“Feels like me. But I say things I know I don’t know.” Rev. Sherry Lee Calkins sits on the stairs to her front door: her white house looms behind her, her cat has wandered somewhere off screen. Calkins appears at ease with such visits from the realm she calls “spirit.” “Sometimes,” she adds, “I can feel them sit down on my lap. We become one.”
One thing Calkins does know is that she’s a medium, one of 40 residing in Lily Dale, New York, about 60 miles south of Buffalo. She’s been doing readings since she was 19, when her mother, also a spiritualist, invited her to participate in a séance (“It just felt so normal”). Today, Calkins and her fellows are “registered through rigorous testing by [Lily Dale’s] board of directors,” affirms a bit of text in No One Dies in Lily Dale. Premiering 5 July on HBO, the documentary begins as Lily Dale opens its 130th season. “People are seeking and we are providing,” says Rev. Gerta Lestock, “And I’ve seen a lot of closures, a lot of healing.”
People are also spending money — for group sessions at the “Inspiration Stump,” at cozy-looking hotels, and at mediums’ own homes (one sign on a porch reveals that “individual readings” cost $65). The film includes inserts of lawn statues, putting golf carts (apparently the preferred mode of transportation here), and colorful gardens. The town includes a fire department and a library, churches and trinket shops. Some homes are especially distinctive: Rev. Anne Gehman is fond of pink (it represents love, observes a guest), indicated by every curtain and throw pillow in the room where she welcomes visitors, and Gerta consults her ever-present lapdog as a session starts: “Could you please tell me if there is a spirit present? I want you to wiggle your nose.” He does. “Thank you,” she says.
Spirits are always present in Lily Dale. “I think they’re lined up on the other side,” says one resident, “Just waiting to see who they know.” Steven Cantor’s film observes the mediums at work, in their sitting rooms or before crowds at Inspiration Stump. Here they pick out audience members to soothe and delight with more or less personalized communications: “There’s no pain, there’s no suffering: he’s right behind you all the time,” or again, “He also wants you to know that he now has hair all over his head.”
The spirits communicate, Gehman explains, because “They’re not dead. There is no death and there is no dead. That’s an illusion.” Mediums make it their business to expose that illusion, to understand the experiences of the spirits as a way to understand their own. As Calkins puts it, “We are spirits who are occupying a body for a while to teach us more.” She nods at her interviewer, “We’re going to move upstairs when it’s time, but death just doesn’t happen.” The teaching process is at the heart of the mediums’ religion, spiritualism, which is exceptionally flexible and individual. “In so many religions, you really aren’t free to explore,” observes Rev. Lynne Forget, “And spiritualism says truth is everywhere: find it and make it your own.”
That’s not to say all truths are equal in Lily Dale. A group of protestors shows up on a corner, with signs proclaiming the costs of witchcraft and sin (“Harry Potter will damn the souls of your children,” reads one). Tom Cratsley, a spiritualist healer in tie-dyed t-shirt and shorts (who uses green peppers to remove toxins from his ailing clients), approaches them with the camera crew behind him: “There’s sadness in them,” he observes, “They’re not happy people.” They do look grumpy here. One of them challenges Cratsley, “Can you quote any verses from the Bible?”
Other challenges are less confrontational, as when visitors express skepticism. Ronald Holt, an 18-year police veteran from Chicago, is distraught over the apparently inadvertent shooting death of his high-school senior son, Blair. He arrives in Lily Dale wearing a photo of Blair on his neck, concerned that he wasn’t “there to protect” him. After several meetings with different mediums, Rebecca Fabricius comes to town in search of answers as well, following the still unexplained 2007 loss of her fiancé, found dead in the field where he was working. Where Ron is surprised and soothed by the accuracy of his readings, Rebecca feels exactly the opposite: when her medium says she’s had a miscarriage, she doesn’t correct him, but instead, weeps in his very beige sitting room. “I’m so frustrated,” she tells her friends afterward, “I don’t believe him.”
Belief is a key component of any interaction with a medium, of course. Indeed, the function of the board of mediums is precisely to prevent fraud of the sort that shows up in movies and TV. Back in the 19th century, reports Dr. Neal Rzepkowski, mediums were known to use tricks, physical “signs” like floating ectoplasm, lights, and levitation. The film offers a montage of vintage photos, accompanied by spooky music and jostled just a bit, to suggest the past bad rep that today’s mediums are up against.
Current mediums often describe themselves as such, their experiences beyond their control: Calkins’ sister Gretchen Clark says, “I just sort of open the door, you know, flip the on switch.” No One Dies in Lily Dale juxtaposes modes of knowing, clients’ self-descriptions (“We’re always going to be bereaved mothers”), exchanges between mediums (“You’re definitely the real deal and that’s good to see”), even discussions between alien abductees (“It just hovered in the sky… It was huge”). And then it leaves you to sort out what “you know.”