Review: No One Dies in Lily Dale

There’s a moment in this HBO documentary when a young woman named Rebecca – who is visiting Lily Dale in search of answers regarding her fiance’s mysterious death – asks The Spirit Book’s author, Ray Buckland, if he thinks any of the town’s infamous mediums are fakes. He replies without missing a beat, “Oh sure…but I think there’s fakes in every industry.” From the fraudulent spirit photography of the early 1900’s to Miss Cleo and South Park's proclaimed “Biggest Douche in the Universe” (aka John Edward) today, we’ve certainly been given enough evidence to doubt the validity of the profession, but that doesn’t stop thousands of people from spending their hard-earned money on mediums anyway.
No One Dies in Lily Dale, premiering tonight at 9 pm on HBO, explores this picturesque community located just outside of Buffalo, New York, where the world’s largest concentration of mediums reside. The documentary introduces us to four local mediums who claim to be able to see, hear and feel the dead: Anne Gehman, Greta Lestock, Gregory Kehn and Sherry Lee Calkins (tacky website design seems to be another thing mediums have in common), as well as visiting medium, Michelle Whitedove. None of them seem to be one bit concerned about people thinking they’re fakes; in fact, Gehman points out that she thinks being skeptical is good. Luckily for them, though, they don't seem to face much skepticism within their own community, and the haters are kept at bay outside of the town's gate. At one point the camera turns to those protestors outside and we catch a glimpse of one of their signs, which reads, “Harry Potter will damn the souls of your children” (poor Harry Potter, always getting blamed for the damnation of mankind. I bet J.K. Rowling cries herself to sleep every night about this, wiping her tears with the millions of dollar bills she's made off the series). Save for the protestors on the outside, and the people talking to the dead on the inside, Lily Dale is just another quaint, Mayberry-esque town.

Close to 25,000 people flock to Lily Dale each summer, in search of readings, of course, but mostly healing and a sense of closure with their dead loved ones. The film follows a father who lost a son in a tragic shooting, the aforementioned fiancée, a woman wondering why her mother cut her out of her will and an Evangelical Christian woman seeking the peace that her own religion couldn’t provide following the death of her child. Their stories are powerful, human and rooted in grief; how they respond to the readings varies, but their sadness grips you regardless.

Directed by Steven Cantor (who was nominated for an Emmy for his previous HBO documentary, Devil’s Playground), No One Dies in Lily Dale probably won’t change your mind if you don’t buy into this sort of thing, but I think no matter what you believe, the message that believers and skeptics alike can take from this film is that, in times of sadness we should all be open to the healing process, and that sometimes that process might take you down a path that you least expect.

Have some free time this summer? You can read more about planning a visit to Lily Dale here. July and August are considered to be their high season, with events taking place nearly every weekend.

No One Dies in Lily Dale premieres tonight at 9pm on HBO. Check your local listings for more airdates on HBO and HBO2.