Talk about spirits and séances, and most people probably have trouble stifling a grin. But in the 19th century spiritualism was a surprisingly mainstream religious movement in the United States. Abraham Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, even held seances in the White House to talk to her dead children.
Even today, there is a little town in Florida where the spirits live on.
On first impression, the town of Cassadaga, with its tell-tale tin roofs and quaint front porches, looks like a journey back in time. But look closely at the signs around town and it's clear that people come here for a different kind of journey: mystics, mediums and spirits from beyond.
Just ask Anita Evans. She lives here.
"Well, they call us Cassadaga, where 'The Twilight Zone' meets Mayberry. We kind of like it that way," she said with a smile as she walked down the town's one main street.
'We Have Friendly Spirits'
We came here because we had heard about this curious corner of Florida. There are just 54 homes in Cassadaga, the newest built in the 1930s, housing about a hundred people. It's not really a town, it's a religious community and camp established in an era when talking to spirits wasn't considered quite so … odd.
The spiritualists, as they're called, developed the camp in 1875 as a winter retreat for spiritual leaders from New York, the birthplace of the spiritual movement, according to Evans.
"And they wanted out of the cold winter, they wanted out of the snow," she said. "This is a very spiritual, hallowed ground, and it has been that way probably about a 140 years now and only spiritualists have lived here. So it is a wonderful, peaceful little community that is wonderful at night time. It is like no other. It is like walking back in time."
People come to the Cassadaga Hotel, the only hotel in town, for a walk back in time and maybe a glimpse into the afterlife.
"The hotel itself was built in 1927, and people from all over the world come for readings and also to experience the paranormal activities that take place here in the hotel," explained owner Diana Morn. "We have friendly spirits, that's the best way I can put it."
With a deadly serious face, she explained that different rooms have different sprits. "It's not a theme park. We take what we do here very seriously."
She pulled out a picture of room 10, showing a couple that stayed at the hotel in February. "Can you see all theses little orbs that are all over?" she asked. "That's spirit energy."
There's clearly something on the photograph. Whether it's spirits or water spots depends on what you're willing to believe.
As I headed to my room, I began to wonder just what I had gotten myself into.
Outside, a few tourists wandered the streets. Curiosity and the possibility of an encounter with the paranormal have made Cassadaga a stop on Florida's tourist trail.
Maxine Markoff and her friend Sheila Golden came from Boynton Beach with their husbands. They signed up for a $75 reading, hoping that during the 45-minute session they would meet friends and family who had moved on.
An hour later Markoff and Golden sat down to talk about their first readings.
"I was disappointed in mine," said Golden. "I felt that anything that this lady told me was general and really didn't apply to me and she was just fishing."
Markoff was happier with her reading.
"It went very well. And she hit upon a lot of things that were quite true."
"Ah, very personal," said Markoff with a laugh.
Markoff said she'd come back to Cassadaga for another reading some time. Golden is not convinced.
"I think once in my lifetime is enough," she said.
The Shaking Table
As day turned to night, and the sleepy streets emptied, Cassadaga felt like a ghost town. Of course, around here some believe it really is. The center of activity in the evening is just down the street at the Colby Memorial Temple.
A room in the back is reserved for seances.
Victor Vogenitz, who first came to Cassadaga with his parents 40 years ago, led that night's seance.
"I don't mind you being skeptical, as long as you're not cynical," he said. "That's the only difference. When you're cynical, things don't tend to happen, because it blocks you out."
The lights went out. I could only see the shadowy figures of the half dozen people sitting with me around the table.
"Well, good evening, spirit," said Victor. "Thank you for coming."
"Thank you, spirit," chimed in several others.
It's a strange scene, but what happened next was even stranger.
Suddenly Vogenitz led the group in song, to "get the energy built up," and started singing, "I've Been Working on the Railroad."
Not the kind of music I expected to hear at my first seance.
And it got weirder and weirder … the table started to really come alive.
"There it goes," said one woman as the table lurched in my direction.
"There it goes," said Victor. "You better say hello."
I wasn't quite sure what to say. I didn't want to break the moment so I heard myself blurt out, "Well, hello, spirit!"
"Hello, spirit!" said the others as the table slid toward my stomach.
There weren't any cables or wheels on that heavy table -- I checked. But I couldn't help noticing that every time I gave it a gentle nudge the others nudged too, and it lurched across the room.
"There we go, thank you, spirit," said Margarita Barela as the table moved toward her. She began speaking in Spanish, greeting her dead grandfather. She was clearly pleased to be hearing from him.
If you're not a true believer in the spirit world, this is one of the strangest ways imaginable to spend an evening. Maybe it takes more than one visit to be convinced.
After 90 minutes, the seance ends. The group belted out one more unlikely song: "Happy Trails to You!"
It felt more like summer camp than spiritualist camp. Whatever it was, everyone had a good time.
As we returned to the hotel we bumped into an eager band of self-styled investigators, prowling the corridors with some odd-looking machinery. They were wearing black T-shirts with the word "T.O.P.S." on the front. I asked Wanda Gates, who seemed to be the group leader, what the T-shirts mean.
"We're The Orlando Paranormal Society," she said with a straight face. "At midnight things start changing in our world, and so we are out measuring the energy change that is going to start at midnight within the hotel."
And what exactly is the paranormal?
"Something that may not be normal to the normal person," explained Gates. "That means orbs, spirit orbs, ghosts, voices... we record a lot of voices."
"Just between us, can you tell me what rooms the spirits are in?" I asked.
"Do NOT stay in 25 and 26!" cautioned Gates.
I laughed nervously and pulled out my room key to show her: room 25.
"That is not the room you are in, seriously?" she said with a deep sense of foreboding. "Oooh, that's where Sara is and you won't sleep tonight."
While Gates and her gang continued their research, I headed to my room. I wasn't thrown by all this talk of ghosts. Well, maybe a little.
At 1:15 a.m., apart from the rattle of the air conditioner, it was completely quiet at the Cassadaga Hotel. I planned to get a very good night of sleep, but I confess after what I saw and heard in this town, I wasn't quite sure what to expect between now and sunrise.
It was a long night. I slept fitfully, but I blame the rock-hard pillow.