I question the veracity of anyone’s aspiration to be a “world traveler” if they don’t want to come to Florida.
- Yes, you might get shot.
- Governor Rick Scott might abduct you to his home planet of Obfuscation.
- Jury verdicts are deliberated with cocaine and coin tosses.
- A Black Bear might hide in the trunk of your car while an alligator lurks in the hotel pool.
But you’ll have stories to tell!
A sub-tropical peninsula, about half of Florida’s cities have names with the words “beach,” “bay,” “harbor,” “gulf,” or “shore” in them. In keeping with this nautical theme, most other cities incorporate “lake,” “creek,” or “springs.” In the Panhandle almost everything is either named in honor of the Native Americans or the bloodlust murderers who perpetrated their genocide–usually an explorer, a U.S. President, or a territorial Governor.
Florida hosts the party paradises of Miami (stick to the beaches and Coral Gables), Fort Lauderdale, (there’s no “fort.”) and Hollywood (not the real one). You can take your children to an alcohol-themed amusement park in Tampa, know that your infant will behave in Orlando (even she knows you’ll get away with it), or watch successions of high speed collisions in Daytona Beach. For something really out of this world, arrive in Cape Canaveral at show time and watch us blast something into Outer-freaking-space! Finally, you can retire with the Seinfelds in Boca Raton, or if you do not wish to live in the mouth of a mouse, West Palm Beach.
Now that I have that out of my system, this is not about any of those places.
With all the crazy wondrous weirdness Florida destinations have to offer, Cassadaga (Seneca for “water beneath the rocks”) distinguishes itself as an entirely unique animal.
Founded in 1894 in the backwoods of central Florida by George Colby (on orders he received from a Native American spirit) Cassadaga is a community of self-professed psychics, mediums, spiritualists, gurus, and practicing witches. Set amid dense forests, a waterless lake, sink holes, and swamps, the small gothic town seems fresh from the imagination of M. Night Shyamalan. Cassadaga boasts a post office, a “Spiritualist Camp” which accredits psychics and healers (I suppose so the public doesn’t confuse them with the real kooks), a new-age bookstore/tour office, a temple with a Santa Fe motif, complete with a séance room, and one haunted hotel with a bar, restaurant, and, um-hum, “unaccredited” psychics. There is not actually a cemetery within the community, but there is a very rewarding one just ten minutes walk away, surrounded by dirt roads, and an overgrowth hiding scores of abandoned and dilapidated houses. The Sirens of Trespass tantalize with unsupervised access for the mischievous youthful miscreant.
I first heard about this place from my twelfth grade Literature teacher who completed her Masters’ thesis on the community. She described being abruptly confronted by a coven of witches performing an impromptu ritual, nearly sinking in quicksand while exploring near-leafless forests, and all manner of other spooky detail which fuel the imaginations of wanderlust adolescents.
I knew I had to go.
It was nearly eight years later before an expedition was organized. A reunion of college friends gathered for a horror-themed weekend in Orlando. Centered around Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights (also something you must do before you die), the weekend was infused with midnight slasher gore-film fests, vampire-themed debauchery at Goth clubs–and an overcast afternoon in Cassadaga. A few months later I returned with two friends for further exploration of the outskirts, to engage in midnight mischief in the woods, and so we could overnight in the “haunted” hotel.
An open mind ceases to be a virtue when it is so open your brain falls out.
After decades of reasonably serious research, science concludes that pretty much everything Cassadaga stands for is nonsense–and I agree. The dousing rod and Ojai board indicator move due to the “ideomotor effect.” The distorted words we sometimes divine out of static recordings are susceptible to priming and originate in our own pattern-seeking brains. It’s why we occasionally see the virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich. If there is a range of 20 equally likely options, a psychic will get it right one in twenty times–if we want to believe that our lost lover is communicating with us, we will lovingly remember the hits and forgivingly forget the misses.
It is not that some are confined to using a smaller amount of their brain, it is that the brain is so powerful we can will-into-existence even that which manifestly does not. Armed with a full understanding of this principle, there is great fun to be had if you chose to briefly ignore it.
My friends and I therefore came to Cassadaga with a positive attitude. We knew it was quackery, but we were determined to be willful fools–or at least entertained by the unapologetic neon garishness of it all. Cassadaga did not disappoint.
We enjoyed street crossings like “Spiritualist Street” and “Mediumship Way.” Each house had that wholesome architecture which invites a sinister connotation–almost as if it is “too wholesome.” We were seized with the fervent confidence that, if we lingered long enough, a clown or Jake Gyllenhaal’s favorite rabbit would make an appearance.
But eventually they expect you to buy something.
We booked a three o’clock “Encounter the Spirits” Tour for $10 at the bookstore/tourist office/college of clairvoyance. Expectations for the bookstore were high: we had all agreed to chip-in for a Necronomicon, preferably bound in the skin of an infant. But there was none of that–no witches’ brew cook books, compendium of verified voodoo curses, guides advocating material success through human and animal sacrifice, or even a pamphlet of spells to cast upon disrespectful online commenters.
Perhaps we could be accused of being uneducated as to the ways of Wicca or spiritualism generally. Certainly our thoughts were insensitive. But I refuse to be rebuked as “ignorant” by hawkers of dreamcatchers, crystal skulls, and charlatanic books like “Hypnotizing Yourself to a Cancer-free Life,” “Real Survivors: True Tales of Life After Alien Abduction,” and “An Astrological Approach to Leadership & Decisionmaking.” There is, after all, only so much hypocrisy even an attorney representing politicians and political parties can tolerate.
This is the bit where I’m expected to temper my cynicism with some unsubstantiated silliness that new-ageism and spiritualism can be largely positive or at least harmless.
It is not always harmless.
Conjuring to parents that they will see their missing daughter alive again is not a benevolent offer of hope. It is one person telling another what they want to hear, accepting payment for it, and knowing that their prey will be too destroyed by grief to seek refund or retribution when the body is found near a lake a week later.
Explaining to a distraught daughter that her deceased doting mother wants her to quit her unfulfilling job is not giving someone a push toward happiness, it is an arrogant, inexpert, uninformed, appeal to a misrepresented absent authority. It is screwing with someone’s life. The narcissistic “it’s their decision” defense unapologetically eschews any responsibility from having been the supplier of the bad information trustingly relied upon to the detriment of their victim.
The worst: Those who encourage the rejection of science and medicine. Appending the word “medicine” to the word “alternative” is nothing but obscene nomenclature nonsense–like appending the word “science” to creation. The only valid “medicine” is that which has successfully survived the scrutiny of the scientific method and peer review. While science has verified occasional benefits from certain unconventional “cures,” only those so verified should be advertised as “medicine.” As long as a licensed medical professional agrees, adding extra powders or tea leaves or whatever is probably not hurtful, but beware of the nihilist who tells you to exclusively use ancient Chinese approaches to guard against heart disease. Psychic dolphins cannot help deliver your baby and stones and the laying on of hands will not cure cancer; if a patient is lucky, Chemo might keep it under control, albeit accompanied with painful suffering.
Of course, the vast majority of adherents to spirituality or new-ageism or Wicca or whatever non-traditional belief system, are not predators who plunder the scarce financial and emotional resources of the vulnerable.
Most are people of the most delightful and outward-thinking kind. They tend to be curious and accepting of diversity in a confused world filled with prejudice and abject hatred. They tend to incite charitable car washes rather than violence. They tend to be highly educated, well-traveled, and tranquil to themselves and those who wish them harm. They recycle even when nobody is monitoring them. They knock on doors and show up for political events. They seem to think they can contribute positively to the world and, usually, they do. For most believers, it is a pleasant distraction from an often very unpleasant reality.
I therefore do not risk their ire by criticizing how they divine meaning into an existence that seems to have occurred without the human condition as a major concern.
And the essential oils do smell nice. They just don’t really cure your cold.
The “Encounter the Spirits” tour did not tackle such needlessly grand philosophical statements.
Our guide was very serene and sincere and we were politely unquestioning. We took pictures at the house window where a dead solider appears every Christmas. We listened gravely to deeply implausible stories. The policies of the camp were discussed. We were all encouraged to get in-touch with our own psychic abilities.
The tour of the temple includes a psychic healer offering complementary “karma massages” which involve you sitting in a chair for ten minutes, contemplating how much you’re expected to tip, while he massages the air around your neck and back without actually touching you.
Then there is the séance room. It is lit with two distant red bulbs and is decidedly minimalist with one small round table and a few 1970’s era office chairs. The guide explains that their technical term is “spiritualist mediumship development classes” (what a discouraging title for a horror movie) and that the table only jumps and levitates if it’s pitch black and nobody can see what their medium’s knees are up to (as you must hold hands or you will invite demons into the domain of the living by breaking the circle–obviously).
The tour ends at Spirit Lake–which is empty of water. Mysterious?
There is also a night “Orb” tour where you are encouraged to take rapid-fire pictures of darkness in the hopes that dust particles or distant lights can be distorted and confused into ghoulish entities.
Then comes the dangerous “do you have any questions?”
Never ask someone who pretends to communicate with the dead in exchange for money about why they became a medium.
The story never begins with “I experienced no violence as a child and was living a happy, productive, and fulfilling life.”
It’s more like listening to an origins story from someone ten years sober after getting drunk and driving over their toddler. The ones who knowingly rip you off, who don’t believe for one moment that they have special powers–those are the easier stories because they are just your ordinary lost common garden variety criminal. The ones who are so damaged that they need to believe that they are special solely through having magical powers–those are the true horror stories. Not the stuff of Hollywood pitch-sessions, but of parole board transcripts and mental-competency hearings. They are sadnesses written by Voltaire and their suspension of disbelief is all that saves their tortured souls from a totally broken and unlivable reality.
And for some its just because their career in hairdressing didn’t work out.
Don’t leave town without dining at the Hotel Cassadaga’s Lost in Time Cafe. First, the prices are dirt cheap. Second, its all comfort food. Third, its the only bar in town. (Though there is a very friendly pub ten minutes walk away, where after it closes, the bartender invites the last-call folks to his backyard and the party continues until the police arrive–blaring music and non-permitted bonfires are involved.) Fourth, the bathroom–in a very kitsch, pleasant way–is something out of a Rob Zombie movie.
You are never far from the sensation that you are unwanted there. The waitress is trying to warn you with something cryptic on a napkin but somehow you miss it. You know that a man wearing someone else’s face is going to get your buddy as he goes to the car for his wallet. It’s wonderful!
Only slightly distracting are the countless flyers and cards advertising personal psychic sessions, medium séances, and opportunities, starting at $65 for thirty minutes, to communicate with your dead pet. “Sigh.”
After lunch and the tour your inner-vandal might enjoy a trip to the outskirts where you will find a cemetery, a labyrinth of dirt roads, and sufficient abandoned and accessible properties that could have wildly changed the plot of “Breaking Bad.”
We were the sole overnight guests at the Hotel Cassadaga.
The owner/manager simply left us alone in the place.
Despite the laughingly ambitious signs warning us from the camp and forests at night, we disobliged. We went from a bar where we were told ghost stories about the forest, to an after-party where we were told ghost stories about the forest, then to the actual forest where we got lost, eaten by mosquitoes the size of golf balls, were attacked by killer raccoons, and ultimately realized that we were alone in the woods with a local who had served a dime for attempted murder.
We went back to his place to stare at paintings that he promised would move if we looked at them intensely enough. When we started hearing unexplained noises and the front door kept unlocking itself, we realized that we were not drinking in moderation.
We returned to the hotel where we continued not drinking in moderation and genuinely experienced uneasily explained noises as we explored the near-abandoned hotel with rooms filled with stacked chairs and an inexplicably running while unattended washing machine. The hallway really is something out of “The Shinning.” The hotel is a legitimate creepfest. Doorways led to brick walls or into thin-air sans stairways or landings. It would suddenly get unexplainably cold. It was exactly what we willed it to be.
Ultimately we play-fought in a meditation garden and got yelled at by locals who were understandably unmoved by our happy good times.
The next morning we experienced the usual joys of a previous night’s excesses and headed to the Temple for the Sunday Morning service.
A mediumship service will not be confused for a morning at church, mosque, or synagogue. There is a humanist homely, a guest to talk about his self-published spiritualism book, and then a preacher reminiscent of an evangelical healer who gets on stage and shouts out names until someone shouts back “I had a friend’s cousin’s mother whose name was Samantha.” The medium show continues for about an hour. They’ll never randomly pick you for a detailed conversation.
In an odd state this is an odd town. If you come with a positive attitude you’ll have an experience that only a few places in the world offer.
Of course, if you want to be guaranteed a scare, Halloween Horror Nights is an hour’s drive away.
If you want to visit, Cassadaga is about an hour drive from downtown Orlando. It can only be accessed by car. The only hotel in town is the Cassadaga Hotel.
They are apparently currently hiring.
If you want to be an SCSCMA Medium, you can find information on accreditation here.
Sample coursework includes “Pyromancy Reading the Embers” (extra-curricular), “Classification of Phenomenon” (required), and “Personal Appearance” (my friends believe I would benefit from a course on this).