Nov 9, 2016

The medium is the messenger: meet the new breed of American spiritualists

Now that another Halloween has come and gone, most people won’t be expecting to exert any mental energy over the concept of ghosts until next year’s festivities. However, there are still some places where communiques with ghosts are an everyday presence – where the spirit world and ours are in contact regularly. The most famous is called Lily Dale, a place that is one of the centers for a thriving population of the living who speak with the dead.

Nestled on the banks of the jewel-toned Cassadaga Lake in south-western New York, the world’s largest spiritualist community was first established back in 1879. Since then, the tiny wooded hamlet has served as a sanctuary for those who wish to take part in the community’s stated mission to “further the science, philosophy, and religion of spiritualism”. While many cultures spanning many time periods have engaged in practices and rituals with the aim of communicating with the dead, spiritualism itself is a uniquely American religion. 

Its roots dig deep into the same New York soil that nourishes Lily Dale, and some of its leading lights lived and died along north-eastern shores. The Fox sisters – a pair of teenage girls based outside Rochester, New York – set the wheels of spiritualism in motion in 1848 when they claimed to hear spirits “rapping” on tables and on the walls of their purportedly haunted house. (They used a code of one tap for yes, two taps for no). The girls held public seances in front of captivated audiences and became famous as a bonafide spiritualist movement took hold and spread.

Despite their later admission that their “spirits” had been a hoax, it was too late to put the genie back in the bottle; spiritualism continued growing in popularity even as the Fox sisters faded from view, and the religious significance of their “rappings” became the centerpiece of the movement, as bereaved flocked to mediums across the country to assuage their grief (or their guilt). Spiritualism – with its combination of theatrical performances, eerie rituals and raw human emotions – was a certified craze during the Victorian era and onwards into the first world war, when the desperate parents of fallen soldiers sought solace from mediums.

A typical seance was a theatrical event, held in pitch darkness by a medium who sat mute in a trancelike state, and often featuring disembodied voices, flying furniture, or the appearance of ectoplasm, a diaphanous white substance that appears in many “spirit photographs”, which were purported to depict the physical manifestations of ghosts or spirits. Examining these photographs now show examples of crude paper mache masks and “floating” cheesecloth produced by charlatans with a variety of tricks up their billowing sleeves (or hidden within their “spirit cabinets,” constructed spaces used to contain the medium during her spiritual trance). It all looks so obviously fake that one wonders how our ancestors were so readily fooled, but that rather uncharitable view doesn’t take into account things like the absolute darkness required during a seance, or the role that sincere religious belief played, or even the bare fact that sometimes grieving, heartbroken people will see what they want to see.

Despite its popularity (and support from such lionized figures as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a devout and ardent spiritualist) the religion’s cultural significance petered out as the Victorian era passed. It lives on in several different branches – some that take a more New Age “spiritual” focus that incorporate elements of Eastern religions, and others, like the residents of Lily Dale, who take a more traditional Christianity-based route. The Assembly defines a spiritualist as, “one who believes, as the basis of his or her religion, in the continuity of life and in individual responsibility,” and profess to be “dedicated to the service of God, Spirit and Mankind”. There is no mention of ectoplasm or spirit cabinets on the Lily Dale website, but it’s not exactly a Christian summer camp; the Assembly does offers a multitude of spiritualist services, and visitors are encouraged to walk along the community’s Fairy Trail or commune with its Inspiration Stump.

Photographer Shannon Taggart has been documenting life in Lily Dale since 2001, and is currently spearheading an effort to bring two of its resident mediums – Sue Barnes and Lauren Thibodeau – to Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum (where Taggart serves as Artist and Scholar in Residence). Last week the museum hosted several spiritualist lectures (including one on early feminist firebrand, stockbroker and spiritualist Victoria Woodhull), and Barnes and Thibodeau held workshops on automatic drawing, auragraphs and spirit portraits.

I attended Sunday’s spiritualist service, and left feeling more convinced than I’d expected. The mediums has quite different styles, which they traded off as they gave readings to various members of the assemblage – Thibodeu seemed to pluck spirits from the air, channeling them as she twirled, while Barnes utilized a more complex card-based methodology that combined the spiritualist connection with psychic reading. Said readings seemed hit or miss (with far more hits), but for every muted, “Yeah, that kind of sounds like him?” response, there was someone who ended up having a deeply emotional reaction to an accurate description of someone they’d lost.

Taggart’s own experiences at Lily Dale have ranged from the mysterious to the meaningful, and occasionally, the absurd. “These events have kept me in a constant state of questioning. These range from receiving Broadway-style singing messages, having a medium’s spirit guide direct my photography, and hearing a Lily Dale medium correctly predict the birthdate of my son two years before he was born,” she says. “Just being in Lily Dale feels otherworldly, and that’s what drew me in initially – it’s unlike any place I’ve ever been. It is a space that invites contemplation on the eternal questions surrounding the line between life and death.”

I ask Taggart her thoughts on why some people still cling to that age-old desire to lift the veil and touch base with their dearly deceased, and she chalked it up to a matter of perspective. “Contact with the dead has been part of virtually every culture throughout history. Modern western culture is unique in its dismissal of the practice,” she tells me. She also sees parallels between spiritualism and ancient shamanic traditions which also relied on a potent blend of religion, medicine, psychiatry and entertainment – showing just one more way in which history (and human nature) are wont to repeat themselves.

“The roots of all magical tradition and performance lead back to the shaman – the healer/medicine man or woman of pre-modern cultures. The shaman’s mastery of spectacle lies at the heart of his power. His ritual acts blurred the line between fantasy and reality in order to heal the body and the mind.”

Now, spiritualism most turbulent days are well behind it, and its future is being kept safe by its devoted keepers in spiritualist churches and communities. For Taggart the space between the real and the fantastic is where spiritualism always explores. This use of artifice points to the paradox at the heart of all spectacle – how can something false bring about something real?” she asks. “The shaman’s magic raises questions about why deception enchants and what it means to deceive.”

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/nov/08/american-spiritualists-lily-dale-seance

 

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