Haute Haunts: Cassadaga, Florida | Haute Macabre

Haute Haunts: Cassadaga, Florida

Remember “going places”? Ah, those were the days, weren’t they? In the spirit of once again leaving the neighborhood and going on adventures and explorations when the world is once more safe and healthy (or as safe and healthy as it can get, I guess), and also in the spirit, of well…spirits…I thought I might share with you my visit to Cassadaga, Florida from January of this year.

My sisters and I have been discussing for years the possibility of a sibling sojourn to Lily Dale, the small community of spiritualists and mediums located east of Lake Cassadaga in upstate New York. It’s a thrilling possibility to consider, but sadly to date, the closest we have gotten to this mythic pilgrimage is our annual post-Thanksgiving visit to Lily Dale’s swampier sister–the tiny town of Cassadaga, roughly 1100 miles due south, nestled squarely in …Florida’s sweaty left clavicle, I guess? Let’s not ponder this sticky, steamy anatomical analogy overmuch.

A tiny, unincorporated community in Volusia County, Cassadaga has always reminded me a bit of the Gilmore Girl’s Stars Hollow but with half the pageantry, twice the quirky characters, and …the possibility of ghosts. En route to the town, one turns off of Martin Luther King Jr. Beltway onto Cassadaga Road, and within seconds of doing so, you can feel…something. You’ve still got a few minutes until you reach the Cassadaga Hotel, but during that time, your drive is a bit more hushed and strange than it was before. Even the humid air moving through the saw palmettos and the scrubby pines creeping along the narrow road feels different. Charged with weird energies. My sister M. (I have two younger sisters and they are both Ms, but this is Middle M, who is also the one who inspired Skeletor Is Love) and I remark on it every time we make that right-hand turn, and then in silence, we motor slowly past a sporadic grouping of old Florida homes and bask for in those moments of uncanny stillness.

It was for this sister that we were making this visit to Central Florida’s psychic oasis; firstly, it was meant to be a January birthday gift for her, one of my very favorite Capricorns, and two, well. I love my sisters more than anything in the world and it had lately come to my attention that she was feeling a strain in our relationship. Something was “off” and she hadn’t been feeling that we were as close as we normally were. I was hoping that with a weekend trip–just the two of us, and maybe some ghosts–we could spend some quality time together and work through whatever was going on.

I stayed over at her place the night before, and there is really no need to bring that up as it was uneventful and all we did was sleep, but I wanted an excuse to share a photo of “the fairy wonderland” guest room that I hole up in whenever I visit. It’s quite extraordinary! I imagine it did put me in the mood to head off the next morning for otherworldly experiences.

Where it looks like the road ends (though it is actually a little intersection) you will find the Cassadaga Hotel looming–but in a welcoming way–off to the right. The parking situation isn’t great; it’s a tiny lot that fills up quickly, and there are always cars parked on the dirt and the sidewalk in the front of the hotel. I get pretty anxious in situations like this, but I just tell myself that the free-wheeling parking is part of the facility’s quaint charm.

Inside the hotel, the hushed and dark wood paneling of the lobby provides a delightful contrast to the lively bustle of people passing through its halls (or the ghosts passing through its walls!) Either vying for a table in the hotel’s bar and restaurant, making a beeline for the gift shop to gaze at the shimmering crystals or to make an appointment with a medium or healer, or, like us, to inquire about early-check-in times (there aren’t any–check-in is 3pm!)

We had a few hours to kill before we could stow our few belongings in our room, so we made the same first stop that we always do with each visit: The Cassadaga Welcome Center, which is a book shop and an information hub, and where you can rest your bones for a few minutes on a wooden bench on the front porch while a local cat curled up on a nearby warped wooden slat studiously ignores you. There’s quite a few of these sweet felines roaming about the area, and the Welcome Center sells the most wonderful “Catsadaga” calendar to fund their TNR program. Inside you can also find information on various classes, seminars, workshops, special events, and tours.

We had made appointments in advance to visit with energy workers and mediums over the course of the afternoon; while my sister sat with Kat, a healer who works out of the hotel, I settled into the early afternoon shadows to speed-read through something silly and that I will shamefully confess I had not already devoured as a teenager: I Know What You Did Last Summer. (It was …not Lois Duncan’s best effort.) My own visit with Kat was an hour later, and it was an unexpectedly lovely and wonderfully interesting experience, both revealing and validating all at once. It feels like a personal thing to go into the details of it all–so I won’t–but there were lights and crystals and stones and gentle questions and suggestions. I will share that both Kat and the medium with whom I met afterward, both asked similar versions of the same thing to me: “how long have you been working with herbs?”

I was floored! I have been low-key growing potted herbs for as long as I’ve lived on my own and had a small patio or balcony or backyard plot to give them a home. I’m a very lazy gardener who has gotten by with an astonishing lack of knowledge regarding my leafy charges, but I’ve always wanted to know better, to do better, to actually use the things I’ve grown for purposes other than snipping on top of green salads or stewing in a pasta sauce. I guess I’ve just never felt I had the permission to do so? I know that sounds dumb but I spend so much of my life trying to avoid getting yelled at or getting “into trouble,” that it’s made me timorous and meek and small. I don’t love those qualities about myself, but I do recognize them. Just hearing someone mention those interests of mine…someone who knew nothing about me but somehow recognized that stunted sprout in my heart…well, I don’t know. I think it was the metaphorical sunlight and the sprinkle of water and the bit of fertilizer I needed to stop being so scared and allow myself to cultivate this particular interest.

We met up back at the hotel after our various appointments to discuss our experiences and compare notes, and I should take a moment to clarify that “met back up at the hotel” really only means that we walked less than a quarter of a block’s distance to meet, if that. Everywhere you might want to go in Cassadaga is more or less on the same dusty street and you can probably walk the length of that road in less than five minutes. It’s tiny!

This is not a restaurant review, so I won’t go into detail, and I don’t mean to sound unkind, but I am pretty sure that people don’t travel to Cassadaga for the five-star dining. The hotel’s Italian-inspired restaurant, Sinatra’s, is pretty serviceable. It will put nice enough food and drink into you and it will be okay. You may not remember it, but you most likely came for the chakra cleansing and past life readings, not for the eggplant rollatini. Between the two of us, my sister and I ordered the smoked fish dip (my favorite foods usually consist of things you can dip crackers into), Caesar salads, and a few glasses of white wine each. Which was probably a no-no; we were each told to detox a bit after our energy cleanses, but you can’t get sisters together for a birthday celebration in Cassadaga and not expect them to have a celebratory supernatural tipple!

At any rate, the more interesting aspect of the meal was our discussion–we each had such wildly differing experiences, given that we met with the exact same people. Me, well. I am probably a psychic’s dream. I give everything away and I talk too much. My sister, however, is much less of an open book, and she is a tough nut to crack. But when I mentioned to her about the herbalism conversations, she promptly signed us both up for an herbalism class that was taking place locally, taught by folks at the Florida School for Holistic Living

Our scheduled visitations done for the day, the time we had left was our own. We secured room keys and stashed our luggage and admired the small, sparse charms of our lodgings, while opening wardrobes and peeping behind picture frames and shower curtains for ghostly activity. I am not sure what we expected to find! But we felt it needed to be done.

We rambled over to the Purple Rose, a small shop of metaphysical items and where you can also find a reader if you are so inclined (and where you can also get a pet reading?! Note to self: find out more about this.) It’s a sisterly tradition for us to stop by and say hello to the kind, knowledgable staff, peek at all of the treasures, and play with one of the Halloween decorations they have displayed year-round: the headless, bewildered bride. (That is a link to a Youtube video I made of it seven years ago, and which was the lone video on my channel for this whole time. So I am very excited to tell you that I am actually starting to upload real videos for an actual proper channel, to supplement my blog writings! Like and Subscribe! Har har. )

M., super-sleuth that she is, actually tracked down this strange, pitiful lady to a rare eBay listing and now the bride (un)rests eternally along with the rest of the marvelous madness in the Fairy Wonderland room! The Purple Rose had reorganized and restructured a bit, so it took us a while to find her, but much to our relief, find her we did. Additional findings included learning of a new addition to the premises–a “haunted museum” that seemed to be attached to the store! We vowed to come back a bit later for a peek to satisfy our curiosity.

A hike to the nearby Lake Helen found us swinging in manic arcs toward the sun on the children’s playground, screaming and laughing like the dignified middle-aged women we are; afterward dipping our toes in the chilly water of the lake, and taking a moment to catch our breath and talk about the things we always speak of when we visit Cassadaga: dead mom stuff.

My sisters and I had a weird, troubling, and not always so-great childhood, and we all three of us had wildly different but intensely conflicted relationships with our mother (or “your” mother as we always refer to her when talking amongst ourselves) but I think we all feel the same sadness that we never got to spend any time with her in this strange, slow little town. I know she would have loved it. M. snapped a few photos with her phone of the quietly rippling blue water and the shadows of the trees lurking from across the lake; as we scrolled through them a few moments afterward we found ourselves surprised, expecting to see a few more trees and grasses but instead examining a capture in which naught but a few pinpoints of lights danced across a darkened screen. Spirit orbs, perhaps? Maybe a ghost mom (her ghost mom!) snapped a pocket photo? Sneaky, sneaky!

On the way back to the hotel for dinner, we decided that “later” was “now” and we peeked inside the C. Green’s Haunted History House and Museum. It was one of those darkened, creepy scenarios where you take a flashlight and do a self-guided tour through the attraction, and I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that’s never a good idea, but… YOLO, right?

Chock-a-block with artifacts and never before seen photographs of George Colby, the founder of Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association, his reading table, séance table, and dishes and fixtures from his home, the museum ended up being really neat and a lot of fun. In addition to historical photographs and paraphernalia, there’s a private collection of stones and crystals; a Harry Potter section; medical equipment oddities, such as shock therapy kits; Ouija boards, a 1900s rental casket, and to my immense delight, no small number of “haunted” and creepy dolls.

Afterward, we had a moment to speak with the manager of the museum, Varney Pearce– and I sure wish I could remember our conversation, but frankly, I was still tipsy from lunch. Le whoopsie! We’ll come back another day to chat you up, Varney!

Did we have dinner that evening? I can’t recall. I do know that we spent a great deal of the evening sidled up to the bar, alternately gossiping and speaking earnestly, cackling madly and probably doing a fair bit of crying. From the outside, we probably looked a bit bonkers in that insular, talking–silently-between-themselves but also “what on earth are they laughing and screaming and weeping about” sort of way that close siblings and kindred spirits have.

When we first sat down, the venue was absolutely full, there were several rollicking parties spread throughout the restaurant, and a man at a piano regaled us with ridiculous amounts of classic rock. As the night drew on and we grew more and more oblivious to what was going on around us, we realized that the space had become eerily quiet. We spun slowly around on our barstools to see that all of the revelers were gone, the chairs up on the tables. The music had stopped and we never noticed the silence.

We looked at each other then and I know we had the exact same thought, in that moment–had they ever been there at all? Were we actually alone in the bar the whole time?? There was a bar tab in front of us, so I suppose, at least, the bartender was real enough. Hoo boy, there were a lot of cocktails on that bill.

I’d love to say that we trundled tipsily back to our room, stumbled out of our clothing into our PJs, and curled up under the covers to have sweet, ghosty dreams–which would have been a totally respectable scenario!–but instead, we tiptoed throughout the darkened halls of the hotel, peeking into nooks and crannies and every shadowy corner (see above for a bizarre example of the strange tableaux that filled a small alcove near our hotel room door.)

We slipped outside to sit on the hotel’s wooden porch benches in the chilled January midnight air, taking in the silence of the town and the glow of the streetlamps. In an ill-advised but briefly-lived adventure, we crept along the eerily noiseless streets of the town, not looking for any trouble of course, but looking for…something…nonetheless. I’m not sure that we would have known it if found it, or perhaps it might have found us, but before that could happen, one of us tripped and took a tumble in the dark– and with that, all sense of silliness and bravery fled, and it dawned on us that we were cold and damp and very much in need of a warm bed. During this exploration, I don’t think we’d gotten five or ten minutes away from our lodgings, but at the time it seemed like a grand ghost-hunting exploration on our part. We don’t get out much, I guess you could say.

You probably don’t need to hear about how my dear sister held my hair back as I puked in our haunted toilet that night–but, alas, that happened, too–and with that final bit of foolishness, whatever spirits left lurking in the shadows must have huffed off in disgust to haunt more well-behaved guests. We slept deeply, dreamless, and undisturbed until late the next morning.

We took it easy the next morning, and after coffees, we wobbled blearily to the town’s beautiful little park to find a serene spot for contemplating last night’s ill-advised life choices. Despite the dull throb in my head, I looked over at my sister and remember experiencing such a profound feeling of peace. When all is right between my siblings and I, everything else in the world falls away as what’s most important to me falls into place. This was exactly what we needed, and I sincerely hope she came away from our visit feeling similarly at peace, and that our sisterly equilibrium had been restored.

Though we had done everything we had set out to do at that point, there are a few other stops that one might want to include on a trip to Cassadaga. The Lake-Helen Cassadaga cemetery is within driving distance, and I always find a tranquil afternoon exploring the headstones to be wonderfully restorative. You can also get your photo taken in the Devil’s Chair, but again, much like playing with ouija boards and summoning demons other things you see dumb people do in horror movies–I don’t fuck with that. The Ann Stevens house , a charming bed and breakfast that houses a gazebo in the backyard which is said to have been built upon a wellspring of psychic energy is also nearby, and they host interesting events every now and then. It looks like a “paranormal investigation” was scheduled on the calendar for May, but with the state of the world right now, I am sure that much like the apparitions and entities we’re investigating, it’s all very much up in the air.

While I am not entirely sure about the authenticity of all of the psychic connections I made or the supernatural beings I encountered on this particular visit to Cassadaga, I can say with certainty that having the opportunity of reconnecting with the very real and earthbound presence of my beloved sister in this incredible place was the experience I was most hoping for. While I will always adore the weird, ghostly charms of this quirky little town, it’s the chance to spend time there with my favorite people who are still above ground that I treasure most.

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