Book Review
History, Ghosts & Jokes: A Review of <em>Ghost Church</em>

History, Ghosts & Jokes: A Review of Ghost Church

Sarah Handley-Cousins

I first went to a medium for the same reason probably everyone does: I hoped to speak to the dead. My brother had recently and unexpectedly died, and our family was in crushing grief. Perhaps a medium, we hoped, could give us some reassurance that he was safe on the “other side.”

That’s what first brought my mom and me to the intentional Spiritualist community of Lily Dale, located about an hour south of Buffalo, which one journalist dubbed “the town that talks to the dead.” Since it was founded in 1879, the town has been dedicated to the study and practice of American Spiritualism, the religion founded by mediums Leah, Kate, and Maggie Fox in the mid-nineteenth century. Lily Dale is a cute little village nestled between a thick, old-growth forest and Cassadaga Lake, full of tiny, eclectic houses, fairy gardens, and old-fashioned meeting houses. Every summer during “camp season,” the village hosts thousands of visitors, all hoping – like my mom and I did – to hear from dead loved ones, commune with spirits, and explore New Age religion. Now, about a decade after I first visited, I’ve been thinking about Lily Dale in a very different way: together with my colleagues from Dig: A History Podcast, I’m working on a book that explores the history of the community.

That project is what brought me to writer and comedian Jamie Loftus’s newest podcast, Ghost Church. In the limited run series, Loftus visits Lily Dale’s sister community, Cassadaga (named for the lake that Lily Dale sits on), located about half an hour from Orlando, Florida. The community was founded by a Lily Dale medium and continues to serve as a winter home for many of its residents. This is Loftus’s third solo podcast: previously, she discussed her experience in MENSA and then explored the history and legacy of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. She’s also been a frequent guest host on You’re Wrong About.

A brightly colored photo of a white woman with shoulder-length straight hair, wearing a red beret.
In Ghost Church, writer and comedian Jamie Loftus investigates and interrogates American Spiritualism. (Courtesy Jamie Loftus, photo by Megan Lovallo)

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Ghost Church. Ok, fine – so part of me was nervous that Loftus was scooping us and getting the history of Spiritualist communities out into the world before we could. But more than that, I was a little worried about how Loftus would approach the subjects of mediumship, spirituality, and intentional community. Loftus is irreverent and genuinely very funny and uses her humor to make her critical approach sharper and more accessible.

But Spiritualism can be an easy mark. I mean, there’s a history of mediums emitting ghostly ectoplasm from their vaginas and using enormous trumpets to amplify spectral voices. I wasn’t worried because I hate laughing, but because it could be easy to make an entire podcast just poking fun at the silly or strange aspects of spiritualism and its history – and easy to forget that these are real religious communities made up of faithful adherents deserving of respect. I’m not an adherent, but like many, I’ve still gone to the faith in a time of need. And mediums are sensitive to being made fun of. Not only is there a long history of skeptics trying to prove Spiritualism a hoax, and ongoing campaigns to bust mediums, but spiritualist communities are also cautious about being mocked by the press. In Lily Dale, for instance, there’s real hurt and resentment from previous projects by outsiders that residents felt presented them in an unfair light.

It turned out I didn’t need to worry. Loftus did approach Cassadaga and Spiritualism with humor, but also real thoughtfulness. The podcast is organized around two concurrent threads: Loftus’s visit to Cassadaga and the history of Spiritualism in the United States. Her visit to Cassadaga felt familiar to my experiences in Lily Dale: they both have aging communities, are reliant on New Age gift shops and visitors for income, and are more than a little eclectic. Her constant struggle to find food (there are no restaurants or food shops inside Cassadaga!) made me grateful for the nice little restaurants in Lily Dale. I really enjoyed her desperate excursion to the volunteer-run library, which is packed with fun old books on spirituality but is also open only one night a week for two hours. This rang true with our experience doing research in Lily Dale, where the history museum and library are also open at the discretion of the volunteers who run them.

What Loftus finds is that while residents are a little wary of her as a writer and comedian (throughout the series, she’s still waiting for official approval from the board for her project), once they come to trust her, they are warm and interesting. In turn, she treats them all with respect. She dedicates one entire episode to listening to the experiences of four women who live in Cassadaga. In the final episode, after Loftus has used up all her time in the library, she’s invited to dinner by a resident who sees her wandering in the street thinking about how she’ll find some food. The ensuing conversation (over coffee and pie at Perkins) gives Loftus – and us – a delightful insight into real life in this unusual little town. Their conversations made me smile, reminding me of our relationship with Lily Dale historian Ron Nagy, who over time has become an unexpected friend.

Loftus also does a good job handling the history of Spiritualism, the other central thread of the series. Loftus spends most of this history recounting the very complicated story of the Fox sisters, who started the religion when they began to hear and interpret a series of knocking sounds in their home in Hydesville, New York. Loftus recounts the story through a very modern, feminist lens, always reminding listeners of the nineteenth-century context in which the girls heard their spirit rappings, became celebrities, and struggled in life. Just like Spiritualism can be an easy target for mockery, the Fox sisters are often discussed with a mix of derision and dismissal. For instance, Maggie Fox famously recanted her belief in Spiritualism and granted an interview in which she claimed all their experiences had been hoaxes. A lot of media takes this entirely at face value, but Loftus contextualizes Maggie’s decision-making, maybe not exactly how a scholar would, but in a way that’s accessible to a modern audience. She describes the letters that arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane wrote to girlfriend Maggie Fox as “deeply negging,” as just one particularly great example.

There is one instance where Loftus lets a good story get in the way of history. In episode five, Loftus explains that Kate Fox sought help for her alcoholism from Dr. George Taylor, who diagnosed her with hysteria. Loftus then goes all in on the fully debunked theory that doctors used vibrators to give women patients therapeutic orgasms. It’s a reasonable mistake to make: the erroneous claim abounds, it’s very funny, and it does help paint the picture of inept misogynists underestimating and mistreating women in nineteenth-century America. But it’s still wrong, and it makes me wonder whether Loftus could have used a historian on the project, even just as a sounding board.

(If you need a podcast on the history of vibrators – and let’s face it, who doesn’t – check out Maintenance Phase for an episode on this discredited theory.)

Photograph of a white wooden sign in a forested area. It reads, "Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp," in capital letters.
The sign at the entrance to the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp. (Courtesy Willy Volk)

Both Lily Dale and Cassadaga are overwhelmingly white, so I especially appreciated how Loftus pointedly analyzed race, exploring the ways that people of color appear – and do not appear – in the town. For example, Native Americans do appear, but only in spirit form. The town leans heavily on Indian “spirit guides” and indigenous imagery. Cassadaga was founded by George Colby, a medium from New York State, who said he felt led to Florida by his spirit guide, a Native American man named Seneca. Then, the village was built upon land stolen from the Seminole. Loftus considers this history but also gives the floor to Olivia Woodward (Caddo and Euchee) to talk about what the cultural appropriation of Native American spiritualities feels like to Indians. I’ll admit I especially focused on this episode because I’ve been working on New Age appropriation of Native American spirituality, but I would have liked to see Loftus engage more with the longer history of criticism of this by folks like Vine Deloria, Jr., Philip Deloria, and Ward Churchill. But this episode also showcases what Loftus is really good at: pointing out the direct connection between the history of the community and the people alive today. Spirit guides and dreamcatchers may seem a little corny on the surface, but as this episode also shows, they are products of a long history of American colonialism that has real effects on Native Americans living today.

Overall, Ghost Church was thoughtful, tender, and a total romp. Loftus is empathetic to grief-stricken sitters hoping to contact lost loved ones, respectful toward the faithful, open-minded, and curious about spiritual experiences – but also critical (sometimes skewering) when necessary. Call me parasocial, but after listening, I kind of want Jamie Loftus to be my friend? And in a way, that’s the vibe of the show – it’s like going on a weird adventure with a very funny, very smart friend and sitting down to unpack it all afterward. In this way, Loftus offers an example of how to blend scholarly engagement with humor and accessibility. With a topic as loaded with both weird history and deep emotion as Spiritualism, I think it’s particularly useful, and this is exactly what we hope to do with our own book on Lily Dale. But I also think this podcast series can be an example to historians more broadly. Ghost Church suggests that historians can be funny and smart at the same time – and catch the attention of the broader public by doing so.

Featured image caption: (Courtesy OpenClipart and iHeart)

Sarah Handley-Cousins is an Assistant Teaching Professor at the University at Buffalo. She is author of Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North (UGA, 2019) and a producer of Dig: A History Podcast.

1 thought on “History, Ghosts & Jokes: A Review of <em>Ghost Church</em>

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      I also am hesitant to read something that dismisses important culture and ideas. In fact, I won’t listen to that podcast. I’m not interested in a comedians opinion truthfully. Aloha.

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