Driving from Orlando, Florida, I pass a solitary sign bearing the name “Cassadaga.” No further explanation informs travelers of what awaits. The town is less than an hour’s drive from Disney World, but there are no costumed characters to be found here. Rather, the community of Cassadaga is filled with mediums and psychics—people who claim to communicate with the dead and see the future.
I’ve never found myself drawn to psychics, energy healers, or allegedly powerful vortexes. I’ve also never had my tarot cards read or my aura photographed. But after a friend tells me about her experiences in the town—which is known as the “Psychic Capital of the World”—I book an appointment for a reading with a woman named Maeda.
The Fox sisters
At first glance, Cassadaga resembles other small towns in the South. Located just south of the so-called Bible Belt, the main faith practiced here is spiritualism—a belief system that can operate in conjunction with traditional Christianity and countless other religions.
The niche faith began in upstate New York in 1848 with Maggie, Kate, and Leah Fox, three sisters who convinced others that they were able to communicate with a spirit in their home. News of the Fox sisters’ supernatural abilities spread across the country; the idea particularly appealed to those who had recently lost loved ones during the Civil War. The sisters gave readings and held seances, but later confessed that it was all a hoax.
Despite the detractors, spiritualism continued to rise in popularity. Cassadaga was founded in 1875 when spiritualist George Colby arrived by train and steamboat to central Florida. He established the organization’s summer facility and many homes, hotels, and auditoriums from Colby’s time are still here today.
One of the faith’s core beliefs is that the spirits of those who have passed on are not considered to be spooky ghosts, but rather spiritual beings that the living can still communicate with. Spiritualists also believe in the existence of an Infinite Intelligence, or a higher being. The Cassadagans were—and still are—known for their egalitarianism, putting women in leadership roles even before they had voting rights. They fought for the abolition of slavery and went head to head with the Ku Klux Klan.
Spiritualism declined during the beginning of the 1900s, but the Cassadaga community remained. In the 1970s, New Age beliefs revived interest in spiritualism and brought new businesses beyond the original camp.
The business of Cassadaga
The town itself has no traffic lights or big box stores. Oak trees draped in Spanish moss line the streets, a living time capsule of Old Florida. The Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp covers 57 acres and hosts 70 full-time residents. The camp is a nonprofit religious organization with approximately 170 members in total, governed by a board of directors. The group includes 43 certified mediums, a process that requires four to six years of rigorous education. All services are open to the public as are the grounds, including the Fairy Trail, a vortex decorated with makeshift altars.
Alongside the camp sits the Cassadaga Hotel. The 1920s building was part of the complex until it was sold to independent owners during the Great Depression. Visitors can sit in the hotel’s parlor for readings or to learn about reported ghost sightings. Across the street, New Age mediums—who aren’t members of the camp and aren’t required to go through certification—peddle aura photos, souvenirs, pet readings, and hypnosis.
Despite the fact that “psychic” and “medium” are terms used interchangeably to describe the people in Cassadaga, there is a distinct difference. Mediums communicate with the dead in a variety of ways, usually by seeing or hearing, while psychics have visions of the future. Both interpret what they see or hear for others, and a person can be both a medium and psychic.
People come from all over the world to practice in Cassadaga. Medium Mary Hayes works at the Cassadaga Hotel and has a second office in Winter Park, Florida. Seeking solace after the death of her mother, she developed her abilities and uses them to comfort others. “I dress like a regular person,” Hayes says. “My office is like a regular counselor’s office. I don’t do the whole crystal ball thing. And that’s fine, I don’t make fun of people that do, and that kind of adds to the experience, I guess.”
But she’s also trying to help counter any false assumptions people might have about mediums. “I do seances at the hotel, and about a year ago, I started doing a Q&A before,” Hayes says. “Because if I come in, and we just start, people are like, ‘Oh, where’s the crystal ball? Where are the candles?’ They’re looking for that showmanship.”
A skeptic meets a medium
Most curious visitors start at the bookstore and welcome center, which sells metaphysical gifts, books, and souvenirs. I peruse a large binder listing the phone numbers and specialties of mediums currently taking appointments. I also withdraw money from the ATM, since most of the mediums only accept cash.
A feral cat lounges lazily on the porch as I wait for my appointment with Maeda, my chosen medium. She’s an older woman who wears a gauzy shawl, nothing like I might have pictured before coming here.
She invites me into her office inside one of the worn Victorian homes. It resembles a living room, with a couch, table, chairs, and plants. We sit down and she asks if I need guidance on anything in particular.
When I answer no, she scribbles on a notepad and tells me what she sees: an older woman, a grandmother type who was intelligent and ahead of her time, and a fatherly man who passed before his time and had a great sense of humor. Both sound vaguely familiar.
Mediums often have visions without context—they will try to interpret what they see, but ultimately it’s up to each individual to make sense of how a particular vision might apply to their life. I’m still trying to figure out who the woman and man could be when Maeda shares what she sees in my future: education and travel.
Psychics and pandemics
Even a town full of psychics wasn’t able to predict the COVID-19 pandemic. At the beginning of April, Florida’s stay-at-home order effectively cancelled all in-person readings and healings along with classes, historical tours, and church services. But the mediums pivoted, finding new methods of reaching people.
Church services, temporarily suspended during Florida’s recent shut-down, are now allowed in-person (with proper social distancing guidelines in place). Services are also streamed via social media, and mediums and healers continue to be available for video chats and traditional phone calls.
“So many individuals are seeking reassurance and guidance during this important time of change,” Hayes says. But there’s no easy answer to the question on everyone’s mind: When will things go back to “normal?”
“As I told a phone client earlier today, we most likely will not go back to life as we knew it,” Hayes says. “But, I also believe that much good can come out of this time of hardship—a deeper appreciation for one another, a return to more compassionate living, and a sense of what really matters most in our everyday lives.”
If you go
The Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp—including its bookstore, classes, and workshops —is open daily with social distancing guidelines in place.