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Last Updated: Friday, 8 June 2007, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
Seeking spirits in a psychic town
By Andy Gallacher
BBC News, Cassadaga, Florida

I am, apparently, being helped to write these words by my spirit guide, an entity that spiritualist medium Matthew Greene says assists me with my work.

Spirits crossing sign
Cassadaga began as a spiritualist camp more than 100 years ago

"I can see a male energy," says Matthew as he shuffles a set of rune stones around on a table at his home in the tiny town of Cassadaga, central Florida.

"I can see him around paperwork, a professional man, he could have been a teacher."

Matthew is just one of about 40 psychic mediums who call Cassadaga home.

The community, just a short drive from Disney World, is a spiritualist camp established more than 100 years ago by a man called George Colby.

The camp's historians claim he was brought here by his spirit guides, among them a Native American Indian known as Seneca.

Over the years it became an established community with its own temple, hotel and healing centre.

'Orb' spotting

Now the town attracts tourists, some of whom come for the tours of allegedly haunted buildings and others who want to speak to their departed loved ones.

Tour group looks for "orbs" in Cassadaga
Visitors take pictures of "orbs", floating spirits invisible to the eye

"They come here for advice, they come here for comfort," says Bob Cox, who is known as Reverend.

"Many, many people want to be reassured that their relatives are alright on the other side. They want to know where they are, what they're doing. They want to talk to them."

Spiritualism in Cassadaga is practised on a religious basis but when Reverend Cox is not in church he acts as a tour guide.

The tour includes a stroll down to the local pond, where visitors are encouraged to take pictures of what Bob calls "orbs", spirits that float through the air but cannot be seen by the naked eye.

I don't really see anything that would make me believe in supernatural phenomenon
Tourist Lang Mitskewicz

"Do you see the little light circles all through the darkness," says Gale McGrath, from Fort Myers, as she holds up her digital camera for the gathered crowd.

"I was told they were pictures of orbs so that's all I know, I don't know how to explain it other than that."

But Lang Mitskewicz, who tells me he swapped a night out on the town for the tour, is not convinced.

"I don't really see anything that would make me believe in supernatural phenomenon. I saw a photo that seemed a little weird but that's about it."

Table-tipping seance

Almost every home has a sign outside offering the services of mediums. The waiting list for some can run from a few days to several months.

Signs advertising psychic services in Cassadaga
Signs advertise the services of the 40 psychic mediums in the town

Some of mediums also run seance sessions, a practice popular in the 19th Century in the UK and something that for many remains controversial.

Among those offering sessions is Victor Vogenitz, a stocky Vietnam veteran. The seance I observed, with a family of eight, takes place in a cramped and darkened room at the back of Cassadaga's temple.

Victor calls it a table-tipping seance, and once the room becomes almost pitch black, a heavy wooden table appears to move, at times violently, to each family member.

The creaks and taps are explained away as messages from the spirit world.

'Parlour trick'

The atmosphere is emotionally charged, one of the family members, who I can't see in the darkness, begins to cry as Victor tells the woman her deceased grandmother is in the room.

A seance held by Victor Vogenitz with the Cassiaro family
The table spins and creaks during a "table-tipping" seance

"She's trying to hug them both," says Victor, as the table moves toward two of the family members.

Once the lights go up after a three-hour session, when at times the table was spinning like a top, Mike Cassiaro has his own take on what happened.

"I do think it is somewhat of a parlour trick," says Mike, as he talks to me away from the rest of his family.

"I think if you know that going in and you get an emotion out or make a connection then it's no different from any other amusement."

Other members of his family tell me they feel at peace after the seance, some even claim they saw flashing lights during the session.

Everybody gets the experience that they expect and some get more than they expect
Victor Vogenitz, medium

I ask Victor about the accusation that he was somehow manipulating the table.

He replies: "I just say everybody gets the experience that they expect and some get more than they expect. This is not for everybody."

The experience of Cassadaga seems very much to depend on the beliefs with which you arrive.

The people I met who wanted and expected to contact their deceased family members did so and left with those beliefs reinforced.

For the sceptical and curious little changed, but just about everybody enjoyed the peace and quiet of a place that feels a million miles away from the attractions of Florida's theme parks.

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