A memoirist explores modern spiritualism through its centuries-old legacy and a hallowed summer camp.
Ptacin (Poor Your Soul, 2016) examines Maine’s Camp Etna, a summer colony established in 1876 dedicated to communal gatherings where spiritualists assemble for mental and physical mediumship and to engage in paranormal fellowship. The Maine-based author immersed herself in the community, and her reportage reflects equal amounts of diligent journalism and wide-eyed fascination. As Ptacin writes, spiritualists staunchly believe in the afterlife and that each human embodies the capacity and wields the tools to channel and communicate with a host of otherworldly entities. Her tour of the camp activities, which is both thrilling and unsettling, began with a startling “table tipping” session with a medium. In appropriately affable and accessible prose, the author describes what separates spiritualists from more common American religious traditions: They are “willing to offer and provide scientific evidence to prove what many people may otherwise believe to be a bunch of bullshit.” Running alongside her probing examination of Camp Etna is an astute history of the rise and fall of American spiritualism, which began in 1888 with Kate and Margaret Fox, who exhibited supernatural abilities. During her months at Camp Etna as initially “just a journalist eager to see a ghost,” Ptacin’s neophyte education on spiritualism and her interactions with its practicing population blossomed from spiked curiosity to rapt participation in ghost hunts and dowsing sessions. As the author notes, the spiritualists she met form an extraordinarily convictive community “grasping for meaning in humanity beyond the basic biological facts,” yet the enigmatic profiles—past and present—collectively display a much more dynamic tapestry. Ptacin also brings aspects of faith and individual ability into view, as when she probed the difficulty of uncovering one’s own spirit guide and an Etna spiritualist confidently spoke: “We all can do it.”
An eye-opening, consistently fascinating, and engrossing profile of the modern spiritualist movement.