"Whenever I do psychic readings for someone, it’s always bad news," says Bill with a heavy sigh. Bill is a 60-something electrician and, like me and nine others, a student for the day at the College of Psychic Studies in Kensington, London. "But then I think, ‘Well, they’ve gotta hear it, ain’t they?’" he continues. “They’re meant to.”
Inside Cassadaga, the “Psychic Capital of the World”
On the surface, Cassadaga resembles a Florida Mayberry. Set back in the backwoods between Daytona and Orlando, the little “Psychic Capital of the World,” has long been a sanctuary for mediums, healers, psychics, and just plain freaks.
The Spiritualist Camp in Cassadaga was founded in the late 1800s by one George P. Colby. Colby, a New York native and medium had been instructed by his spirit guide—a Native American named Seneca—to go to Florida and start a spiritual center. He trekked into the Central Florida wilderness in 1875 and homesteaded the land, in accordance with Seneca’s prophecy. A charter to form the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association was granted in 1894, and Colby acquired 35 acres. This spirit guide apparently had quite the knowledge of property rights. Over the decades, the Spiritualist Camp has grown to 57 acres. Cassadaga started as a place for snowbirds to practice their Spiritualism—a secular-minded, turn-of-the-century mish-mash of science, philosophy and religion.
Fast forward to 2013 – things have changed.
Two distinct tendencies have emerged within the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp—the New Agers and the religious, non-profit organization charged with running the camp. Like the Jews and the Muslims in certain parts of the world, a single street separates them from each other.
The New Agers use tarot cards and stick to the Cassadaga Hotel. A stone’s throw away is the religious organization maintains the traditional belief system that Colby established in the 1800s. That’s not to say the Cassadaga Hotel and its hired psychics don’t stay true to Spiritualism as religion, but they’re a bit more relaxed about it. Its like Episcopalians and Catholics.
The Cassadaga Hotel—the only hotel in Cassadaga—is allegedly haunted. The perimeter porch with its rocking chairs and hunchbacked palm trees resemble a more Mediterranean incarnation of the Bates Motel. The hotel’s website states that the hotel has “friendly spirits”—I’m guessing this means Ghost Dad-like apparitions. The original hotel burned down on Christmas Day of 1926 and was rebuilt a year later. The inside of the hotel evokes the Roaring Twenties with its Tuscan-style furniture and speakeasy-style lobby. To the side of the lobby is Sinatra’s Ristorante, which features a piano player, full liquor bar, and Italian food. Saturday night is karaoke, but we’ll get to that later.
Channeling GG Allin with America’s Next Drag Superstar
Two weeks after Sharon Needles took home the coveted title of America’s Next Drag Superstar on Rupaul’s Drag Race, she sits on the floor of her room at the Out Hotel—a “straight-friendly urban resort” in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen—across from a psychic named Jesse Bravo, which is at least partially my doing. I had been enraptured by this glam-goth/witch-house/art-sleaze drag queen ever since seeing her on television, and had to meet her. But what would compel a performer known for vomiting blood and accessorizing with Ouija boards to hang with me? What could I propose that would be campy, creepy, and absurd enough to work? One word: séance. And here we are, a tattooed Sharon in a nude-colored lace dress, a rhinestone collar, and cotton candy-like platinum hair piled high sitting among flickering candles, tumbler of scotch in hand, while the psychic tells her he sees stars—entire constellations—all around her.
Sharon kneels down to whisper in my ear: “Ask the psychic if you are going to get raped.”
“No!” I say, “I don’t want to know!”
“What did she tell you to ask?” the psychic asks, smiling, “When you are going to die?”
I consider this. “Well… could you tell me that?”
“No!” Sharon yelps, “You psycho! Ask my question, not that one.”
A few hours earlier, I sat in the bathroom and got to talk to Sharon about her origins while she applied make-up—or rather, I talked to Aaron Coady, the man behind the woman. (I’ll refer to Aaron as “Sharon” when he’s in drag and as “Aaron” while he’s in mufti.) When he’s not in character, he has an open, easy demeanor, which is what you’d expect from someone who grew up in a small town and escaped to become, officially, a Drag Superstar. “I was too naive to be depressed,” he said of his childhood in Newton, Iowa. He was picked on, sure, but he learned to surrounded himself with things he loved: turning the back deck into a Broadway stage (“There was no after school dance or theater program in my town”), year-round Halloween dress-up, hanging out alone in cornfields, and, especially, plugging into television. “I was really into the bimbo archetype that filled late 80s-early 90s TV when I was growing up,” he said. “You know, women circling the want ads with nail polish, Rhonda Shear from USA Up All Night, Peggy Bundy.”
A YouTube video from Sharon’s early days depicts her as a blonde hooker in a red satin dress, walking the streets of Pittsburgh drinking a beer. “Maybe it sounds sexist, but I thought there was power in women acting stupid,” said Aaron, “That is why Sharon’s voice is so dumb. She’s beautiful, spooky, and stupid.”
Sharon asks the psychic if we can get the punk rock legend GG Allin on the line… or maybe televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker? (The latter is tattooed on Sharon’s upper arm.) The psychic closes his eyes. Tammy Faye is in some distant, massive city, but she knows Sharon and she has a message for her: She needs to watch her finances. She needs to watch who is around her. She needs to not let things pile up. “I love you, Tammy,” Sharon says. GG Allin also makes an appearance (surely the only time he’s shared a stage with Tammy Faye) and sends the image of a pressure cooker, telling Sharon she needs to “let the steam out.”
Clancy Martin is the author of the novel How to Sell, which was chosen as a best book of the year by The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, and Publisher’s Weekly. It is set in a jewelry store in Fort Worth. Martin himself used to be a jeweler, so he knows all the dirty tricks. Due to the book, I learned a ring I wear is not platinum, but white gold — the information was right there stamped inside, but I didn’t know how to look for it, and had been told all my life it was platinum. It’s an heirloom. I am off topic. Martin is very good at writing about sex and drugs. Those are two topics it is pretty easy to mess up. He is also exceptionally good—really, this is very unusual—at writing about what I guess I will call the spiritual life, but those words are wrong. Those words sound kind of safe, and what I’m talking about isn’t safe at all. It is lawless. I really can’t even come close to getting a handle on it, but he does—so you ought to just go and have a look, if you didn’t yet. Here’s the tarot card reading.
VICE: Hi Clancy, it’s Amie. I can do a general reading or a reading about your love life, or a reading about your work.
Clancy Martin: I think it would be more interesting to do a reading about my love life, because my love life is in real disarray at the moment.
OK, do you want to tell me why? If you tell me why, then the cards are kind of logical, so the reading will make more sense.
Yeah, I’ll tell you why my love life is in disarray. I am separated, but not yet divorced from my second wife. I am dating someone right now. I’m in a monogamous relationship, but I’m not sure how steady it is on its feet.