“Don’t you remember having an imaginary friend? That friend was not imaginary—you were talking to Spirit,” said Patricia Bell.
Bell, seventy years old with sinewy arms, aqua eyes, and straw-colored hair, is the director of Children’s Week at the Lily Dale Assembly, a hamlet in upstate New York that serves as the headquarters of Spiritualism, an American religion based on communication with the dead. Approximately twenty-two thousand pilgrims pass through Lily Dale’s guarded gate each summer, a number that hasn’t fluctuated that much since the community was first incorporated in 1879. Its alumni include Susan B. Anthony, Deepak Chopra, and Wayne Dyer.
In July, when many American children go to soccer camp, or horse-riding camp, or coding camp, the Spiritualists of Lily Dale welcome kids for a week of animal communication, dream interpretation, body tapping, qigong, and contact with deceased ancestors. Founded in 2003, Bell’s camp is the only Spiritualist camp in the nation dedicated to teaching young mediums and psychics.
“Today, we will be calling upon your ancestors,” Bell said. She waved a slow-burning wand of sage up and down the front, back, and sides of each child’s body, and the lyceum grew hazy with smoke. “To clear out any negative vibes,” a nine-year-old next to me explained. Bell’s assistant power walked over to an A/V set and turned on the new Lion King soundtrack. Beyoncé’s voice reverberated through the classroom: “Trying to keep your head up high / While you’re tremblin’, that’s when the magic happens / And the stars gather by your side.” We formed a circle at the center of the room.
“You will be calling upon your ancestors through dance,” Bell said. “And will use your body to get into this state. Step and slide. Step and slide. Lead with your left foot.” Everything fell into stillness.
“Ommmm,” they chanted.
“This is your breath,” Bell said. “This is your spirit.” A few minutes passed without anyone speaking a word. Bell directed campers in an exercise to access the third eye.
“Who was your ancestor?” asked one child, solemn and sock-footed, a hemp choker around her neck. The other avoided eye contact and fidgeted with her hands behind her back, fingers crocheted together. “My meemaw,” she whispered.
The other child looked at her with a dignified expression. “I am your meemaw. I am here with you. I watch over you. I keep you safe and I bless you.”
Her partner gave her a stone-cold stare and said, “I am Maddie. I am your granddaughter. You are part of my ancestry. I honor you. I love you. And I know that you are with me.”
They thanked each other and swapped places.
All of the children in the lyceum participated in the exercise without protest. Four-year-olds in the second row made high-pitched meowing sounds simply because that day, they felt that they were kittens. One kitten licked the face of the boy next to her.
Bell crossed her arms. “I want you to listen to the subtle whispers,” she said. “Sometimes what happens is that we miss the whispers because our minds are too busy. Spirit loved ones work with us all the time. We’re all connected. We’re all one.”
In recent years, Bell’s camp has attracted anywhere from thirty to one hundred thirty kids, ranging in age from eighteen months to seventeen years old. All Bell asks is that families accompany the children, donate ten dollars per child (the camp’s counselors are volunteers), and submit a signed insurance form. Rather than housing the children in typical camp cabins and making them eat in a cafeteria, families rent rooms in the old, saltwater-taffy–colored Victorian houses on the grounds, or stay in Lily Dale’s Maplewood Hotel or Leolyn Hotel. Others arrive in trailer homes and set up camp for the week, or even the entire summer. Bell lives in a canary-yellow and rose-colored bungalow in the center of camp, her Lily Dale cottage, dubbed “the Birthday Cake House.”
Bell, a lifelong medium with a doctorate from the International College of Spiritual Science in Montreal, believes that the otherworldly abilities she’s nurturing in herself as well as the children aren’t rare gifts, but innate skills, as reflexive as breastfeeding. These skills are typically educated out of people as they age. She formed the camp to let kids exercise their craft and to make it less daunting for them to talk to those on the “spirit plane.”
“Who here is a medium?” I asked the next day at lunch, at a table covered in amethyst and Himalayan sea salt. All five girls sitting with me—Brooklyn, Savannah, Cheyenne, Maya, and Kylie—raised their hands.
Brooklyn and Savannah, identical redheaded twins, with their sister Cheyenne, have been attending the kids’ camp for the past ten years. Their grandparents live in a trailer at Lily Dale during the summer months. The five best friends had just returned from “The Future Healers of Tomorrow” at the Healing Temple, a meditative service where the girls performed hands-on healing for any adult or child who offered themselves up.
I hadn’t seen them in action, as I had instead observed an animal communication class held by Reverend John White, an elderly clairvoyant and medical intuitive. He would carry Sadie, his black toy poodle, around the room and have her deliver psychic messages to the kids from their pets. At one point, White approached a little girl and said, “Sadie tells me that your dog wants you to scratch it behind the ears more often.” The girl wasn’t having it. “I said my pet duck! Duck! Not dog.”
“I’ve attended that class before,” Maya told me. “I thought it was interesting.”
“I’ve noticed the dog is most often wrong,” Brooklyn said.
“He told me I was going to work at McDonald’s,” Maya added.
Their meals arrived: chicken fingers, a BLT, a cheeseburger with ranch on the side, and gluten-free mozzarella sticks, paid for with wadded-up dollars their parents had given them. Kylie, the youngest of the bunch, who has been coming to camp for nine years, ate a French fry and genteelly dabbed the side of her mouth with a napkin. She leaned forward and told me about hands-on healing. “They teach us how to focus,” she said. “We go into our heart and take a few breaths, and, like, you talk to God for a few seconds and say thank you. My hands start tingling a lot and that’s when I know where the pain of the other person is.”
“Do you see dead people?” I asked. “Can you see ghosts?” Yes, they all agreed. Cheyenne explained the difference between spirits and ghosts to me. “Ghosts are more negative,” she informed me, “and they want to hurt you. Spirits give you messages. If I feel a spirit is present, I’ll let them do what they want. If I see a ghost, I’ll be like, ‘Okay, it’s time to go now.’ ”
Later that afternoon, I found a group of older campers hanging out in a rickety gazebo with chipping paint. They reminded me of the Scooby Doo gang. All of them were sixteen, and most of their mothers were either mediums or psychics.
Chase, a sweet kid with moppish hair, told me that he first got in touch with his psychic side by having conversations with the birds outside his window. When he was in sixth grade, a classmate died as a result of a heart condition. To cope with the loss, Chase made a castle scene in Minecraft to commemorate him. From above, Chase swore that the shadows of the torches made the shape of a veiny heart; his mother had told him it was a sign from heaven. Chase paused and looked down, running his fingers through his hair. “Everywhere else I’ve been, it’s not very acceptable to say, ‘Hey, there’s someone here dead that’s trying to talk to you.’ But you can do that here.”
“Also, it’s much easier for kids to talk to spirit,” another teen medium named Melanie chimed in. “The younger you are, the better you are at it. Four years ago it was easier for me to connect with spirit than it is now. Out there, so many things get fed into your mind—like, it’s not real. But here, they help facilitate the process.”
Emma, tall and a little mysterious, had been attending Lily Dale since she was in utero. During that visit, a few mediums had rushed over to Emma’s mother Pat on separate occasions and told her that she was pregnant with a girl, and that the girl was going to grow up to be one hell of a medium.
“If someone were to say kids are more vulnerable and that this place puts stuff in their head,” Emma remarked, “it’s assuming the kids don’t know anything about the dead before coming here, but a lot of kids have grown up seeing spirits in their rooms.”
“Well, not everybody, Emma,” said Pat, who was standing a few feet away.
After contemplating a message from my grandfather that Chase passed along to me, I followed him and his friends into the lyceum. Kindra, an adult medium from Canada, was conducting the children in a song sung to the tune of “O Tannenbaum”:
Oh Tom the Toad,
Oh Tom the Toad.
Why are you lying on the road?
“But I know,” Kindra stage-whispered, “we never really die. So really, my buddy Tom is with me forevah!” The children cheered and the song started up again, increasing in speed, faster and faster and faster until the crowd exploded with applause. The counselors would often get the kids pumped up to help raise spiritual vibrations. Kindra stood next to a dry-erase board on which the acronym CALM, a reminder of the different categories of proof they could name in their spirit messages, had been written in green marker:
We snaked out the door and gathered in an outdoor amphitheater. Each child was assigned a number, which they wrote on a piece of paper and dropped in a plastic bag. When it was their turn to give a reading, they would deliver a message from the great beyond to a partner whose number they had drawn from the bag. One by one, the kids stood on a stump at the front of the amphitheater and spurted out the color or animal that had flashed into their heads.
After thirty minutes, it was Kylie’s turn to approach the stump. She asked Kindra if she could skip pulling a number and just see who or what came to her. Kindra nodded. Kylie closed her eyes and centered herself, with hands clasped behind her back. A soft wind blew and she steadied herself; her composure made her look much older than fifteen.
“I see an average-height woman with dark-gray, curly hair,” the young medium said. “I also see the color purple. I don’t know what that would relate to. But I’m thinking her favorite color. I also see her working in a garden, with flowers or even a vegetable garden.” Kylie opened her eyes. “Can anyone take that, please?” A few hands shot up in the air.
“That’s me. That’s mine.” A trembling voice—it was Jeannine, Bell’s assistant. “That’s my great-grandmother.” Kylie mentioned something about the spirit she was channeling having lived in a ranch house, and asked if that clue helped identify her. Jeannine nodded quickly. “She says she regrets something she could have said or done for you. She’s crying, and I can feel it. She wishes she could be there for when you need her. She regrets a lot, actually. She loves you so, so, so, so much. And I’ll leave that with you.”
Jeannine had one hand over her mouth as the other wiped away tears. Kylie was also crying. “Thank you and I’ll leave you with that,” she said. She did a half-curtsy and returned to her seat.