LILY DALE, N.Y. - With its antique furniture and Oriental rugs, the lobby of the Maplewood Hotel looks much like that of countless other country inns. It's the small sign on an unobtrusive column that hints at something less conventional.
It asks patrons to refrain, at least in this area, from holding seances. And it gives visitors one of their first clues - but hardly their last - that to stray into Lily Dale, a small, gated community in the far west of the state, is to enter New York's own corner of the twilight zone.
For more than a century, Lily Dale has been a center of a relatively obscure religion called Spiritualism, which holds that death is merely a transition from a physical entity into a nonphysical one, and that trained mediums can bring messages from people who exist only in spirit back to those stranded in the flesh.
Through the decades, the intellectually curious and the emotionally vulnerable, visionaries and fools have been beckoned here by the promise of such communication.
More recently, they have been drawn by other forces as well. Bowing to the gods of commerce and fashion, Lily Dale has given itself something of a New Age make-over, opening shops that sell crystals and showcasing speakers like Deepak Chopra. In the summer of 1996, about 22,000 tourists trekked to Lily Dale, a village in miniature, with charming wooden cottages snugly fitting together in a small area.
But it is the Old Age that still exerts the most powerful appeal. Lily Dale's most popular draws are the mediums - some of them year-round residents, others summer opportunists - who invite strangers, for a cost of $30 to $75, to learn about the dead uncle who reassures you that a promotion and raise are imminent, or the dead aunt who worries that cataracts are in the offing.
These mystics do not wear gossamer shawls or lug crystal balls. Neal Rzepkowski, 45, is an openly gay medical doctor who favors jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts, lectures widely on AIDS prevention and loves to poke fun at himself.
He says he has told some of his AIDS patients in local prisons, "If you go to the Other Side and learn the cure for AIDS, you come back and tell me."
Another medium, Debra Boardman, 41, a former legal secretary, was dressed in plaid shorts and a yellow T-shirt, looking as if she were bound for the golf course.
And Stephanie Turachak, 34, supplements her work as a medium with a job as a customer-service representative at a nearby Wal-Mart. She kids that living in Lily Dale, which has an estimated year-round population of just 250, is like living in any small town, with one exception: "Everybody really knows your business when everybody's psychic."
That is an exaggeration. There are only 35 "registered" mediums in Lily Dale - people who have passed psychic muster in three 30-minute test readings evaluated by officials with the Lily Dale Assembly.
The assembly, a Spiritualist religious organization, owns all 167 acres of Lily Dale, which is technically a part of Pomfret Township and has a post office but no police department or schools. A person must belong to the assembly to buy a house in Lily Dale, and assembly officials must license mediums before they can hang out their colorful wooden shingles.
Lily Dale was founded in 1879 as a lakeside religious commune by adherents of Spiritualism who lived in nearby Laona. Spiritualism itself had been born only three decades earlier, in Hydesville, N.Y., near Rochester.
That was where a pair of teen-age sisters, Margaret and Kate Fox, claimed to be communicating with unseen forces through inexplicable rappings in their cottage. As their story spread, and became an intellectual cause celebre in the late 19th century, it coalesced into a religion that attracted thousands of followers.
Pub Date: 4/08/98