Spiritualist: One who believes, as the basis of his or her religion, in the continuity of life and in individual responsibility. Some, but not all, Spiritualists are Mediums and/or Healers. Spiritualists endeavor to find the truth in all things and to live their lives in accordance therewith. (From the Lily Dale Assembly Website – www.lilydaleassembly.com)
Attention: Spoiler Alerts follow for the HBO Documentary – No One Dies In Lilly Dale. By doing so we hope to save you 2 hours of your life you won’t be able to get back.
I find it difficult to believe that there are still people who believe in spiritualism. But, then there are still thousands of butts warming the pews of Roman Catholic Parishes across this country despite the depravity of the clerical sex abuse scandal. There seems to be no end and, even no limits, to the credulity that the human race will allow to abscond with our sense of reason.
But, add a deep abiding grief into the mix and you may find normally reasonable people and even non-believing types reaching out and grasping at anything if it might offer answers. For these answers some seekers travel to Lily Dale, a serene wooded hamlet in upstate New York to attend services at Inspiration Stump, consult with one of the town’s registered mediums or visit a psychic or metaphysical healer.
Lily Dale is an idyllic gem in a bucolic setting. Founded in 1879 the small country town is a Mecca for Spiritualism or, as one resident suggests, Lily Dale is to Spiritualism what the Vatican is to Roman Catholicism. It is this little town and its mediums that is the subject of Steve Cantor’s HBO documentary No One Dies in Lilly Dale.
On film each of the town’s mediums or healers appears to be quite sincere and somehow I can’t summon up the cynicism necessary to call them out right frauds. Frankly, it appears that they actually believe what they are selling. Unfortunately, every word that spews forth from these practioners, who all bear the title “Reverend,” is pure nincompoopery. It’s the same trite and generic nonsense that spiritualists have been touting since the late 19th century and then was taken up by the movement’s grandchild the New Age movement that was prevalent throughout the 70’s culminating in the late 1980’s.
During the film it is put forth that spiritualism is not a religion of faith, but one of experience. The problem with “experience” is that it is filtered through the process of subjective validation. People hear what they want to hear. If you believe or need to believe something desperately you will find ways to validate the experience positively. You will get your proof. If you are a skeptic, such as me, you will see will see the myriad holes in what is being said and find a way to sink the listing ship.
The mediums ask mostly leading questions until they get a “hit” or their client bites down. Sometimes it doesn’t work as one young woman from Dubuque Iowa discovers. She came in search of answers behind her fiancée’s untimely death. The first medium seems to be way off seeing a young man holding their child in his arms. The young couple had never had a child nor was she ever pregnant.
The medium insists that the young man in his vision says that she is stubborn, which is the reason he believes for her skepticism. However, the medium also believes that she is moving away from this place of non-belief to a place of trust.
The young woman leaves the session upset. There was no baby and her late fiancée’s would not have referred to her as being stubborn, she insists. The unsuccessful medium has an explanation for his failure and it’s the young woman’s fault, although he said it in a more polite fashion explaining that spirit is like talking on the phone with someone who isn’t responding. Eventually you hang up the phone. Later on in the film the woman does get her answers from a medical intuitive visiting from Florida.
The most obvious case of credulity comes in the form of a middle aged woman who wants to know why her mother cut her out of her will.
“It’s not about the money,” She insists. She simply wants to know why a mother would do something so hurtful. The medium, a woman with short cropped white hair and a thick accent that you would expect from a carnival or side show medium, tells her client that she sees her mother surrounded in darkness and there is no words to describe the remorse the mother is feeling.”
There is a lot of crying and obvious relief. The woman doesn’t seem to realize that her question was never answered. The mother simply says, through the medium, that she doesn’t know why she did, but she knows she was wrong. There was some usual drivel about being in pain, tired and wanting it to be over. Then is the usual New Age and spiritual dogma about needing to let go and forgive follows.
“That makes sense,” The client says. It may be pure bologna, but she seems relieved and more at peace. Perhaps, in the end that is all that matters. If nothing else is true about these spiritualists you can at least recognize their ability to comfort people who are in deep grief. They listen and they seem to be able to say what is needed for that moment.
The middle age daughter’s husband described the medium as spot on. But, this should come as no surprise. Later on in the film he shares, “I think extraterrestrials have something do with all of this.”
Human consciousness is still largely a mystery to modern science. There is so much we don’t know that I am not simply going to dismiss the notion that something of an “after life” exists, but as a skeptic I am inclined to place my money on nothing. We die, and our consciousness dies along with our bodies. Near Death Experiences can be credibly described as the processes of a dying brain. Astral Projection and so called past life experiences are psychological phenomenon that can be the result of dissociation.
We certainly need to be skeptical of a healer who “combs the auras” of his clients with a green pepper cut in half. According to this Lily Dale healer vegetables or fruits loaded with Vitamin C have positive effects on the body’s energy fields. But, why not just ingest the Vitamin C if you want to enjoy its health benefits? It seems a perfectly good waste of a green pepper, especially given all the starving children in Africa who would kill to have just a slice of it (See Dad – if you are watching me from the great beyond – I did listen to you.)
To their credit the Mediums discuss rather openly the problem with fraudulent spiritualists who concocted great shows replete with celestial trumpets, apparitions, table tipping and nauseating production of mucous like ectoplasm often emanating from various orifices from the medium’s body such as the mouth, nose and, in one uber disgusting case, the medium’s vagina. Author Mary Roach discusses these fakeries in her entertaining and informative Spook: Science Tackles the After Life.
This is the reason, they tell the audience, that they don’t focus on physical manifestations. Instead they prefer to deal with mental spiritualism, which is almost easier to fake and the more credulous the mind the more difficult it is to debunk. If you have ever watched mediums such as John Edwards work you get a feel for how this type of thing works. The subject always feels like the medium is talking directly to them. However, the medium always speaks vaguely seeking validation form their subject before the move on. The best can do this so smoothly that it you can become convinced that you are really getting a communication for a dead loved on. But, the medium is not reading the spirit world they are reading the responses of the subject.
But, with all of this concern over fraud and trickery it doesn’t prevent one of the mediums from holding a table tipping seminar. As anyone who has played this party game knows you can get a table rocking without pushing on it and without the aid of spirits. There is nothing magical or occult about it.
Spiritualism appeals to us because of our abiding fear of death. What happens after we are through living this life is a source of anxiety for most of us, some seem to take it to extremes buying into spiritualist fantasies. One visitor likened Lily Dale to a type of Disneyland experience. This observation seems to describe so much of what passes as spirituality these days.
It’s difficult to think of death as being the end of the matter. It pains the heart terribly to contemplate the possibility that those we have cherished so dearly in this life are lost to us forever in the void of death and that we will never see them again. It’s comforting to believe that we somehow go on after this sojourn in a mortal body and that everyone we have ever loved waits on the other side to reunite with us when we pass over. If someone can provide us proof in the form of a medium or séance that this is true its easy to understand how the grieving would be willing to accept what they offer as truth.
In the past my own credulity has been stretched to its limits. My cynicism is softened by my empathy. When my own father died I was so devastated that I was unable to attend his funeral. There was a very small spiritualist church around the corner from my home in Denver and I was tempted on more than one occasion to go there seeking answers. I was almost willing to suspend my skepticism and forget that I don’t believe in such things and accept whatever paltry comfort this group could provide. Instead, I kept my wits about me and chose to seek out grief counseling and to begin dealing with my own fears and anxiety around death instead of numbing myself with the Novocain of spiritual tomfoolery.
When we are grieving we will do just about anything; believe just about anything. It is commonly believed that this very grief lead the infamous Houdini to seek out spiritualists in hopes of contacting his dead mother whom he had a rather deep attachment to. These experiences led to Houdini’s famous debunking exposes. Through out the remainder of his life, the master escape artist would often attend séances in disguise revealing himself at the right moment denouncing the medium in rather dramatic fashion.
Houdini’s debunking work would lead him to the hamlet of Lily Daly. It is reported that he would knock on doors and naturally, no one would let him in. Not exactly the behavior you would hope from mediums that were the real deal. But, understandable nonetheless given the stature and respect that a man such as Houdini held.
By way of a final summation while I believe the Mediums of Lily Dale are spreading utter nonsense I don’t believe them to be willful frauds. It’s quite possible to believe in something so deeply that you can convince others to share your belief in it. I have been to enough New Age retreats and seminars to witness how the most common and coincidental events can be imbued with cosmic levels of awe. The process of subjective validation is quite powerful. The human mind categorizes data by way of correlation. Simultaneous events can seem powerful proof of supernatural and mystical beliefs. But, as any good scientist or clear thinking individual understands correlation does not prove causation. Two events occurring in the same time space locale can be and, often are, unrelated.
A person praying to St. Catherine for an answer to a problem troubling him may find his eyes falling upon a vase of flowers associated with the saint at the same moment an answer seemingly appears in his consciousness causing him to conclude that the saint has answered his prayer. Did she? Probably not, but if the petitioners devotion and faith is deep enough he will see this experience of subjective validation as proof that she did even though most likely the answer came from his own mind after sufficient cogitation. The people who believe the mediums of Lily Dale believe because the mediums themselves believe. It might be quite fun to walk down the tree lined streets of the Lily Dale camp and have some medium say, “Hey, your dead Grandmother is walking beside you.”