Halloween tours show off lighter side of spiritualism in Cassadaga

The Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp is hosting its annual Haunted Tour. This skeletal gravekeeper will be one of the many sets during the Halloween celebrations. (Carin Perez/Orlando Sentinel)

It's getting weird in Cassadaga.

In the southwest Volusia County community known for its mediums and psychics, aliens have crashed-landed in a tree. A skeleton has been spotted driving an old-fashioned hearse. And a band of gypsies have set up camp.

Blame the community's recent infestation of strangeness on Richard Smith, the chief scare officer of the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp's upcoming haunted tours, set for Oct. 29 and 30.

"For two nights, we have fun," said Smith, who has been a part of the Spiritualist Camp since 1996.

For years, the camp has cashed in on the town's mystique by hosting haunted tours, attracting people from across the region who want to experience Halloween in one of Florida's most unique communities.

Cassadaga is a 115-year-old community of spiritualists, who, among other beliefs, hold that the dead can communicate with the living through mediums.

On a recent Monday afternoon, Smith, 54, of DeLand, weaved his way through the yet-to-be completed Halloween attraction, pointing out more than 15 hair-raising scenes including a snake pit, an electric chair called "Old Sparky" and a toxic waste spill.

"All of this came out of my head," Smith said. "That can be very frightening."

But the community with the connection to the spirit world hasn't always embraced the holiday that originated as a welcoming of the return of departed souls.

For years, residents from outside Cassadaga had a difficult time visiting the community on Oct. 31. In 1996, community leaders blockaded the town on Halloween, citing concerns about vandalism from unwanted guests searching for a Cassadaga cemetery that doesn't exist. (The cemetery is actually in nearby Lake Helen.)

In 2003, as a way to raise money and control visitors' activities, the camp began hosting haunted walks. For two years, it put the haunted tours on hiatus. In 2009, the camp revived the tours, putting Smith in charge of the event.

"It helps us pay some of the bills," Smith said.

At the privately owned Cassadaga Hotel on Stevens Street, owner Diana Morn said the public is welcome to celebrate the Halloween season on a "more spiritual level." Throughout Halloween weekend, the hotel, built in the 1920s and said to be haunted, will host séances, meditations and rituals with a shaman.

Cassadaga pastor the Rev. Ben Cox said opening the community to outsiders shows the lighter side of spiritualism.

During the haunted tours, Cox will present a talk in the camp's temple on the history and meaning of Halloween. Calling himself Professor Trisfal Grey, a scholar of wizardry, Cox plans to lecture in a black robe, a red and gold scarf and Harry Potter-type glasses.

There will also be a psychic readings, a fortune-telling bone thrower and face painting.

"Halloween, for us, is having fun," Cox said. "It's not part of our religion."

Each year, Smith takes two weeks of his vacation time to help construct the tour, which now extends into a wooded area near the camp's main office.

"I'm Mr. Halloween," he said.