On the surface, Cassadaga resembles a Florida Mayberry. Set back in the backwoods between Daytona and Orlando, the little “Psychic Capital of the World,” has long been a sanctuary for mediums, healers, psychics, and just plain freaks.
The Spiritualist Camp in Cassadaga was founded in the late 1800s by one George P. Colby. Colby, a New York native and medium had been instructed by his spirit guide—a Native American named Seneca—to go to Florida and start a spiritual center. He trekked into the Central Florida wilderness in 1875 and homesteaded the land, in accordance with Seneca’s prophecy. A charter to form the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association was granted in 1894, and Colby acquired 35 acres. This spirit guide apparently had quite the knowledge of property rights. Over the decades, the Spiritualist Camp has grown to 57 acres. Cassadaga started as a place for snowbirds to practice their Spiritualism—a secular-minded, turn-of-the-century mish-mash of science, philosophy and religion.
Fast forward to 2013 – things have changed.
Two distinct tendencies have emerged within the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp—the New Agers and the religious, non-profit organization charged with running the camp. Like the Jews and the Muslims in certain parts of the world, a single street separates them from each other.
The New Agers use tarot cards and stick to the Cassadaga Hotel. A stone’s throw away is the religious organization maintains the traditional belief system that Colby established in the 1800s. That’s not to say the Cassadaga Hotel and its hired psychics don’t stay true to Spiritualism as religion, but they’re a bit more relaxed about it. Its like Episcopalians and Catholics.
The Cassadaga Hotel—the only hotel in Cassadaga—is allegedly haunted. The perimeter porch with its rocking chairs and hunchbacked palm trees resemble a more Mediterranean incarnation of the Bates Motel. The hotel’s website states that the hotel has “friendly spirits”—I’m guessing this means Ghost Dad-like apparitions. The original hotel burned down on Christmas Day of 1926 and was rebuilt a year later. The inside of the hotel evokes the Roaring Twenties with its Tuscan-style furniture and speakeasy-style lobby. To the side of the lobby is Sinatra’s Ristorante, which features a piano player, full liquor bar, and Italian food. Saturday night is karaoke, but we’ll get to that later.
Let’s get one thing straight. I don’t believe in ghosts. If it can’t feel a cattle prod, then it’s just plain bullshit. But, I do believe in the bizarre. And the weird. And Cassadaga is chock full of both.
I scheduled a reading as soon as I arrived. The upper floors of the hotel are reserved for the psychics to work. In the corner of the hotel, I found my reading room. A woman at a roundtable covered with psychic-accouterment leaned backwards to open the door without getting up. She looked like she was pulled straight out of those late night commercials for toll-free psychics.
The small room was decked out with pagan idols and animal-hides. The incense was strong enough to choke a maggot.
This is Torre. Torre’s presence was about what you’d expect if Sam Kinison was reincarnated as a woman. She was both a psychic and a medium, so in my mind it was a bogo purchase. She began my reading by pressing a stopwatch on her iPhone and started with a prayer, mentioning something about fish and feathers. I bought the $55, half-hour reading, so I was ready to get the show on the road.
Here is a list of things she told me in my reading:
· I have two spirit guides. One is a woman, later found out it was my Grandmother (on mother’s side). The other an old man that was a barber in the 17th century.
· I have an animal spirit of a lion. But, the lion is a mix between the Cowardly Lion and the king of the safari.
· I will be going to Barbados in the near future.
· I will be also going to the Far East, Beijing specifically.
· Torre saw my Grandmother writing the words “wisdom” and “humility” on a blackboard.
While Torre was giving the reading, her eyes fluttered and she looked beyond me, as if I wasn’t even in the room. She said things like, “I’m getting a tingle in my crown” or “I’m getting a real shocker.” She had a coughing fit throughout the reading, which she had warned me about beforehand. She was just getting over a crazy flu.
“How is my grandmother doing?” I asked.
She started to go into a trance, and got a look on her face like a small turd was being held beneath her nose.
“She says, ‘I’m doing dandy’.”
My grandmother would never say the word “dandy.” She was a hard boiled, Sicilian woman. Things were never “dandy.”
She then told me that my grandmother “is in a garden, twirling in a sundress.” Yeah, don’t think so. The only garden my grandmother has ever been to was the Olive Garden. Sundress, no way.
“She just erased the word humility on the blackboard and replaced it with the word…”
Torre searched as if she were there in the garden with my grandma, which apparently has a blackboard in it.
“…hope,” Torre ended her sentence as if unloading a whopper.
The alarm went off. My reading was done. I felt a bit gypped by the dramatic finish, but then Torre started to tell me her life-story.
She was originally from Canada and moved to Ohio when she was kid. She told me her desire to be a psychic stemmed from her own grandmother.
“My grandmother had this gift too. She was an awesome bingo player,” Torre said. “She would play thirty numbers at once and placed all of her icons around her bingo card.”
Kind of cheating in my book.
In her early 20s, Torre moved to Orlando and began to play in rock bands like Intense and an all-girl band called Miss Conduct.
“We opened for Flock of Seagulls once, during our MTV basement video days,” Torre said.
She then became a hair stylist. But, her true awakening as a practicing psychic came to her at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights.
“They had a bunch of psychics lined up in booths with different styles, one was a sultan,” she said, “and he asked me: ‘why aren’t you here doing this?’”
Bam. Torre started working as a psychic and got the hookup from fellow clairvoyants to get hired at the Cassadaga Hotel. She isn’t just a hired mind, she also puts on psychic kids summer camps in Orlando.
“I teach kids with these powers to not be showboats and how to respect their gifts,” she said. “I also teach them about how to deal with the other kids that just don’t understand.”
She spoke of these kids like they belonged in Professor Xavier’s school for gifted youngsters.
Torre began to play with a mini crystal skull in her hand.
“What is that?” I asked.
“You mean, ‘who is that?’”
“This is iMax. He is a crystal skull that was given to me by JoAnn Parks,” she said.
JoAnn Parks is a Texas woman that is the keeper of “Max”– a famous clear quartz crystal skull, discovered 100 years ago in Mayan tomb in Guatemala.
“How did he get that name?” I asked.
“He told me.”
Torre said that iMax also asked her, “what do you want to know?”
“I asked him, ‘when will the world end?’”
“What did he say?” I replied.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Torre said that iMax told her that in the future, seven tribes and nations will unite on having no more war. But, in the 3000s, the world will end.
“I came up with phrase, I’ve been ‘Maxed Out’—I certainly was at the time,” she said.
When Torre even spoke to me in plain conversation, her eyes wandered as if she were still giving me a reading.
“When you speak to any person, can you see spirit guides or anything when talking to them?” I asked. “Like say you were at a 7-11, do you see things when you go in there?”
“Yes, but I have to shut it off—put the blinders up,” she said, “especially in places like 7-11, those places are filled with bad vibes.”
I walked back downstairs to go on the historical tour. The tour is affiliated with the Camp, across the street. A small group was waiting for it to begin. Our tour guide was a seemingly jolly woman, whose badge just said: YOUR TOUR GUIDE. Times are rough, can’t be making badges for all the tour guides.
My tour was made up of an expectant gang of tourists with high tube socks and tropical shirts. Our tour guide, seeming caught of guard, announced we had a special guest with us.
“Reverend Judy Cooper will be with us on tour today, what a treat,” the guide said.
Reverend Cooper is the VP of the Board of Trustees of Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association, resident medium, and was most likely only on the tour because I was. The bookstore that I bought the tickets from must have tipped her off.
As we began walking down the hill from our starting point, Rev. Cooper started to wade towards me.
“You were supposed to wait for our board meeting to approve you being here,” Rev. Cooper said to me in a low voice.
I told her that this was the only time I could come to Cassadaga, and couldn’t wait any longer.
“I just don’t want you getting into trouble,” she said.
Trouble? I didn’t even want to ask.
We continued our tour, stopping at Victorian-era homes on the main drag. The tour guide said that one of the resident-mediums spoke to Abraham Lincoln. Along the tour, the guide told the history of Colby and showed photographs from her leather album.
Most historical tours tend to be boring. Not this one. The guide spoke about spirits coming in the night in certain rooms of the houses, peeking out of windows, Xerox machines going haywire, the whole gamut of spirit-happenings.
We approached a church called the Colby Memorial Temple. The first thing I noticed was a boatload of sunflowers. No crucifixes here, just sunflowers.
Someone in our group asked about it.
“As the sunflower turns its face to the light of the sun, so Spiritualism turns to the face of humanity in the light of the truth,” Rev. Cooper said.
The visitor nodded.
The stage in the church looked like a scene out of the movie, Nothing But Trouble. I thought Dan Akroyd was going to pop up from the floorboard.
The question “do you believe in Jesus?” was posed by one of my fellow tourists.
“We believe in the Infinite Intelligence as our God,” the tour guide said.
We exited the church and were shown Spirit Pond, which sits to the back of the Temple.
“As you may notice there is no water in our pond, but if you’d like to volunteer - coming up in January—we will be cutting down that brush,” Rev. Cooper said.
After the tour was finished, Rev. Cooper told me about herself. She was raised in Titusville because her father worked on the Space Coast. She has lived in Cassadaga for the past 20 years, starting off as a student.
“We certify our students, they can stay in the halls or in the homes, but we give them four to six years of training,” Rev. Cooper said. “That’s why we are different from…”
She creaked her neck in the direction across the street to the Cassadaga Hotel.
“We just don’t like when reporters or T.V. shows come here and incorrectly report on us,” she said.
“What don’t you like about it?”
“When they group us in together with them,” Rev. Cooper said. “It goes on and off with them.”
Rev. Cooper then told me at dusk to stay off the streets within the Camp.
“We do this to not have hotel guests or any others vandalizing properties,” she said. “It happens a lot during Halloween.”
“How do you patrol?” I asked.
She said something like, “we have our ways.” I pictured a psychic Neighborhood Watch.
I made my way to the restaurant, mainly for the bar. There was a 2-for-1 special on Kentucky Deluxe. The place was packed. A piano player sung hits by Elton John and Billy Joel. The customers are mostly women, middle age or older. That was the most apparent thing about the community: The Women. Looking for something, looking for an answer from the spirit guides or to be told everything will be okay.
One table was rowdy all night long, drinking and singing like pirates. They were all bartenders from a nearby city of Debary. Their raspy laughs of cigarette-laden throats reverberated through the restaurant.
The leader of the group came up to the owner of the Cassadaga Hotel’s owner to show her something on her phone.
“We wanted to show you, my friend was just in her room and took this photo.”
Dinah Morn, the owner, told me to feast my eyes on the photo.
It was damn convincing. It had white, wispy features in the corner of their room, basically looked like they had caught ghosts on camera. Morn was proud.
I found out later through one of the woman's friends that they used a camera phone app to trick everybody. Morn was bummed.
“That really pisses me off,” Morn said as she sipped a white wine.
Morn and her departed husband had bought the hotel in 1979 on a whim, while on a layover in the Orlando airport.
“We were visiting friends in Deltona and headed back to Milwaukee. My husband picked up a real estate pamphlet and saw it for sale,” Morn said. “As soon as we knew it, we were the owners of the Cassadaga Hotel.”
Morn is the operator/owner of the hotel, but also a mother figure to employees and psychics, as well as the building itself.
“I call the hotel a ‘she’,” Morn said, “because she’s mine. I’ve watched over her.”
She admired the restaurant, peering outwards to the windows. She brought me over to her restored grand piano, claiming it was from the 1880s. Morn restored the hotel, putting in over $2 million in renovations.
She was raised a Catholic and wasn’t aware of Spiritualism before coming to Cassadaga. For better or for worse, she embraced it after purchasing the hotel.
“We have had our ups and downs with the Camp,” Morn said. “We just want to get along and do the best for community.”
The guests, residents, and psychics arrived for karaoke. They sang the songs of Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock, and Dixie Chicks. After some liquid courage, I sang “I’m Just a Gigolo” by David Lee Roth. I got a decent applause.
In the back of the restaurant, Morn and some others were sitting at a table placing their palms up, while a woman read them. They just wouldn't quit. After karaoke, the place emptied out. The Shining hallways and dimly-lit porch lights were the only things that appeared to be alive.
I woke up the next morning, still in my clothes from the night before. I didn’t want to sleep under the sheets, fear of ghosts or something. I packed up. It occurred to me at breakfast that the people of Cassadaga are just people, people trying to get on with their daily lives. They have a post office.
But, when all said and done, Cassadaga is a weird place.
Imagine if your hometown was taken over by pod people who all believed one thing. Say that one thing was teaching. Everyone was a teacher. It would get tiring. I wanted was to get back to what we all call “normal.” I wanted to escape the constant preaching of non-stop readings, psychics, spirit guides, astrology, the handwriting analysis, as I drove away from the village. I just wanted to sit down in my own home and realize there are other places besides Cassadaga.