How did you discover Lily Dale and why did you decide to make a film about it?
Lily Dale is this quaint little town in upstate New York whose Spiritualist residents include about forty psychic mediums. I had taken a research trip there with my business partner, Daniel Laikind, as we were curious, though also skeptical. There were one or two mediums that gave us messages that were specific and accurate and really made us think twice. But even more striking was the palpable grief that many of the visitors wore on their sleeves and the subsequent relief or at least diminishment of that sadness through the psychic messages that were conveyed to them. The emotional journeys that the visitors experienced made me realize there was a film there.
The town's been around for over a hundred years. And they've been subject to all kinds of ridicule. A lot of non-believers say the whole thing is one giant scam. I'm not saying I believe wholeheartedly in the entire Lily Dale experience, but one thing I can say for certain is that there is no cheating going on. The mediums are not at their computers googling visitors or their upcoming clients or anything.
To the outside world, mediums often seem like fascinating eccentrics. What did you discover about them when you started?
The people in Lily Dale are united by a religion called Spiritualism. They believe we're all made of this spiritual energy and we can choose to come down to earth and inhabit a body to learn some vital life lessons. And the body is just a vessel that you use until it runs out of gas, basically, at which point you go back into the spiritual world with your newfound psychic growth. And you can choose to come down again or you can just hang out in the spiritual world and kind of watch what's going on. They all believe that and they're all united by that. And that belief is very different from what most people believe. And it makes them pretty eccentric and quirky, but at the same time, if you think about it, it's really a great and soothing system of beliefs. First of all, it removes the fear of death entirely and gives them a wonderful way to organize their lives.
"Many people - mediums and the people who visit - believe that Lily Dale is a big vortex of energy ... which is attractive to spirits. This town is ground zero for that way of thinking.
In addition to the mediums you focus on in the film you also follow people who go there to try and get in touch with their departed loved ones. Were you skeptical that anyone would get anything out of it?
I knew going in that the people we followed, many of whom were coping with painful loss, were going to be seriously moved. I knew there would be a lot of tears, and it was going to be a very emotional journey for them. I just hoped it would be a healing experience for them, and not a painful one.
The film is not without its conflicts and even its protesters.
Well it's a strange thing that the town is very peaceful and very quiet and they go about their business and believe what they want. And people come there and no one's forced into anything; there's no indoctrination, no preaching or anything like that. They just give messages. It's almost like a sort of spiritual amusement park experience. But there are people on the Christian right who are really offended by even the effort to communicate with spirits; they think it's anti-religious.
What was it like for you to capture these really personal moments of the subjects?
It was definitely an emotional filming experience, but it was a little hard to gauge. Sometimes I would sit there watching through the camera and I would think, "oh man, this is the most specific, exact reading" and the recipient of the messages would be weeping uncontrollably, and then they would leave and say that they didn't get anything out of it, that the reader missed the point. And sometimes a person would be very still and quiet, and not give any reaction and then leave and say, "Oh my God, my life has changed, I can't believe the message I just got." So, it was often hard to tell from their reactions while filming who was getting something from it and who wasn't.
Is there any specific place in the town that is considered sacred?
One of the interesting things in Lily Dale is something they call the Inspiration Stump. It's a huge tree stump in the middle of the woods and it's where they do huge group readings every day. Visitors sit on benches, and if you're lucky you get a quick minute or so message from one of the mediums. And it's amazing to watch, almost like a theatrical spectacle or something. The mediums deliver some specific message that seems like it's coming from a grandmother or a grandfather, an uncle, or husband. And the receivers are often instantly moved and reduced to tears.
Many people - mediums and the people who visit - believe that Lily Dale is a big vortex of energy, especially at the stump, which is attractive to spirits. This town is ground zero for that way of thinking. So anyone who is in touch with any kind of psychic medium that really feels they have that gift, Lily Dale is their home.
Summer Series 2010