If the painter Thomas Kinkade has redesigned Heaven–and who’s to say that he hasn’t?–it might look a little like Lily Dale, a tiny community about an hour south of Buffalo. On a gentle-breeze, blue-sky, no-cares, endless-summer sort of day, gingerbread Victorian cottages doze alongside tranquil, flag-festooned streets. The houses’ colors–white, yellow, gray–are, like their inhabitants, mainly muted, gentle by design or faded by the years. Only occasional flashes of eccentricity–an unexpected plague of stone angels here, a rash of concrete cherubs there–signal to visitors that there’s something not quite right, not Shyamalan wrong, but odd nonetheless, about this idyllic village nestled so prettily against a quiet lake.
Even Lily Dale’s visitors (those that are visible anyway–I’ll explain that remark later) seem more subdued than the typical vacationing hordes, more Trappist than tourist, chatting among themselves in low tones as they stroll towards their destinations. Once–over a century ago–there was a Ferris wheel here, a bowling alley, dances, even (oh, the thrill!) speeches by Susan B. Anthony, but those excitements have passed, vanished into history and stiff sepia images. But guests can still wander under the shade of trees more than a hundred years old now, and, if they choose, across a series of small, perfectly kept parks–immaculately green as they sweep down in the direction of the lake, itself smooth, untroubled, and inviting, gently lapping up against the eastern edge of town.
And the sense that there’s something celestial about this place is only reinforced by a small white-pillared “Forest Temple” half-hidden amid some trees and by the “Healing Temple” that can be found nearby (yes, yes, I was “healed,” blue light discovered burning within me, long story). Bells toll at certain times of day summoning the faithful to meditation, ritual, and to quavering old tunes played on a quavering old organ, the singing of quavering old hymns of spirit messages and eternal light.
These people are, quite clearly, not Baptists.
To find out more, enter the cool, dark Leolyn Woods. Like so much in Lily Dale, they are unexpected survivors, a rare scrap of old-growth forest. Walk straight ahead. Don’t be tempted by the questionable attractions of the pet cemetery. Look instead for an ancient tree stump–Inspiration Stump, they call it here–and the people gathered there to hear from the hereafter. They have turned up for the daily “message service,” a séance, stand-up style, at the stump, starring the quick (a rapid succession of mediums) and the dead (a host of the dear departed–dads, moms, a brother or two).
If you’re ex, Lily Dale is in.
NOT EXACTLY THE X-FILESPeople have been bothering the dead in Lily Dale since 1879. That was the year in which a handful of pioneers, enthusiastic participants in the great wave of spookery and table tapping that gripped those supposedly sensible Victorians, first bought property here. It was to be a permanent site (only Spiritualists can own property in “the Dale,” even today) for enlightenment, and communication with corpses–a “White Acre,” wrote Mrs. Abby Louise Pettengill (its 1903 president), “where all may receive the benediction of the unseen world.”
She would have been pleased to see (and perhaps she did, who knows?) the small but expectant crowd waiting one Friday evening in Lily Dale’s Assembly Hall for a benediction from another world, in their case a chinwag with ET. Like Spiritualism before it, much UFO mythology is an attempt to reconcile mystical and superstitious impulses with the unwelcome realities of an age of science. And like Spiritualism it soon descends into mush-mutterings of otherworldly visitors, enlightened beings, and contact with the mysterious, thrilling unknown, talk which the late (or not) Mrs. Pettengill would surely have relished.
And when it comes to enlightened beings, there’s no better guide than the human speaker that night, writer and soulapath (don’t ask) Lisette Larkins. She’s the author of Listening to Extraterrestrials: Telepathic Coaching by Enlightened Beings; Talking to Extraterrestrials: Communicating with Enlightened Beings; and, alarmingly for those of us familiar with the work of Fox Mulder, Calling on Extraterrestrials: 11 Steps to Inviting Your Own UFO Encounters. After an hour or so of New Age banality and musical interludes that would have insulted Yanni, an alien turns up, but, dismayingly, via Ms. Larkins rather than in person. Repeatedly shaking her head from side to side, alien Lisette starts speaking in a slow, faintly mechanical voice slightly reminiscent of Hillary Rodham Clinton. She is purportedly channeling messages from our extraterrestrial visitor, but the vague beatitudes and something about “connecting” reveal only that this particular alien is from Planet Hallmark. That’s not worth the price of admission. For 30 bucks I expect Klaatu barada nikto or, at least, sexy Sil from Species.
A CASBAH FOR THE CREDULOUSWhere flying saucers hover, other nonsense is never far behind. Sure enough, the Crystal Cove, Lily Dale’s gift shop, is a supermarket of superstitions, a casbah for the credulous, its pick-’n’-mix spirituality a perfect symbol of the intellectual confusions of our age. It’s all there: the supernatural bric-a-brac (Celtic crosses, misting bowls, chalices, spell books, fortune-telling kits, candles, Ouija boards, strange hanging things); the tarot (tarot of love, fairy-tale tarot, universal Waite tarot, basic tarot, spiral tarot, Lord of the Rings tarot, unicorn tarot, dragon tarot, tarot of the Sephirot, herbal tarot, renaissance tarot, quest tarot, tarot of a moon garden, Morgan-Greer tarot); cosmic kitsch (fairies, angels, fairies, unicorns, fairies, various goddesses, fairies, the goddess, yet more fairies, wizards); and the inevitable Native Americana, complete, naturally, with Native American tarot.
Despite that very contemporary willingness to accept any reassuring mumbo-jumbo, however ludicrous, so long as it can be wrapped in vaguely mystical garb, in its core Lily Dale clings to the traditions of its slightly off, determined founders, those earnest Victorians convinced that table-tapping, séances, and other conjuring tricks could give them what generations had dreamed of: proof, scientific proof, that we all enjoy an encore in a place some called Summerland. According to Spiritualism, nobody dies. We “pass,” we don’t die. There is no death, only a “transition.” Nevertheless, for a faith that revolves around eternal life, Spiritualism has always had a rather morbid fixation with that dicey moment that, as a pessimist, I still call, well, death. In all its prettiness, there’s a touch of the funeral parlor about Lily Dale, something a little oppressive, something too hushed, too over-scented, too much.
In a way this is inevitable. It’s death that brings the living to Lily Dale. Offer the grief-stricken and the lonely the chance, any chance, to talk to those that they have lost, and some will try their luck. And where there are the desperate, there will be those who take advantage of them. You can see their traces in Lily Dale’s museum, most strikingly in a collection of relics from the Gilded Age, a golden age, quite clearly, of bunkum. There are the slates on which the spirits allegedly scrawled their enigmatic messages, the spirit trumpets that floated through the air, even the peculiar, strangely compelling paintings that supposedly materialized onto canvas untouched by (living) human hand, paintings of the passed, paintings of spirit guides, even, helpfully, a painting of the spirit world to come. It looks, yes, a little like something Thomas Kinkade might have done, but since its artist was dead at the time, it’s churlish to carp.
In our scientific age, our time of reason and progress, our era of Kabbalah, crystals, alien abductions, Wicca, homeopathy, goddess worship, Al Gore, past-life regression, astral travel, psychic hotlines, recovered memories, Feng Shui, and creation “science,” all that old sideshow spiritualism seems somehow something of a relic, too crass, too embarrassing, too crude for an epoch so spiritually sophisticated that Madonna is a major religious figure. The trumpets have been stilled: “physical mediumship” is rarely practiced in Lily Dale these days, but the hunger that nourished it still remains.
GOSPEL FOR THE NEW AGEYou can see it–neurotic, compulsive, relentless, and not a little sad–in the capacity crowd packed into the Dale’s auditorium to listen to the medium James van Praagh “Making The Psychic Connection” between, ambitiously, “Heaven and Earth.” We’ve each paid $80 to hear him.
That’s more than twice the price of an extraterrestrial, but, in the dim galaxy of contemporary superstition, James Van Praagh is a star. Like Amy Fisher and Adolf Hitler, he too has been the subject of a TV miniseries (played by Ted Danson!), a cultural accolade matched only by his multiple appearances on Larry King Live. He’s a best-selling author and recording artist and a man who, judging by his website, survived a childhood that combined the worst of Jeffrey Dahmer (“an average child, he remembers having a tremendous fascination with death”) with the best of Joan of Arc (“an open hand appeared through the ceiling…emitting radiant beams of light”). Despite a weakness for the saccharine (“When a bright smile overcomes tears, it becomes a smile that can light up the world”), Van Praagh is also highly entertaining. He’s John Edward with good jokes, a Frank Cannon moustache, and a way with the ladies who make up the bulk of his beguiled and besotted audience.
Some are there just to gawp at the dead men talking (many spirits, yikes, are “here with us today”), while others have come to be soothed by Van Praagh’s soft-soap sermons. “Death” is painless, everybody’s immortal, and we all end up in Heaven. “Step into that world,” he purrs, “there’s no judgment.” It’s a perfect gospel for a society in full flight from the notion that we should ever have to account for our actions. Some spectators, sadder, unhinged, pleading, are there for the answers, and the comfort, that reality cannot provide. Sharon has survived “a couple of terminal illnesses” but is not satisfied with the advice of her doctors (she’s led away to speak to a “medical intuitive“), while others, weeping, choking up, voices cracking, tell of sick friends, of children killed in motorcycle accidents, of relatives lost to cancer, and the rest of the carnage we call daily life.
These are people who want to believe. When Van Praagh starts tossing out ambiguous communiqués from beyond, it doesn’t take long before someone can be found who thinks that these messages might be for her. Another quick succession of references, names, and clues follow, all seemingly precise, but in reality vague enough to allow the respondent to find something in it for herself and, in replying, give Van Praagh further, invaluable guidance for his next step, and, ultimately, “validation”: the supposedly specific factoid needed to prove that long-dead dad is indeed with us that day. It looks to me a lot like an old technique known as “cold reading.” All it takes is a quick mind, intuition, and (no problem here) an audience that has lost connection with reality.
Still, Van Praagh manages, there’s no denying, some remarkable hits: coincidence, or, perhaps, well…
Whatever the explanation, none of my dead relatives shows up. Much as I would like it to, this proves nothing. They were a reserved lot and none of them would have been seen dead in a place like the auditorium. With the thought that somewhere more discreet might be more inviting, I decide on an individual consultation with one of the many mediums that have set up shop in Lily Dale. She’s a kindly soul, a late middle-aged woman with twinkling eyes, a jolly smile, and 40 of my dollars. Within a few minutes, and, shall we say, some gentle prompting on my part, she has proof that both (a twofer!) my grandmothers are with us in the room. As they’ve been dead for nearly 30 years, that’s quite a family get-together, like a childhood Christmas back in England, even if I can’t actually see the guests.
And if I believe that, I’m the Christmas turkey.