“No One Dies in Lily Dale” (A NICKELL-odeon Review)

July 7, 2010

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)

Two Nickels

 

Comments:

#1 breuther (Guest) on Wednesday July 14, 2010 at 3:58pm

Pretty dispirited review, eh.  But, to your questions:
1.  if a filing cabinet rusts away, the information inside is also lost?  I think not.  Nor should you.  The brain and body are a computer, the spirit is at the keyboard.  There are other analogies, point is the same.
2.  Why do you presume the body is the source of spirit energy?
3.  How is it I can call someone in Peoria and speak with them?  Are you suggesting there is no other answer to your question than your seemingly poor imagination.  Bell could understand the physics involved.
4.  Maybe they can.  Maybe they choose not to.  Maybe they just don’t care.  Maybe they have other things to chat about.

  I am a life long skeptical Spiritualist but you seem just a naysayer.
Say hi next time you’re down my way.
Bob

#2 Sorka on Saturday July 17, 2010 at 6:09pm

1. There is no evidence that a spirit exists. Look at people with brain damage and get back to me.

2. Why do you presume spirit energy exists in the first place? You have no evidence that you are correct and yet you latch onto it as if it’s the truth.

3. That isn’t “poor imagination.” That is a good and rational question. I do agree that there could be other possibilities and I don’t think the author is discounting other possible explanations.

4. Now THAT sounds like a poor imagination. The best you could come up with is “Maybe they don’t care” or “Maybe they want to talk about something else”? We’re talking about human beings here, not fictional characters who HAVE an excuse (their goal is to move the story along). I’m certain that SOME of these people would want to comfort their grieving family members ASAP. Too bad the psychics out there are doing a terrible job getting their messages across.

P.S. There is no such thing as a “skeptical spiritualist.” You can’t be both. If you believe something before the evidence appears, you are not a skeptic.

And the author does not sound like a naysayer because the author has not said that spirits don’t exist. Do you see these words anywhere? I certainly don’t.

He sounds like a skeptic who asked some damned good questions that make you uncomfortable because they challenge your beliefs. I know it’s so much easier to just call a person a naysayer instead of acknowledging that the person is making some good points.

Calling a person a naysayer when they are exhibiting critical thinking skills is intellectually lazy.

#3 breuther on Sunday July 18, 2010 at 10:11am

True, but there is no reason to believe that a spirit can’t exist.  Can you say and prove to me with 100% surety that a spirit can’t exist?

I have no empirical evidence that spirit exists.  I presume spirit exists because of personal experience.  I understand the difference between the two and I further understand what I see as true, you may not.  However, your inability to see my truth does not negate my truth.  Only until someone can say “spirit is in violation of physical law and therefore undoubtedly cannot exist and here is the proof” will I then look for other scenarios to explain my experiences.

  We are not talking about human beings here.  The human being is dead.  The spiritual being may have reasons for not providing answers, I don’t know.  But, just because you want the case solved doesn’t mean it share your desires.  It’s their life, that’s all I’m saying.
  As for psychics doing a terrible job, I totally agree with you.  However, we are mediums, not psychics.  Big difference.  And, like you, we are not perfect.

  I do not believe something before the evidence appears.  I believe in the possibility of something before the evidence appears.  Spiritualists believe in various “planes of existence”, i.e. that other forms of life are Out There.  Scientists also believe this, although they may not believe in a spirit being.  We further believe that communications can exists between these planes.  Scientists also believe that communications between different beings is a possibility.
  Where the skepticism comes in is when this communication is manifested.  The medium says my grandmother is here.  Not good enough.  What is her name, what identifies her as my grandmother, does her message ring true?  These are the questions people need to ask and have answered to their satisfaction.  Any reputable medium will provide these answers or terminate the reading.

  I could agree there is a difference between a naysayer and a skeptic.  It seemed to me that the author, as well as yourself, aren’t saying well, this does not seem possible.  Rather, you seem to be saying no, this is absolutely impossible.

#4 Sorka on Monday July 19, 2010 at 12:04am

I never said that I believe that a spirit can’t exist nor have I proclaimed that I have proof of this assertion. You are the one saying that. It is near impossible to disprove something.

When it comes to the supernatural, there are opinions, but there is only one truth. I do not pretend that I know what is and isn’t true because I honestly don’t know. You shouldn’t be waiting for anyone to show you anything before looking at other scenarios, though. You should be looking at all scenarios FIRST and foremost and not accepting any scenarios until you have even a smidge of objective evidence. (And even then, you should be prepared to drop your accepted scenarios at any moment’s notice) You shouldn’t be giving your experiences any labels or characteristics except “unknown.”

Yes, spirits aren’t human beings, but they were once human beings and that raises a lot of questions. I’m sure some would want their own cases solved. I’m sure some would want to communicate with their loved ones. Yes, there might be some other unknown excuses. I’ll admit that. I just found the excuses you mentioned kind of, er, “convenient.” Kind of like how it’s convenient that the Christian God doesn’t show itself because it wants to give human beings “free will”....

I meant “psychic” as an umbrella term, but I guess I will use “medium” to specifically talk about people who communicate with spirits in the future. I’m glad you agree that mediums are doing a terrible job. I get that you guys aren’t perfect, but NBA players aren’t perfect and yet they score goals every once in a while. One of you guys need to win James Randi’s $1 Million Challenge. Heh.

I believe in the possibility of stuff, too. All skeptics do. However, there is a difference between believing in the POSSIBILITY of something and PRESUMING that this something exists, which is exactly what you seem to be doing. You specifically said the following: “I PRESUME spirit exists because of personal experience,”  (As a skeptic, you can’t presume anything) “I will NOT look for any other possibilites until I’m shown my theory is disproven,” (You need to always be looking at other possibilities) and “The spirit is at the keyboard.” (How can you know this if you don’t even have objective evidence that spirits exist in the first place?) From looking at yor words, that is not how skepticism works. You cannot be biased for or against something and you clearly are biased towards the existence of spirits.

No, scientists do not believe that other planes of existence exist. They believe in the *possibility* of these other planes existing. Yes, scientists believe that if these planes actually exist, commnication between these planes is a possibility. But scientists do not presume these things based on personal experience. They do ignore other possibilities. They classify things they don’t understand as “unknown” rather than giving them names and characteristics. That is what differeniates spiritualists and scientists. (Not saying that a scientist can’t be a spiritualist, of course, but you know what I’m talking about)

I agree with you about what answers mediums should answer. However, I will say that such a person must be studied scientifically so that the ways this medium can get information are minimized. I’m sure you agree.

If we were saying “No, that is absolutely impossible,” we would have DIRECTLY said that. Notice, for example, that I said “There is no evidence that a spirit exists” rather than “Spirits don’t exist.They are impossible.” Notice that I said “I do agree that there could be other possibilities [when it comes to spirits communicating with the living]” instead of “Spirts don’t communicate with the liivng because they don’t exist.” HUGE difference. Also, the author, Joe Nickell, simply asked typical skeptical questions. These questions NEED to be asked.

It seems like you made an assumption about our intentions instead. Not to mention that skeptics CANNOT say that something is “absolutely impossible.” We can think something is improbable. We can criticize arguments. (Which exactly what we were doing.) We can look at other possibilities. But, we cannot say “It’s impossible.” As I mentioned, it is virtually impossible to disprove something.

This will be my final comment to you. I will admit that I made some assumptions and some rather rude comments in my first post to you and I apologize for that. I appreciate your response and I appreciate learning more about your opinions. You can reply if you would like and I will read it. I will respect your right to believe what you want to believe. We can agree to disagree.

P.S. Because brain damage does visible damage to people in real life (causing people to forget stuff, causing people to have low intelligence, causing people to not even be aware of their existence, changing people’s personalities, putting them in comas, etc.), it is rational to wonder if a completely decimated brain = permanent death. I could definitely see a soul being possible if it is like a cloud or something. I can’t see a soul thinking, let alone remembering anything, because thinking and memory lies in the brain. Unless, there is some kind of hidden soul “brain” that only emerges after death. However, again, as a skeptic, I can’t say that souls or spirits are impossible. There is not enough evidence to prove or disprove the existence of souls or spirits. That is my main point, I guess.

#5 Blunt, Jame Blunt (Guest) on Monday July 19, 2010 at 9:51am

Breuther Bob, you are being silly, dishonest or a bit of both. Snap out of it man!

Sorka, you are too nice and too patient for your own good! But I respect you for trying to help people escape their own delusions or BS. Good luck with it.

#6 breuther (Guest) on Monday July 19, 2010 at 6:05pm

Thank you for giving me the last word.  I think, however, I will pass as a sign of respect for your views and thoughts.  I do believe that we do or can agree on far more things than we disagree on. 
  I do want to make one point, or several points on one subject.  I never said mediums are doing a terrible job.  I said psychics are and I have little, if any, patience or tolerance for them.  I would also like to make a distinction between Spiritualist mediums, especially those who have studied and trained here in Lily Dale, and all of the so-called psychic mediums or whatever description de jour they use to advertise themselves.  A true medium, while not perfect, nonetheless does what we say we can do.  Which is communicate with another being, albeit not a human being.  The mechanics of this communication iarenot anything complex, other than the ability of the medium to act as a step up or step down transformer.  I believe that is what this piece of equipment is called on power transmission lines.  There is nothing we do that doesn’t have a basis in a scientific field.
  Anyway, if I’m not a skeptic, I guess I try to be as close to one as I can.  Had I lived many centuries ago, I am sure I would have found it “improbable” that the earth was flat, despite the pronouncements of the leading scientific minds of the day.
  Thank you for the conversation and allowing me to learn something of your world.  Come visit us sometime.

#7 Sorka on Monday July 19, 2010 at 9:13pm

I know I mentioned I wouldn’t respond, but I decided to after reading your post and getting an idea. Do you know the names of any legit mediums? I would love to research these people. Thank you.

#8 breuther (Guest) on Tuesday July 20, 2010 at 8:18pm

How about you start with me.  What do you have in mind?  I have something in mind for you so maybe we can work a deal, eh.

#9 Sorka on Tuesday July 20, 2010 at 8:45pm

Thanks for your response. I was wondering if you would see it since I let you have the last word. I have in mind….someone who has actual medium skills? I’m not really sure what I have in mind. Sorry. :D

Maybe we can work out a deal.

#10 breuther (Guest) on Wednesday July 21, 2010 at 7:32pm

I am a medium.  I am not a registered medium but I think that for your purposes, I will do nicely.  I would like you to come down here for a Sunday circle.  It’s a small home circle and I am curious about your presence in it. 
  What do you have in mind?  Or does a scientifically interested medium perhaps perplex you? 

#11 Sorka on Friday July 23, 2010 at 4:09pm

I probably can’t meet with you now (I live in Georgia lol), but thank you for the offer. I did not realize you were a Lily Dale medium. My bad.

I was wondering if you knew any legit mediums besides yourself, but I guess I will look into “registered mediums from Lily Dale.” One day, I would like to visit Lily Dale to see what it is all about.

A scientifically-interested medium does not perplex me.

Have a good day and thank you for your assistance.

P.S. I don’t know if you any Lily Dale people have done the JREF $1 Million Challenge, but I hope one of you guys wins it.

#12 Sorka on Friday July 23, 2010 at 4:13pm

*I don’t know if any of you Lily Dale people (Gah. Can’t write today….)

#13 breuther (Guest) on Friday July 23, 2010 at 5:47pm

Let me know when you come up.  I’d be happy to show you around. 
Bob

#14 Sorka on Sunday July 25, 2010 at 12:43am

Okay. Do you have an e-mail address or something?

#15 breuther (Guest) on Wednesday July 28, 2010 at 6:42pm

you can get me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) //';l[1]='a';l[2]='/';l[3]='<';l[4]=' 116';l[5]=' 101';l[6]=' 110';l[7]=' 46';l[8]=' 99';l[9]=' 110';l[10]=' 121';l[11]=' 115';l[12]=' 116';l[13]=' 101';l[14]=' 110';l[15]=' 64';l[16]=' 100';l[17]=' 97';l[18]=' 114';l[19]=' 110';l[20]=' 111';l[21]=' 99';l[22]='>';l[23]='\"';l[24]=' 116';l[25]=' 101';l[26]=' 110';l[27]=' 46';l[28]=' 99';l[29]=' 110';l[30]=' 121';l[31]=' 115';l[32]=' 116';l[33]=' 101';l[34]=' 110';l[35]=' 64';l[36]=' 100';l[37]=' 97';l[38]=' 114';l[39]=' 110';l[40]=' 111';l[41]=' 99';l[42]=':';l[43]='o';l[44]='t';l[45]='l';l[46]='i';l[47]='a';l[48]='m';l[49]='\"';l[50]='=';l[51]='f';l[52]='e';l[53]='r';l[54]='h';l[55]='a ';l[56]='<'; for (var i = l.length-1; i >= 0; i=i-1){ if (l[i].substring(0, 1) == ' ') output += "&#"+unescape(l[i].substring(1))+";"; else output += unescape(l[i]); } document.getElementById('eeEncEmail_fU3YseNios').innerHTML = output; //]]>   .  btw, I just read the Randi challenge.  I was disappointed to see that Spiritualism was not an acceptable endeavor.  I believe he is missing the boat here.  While the interpretation of the message is subjective, the mechanics of the communication are objective.  All communicating is based in physical reality and, therefore, is measurable and provable.  Someone speaks, someone hears.  Pretty simple.  And, I would think, observable.

#16 Sorka on Thursday July 29, 2010 at 2:35pm

Thank you for giving me your e-mail address. I will not use it to send you spam. :D

The JREF Challenge FAQs says that “mediumistic powers” are fine: http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/1m-challenge/challenge-faq.html

Professional Medium Patricia Putt was a JREF Challenge participant: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/may/12/psychic-claims-james-randi-paranormal

Also, Mike Maggio, a “spirit reader,” was a JREF Challenge participant: http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=83823

As long as you can provide evidence that your powers exist, I think just about anyone with any power can participate in the JREF Challenge.

#17 Sorka on Thursday July 29, 2010 at 2:38pm

CORRECTION: Anyone with just about any testable power can participate in the JREF Challenge if their power doesn’t cause INJURY. :D

#18 breuther (Guest) on Monday August 02, 2010 at 7:15pm

I haven’t forgotten you.  Summer is always a little hectic here. Be back soon.

#19 Sorka on Tuesday August 03, 2010 at 4:49pm

That’s fine. I just wanted to give you a heads-up on the JREF Challenge.

#20 breuther (Guest) on Wednesday August 04, 2010 at 5:41pm

OK, I read the 2 attempts.  Not really mediumship, eh.  But I’m not even interested in the prize.  I mean, I could say you have a Bonnie associated with your mother’s side of the family.  She was a health/fitness nut.  She is concerned about your lifestyle and says to not confuse what you think is exercising with the real thing.  You need to get off your duff and exercise, bike riding, maybe.
  That is an example of a reading.  But if you were right there with me, it would be easy to claim some sort of psychic ability is being used.
  I want to see brain activity before and during a reading.  I’m betting the activity will provide clues about or possible verification of the communication taking place.
  There is alot more than this but I believe mediumship can be quantified.

#21 Sorka on Thursday August 05, 2010 at 11:26pm

You can disagree about whether it’s mediumship or not, but it is clear that people who practice mediumship are allowed to participate in the JREF Challenge. That was the point I was trying to make.

I see what you are saying with your example. However, the point of scientific tests is to see if there is evidence that leans towards paranormal powers actually existing first and foremost. (i.e. whether a person can actually glean information about another person in a way that is thought to be humanly impossible. There would be NO way to prove that you were talking to an actual spirit (SPECIFICALLY, a spirit of a PERSON who DIED…for all we know spirits could be a different species or something) unless you were able to summon it or something spectacular like that. (Even then, it could be possible that you have the power to visually project your psychic thoughts or something) This is why science does not prescribe labels and characteristics to unknown phenomenon. If it does, it stops being science. If a person were to do what you do, scientists would only be able to say “This person can glean information in a way thought humanly impossible.” I will go into more detail about what I’m talking about in the next paragraphs.

About brain wave activities: Brain wave activities would not prove that you are communicating with a spirit. If certain parts of your brain were active, it would only prove that these parts of your brain were active. People who have schizophrenia, for example, who hear voices have activity going on in their brain. That doesn’t mean that they are actually hearing voices; it means that their damaged brains are malfunctioning and, unfortunately, making them think they are hearing voices. That is the biggest problem when it comes to subjective experiences: They seem real to us, but we cannot always know if they are even real (let alone, as I’ve mentioned, put labels on them and give them characteristics). If your brain starts malfunctioning and you believe that FBI agents are sending you secret messages you might not be able to tell if your brain is playing tricks on you or if FBI agents are actually sending you secret messages because your brain is the only way that you can see the world.

Because the brain is so subjective and we have limited knowledge about it, let alone the world in general, it would be very hard if not impossible to quantify mediumship. But, of course, that doesn’t stop us from trying. Everyone wants to know whether there is life after death because death is the primary human fear.

P.S. I’m not interested in the prize, either. :D I’m interested in finding out if people have actual paranormal powers. Humans thirst for this knowledge. We literally want there to be something more than what we know.

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