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Ghost Stories From a Summer Camp for Seekers

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In a small country chapel lit only by candles, an organ sadly groaned the last weepy bars of a somber hymn. Shadows jumped the walls of painted knotty pine and flickered over the faces of the solemn congregation.

I couldn't help feeling conspicuous among the white-haired widows and quiet old men seated in the chairs around me. I had never been to a candlelight message service before. Behind the podium, the medium, a stout, elderly woman with her eyes tightly closed, pressed a folded slip of paper to her forehead. On it was a question scribbled beneath a name by a woman who was having marital problems with her husband of 33 years. She had come in search of advice. "You must try to resolve this conflict," the medium intoned from the darkness of her trance. "Meet him halfway and Spirit will guide you." The medium hesitated for a moment, staring out into the shadows. "I see something else. You are surrounded by a motherly vibration."

"Oh, God," the woman whined. "Every time I come here my mother is here, too!"

In the untamed wilderness near the Wisconsin Dells, in Wonewoc, just 200 miles from Chicago, the Western Wisconsin Spiritualist Camp has been serving pious pilgrims since 1901. Each summer they come for a day, a weekend, a week, or sometimes longer to sample from a steady program of clairvoyant readings, conversations with the dead, and "message services" hosted by mediums attempting to bridge the chasm between southwestern Wisconsin and the Great Beyond.

But I had come primarily for rest and relaxation. While a chance to explore ethereal dimensions sounded intriguing, it was not part of my planned agenda. The extent of my investment, I figured, would be the $10 a night it costs to stay in one of the 30 simple white cabins that form a peaceful circle on the bluff above town. Wonewoc locals have been known to call it Spook Hill.

"It was predicted that you would come," said the camp president, Ilene Geier, a big-boned woman with dark red hair. "I believe there are no accidents."

Geier was eager to show off the property and take me on a tour. She has been stepping up her involvement in the community to fend off the stigma that has plagued both the settlement and its residents since its origin. As far as Geier is concerned, it's time for a change. "I think we offer something very unique here," she said just above a whisper. "If this is so insane, then why am I so busy?" Geier estimates that up to 3,000 people visit in peak season, from June to September, when mediums from across the country take up residence at the camp. Although the mediums come and go, on any given day during these months up to seven mediums, including Geier, are available to sell visitors their spiritual insights.

I had arrived before the weekend crowds on this warm Thursday in September, and the registration office staff was busy in anticipation of the swarms to come. As I waited in line to book my cabin, the woman in front of me was happy to learn that one seat still remained for the popular Saturday night seance. Clients often schedule readings in advance to guarantee a session with their favorite clairvoyant before browsing the selection of metaphysical curios on display. Incense, dream catchers, meditation tapes were for sale. Camp volunteer and summertime cook Rose Duckworth suggested a range of books from self-help (Love, Medicine and Miracles and Life After Life) to the threat of nuclear war (The Hundredth Monkey). "There is a lot more to this world than people dream of," she said, pointing to a pair of framed photographs commanding a prominent place on the counter. One was a snapshot of a purple and blue blur looming in front of a doorway. A label below it read "The Master's Footprints." The other was a black-and-white portrait of campers from long ago. Floating above them were perfect translucent circles, which Geier identified as faces of spirits. "How can anybody deny what's going on here?" she asked, admiring the prized collection. "You can see it all for yourself."

She led me down Harmony Way, a circular dirt path connecting three dozen rustic cottages. Over the years some had gained the distinction of housing powerful vibrations, which inspired frequent dwellers to call them by names like the Sunshine Inn, White Feather Lodge, and Spooner. Of the ten cabins available that weekend I chose a sprawling, swaybacked shanty called Whispering Pine Spirit, appropriately named for its locale in the shadows of the surrounding woods. "This old cabin is kind of a wreck," Ilene said, "but it's got a great vibration. I can see why you chose it."

"Seekers," as they are called, or "people in need" come looking for some well-tempered guidance: newlyweds, the elderly, the chronically depressed. Some have PhDs in parapsychology and come in the name of science. From all over the country and occasionally overseas, they bring their troubles, fears, and expertise to the camp. Geier says they are brought here by feelings of "divine discontent," an "epidemic" brought on by the limitations and emptiness of traditional organized religions. They come in search of healing, spiritual consultation, and advice on whether to purchase a new or used car.

"I think that anybody who does this kind of work should consider themselves an intuitive counselor," said Geier, who has been practicing professionally for over ten years. "The word "psychic' has negative connotations. People feel threatened by the term. We are not fortune tellers; I want that to be clear. We do not read palms or use Tarot cards. We do straight mediumship here. That doesn't mean we always hear voices. It's hard to describe in earthly terms."

As we strolled by the Flying Saucer, the compound's snack shop, Geier told me that contrary to what most people may think, everyone can develop ESP, though some, like her, are just born with it. And while years of practice have allowed her to hone her intuitive powers, there are times when she too is skeptical. "Sometimes I think, Why me? What if I'm imagining things? If I'm having an off day, sure, I struggle with it. But when experiences start to validate that there is actually something here, I move on."

The most frightening of those experiences came in the middle of the night 13 years ago while baby-sitting at her daughter's apartment. Geier's daughter had mentioned being disturbed while trying to sleep, but at the time Geier thought nothing of it. That soon changed. "I woke up to this horrendous kick at the foot of my bed so intense it was like a steel-toed boot. I couldn't speak. I couldn't move. I could only think. Do you know what it's like to be in a hypnagogic state and you have sleep paralysis? It's almost like a nightmare and you can't wake up. They get your attention."

"Who?" I asked.

"Your spirit guides," she said. "That's how they get your attention."

Geier, a lapsed Catholic, mother of 3 and grandmother of 15, worked for 25 years as a medical assistant and operating room technician. "I felt it wasn't my life purpose. There is a real need for what I do now.

"I've always been interested in ancient wisdom. As a little girl, I walked around with pictures of churches in my pocket and I wanted to grow up to be a priest. We lived in the country and I played in the forest. I would see spirits. They were my friends. But all children see psychically. When you were little, didn't you have imaginary friends?"

I silently confessed that all my imaginary friends were more like indiscriminate patsies, conveniently taking the rap for after-school rampages at the local five-and-dime. Clearly, Geier was referring to something entirely different.

Near the edge of the bluff there's an unassuming shack easily mistaken for a storage shed. Within its spare, perfect square is a circle of 12 chairs--the seats to the summer's hottest ticket. During a weekly seance that she likes to call "Saturday Night Live," Geier dons a big straw hat before she slips into a semiconscious trance. Through "mental attunement" and the light of a burning candle, she invites the "departed" and other unearthly entities to drop in for a visit.

"It takes a lot of energy, but it is very rewarding," says Geier modestly. "It's wonderful to get people in touch with their loved ones. We can't say "dead,' because there is no death. We merely pass on to another existence."

Years ago, the high point of any seance was the eventual levitation of a hand-fashioned trumpet, which spirits spoke through while it floated about in the darkness. These days, Geier says, "now that we know we can tap into other realities, we don't need all the dramatics." She says spirits now rely on mediums to do their seeing and speaking for them. Though the setting is deadly serious, there's always room in a "spirit union circle" for a little lighthearted fun.

"Sometimes a spirit will be dancing around us dressed as a leprechaun," says Geier, recalling occasions so humorous some participants fall into fits of teary laughter. "For instance, Rose's dead husband comes in all the time. One night he was on roller skates just skating around the room. It was so cute, everybody was roaring. Rose said, "That's him, he was always trying to make people laugh."'

I later ask Duckworth about the seance and her husband's mode of transport. "Oh, yes," she says, "and one time he came in on a tractor."

Humor, Geier contends, can be very healing, but there is no mistaking the gravity of a visit from a long-departed loved one. "There are somber moments, too. People will often cry. It's not just a parlor game. We treat it with reverence."

Not surprisingly, the seances draw a number of curious skeptics. Geier says their "negative energy" can foul the circuits, making it difficult for her to accurately "tune in." But that, she contends, is rare. Generally, she feels there is something for everyone and can't ever recall anyone leaving disgruntled.

Splitting off from the Harmony Way oval is a path through the woods toward Meditation Point, a clearing on the bluffs overlooking the steeples and taverns of town. The site is littered with twig and stone shrines meticulously stacked along its edge. A young couple from town recently wed on the spot in a potluck ceremony with family and friends with Geier serving as minister. But while locals pay occasional visits, Geier knows that not all members of the Wonewoc community are quick to take the camp to their bosom. Down on Main Street, morning conversations over biscuits and gravy seldom get around to leprechauns on skates.

"There are those who consider me to be the head "spook' around here," Geier admits. "They're afraid of me. I can sense it. They think we're weird and threatening and that I know what they're thinking. I don't care what they're thinking. Besides, it's an invasion of privacy. If we were in somebody else's head all the time, we would be a basket case before we got off the ground."

She recalls a time not so long ago when spiritualists couldn't use the bathroom at the neighborhood gas station or get a haircut at the local beauty shop. "Some of those feelings still continue," concedes Geier. But she invokes the powers of positive thinking and says that despite the difficulties, "it's getting better."

Ninety-year-old Elsie White has lived across the road from the camp almost all of her life. Although she's not a believer, she appreciates the earthly delights the camp's 37 acres have to offer.

"I kind of think that sooner or later they're going to drop that spiritualist name," says White. "It's just a nice place to spend a hot day, all those big old shady trees. I didn't think the town ever gave the support it should have. But I guess they're waking up. I don't think any of them people believe any different than the rest of us around here. Years ago some folks would think it a sin just to set foot in there. People are more tame these days. But each to his own. That's what I say."

"They're an asset to the community," insists Kathy DeNur of the Wonewoc Area Betterment Club, an association of local businesses and residents. "Some local folks are afraid, but they've never even been up there. If you just get to know those people, I mean, heavens to Betsy there's nothing to be afraid of."

In the three years she has served as camp president, Geier has made it her mission to break down the stereotypes that haunt the homes on the hill. To establish neighborly relations she has attended services at the local Methodist church and met with its pastor. The most recent celebration of Wonewoc's Winter Fest for the first time included a visit to the camp's dining hall for cider and cookies. And Geier has designed music festivals and life-style workshops--seminars led by a certified hypnotist on battling smoking, obesity, and a range of phobias--targeted to reach residents where they live. At a recent meditation workshop, two local farmers surprised everyone by signing up, only to fall asleep on the auditorium floor. Geier is happy with the results her outreach has brought.

"I feel very good about the people I have reached in the community. They realize I'm just a mom and a grandmother, someone who has had some hard times just like they have. When they get to know me, we all get along."

Modern spiritualism began in a farmhouse in Hydesville, New York, on a cold winter night in 1848 when Katie and Margaret Fox, ages 11 and 15, reported hearing mysterious rapping sounds emanating from their bedroom walls. Their parents searched the house for the source of the noises, but when one wasn't found the girls concluded that "Mr. Splitfoot"--the ghost of a poor old peddler who had been murdered in the home years before--was telegraphing to avenge his death. The Foxes began talking about how their daughters could communicate with the dead, and word spread fast. The farmhouse became a mecca for neighbors eager to talk to their deceased relatives. Soon spiritualism was a national craze attracting such notable followers as Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, and P.T. Barnum. Even Abraham Lincoln reportedly sat in on a seance or two.

Drawn by the claim that communication with the dead was scientifically possible, widows, widowers, and grieved parents nationwide gladly paid an ever-growing army of mediums for their services.

"Spiritualism back then was a radical movement," says local historian Darrel Hanold, who is compiling a book on the camp's history. "They didn't have a preacher, they had a lecturer. They didn't have a religion, they had a science. They were cutting edge."

A group of 13 pioneer families led by Rubin Fisk packed up their belongings and traveled west from Erie County, New York. They eventually settled in the hills of the Baraboo Valley, establishing what is now the town of Wonewoc. Many of them were spiritualists.

"It's amazing to me that there were members of that party who were spiritualists without even meaning to [be]," says Hanold. "They were mediums with no intention of being psychic. But it came to them anyway. There was one man, a Mr. Sleeper, who as a kid was extremely skilled at making tables move. Years later, perhaps because spiritualists had taken it on the chin so many times with fraud and exposes, he disavowed the whole thing, explaining it was done by "electricity."'

Members soon organized the Joint Stock Spiritualist Association, which hosted dances and lectures to raise money for the movement, and by 1893 they had purchased the densely wooded land along the bluffs. Believed by some to be a sacred Indian burial ground, Unity Park, as it was known then, was intended to be the site of their annual statewide convention. Some plans even called for the development of a spa. They cleared the brush, drilled a well, pitched some tents, and by 1901 the camp was firmly established.

But the movement was under fire. "Rap-o-mania," as it was called, had attracted sleight-of-hand swindlers, creating a rift between purists and bold-faced opportunists as frauds were publicly exposed. Eventually, the Fox sisters confessed they had made the sounds that had brought them so much attention by cracking the joints in their toes. But despite the setbacks, staunch loyalists refused to abandon the philosophy they held as gospel.

Hanold believes modern-day spiritualists are far more conservative than their renegade predecessors. "The conventional religions have never been fond of spiritualism," he says. "Old-time Germans saw it as just a Yankee trick of separating people from their money. And when communication with the spirits was proven, it was almost always seen as the evil one's influence. So they had a lot of philosophical differences. Even in recent years, there have been occasions where kids have come up to the camp and scrawled messages on the walls like "Read the Bible--Believe in God," which is distressing because the spiritualists are a very innocuous bunch. They aren't there to hurt anybody."

On the second day of my visit, I decided to try my hand at a reading. The lady at the registration desk would not recommend any of the six readers in residence. Instead she suggested that I walk past their cabins and see which one "spoke to me." As far as I could tell, cabin 33 was doing all the talking, so I paid the $20 and made an appointment.

With my receipt I was handed a flier describing the "Twelve Hints for a Good Reading." Among the helpful tips suggesting that I "be patient," "be fair," and "expect good" from my medium, I was cautioned not to be too quick to say no. "Wait--you will soon understand," insisted hint number 6. And I shouldn't be shy about asking any deceased loved ones to attend the reading with me, because, as the flier reminded, "they like to be invited."

Lorraine was a heavyset woman with a warm, ample grin. She invited me to sit for a spell so she could feel my aura and, metaphysically speaking, get to know me better. After several deep breaths and a momentary lapse of consciousness, she leaned forward and looked me in the eye. "What would you like to know?" she asked. First impressions are always revealing, so I figured that would be a good place to start. "Just tell me what you see," I said.

She told me I was not from around these parts, or from this solar system for that matter, and while I was a good 15,000 years old--which even Lorraine found impressive--the planet earth was entirely new stomping grounds to me. In addition, she said, the light of my spirit lies hidden beneath a bushel, as it were, forcing me to live in the cold, left-brained reality of clean, clinical statistics.

But, she informed me, my rational and spiritual selves would soon be united, and when they were--look out--bright light and creativity would flow from my deep, ancient soul and the world would be a different if not better place for it. I would teach. I would understand. I would effect change. There was no need to hasten the thaw of these passions--we humans are plagued by impatience--for my spirit was alive and well. But "wearing the color violet and humming in the key of B" would speed things up a bit. I sensed my aura blushing with delight as I thanked Lorraine for a reading well done. She clutched my hand and took a deep breath. "Ohhh, I like reading you," she sighed. Flattered, I turned and floated out of the room.

"We cannot prescribe! Not even vitamins," Geier said when I asked about the responsibilities that come with clairvoyance. "We tell our clients that what we will see for them are potentialities and possibilities, and we will try to guide them, but they will still have free will. They don't have to do everything we suggest. It gets real tough sometimes. A lot of people assume we're accurate on everything. We're not. We might allow our own bias to enter into it and mess things up. There are a lot of factors. We're still human, that's what I say. We're not God. When people ask, "Should I marry this person?'--boy, those are tough. There are certain things we just don't say.

"If you really wanted to be a scam artist, you could take advantage of people. It does happen and it's really sad. But what goes around comes around. If you take someone down the road, that's what will happen to you. It's the law of balance.

"The way I train people to be readers, they have to be counselors. You can't just sit and spew that information out without thinking about what they'll do with it. You need to use the right psychology so you don't wreck a person's life. I tell my readers that if the client can't leave feeling as though they received something positive--feeling some hope, some good guidance, feeling as though their cup has been filled--then we have not done our jobs.

"Believe me, when you do this kind of work, most people take everything you say as gospel truth. And that's the scary part."

The big brass bell rang promptly at five and everyone made a beeline for the dining hall. The beamed ceiling hovered high above long narrow tables and planked pine flooring in the building where almost a century of suppers have been served. On the wall were photos of spiritual summers past: a row of the somber faces of visitors, who were dressed in long white gowns and proper bow ties. Hanging by the kitchen was a big framed picture of the old Fox cabin, the "Cradle of Modern Spiritualism." Next to the door, greeting all who entered, was a portrait of the famed "Poughkeepsie Seer," Andrew Jackson Davis, known for his pronouncement "Under all circumstances, keep an even mind."

I queued up behind Lorraine in the dinner line. Her voice was shot from reading the relentless stream of "divine discontenters." She gave me a smile and requested a plate of beef stew. With dinner on the table, she was off the clock. On a busy weekend, readers can be booked with back-to-back sessions with hardly a break. Mealtime was a chance to unplug, take down the shingle, and share in a little locker-room gossip. The readers sit together at a table reserved exclusively for them--a head table of sorts for the intuitive brass. Those in training, the younger practitioners in need of some discipline, sit at a distance, watching their mentors with wonder. How glamorous, I thought, to be viewed with such reverence, where every forkful of stew was a little bit of magic.

"I'm always getting myself into a kettle of fish," said the 71-year-old retired nurse who had conducted the candlelight service the night before and who chose to be identified as Ann. "Years ago, if you were to tell me I was going to be a medium, I would have said you didn't know what you were talking about."

When her husband died 22 years ago, Ann was bereft. Alone at home one evening, she heard a psychic on a local radio talk show and, for reasons she can't explain, called and made an appointment. "She was a palm reader. She had one of those Tiffany lamps on her desk where you sat and put your hand on a little red pillow. Now I don't mind one or two, but she had thirteen cats. It was so eerie. She looked at me and said, "Who is Charlie?' That's my husband. Then she said, "Well, he's here with you now.' You could have wiped me right off the seat. That's all I needed to hear."

Ann began honing the powers that she believed could better link her to Charlie and a host of spirits. She began practicing meditation at a spiritualist training school. "Everybody has some mediumship qualities," she said. "Some use them and some don't. It all depends on what we do with our gifts. I think my mother was particularly prophetic. She would say to us, "Twenty years from now, the boys will be dressed like girls and the girls will be dressed like boys and you won't be able to tell the difference.' Look at the world now. My mother was right--very right. Mm-hmm."

"This place is full of spirits," said Cedar Carrier, a painter who renders "soul portraits" for any client willing to sit for an hour and hold her hand. "It's not just imagination. It's kind of a paradox."

The world of the spirit was virgin territory to the 48-year-old artist the first summer she set foot on the grounds. But a boisterous welcome from the residents made her feel right at home. "I was up on the chapel stage and all these spirits start standing behind me. They were crowding in like transparent people and they all had coveralls on. After that it got easier.

"Just being in this environment opens you up. You have to reach that level in your mind that's not orderly, rational thinking. You have to say, "OK, this doesn't fit the world I know, but I know all those transparent people standing behind me with their coveralls on are real."'

Si Baynes began his work as a teenager, following in the footsteps of his mother and grandmother. Now 72, Baynes led popular revival services at the camp, whipping congregations into a frenzy of old-time religion.

"When we got spanked into this world, that's when spirit moved in," he said in clear loud voice. "Spirit is just waiting at the door. Boom-boom-boom. And when you go into what I call the inner closet, you can visualize anything you want, because now you are one with spirit. You can heal yourself, you can help yourself, you can talk to your mother, your sister, whatever. We talk about the moon, we talk about Mars. . . . This is all part of the universe we live in. There could have been human life elsewhere. I wouldn't say there's not. But I will say this, if it is to be, we will be drawn closer to it. Spiritualism is giving us more of the things we need to know about God, his world, the world we're living in, and where our futures are. It's endless. It's endless, my friend!"

He paused to catch his breath. "Wherever spirit will lead me, sir, I will go."

After three days at camp, I vowed that no spiritual stone should be left unturned as I felt about in the darkness for my "inner closet." Eyes closed and legs crossed, growing dizzy from a regimen of deep-breathing exercises to induce meditation, I sat on the edge of my bed bathed in an imaginary brilliant white light and hummed, to the best of my knowledge, somewhere in the vicinity of the key of B. Exploring the inner sanctum did not come easy. Rather than unlocking the doors to my buried subconscious, I developed instead a raging case of cabin fever. Of all the worlds open to me at that moment, it was the bakery in town that was calling me. Doughnuts would answer my prayers; big fat bismarcks bursting with creamy custard. I had to go, even if it meant risking a break in the spiritual chain I had so earnestly tried to forge. I jumped in the car and headed for town. After a brief visit, I wiped the powdered sugar from my chin and drove back up the hill.

When I returned, the camp was bristling with activity. Cars filled the lawn just ouside the gate, where waiting patrons stamped out smokes in the parking lot dirt. Others crowded the office handing over 20s before heading to the mediums' huts. The PA system seemed louder than usual, cranking out its relentless rhythm of hypnotic chimes. From the chapel came the rolling thunder of Si Baynes's midday rave, and kids crammed the sandbox constructing what I presumed were castles in the sky. The whole complex seemed lit and ready to blow.

But most startling of all was the tangle of twisted broken branches burying the roof, door, and windows of Whispering Pine Spirit. A tree had fallen on my cabin, ripping the shutters from its side. Thirty feet of oak lay in the muck where my car, just moments before, had been parked.

I walked across the road to ask Julian--a Fox-Sauk tribesman busy breaking ground for a sweat lodge--if he knew anything about it. "Oh, she split right in half 'bout five minutes after you left," he said calmly. "I heard it coming, too. Whining and cracking and wham! Right on your cabin."

Geier strolled over to make sure everything was all right and offered her apologies. I assured her that as far as I knew she had nothing to do with it. And I thanked my lucky stars for having a taste for doughnuts.

"There are no accidents," she reminded me.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Yael Routtenberg.

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