity of the spirit-speaking Fox sisters. Kate and Maggie Fox, per legend, were two young sisters able to convince their community that they could communicate with spirits through “rappings” on the ceiling of their floor and ceiling. Their older sister Leah recognized that her younger siblings were producting these rappings with the joints of their toes on resonant wooden floors, and saw an opportunity that had rarely been afforded to American women up until that point: to be in control of their own movement. Prior to vaudeville, the Fox sisters brought massive clout to the nascent spiritualist movement and made their own livings until, some forty years later, Kate and Maggie explained the mechanism of their trick to the public. The popularity of the movement faded, but camps like Lily Dale in upstate New York and Cassadaga, founded by a trance medium named George Colby in 1894, flourished.
Before we know any of this, we go into the hotel, rebuilt after a fire in 1926 and radiating some off-brand Shining vibes. Prominently displayed between the cafe and the gift shop is a menu of mediums the size of a bookcase. They’re mostly older women, and my mom selects a gay man in a turban (not for religious purposes—it’s a carnival psychic’s turban) and I choose a lady who looks like my aunt. It’s fun here—people are brunching and day drinking in Sinatra’s Bar down the hall, which promises haunted karaoke in the evenings. It feels a little off for the spirit vortex the area claims to be, but this lines up pretty closely with the camp’s early days, where parties and community dances were just as frequent as the séances they were known for.
The hotel is careful not to mention their lack of affiliation with the camp proper, and we head across the street to get a formal tour. The groups wandering the camp are mostly female friends, but there’s families and rogue Bright Eyes fans as well. We meet a woman who has come by herself because her mother finds the whole conceit of the camp Satanic; my mother takes this chance to congratulate herself on not thinking that.
My mom is receptive to spiritualism as a byproduct of rebellion—like most Massachusetts girls in the 1960s, she was raised Roman Catholic and fucking hated it, but atheism was too academic and jaded to fill the void left by distaste for the church. She landed somewhere in the lightly New Age category, the kind of person who believes in spirits but still wants the structure of something familiar to place the belief in. The fact that one of her best friends, one of my many pseudo-uncles and aunts in the family structure she’d made outside her home, owned a New Age shop in Plymouth was all the more useful.
I was raised an appeaser—baptized Catholic for my grandma, First Communion Protestant for my aunts, a brief dabbling in Wiccanism during Mom’s midlife crisis and abandoning the topic altogether by the time I was 14 and allowed to decide whether I wanted to wake up on Sundays or not. I have a mixed experience with readings, meaning I usually only get them when I’m on the verge of a manic episode and can’t afford therapy.
The tours are provided by the Association and serves as half walkaround tour, half subtweeting the New Age-rs who didn’t have the wherewithal to go to mediumship college. Our guide Carla is a grandmother of 23 from Gainesville who’s in training to be a medium and rents a room to spend a few nights a week. She’s also dressed like a gingerbread lady, which she explains has nothing to do with the tour and just “sounded fun.” It’s her first tour and I love her. “As the sunflower turns its face to the light of the sun, so let spiritualism turn the face of…to the light of the truth,” she assures us, gesturing to the sunflower imagery that floods the camp. The Powerpoint detailing Cassadaga’s history keeps freezing; it’s not a technical difficulty to Carla, but rather the spirit of a little boy named Timmy who haunted the building.
There’s a lot that goes into becoming a practicing Cassadagan. Carla is in the middle of a six-year training course that all certified mediums have to go through before they’re able to practice. They have to take courses, participate in séances, get the approval of two separate committees, demonstrate their abilities in public, pass a written exam, spend days and weeks on the campus. The hotel mediums, by comparison, are more 9-to-5ers, she explains, and use divination tools—your cards, your crystals, your runes—which Cassadaga-certified mediums are never allowed to do.
“So when you see a medium sign inside the grounds of Cassadaga, believe me, that person can speak to spirit,” Carla assures us. “If you see a sign outside of Cassadaga, outside the Cassadaga guidelines—just because they’re in Cassadaga doesn’t mean they’re approved by the Cassadaga board.”
What if we already purchased readings there? Carla shakes her head and gestures to the whiteboard where Cassadaga-approved mediums’ numbers are listed, a far cry from the gauche menu listed across the street. Brightly colored flyers advertise upcoming events—the Saturday Night Live séance that night, “How to Find Your Animal Spirit Guide,” Past Life workshops, aura photography.
“We’re not sayin’ they don’t have their talents, but, uh—” She coughs and adjusts her corset before continuing, “We recommend you find someone from the whiteboard.”
She’s using the same tone of voice someone would use to describe an enemy that you can’t necessarily talk about explicitly, but, like…you’re a dumbass if you do. But so what? Not my business. But it is. And you’re stupid. This is a lot to take from a woman who is dressed like a cookie. Carla walks us down the road down to the Fairy Garden. Tacky fairy imagery is something all spiritualists, regardless of the rigorousness of their training, appreciate for some reason.
“Maybe a spirit will tell us what’s up with all these dirty fairy statues,” Mom says, the only jaded word to come out of her mouth all day. We break off from the traditionalists and return to the hotel, the good old frauds who we feel more closely aligned with anyways.
Upon going to the top floor of the hotel, which was very subtly covered in mirrors, I’m overwhelmed by my medium Debby’s perfume and the 900 fairy statues in her small, dark room she’s been reading people in for 20 years. She makes ample use of the divination tools that are forbidden across the street, and the entire room is cast in a magenta light through the dark curtains. Her perfect nails and easy demeanor reminds me of my Misty Menthol-ripping New England auntie in the best possible way. She is not focused on communicating with spirits, and doesn’t—through numerology, card reading and “energy interpretation” she informs me I’m an indigo child “at least,” she says, “but probably crystal and rainbow as well,” and my numerology indicates “success through determined effort, nothing will come easy.”
Across the hall, my mom has an experience with the older white gay man wearing a turban—not for religious purposes, more like the beginning of The Wizard of Oz. A long description of an old man who is concerned she doesn’t remember him, who she interprets to be a grandfather she never met. She is going to marry wealthy, soon. She should use CBD oil for her arthritis. She will move somewhere. She will get out of debt, he tells her at the end of the $70 reading.
We end our day at the bar at the Cassadaga Hotel. It’s the only place to eat that we’ve seen, and since we’ve already cemented ourselves as hotel-psychic poseurs, it doesn’t make much of a difference. As much as I want to stay to see whatever the Saturday Night Live séance is, my mom is tired and this was her birthday present. We meet eyes with most of the others in our tour group across the room as a band and karaoke are set up for later in the night, and ask each other whether any of the more evangelical mediums across the street ever come for dinner or if they make a point to bring food from home.
As we leave, there’s Carla from the tour about to enter the same hotel she spent the better part of a day explaining was a waste of time, peering at the menu. She’s out of the gingerbread outfit now and greets us, asking if we made any contact with spirit. Not really. She chuckles a little—“make sure to come back and see our folks soon”—and goes in the building.
“Wait, I thought you didn’t go to the hotel,” I called after her. She raises her eyebrow and tugs at her Cassadaga t-shirt, touting “Where Mayberry Meets the Twilight Zone.”
“Honey, this is where the karaoke is. Spirit won’t be mad.”
Jamie Loftus is a comedian, writer and social media victim of the International Olympic Committee. She’s the creator and star of the Comedy Central online original series Irrational Fears. You can find her some of the time, most days at @jamieloftusHELP or jamieloftusisinnocent.com.