The warnings were all over the Cassadaga Hotel’s Tripadvisor reviews: “floating orbs,” “ghostly whispers,” unexplained shoulder taps. A bit of Internet sleuthing uncovered a spirit named Arthur—believed to be an elderly gentleman who once resided at the century-old hotel in Central Florida—who trails the scent of gin and cigars through the halls.
A half-hour north of Orlando, where the roller coasters and cartoon landmarks give way to oak trees and Spanish moss, lies the sleepy town of Cassadaga, with wood-paneled cottages housing folks who, if you believe them, straddle between the living and the dead.
Considered by many to be the Psychic Capital of the World, Cassadaga is the largest spiritualist community in the South and designated on the National Register of Historic Places. Spiritualism, which originated in New York State in the 1800s, is premised on the idea of continuity of life—that the living and the dead not only exist together but can also communicate, especially through mediums. It was brought to Cassadaga in the late 19th century by traveling medium-turned-snowbird George Colby. Today more than 100 people reside in the “camp” and roughly half identify as psychics, mediums, healers and mystics, offering services such as tarot, astrology, palmistry, numerology and past-life regression.
I know I’ve arrived when I find myself at the intersection of Spiritualist Street and Mediumship Way. Not far off is the hotel that is supposed to be haunted, the Cassadaga, a beige two-story building with 40 rooms, a wraparound porch and a rotating roster of a dozen or so psychics operating on the second floor. When I step into the lobby it takes me back to a different era, with hardwood floors and Victorian furniture. The patrons are a mix of conservatively dressed grandparents and tattooed millennials.
As I pick up my key to Room 10 at the gift shop that doubles as the front desk, I notice a porcelain doll resting on a plush child-size love seat outside, and eye her suspiciously as I pass posters of upcoming séances. The hallway to the room is eerily long.
Once there I unpack a bottle of gin and a hand-rolled cigar and set them on the shelf like cookies for Santa. “These are for you, Arthur,” I whisper. Tripadvisor’s floating white orbs are supposed to appear in this room, as well, but I don’t see them—at least not yet.
I scurry back to the lobby for my palm-reading appointment with a dark-haired woman named Misty, who wears a green crystal around her neck.
Misty leads me upstairs through a maze of mirrors to her studio. “You’re a fire palm!” she exclaims, referring to my long hand and short fingers. “Like me!” Fire palms, I learn, can’t sit still and are very passionate (behaviors my mother and elementary school teachers can confirm). She points to different creases in my hand and assigns them qualities: “I don’t see any health concerns,” and, “You’re a romantic who stays in relationships too long.” But it’s my pinky finger that betrays me: “Not the best at communication,” she sighs. “But I communicate for a living!” I insist. “I’m a writer!” Misty looks unconvinced.
I then immediately head to my appointment with Lory May (it feels like I’m speed dating psychics), a nurse-turned-clown-turned-card reader. Her studio is intricately decorated with tapestries and artwork. “I was an Asian woman in a past life,” she bluntly states, which seems plausible considering the many lives she’s lived in this current one.
Lory May specializes in Gong Hee Fot Choy, a reading based on China’s ancient mysticism that uses playing cards to reveal insights about the next three months. She notices a vintage bracelet on my wrist and asks to hold it. I fear she’s looking to barter it for payment, but she tells me she also practices psychometry, the ability to uncover information by touching inanimate objects. She envelops the bracelet in both hands. “Clear, pristine waters. Pisces man,” she blurts. I tell her the bracelet belonged to my grandmother. We both shrug.
After I shuffle them, she lays out the playing cards on a board with 32 slots that relate to different areas of a person’s life (marriage, luck, health, etc.). Lory May moves her hands in a mysterious way and quickly points to various cards.
She tells me that in the next three months I will come into money, meet a new friend and start a new venture. I ask her what she would do if she were me: “I’d buy a lotto ticket.”
I meet the owner, a soft-spoken blonde woman named Diana, at Sinatra’s, the hotel’s restaurant. She rolls her eyes when I ask about Arthur the ghost. “Everyone has it all wrong.” My heart sinks momentarily. “It’s not just Arthur! There are so many friendly spirits here.”
Over glasses of white wine and a juicy Arthur’s burger, Diana recounts scores of paranormal encounters since she purchased the hotel in 1979, such as a time in the early ’80s when she was at the vending machine and saw a man in a bowler hat staring back at her. “I dropped the Coke and ran!”
Visitors must be 21 or older to stay at the hotel, yet guests repeatedly complain of children running up and down the hallway all night, laughing. “Most of our spirits tend to stay on the second floor and in the attic,” Diana says, “though I’ve found the children are harder to keep to one place—they like to explore.”
The most present spirit is one whom staff refer to as Gentleman Jack, an elderly ladies’ man. “Young, old—he loves women,” Diana says, shaking her head. “Touching their hair or tapping on their shoulder. He’s a jokester.”
From my table, I watch the patrons at Sinatra’s shimmy and twirl to a man singing at the piano. Diana accepts a dance with a fellow wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat. I can’t help but think everyone here reminds me of someone. When the singer starts playing “Hotel California” but changes the lyrics to “Hotel Cassadaga,” I decide to retreat to Room 10.
The gin looks untouched—I’m both relieved and disappointed. I turn off the lights and wake up to the sound of creaking floorboards, but I reason that it’s an old property. Suddenly the air conditioner shuts off and I have the eerie feeling someone is standing beside the bed. When I muster the courage to look, no one is there.
At sun up I make my way to Sinatra’s for coffee. The space has emptied out from last night, except for one woman perched at the bar sipping a whiskey neat. I ask her if she’s OK.
“I heard an old woman grunting in the bathroom stall,” she responds. “She smelled like an old lady, Estée Lauder or something. I accidentally bumped into her stall and apologized, but the woman didn’t say anything. When I looked under the door no one was there.”
I rush to the bathroom in search of the grunting perfumed ghost, but find nothing, and am struck with ghost FOMO. Above the sink in the bathroom, someone had scribbled with a Sharpie: “We are the daughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.” The Cassadaga Hotel might be haunted, but the most interesting spirits there just might be the living.