PHOTOS AND TEXT BY BILLY MILLER
h hello, it’s a town populated with nothing but self-proclaimed psychics. In northwestern New York, situated near a small lake, lies Lily Dale, the birthplace of “Modern Spiritualism,” aka the belief that we are able to communicate with the dead. Most everyone who lives in the town works as a medium or in some sort of psychic capacity. During the summer, throngs of “normies” descend upon Lily Dale seeking whatever it is that people who go to psychics are seeking. Solace and stuff, I guess. If you’ve ever watched John “Biggest Douche in the Universe” Edward on his show Crossing Over, you’ve got a general idea of the way these guys talk—although Lily Dale residents look down on television psychics, tarot readers, and astrologers as “entertainers.” Ew, we hate entertainers too!
The town got its psychic fame in 1848 when resident sisters Margaret, Leah, and Kate Fox claimed to have heard “tappings” from beyond the grave. Word of the miraculous events spread, and they began to give public demonstrations of their ability to communicate with dead guys and gals. In an early example of rock-star-style crash and burn, the girls became internationally famous and then took a sharp left into Alcoholic Dale. They died penniless, shunned, and nearly forgotten and were buried in paupers’ graves. Soon afterward, though, hundreds and then thousands began to profess similar powers of divination. From these humble beginnings the modern role of a “medium” evolved, and a new religion was founded. Get it? These three modest, drunk sisters invented the whole idea of the medium. They were like the oracles of yore, only in gingham dresses.
Spiritualism is roughly based on a Protestant Christian model—except Jesus is understood not as the son of God, but rather as a supreme avatar and guide. Though more open-minded in most ways than virtually any other religious group (lots of homer-sexuals are active in the scene), the people of Lily Dale are nonetheless very concerned about being portrayed as kooks. They are happy to talk about their beliefs and history but tend to clam up at any mention of “the press.” Despite this, I decided to see what I could discover over a single weekend during the off-season. I got a personal reading and a guided tour of the town’s library and museum. I went to a church service that involved displays of clairvoyance and mediumship from members of the congregation. Everyone was very nice, but I still don’t know where my Grandpa Gernt hid the map to all that damn Nazi gold.
Welcome to Lily Dale, the Mecca of Modern Spiritualism. We were there in the off-season so it was pretty deserted. During the summer, they have about 500 residents and over 20,000 visitors who come to consult mediums and healers and to witness public displays of clairvoyance. We went around ringing some doorbells but no one answered.
The Fox sisters, who started it all. This is Marilyn, an organist at one of the town’s two churches. It looks like a Christian church but there’s no Christian symbolism in it at all. During the service, a medium got up and told someone, “I see a man in dark gray standing behind you. He says you’re going to sell your house in two months.”
A “spirit horn” used to focus and amplify otherworldly communication. Basically, a paranormal hearing aid. The guy who showed us this told us that a coffee cup exploded in his hand the other day because his psychic energy was so intense. Licensed medium Pauline Kay. I got a reading from her for $40. Everything she told me was very one-size-fits-all. Things like, “I can tell that you’ve had a lot of adversity in your life, but you’ve managed to overcome it.” I wasn’t so impressed by her psychic skills, but she was really sweet.
An example of Lily Dale’s many “precipitated paintings,” which allegedly painted themselves without human intervention. Apparently, the “experts” were mystified and couldn’t determine how they were composed, finally settling on butterfly wings as the closest material they could have been made with. Leolyn Woods is a nearby stand of old-growth trees which is said to contain a psychic “energy vortex.” I think they just mean that it’s really pretty.
In the forest, there is a pet cemetery and something called “Inspiration Stump,” which is a tree stump in the center of the vortex where many séances are held. There is something about the spot—it really does have a feeling to it! Or at least it just seemed really creepy that day, with all the fog and tall trees and little gravestones. Some of the pets were said to be psychic too. Cute.