Premiering on Monday, July 5, 2010, the HBO documentary No One Dies in Lily Dale offers a study in credulity. It follows visitors to the spiritualist village in Western New York who seek to connect with spirits of their dead loved ones. (Over the years I have made numerous investigative visits to the site.)
Founded in 1879 in a wooded area along Cassadaga Lake, Lily Dale has become “the world’s largest center for the religion of spiritualism”—based on the belief that death does not actually occur; instead, spiritualists believe, the deceased simply pass to the Other Side where they may be contacted by living intermediaries known as mediums.
Modern spiritualism originated in 1848 at Hydesville, New York, when two schoolgirls, Maggie and Katie Fox, pretended to communicate with the ghost of a murdered peddler. Although forty years later the Fox sisters publicly confessed their trickery (and demonstrated on stage how they had faked “spirit rappings”), belief in contact with the dead had meanwhile spread across America and beyond. Dark-room séances—with demonstrations of physical mediumship, such as alleged spirit writings and “materializations”—made many converts. However, frequent exposés—notably by magicians like Houdini—eventually caused a decline in belief and a consequent closing of many spiritualist enclaves. (See my “A Skeleton’s Tale: The Origins of Modern Spiritualism,” Skeptical Inquirer 32:4, July/August 2008, pp. 17-20.)
Lily Dale was able to survive—despite numerous exposures of fraudulent mediums—by cleaning up its act. Now (except in sessions away from the public) physical mediumship is not practiced and only “mental” mediumship is permitted, thus limiting outright magic tricks. Affecting being in a trance state is also discouraged, along with other occult trappings such as crystal balls. The idea is to look modern and honest. (See Christine Wicker, Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead , Harper San Francisco, 2003.)
The HBO documentary focuses on individuals and their encounters with Lily Dale mediums. First, a woman from nearby Dunkirk wants to learn why her mother cut her from her will, and medium Gerta Lestock happily provides an alleged message from the mother who regrets her precipitous decision. Next, a Chicago policeman, guilt-ridden for not being able to protect his son from a random act of violence, receives comforting messages. A third seeker, who drove from Iowa wanting to know why her fiancé was discovered dead in a field, is skeptical of one medium (who gestures to his heart), equivocal of another (who suggests a lightning strike), then—after noting the coroner had found “blunt-force trauma”—concludes rationally, “I know he’s gone.” And finally, a California Christian fundamentalist, whose 21-year-old son lost a three-year fight with cancer, wields a Bible as she harangues a medium for his inaccuracies and questions the nature of his spirit sources. (See Anne Neville, “HBO Documentary Captures Spirit of Lily Dale,” The Buffalo News , July 1, 2010.)
While the documentary reveals the scenic beauty of Lily Dale and captures the poignancy of the human longings that draw people there, what it does not do is pose the following questions: How can an entity, whose brain has moldered into dust, move about, think, and speak? How does spirit “energy” keep from dissipating, once it is removed from its source (the living body)? How is it that a ghost, supposedly haunting a house, say, in Peoria, is readily available for conversation in Lily Dale? In other words, do spirits travel at the speed of imagination? And why can’t the dead, so chatty on mundane matters, give substantive information—say a murder victim pinpoint where his or her remains are hidden?
Rating: two wooden nickels (out of four)