Culture

Legend Tripping at Cassadaga's Devil's Chair

We had only taken about 15 steps into the Lake Helen-Cassadaga cemetery before we saw the men come down the hill. We were suburban teenagers there for a Halloween scare, but it suddenly seemed like we were about to become characters in a horror movie.

by Allie Conti
Oct 31 2014, 1:51pm

Photo via Wikimedia User Ebyabe

We had only taken about 15 steps into the Lake Helen-Cassadaga cemetery before we saw the men coming down the hill. Some, actually, were boys. It was about 9 PM and very dark, but none of them looked like a police officer. We were suburban teenagers there for a Halloween scare, but it suddenly seemed like we were about to become characters in a horror movie.

I turned on my heels and bolted toward Kicklighter Road, where my friend's white Mercedes station wagon was parked. No one followed me. Left without the keys to the car, I was faced with few options. There are no streetlights in this rural area of Central Florida. The nearest main throughway was miles back from where I stood. Clueless and panicked, I ran back to the cemetery. Today, I can understand how characters in slasher flicks meet their ends.

The group of strangers handcuffed me and five of my high-school friends together and took us to a holding cell in what we thought was a house. Trespassing, they said. The cemetery was owned by the city and had public hours. It was both Friday the 13th and the month of October, so locals were anticipating an influx. That's why a group of volunteers had posted up behind the Devil's Chair, an allegedly haunted Florida landmark, and prepared to ambush anyone who came to see it that night. It was only later that they identified themselves as police officers, which might mark the only time in history that people have been glad to get nabbed by the cops.

And we were made an example of. I still remember an SUV full of kids tearing off when they saw us sitting in the dirt being yelled at by strangers. And I'm sure another group came just after we were carted off-the tiny town and its adjacent spiritualist camp is besieged with gawkers and shit-kicking kids each Halloween. They vandalize gravestones, throw paint-soaked tampons at houses, and ask about Casper's whereabouts. The place is definitely strange. Many of the folks who live in Cassadaga claim to be a psychic or a medium, but the locals definitely don't appreciate being treated like zoo animals. That's why they decided to crack down. Today it's illegal to go in the graveyard or even the camp itself after dusk.

Photo via Wikimedia user Joe Mabel of a devil's chair in Lake View Cemetery in Seattle

George P. Colby, a trance medium from New York, founded this unincorporated part of Volusia County in 1894. Cassadaga, which is near Daytona Beach, is home today to a hotel, a post office, four new-age stores, and a camp of about 50 houses. Its official slogan is "Where Mayberry meets the Twilight Zone." Indeed, there is a strange aura over the small town: Many of the residents claim they can either speak with the dead or predict future events. These earnest believers make their money doing private readings from their homes-charging as much as $50 an hour. Entering the area will make you feel a strange sense of calm, which eventually gives way to uneasiness. No one there seems engaged with the present.

But while Cassadagans welcome visitors during the day so they can pay the bills, they fear the troublemakers who inevitably show up at night. On a recent Thursday, I went back to Cassadaga to try and figure out why I was arrested. 

Outside of the camp's bookstore, I met Albert Bowes and his massive black lab, Zeus. Bowes has a white beard, a large gut, and hands the size of an NBA player's. He moved to Cassadaga from Gainesville 40 years ago. He's the subject of a book called Visions of Time, in which a University of Florida anthropologist put psychics through various double-blind tests involving artifacts. Supposedly, Bowes could intuit where an object came from and even biographical details about the person who owned it. In a 1982 interview he did with the Gainesville Sun, he told a reporter about his popularity among law enforcement officials, who he helps solve cases and locate bodies.

He also said that about eight years ago, some kids showed up around Halloween and started ringing a large bell outside of the camp's spiritualist church. When a resident confronted them, he was beat up. Although Bowes wishes it weren't the case, the incident caused a panic among the people who run the town.

"It intimidated a lot of small minded people here," he told me. "And the camp association isn't as Mayberry as you might think." 

Shortly thereafter, the locals put up signs saying that visitors will be prosecuted after dusk. A huge metal fence was erected along the perimeter of the Cassadaga-Lake Helen Cemetery. The site's main attraction is a supposedly haunted stone bench. The bench is what's known as a Devil's Chair, an umbrella term for funerary monuments erected in the 19th century that made visiting more comfortable for mourners. But once the practice of sitting in them fell out of fashion, they became sites for what's known as "legend tripping." 


Image via Wikimedia user Arkyan of Volusia County, where Cassadaga is located

Bill Ellis, a professor emeritus at Penn State who studies the occult, says that the term refers to a pilgrimage taken by adolescents to show daring. First conceived in 1973, the concept differs from a rite of passage, like hazing, because it's not passed on by an older group. Instead, it's self-generated by a younger group through folklore. It has many positive social benefits he says, because it's a creative and relatively safe outlet for social rebellion.

"They're ways of expressing independence from adult norms and the kind of social mores that govern people in school or society or church," he told me. "It's the opportunity to go visit the devil's half-acre, which I think people have to do to prove they're not the social robots adults [want them to be]."

Ellis first became interested in Legend tripping while growing up in Ohio. There, he visited the house of "Old Lady X" when he was 11, eventually being chased off by a Wiccan woman who threatened to sic dogs on him and his friends. As a researcher, he studied a place in Pennsylvania called the Stone Couch. Legend was that if you sat in it once, a baby would cry. The second time, you would receive a non-fatal warning, like totaling your car. The third time, you'd die. Ellis sat in it twice, and said the second time he lost most of his hearing. Although he's a smart and skeptical dude, he has no desire to ever try it again. Why take the chance?

Despite the freaky things he's experienced, the professor says that legend tripping is much safer than more solitary teenage rebellions like the choking game. "The irony is that these are so commonplace. But when they come to the attention of some crusader, [who] starts talking to the police, they begin to think it's Satanists teaching [this stuff to] kids," he told me. "So these things seem to go from trivial to 'a menace that threatens our country.'" 

Rather than arrest curious teens, he thinks police could take an example from one of his former students who once agreed to become the caretaker of a local legend tripping site. The student would wait for kids to complete their ritual and then chase after them while dressed in black. The youths would get their thrills, but would never come back.

That idea is pretty impractical for Lake Helen, which technically governs Florida's Devil's Chair. It has a population of fewer than 3,000. A spokesperson for the Lake Helen Police Department told me that in the past decade, they'd arrested hundreds of people for trying to sit in the chair. The no-tolerance policy came at the behest of locals who were sick of being harassed.

Photo by Allie Conti

Kathy, a psychic who owns one of the two storefronts in the camp's main strip, says that she hates when kids come by for Halloween. She told me that it's usually college students from nearby Stetson University. She says she's had statues stolen from her property that police later retrieve from frat-house lawns. "We like having people around, but don't do stupid shit," she warned me. "How would you feel if someone went into a graveyard and messed with your grandma's grave? If you come here after dark, you will get arrested."

The other local business owner on the main strip, Cynthia, echoed that view. She says that kids show up every year "hooting and hollering" but don't realize that the camp is filled with people just trying to live their lives. "[Halloween] is when the weirdos come out, because they think that it's scary," she told me. "But I'm not a tourist attraction, I'm a person."

Cassadaga has always been confused about how to treat Halloween visitors. In the past, the entire area has been blocked off by the Volusia County Sheriff's Office. Some years, the town offers haunted-house-like attractions to try and boost the local economy.

Although Cynthia used to live in the camp, she said she moved out to a nearby town because she didn't like the direction Cassadaga was going. She explained that the decisions are made by the camp's board of trustees who change annually and bring a different flavor to what goes on there during the spookiest month of the year.

"In terms of the face they show the world, they can be a little inconsistent," she told me. "The Hollywood stereotype is what's gonna draw people in. But on the flip side, that's buying into the exact same thing we don't want people to think." A spokesperson for the Volusia County Sheriff's Office told me that the camp hasn't made any request for police presence this year, but they would have to respond to any call a resident made about trespassing.

I wanted to ask someone from the board of trustees about their decision this year, or how they can reconcile wanting respect for their religion when they were essentially whoring it out to a spooky stereotype. The local hotel was advertising a 7 PM seance, and a store called the Purple Rose was even hosting an event in which you could get your picture taken in the Devil's Chair, which seemed to go against the wishes of the residents I had spoken to.

Apparently, it's next to impossible to get a statement from the powers that be. A girl working the front desk at the camp's headquarters told me that a journalist needed to fill out paperwork and then undergo an interview in front of the board of trustees just for the chance to ask a few questions. They'd had bad PR in the past, she said. When I asked for the paperwork, she said the printer was broken. The receptionist said she would email it to me instead, but never did. Whenever I called after that, the phone would just ring and ring.

Talking to the locals, I kind of felt like an asshole. Although I wasn't going to vandalize anything, I was basically mocking their beliefs by thinking it was OK to stroll through for a scare. But Ellis, the academic, assured me that my dweeby form of rebellion was a universal urge. 

"I think if you tried to criminalize it, you would be working against something that's a deep psychological urge on the part of adolescent," he told me. "Theres a larger group out there saying, Don't do this or you'll die. Or, The boogeyman will come out of the bushes and chase you. But it's up to [the adolescent] to say, We are not controlled or defined by this tradition, and we are brave enough to put ourselves in the face of danger."

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