While passing through the Penobscot County town of Etna on research trips for her new book, Maine writer Mira Ptacin stopped at the local variety store for a snack and asked the customers there if they’d ever heard of Camp Etna, located just a quarter-mile down Route 2 from the store.
“Nobody there knew about it, despite the fact that it’s been in the community for over 100 years,” said Ptacin, who lives on Peaks Island with her husband and two children. “I think people assume it’s some sort of Boy Scout camp or retreat center, and not this historic center for spiritualism.”
A few years ago, Ptacin herself didn’t know anything about Camp Etna, or about spiritualism, a religious movement founded in the 1840s that is based around the belief that the spirits of the dead exist, and that the living can communicate with them.
When a friend told her about the camp, a wooded 27-acre property on Etna Pond that includes 50 cottages, a temple, inn, library and meetinghouse, she was curious. After her first visit, she was ready to write a book, which would become “The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums and Legends of Camp Etna,” to be published this month by Liveright/W.W. Norton.
“There’s just so much to process in telling this story. It’s about a religion. It’s about mysticism. It’s about women, and feminism, and how people living outside the mainstream are oppressed,” said Ptacin. “And it’s about this really unique chapter in American history that very few people seem to know about, and this tiny town in Maine that was at the center of it.”
Spiritualism as a movement arose in the 1840s, during a Protestant religious revival in the U.S. called the Second Great Awakening, which also birthed religious movements such as the Latter Day Saints, the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Shakers. Unlike those movements, however, Spiritualism is not explicitly Christian in its doctrine — spiritualists follow many different religious and spiritual traditions.
The main belief — that individuals known as mediums can communicate with the spirits of the dead, who are living in the spirit world, or afterlife — spread rapidly throughout the U.S. throughout the 19th century, with much of the interest clustered in the Northeast. Many of the things spiritualists who practiced in the 19th century did are still done today, such as seances, dowsing and table tipping, though other, more contemporary practices such as Reiki and chakra readings are also often included.
Though the number of adherents of spiritualism declined rapidly after the 1920s, the movement is very much still active. One of the oldest and largest camps still operating in the U.S. is Camp Etna, which was founded in 1876. Camp Etna, alongside Temple Heights in Northport, Madison Camp in Madison, and churches in Bangor, Newport, Augusta, Sabattus and Westbrook, comprise Maine’s network of spiritualist practice.
According to its website, at its peak in the early 20th century, Camp Etna would attract more than 3,000 people from throughout the Northeastern U.S. each summer. Some simply sought to enlist a medium to help them contact a loved one, while others hoped to develop their own skills as a medium. Today, summer attendance numbers in the hundreds, and the camp keeps a relatively low profile outside of spiritualist circles.
For Ptacin, her interest in spiritualism is grounded as much in the movement’s convoluted and idiosyncratic history, as it is an interest in potentially speaking with a ghost or receiving a message from the spirit world.
In particular, in “The In-Betweens” Ptacin focuses on the fact that spiritualism is a largely women-led movement. During its peak in the mid- to late 19th century, most spiritualists were also abolitionists and advocates for the rights of women and Native people, a progressive attitude that has continued into the 21st century.
“Naturally, when you have this movement that flies in the face of the mainstream world, both as a religion and as a social movement, you’re going to make people uncomfortable,” said Ptacin. “I think the fact that it was women doing it, and women exercising all this spiritual power, just made it more suspect in the eyes of the status quo.”
Though there have always been documented cases of fraud among purported psychics and mediums, Ptacin believes that the everyday practitioners of spiritualism in its earlier years were also unfairly thought to be dangerous women who encouraged sexual liberty and were bent on demasculinizing men.
In reality, Ptacin found that most people who come to spiritualism are not only fed up with traditional organized religion, but are also looking to heal from some kind of pain or trauma.
“Very often, it is middle-aged women, who have kind of bypassed traditional religion, and are on a personal spiritual quest,” said Ptacin. “They are often in a lot of pain. They are overwhelmed by grief, in some cases.”
Sometimes, a person’s introduction to spiritualism can be through an event like a psychic dinner, a popular type of event held at restaurants all over Maine and the rest of the country.
“People go thinking it’s going to be a fun girl’s night, and they’ll drink a little wine and see what the deal is, and then they find themselves weeping, and unlocking all this pain that they don’t know what to do with,” said Ptacin. “Whether or not you believe that these people are mediums, that reaction is real. And I think the vast majority of [mediums] are in it to help heal people.”
In her book, Ptacin goes into great detail about some of the members at the Etna Spiritualist Association, the organization that runs Camp Etna, recounting stories that are at once humorous and moving, about their journeys both toward and away from spiritualism.
“There are so many different types of mediums. Everyone has a different story,” said Ptacin. “It was really important to me to paint a three-dimensional portrait of these women, who I have learned so much from. In the end, people believe what they want to believe, or need to believe. You just have to be open to it.”
“The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums and Legends of Camp Etna” comes out on Oct. 29, wherever books are sold. Mira Ptacin’s other book, “Poor Your Soul,” a memoir, is also available.