No One Dies in Lily Dale
Spiritualism as a religion began in the 1840s in the "Burned-Over District" of Upstate New York. Taking elements of Christianity and shamanism, the religion is focused around mediums speaking to spirits that spiritualists believe continue to exist after one's physical death. The religion became a trend in the United States and Europe after thousands of young soldiers died in World War I. Looking for closure, families turned to mediums. Readings became entertainment and fraudulent mediums sprung up, as did debunkers like Harry Houdini, who used his knowledge of stage magic to reveal their tricks. After attempts by psychologists to prove mediumistic abilities authentic failed, the trend died down, and spiritualism faded from popular imagination.
As a religion, spiritualism has continued, with its stronghold back in the Burned-Over District in a small town called Lily Dale, which is thirty miles outside of Buffalo. Most people know nothing about spiritualism beyond seances and the turn of the century images of mediums, making it the perfect subject for an insightful documentary. The town of Lily Dale and its inhabitants seem like the perfect subjects: sincere, passionate, and eccentric. It’s too bad Stick Figure Productions didn’t make that documentary.
No One Dies in Lily Dale is a mess, with no salient points to make and no strong storyline. Too many characters to follow are introduced, including Greta Gehman, a Polish medium; Ronald Holt, a police officer grieving the loss of his teenage son; and Rebecca Frabricius, a young woman mourning the death of her fiance. Ronald Holt is the closest full story we get, as he begins to release some of the guilt he feels over not protecting his son and show signs of healing. No one else gets anywhere near a storyline at all.
The spiritualists are portrayed as warm, happy, new age-y people who see dead family members walking down the street, and the people coming for readings are, overall, seen as seen logical, normal people who are driven by their grief to readings. The readings follow a traditional script; only one is inaccurate, no one is told anything negative, and no one questions the mediums or their abilities.
No one except Susan Heinrichs, the born-again, evangelical Christian who lost her son eight months before coming to Lily Dale. Setting up an evangelical Christian, a group not known for their open mindedness, as the voice of reason would have been provocative, but that didn’t happen. Even the attempt to draw comparisons between both groups as providing answers for people’s grief is ignored. Instead, Susan is shown as a boorish, small-minded woman who wants to convert the town. Her actions invalidate her important question of one medium, telling him that answering whether he is correct or not is “not testing the spirit” or the medium. It’s an important point that is never raised again.
The community of Lily Dale, and the persistent popularity of Spiritualism, are wonderful topics for a serious documentary that focuses on the need for humanity to understand death and grief. No One Dies in Lily Dale is not that documentary, unfortunately.