The Medium is the Message

Peaks Island author Mira Ptacin delves into the history of Maine’s Camp Etna, where women talk to the dead.

The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums, and Legends of Camp Etna by Mira Ptacin

Mira Ptacin approached her research into the spirit-channeling mediums at Maine’s Camp Etna with an open mind. “I was a ‘you never know’ kind of person,” she says. She still is. “While I have never seen a ghost or spirit with my own eyes, I’m still not a disbeliever…I’m a bit of a believer.”

The results of Ptacin’s research, including her brushes with the other side and experiences with those who do see ghosts, can be found in the captivating The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums, and Legends of Camp Etna. The camp, located between Newport and Bangor, was founded in 1876 by members of the Spiritualist religion. “Spiritualists have two major beliefs in their faith: that it is our duty to practice the Golden Rule, and also that we humans can talk to the dead if we want to,” writes Ptacin (Poor Your Soul). The enclave of summer cottages (and a temple) continues to draw resident mediums and those who visit to consult with them, although it draws a smaller crowd than it did in its heyday.

Ptacin landed a big endorsement from Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, who called The In-Betweens a ”brilliant work,” among other glowing praise in her blurb. The book is an enlightening look at these spiritual seekers but Ptacin also has produced an important work of little-known feminist history, from the 19th century birth of Spiritualism through its evolution into the 21st. Nearly all early Spiritualists advocated for women’s rights. During her numerous visits to Camp Etna, Ptacin realized, she writes, that it was and is “a place where women were the major players. The majority of the members of the camp were women, and women occupied the majority of the leadership positions. …In fact, the camp and its inhabitants had no allegiance to the tradition of patriarchy. Instead, they operated on a faith placed in the deceased, and a faith placed in women (as well as a few good men.)”

As refreshing as that is, the book will seduce you because, well, ghosts.

Ptacin attended table tippings, ghost hunts, readings and more. “Some moments during my time at Camp Etna blew me away—there’s no way it could’ve not been a ghost,” she says.

Turning 40 next month (“I’m jazzed about it!”), Ptacin has two young children and lives on Peaks Island. The author teaches memoir writing to women at the Windham Correctional Center and is a freelance writer for numerous publications, including The Atlantic, New York Magazine, The New York Times and Down East.

Photo by Shane Thomas McMillan

We spoke to her about Camp Etna, her book and ghosts.

Q: How did you “discover” Camp Etna and decide to write about it?
A: A friend of mine—Celia Blue Johnson, author, editor, mother, co-founder of Slice Literary Magazine—mentioned the camp to me, but I put it on my back burner of ideas…but I kept getting drawn to stories and experiences about the supernatural. And then Celia mentioned Camp Etna to me again, which led me to just Google the religion “Spiritualism,” and after just reading the Wikipedia page about Spiritualism, I was HOOKED. That page whetted my appetite, because it involved feminism and ghosts and I knew this was a history that I needed to unearth.

Q: What surprised you most about Camp Etna?
A: The way the women were so confident and nonchalant about their religion. I tend to be defensive about my belief system, principals and ethics. I supposed that these women, who are convinced they can talk to and see dead people, would be defensive about it, but they were not. I was impressed by their ‘take it or leave it/believe it or not’ attitude. They encouraged skepticism.

Q: How would you describe in general the mediums you interviewed?
A: Beautiful. Beautifully flawed. Beautifully wise. Selfless. Brave. Quirky. Surprising. Funny. Fascinating. The most interesting women I’ve ever met.

Q: Why are women apparently more drawn to consult mediums than men?
A: Because women tend to rely on instinct and intuition more often than men. And I also believe men are not encouraged or supported as much to use the more ‘feminine’ side of themselves. We still live in a country that encourages toxic masculinity, a patriarchal society, a nation that doesn’t value women’s intuition. Unfortunately.

Q: What’s your biggest takeaway from your experience researching The In-Betweens?
A: To trust my gut. To embrace my intuition.

Q: Will you visit the camp again?
A: Of course! And often. The women from Camp Etna are now part of an extended family. We text all the time. We say ‘I love you.’ They give me wonderful advice (and can predict the future.) They’re in my life for good. They were impossible not to fall in love with.

Q: What’s one thing you want readers to get from this work?
A: I want them to come to the conclusion that there is much more to life than what we see on the surface. That there is a huge universe that we have yet to understand. That we are little specks, and that all of us are trying to figure it out. I want them to read about these women and fall back in love with humanity. I want them to want to trust in their own intuition. And also, I want them to be open to the idea that it’s possible that the dead can talk to us, and we can communicate with the dead.

Amy Canfield is the deputy editor of Maine Women Magazine.

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