Traditionally, the most frightening thing about Florida is how Wonder Bread it is. Tract houses, planned communities, street after street of strip malls, Walmarts, Ruby Tuesdays. And hulking in the center, like some monstrous heart, is Orlando, home to Celebration, the town that Disney built, which only recently experienced its first violent multiple homicide.
But for the most part, whereas the rest of the South relies on its Gothic history, overgrown swamps, and ghost legends, Florida is frightening in a John Waters kind of way. Sure, they have their fare share of homicidal toddlers, and at any minute, an alligator could snap its jaws around you while you’re pruning by the pool. And let’s not forget the pythons that morons released in the Everglades, unaware that a female python can lay 500 eggs in a lifetime. Yeah. Sleep on that for a second. But it’s not spooky. If anything, it’s just blatantly horrifying.
So that is why Cassadaga Spiritual Community seemed to be an anomaly in the otherwise homogenized landscape of Florida. Cassadaga Spiritual Camp is a psychic/Spiritualist community founded about 116 years ago, about forty minutes outside of Orlando. A road off the I-4 leads you past housing developments, commercial gas stations and a Winn Dixie, through some actually undeveloped forest (don’t tell any Florida politicians) to a rural town consisting of a scattering of paved streets that branch off into soft sandy dirt roads. As you initially enter the town, it may seem no different from any of the small, older towns falling into disuse in the South: Victorian and 1920s homes sag into the dirt, build upon in a hodge-podge manner and decorated by plastic windmills, American flags, and rusted cars on overgrown grass. But if you look closer, you realize they’re each adorned with nameplates and signs advertising an array of services: Mediums, Psychic readings, spirit healers, handwriting analysis. Some even offer psychic readings for pets.
Spiritualism has seen its ups and downs in popularity over the past hundred years, and so has Cassadaga. When the church was at its peak in the 1920s, people flocked to the so-called healing waters of Colby Lake and built up the town. After interest declined, the town became more insular, ‘those weird witches’ as most locals tend to refer to them when being asked. However, interest remained: the Southern Gothic culture will always incorporate a little magic and witchcraft into its Christianity.
In general, Florida has found itself to be a strange cultural vortex that attracts the most curious of people: everyone from arch conservatives, land developers, Disney fanatics, and Jewish retirees to witches and the Ringling Circus. Just a couple of hours from Cassadega, Gibsonton has long served as the wintering spot for America’s carnie community. Locals still meet up in a dive bar called Showtown USA, which is adorned in Ringling posters and has a wide array of erotic games to play on the bar machines. In Venice, elderly people tan on the beach just a mile down from a trapeze school.
Florida is a weird place.
So of course, I had to go there. Not just to Florida, where I lived for one memorable year in third grade, splitting my time between an Embassy Suites hotel by Sea World and a home in Orlando’s Winter Park suburb while my mother and father worked on a television pilot for Universal. But specifically to Cassadaga.
Most people picture a Tim Burton movie when they envision a Spiritualist Community: imagine an entire town comprised of the weird witch lady down the block. But that’s not very fair. Mostly, Cassadaga, like other psychic communities in the US, is populated by New Agey types with faded Ankh tattoos, airy tye-dyed dresses, and long, graying hair.
My friend Jacquelyn and I got a late start exploring the town, because we’re lazy bastards. After checking into our hotel and observing the various faded signs for all sorts of spiritual cleansing, massages, and crystal healing, we headed to the bookstore across the street, which is also located in the Andrew Jackson Davis building, a town meeting hall of sorts. The sign outside advertised the schedule for Tuesday’s community events: Healing Services, a tour and lecture on Orb Photography, and Bingo.
It was the allure of Bingo that brought us to the town, because having grown up with a mom who went through a New Agey period of horror, (FUCK YOU, BODHI TREE BOOKSTORE. YOU ARE SO BORING) I have a fair amount of wariness regarding the rather predatory instincts of those who proclaim to have The Third Eye. After attending multiple Whole Life Expos, I pretty much realized what my mom didn’t want to see: that a huge percentage of this was, like every other faith, a scam to exploit people for money. Yeah, you don’t need a ten thousand dollar psychic hot tub to be spiritual in. I bet you can be just as in touch with your dead relatives in a regular hot tub.
So I thought, what better way to REALLY get to know these people than by meeting them through an activity that doesn’t put anyone in a position of authority? You know, all the jokes about psychics knowing what the Bingo results would be aside, I assumed in this way, they wouldn’t be trying to give me a precognitive hand job and I wouldn’t be a condescending cynic and also, I might win the jackpot.
As we perused the bookstore, which also sold crystals, crystal-affiliated jewelry, and had book sections such as ‘fairies’ ’2012′ ‘prophecies’ and, of course, ‘shapeshifting’, I struck up a conversation with the clerk about Bingo. She was utterly nonplussed and informed me that if Bingo was happening, she didn’t know about it and couldn’t give two fucks. Then she encouraged me to go on the Orb Photography tour, which was, incidentally, $25 bucks per person.
She was the only person who tried to prod me towards any purchase. Otherwise, for a town whose entire income thrives on luring in believers, no one suggested anything to me. No Psychic Witch Community is complete without a rumored Devil’s Chair in the cemetery and stories about automobile trouble related to the area, or vengeful gypsy psychics pulling bad juju on cynical lookyloos who come to mock the town, but when we inquired, the woman at our hotel dismissed the stories with a cynical eye roll.
We decided to explore the Devil’s Chair, although the woman at the hotel told us it had been removed from the local cemetery, thanks to vandalism. Kids: ruining things since forever. A poorly-paved road that eventually just gave up and turned into sand led us to a sunny, small cemetery, holding a modest number of graves and plaques. Most of the trees had been cut down in the area and minimal landscaping held sway, so the cemetery lacked the spooky, haunted feeling other Southern graveyards so strongly emote: no low-hanging willows or cyprus trees, draped in Spanish Moss, hovering over crying angels. In fact, the cemetery felt fairly modern and more charmingly ill-kept than anything else.
Disappointed, we decided to head to the Colby Lake, where the healing waters supposedly convinced Cassadaga followers to set up camp. This was a little scary: not because of anything supernatural, but because of the clusters of rednecks in ripped up sports t-shirts, sitting in the beds of their trucks, drinking beers. At like, five p.m on a Wednesday. As we sat by a small inlet off the lake, dipping our toes in the surprisingly hot water and questioning the potential for alligators, we overheard this conversation:
Man: You’re like the son I never wanted! (proceeds to throw things at teenage boy)
That said, we decided to move on and have dinner. During dinner, we debated our actual desire to attend Bingo. I blame the influence of a bottle of wine on this, but we eventually decided we’d rather go to Winn Dixie and procure more liquor instead of play Bingo.
Keeping it classy, we ended up drinking wine out of styrofoam cups in our hotel room, up until we heard someone bumbling around in the hallway. Excited about capturing a very clumsy ghost, and also wanting to smoke a cigarette, we headed out and bumped into a group of ghosthunters.
And then things got interesting. Not ghosthunting interesting, but Florida interesting.
Two strippers, accompanied by three excited Orlando boys, were attempting to contact the ghost of one of the stripper’s friends, who was most unfortunately shot and killed before she could testify at the stripper’s custody trial. The issue? The stripper, let’s call her Thelma, was in an abusive relationship with a racist who hated her Cuban roots and resented her for forcing him to drop out of the army.The reason she gave for his discharge? She couldn’t sleep at night, because she was being haunted by ghosts, so he had to come protect her. THIS DEFINITELY WORKS AS AN EXCUSE TO GET OUT OF MILITARY DUTIES! Anyway, Thelma claimed to be ‘extremely sensitive’ to the spirits and hoped her friend could give her testimony from the beyond. Meanwhile, she was chugging from a hug of Carlo Ross white wine the entire time and her friend, ‘Louise’ was very aggressively chasing off the three boys despite the fact that Thelma sort of vomited sex everywhere. It became increasingly obvious that Thelma was completely oblivious to the fact that Louise was living out the plot of Notes On A Scandal with her.
The hotel conveniently had a seance/conference room (same thing, I guess) for us to contact the ghosts. Unfortunately, it seems we suffered massive interference due to the overwhelming amount of ghosts aspiring to speak with Thelma, who became freaked out, suckled from her Carlo Rossi bottle, and decided to go smoke a joint.
Curious, we follow the group outside. The three boys seemed normal enough, despite constantly showing me what was obviously smears on their cameras and proclaiming they caught orbs. Somehow, I made a comment about how the bookstore was overwhelmed, unsurprisingly, with David Icke books, not expecting anyone to really know who that was. The strippers gazed dully at me but all three boys snapped to attention and barraged me with their extensive knowledge of the New World Order and the Reptilian conspiracy.
Between that and the excessive amount of wine imbibed earlier, we quit for the night. Both Jacquelyn and myself were utterly unmolested by ghosts throughout the night, although at one point I did walk into a closet I thought was the bathroom, and I’m pretty sure supernatural shenanigans were behind that.
The next morning, we packed into the car and headed to the Tampa airport, bidding Cassadaga and the rest of Florida adieu.
Catch us next summer at the Lily Dale Spiritual community in New York, meditating in the Fairy Forest or taking in a lecture on Moon Magic: Waxing Fortune or Waning Glory.