From Casper the friendly ghost, to movies like "Paranormal Activity," and even closer to home with the Fox Sisters, people have always been intrigued with the mysteries of the afterlife. The "seen" of it — dead bodies, tombstones in the ground — hasn't always been enough. It's something that religions and theorists of the world have debated pretty much forever. What happens next?
Whatever you believe, there's a chance that you've had something seemingly inexplicable happen in your life — a flicker of a light, a noise in the night, or something else that raised the hairs on the back of your neck. That's where the handful of paranormal investigating groups based in Rochester come in. But this isn't a real-life version of what you remember from "Ghostbusters." There are no vacuum cleaners sucking up spirits, or invisible forces hurling lamps across a room. These groups are dedicated to investigating the truth behind the paranormal, and they operate with a healthy sense of skepticism. This isn't about the spooky and scary, but a look into the very real and very normal lives of some of Rochester's own paranormal investigators.
Fans of television shows like "Ghost Hunters" or "Ghost Adventures" are used to a hyped-up, sensationalized version of ghost hunting. That's not the reality experienced by groups like Monroe County Paranormal Investigations.
"It's a weird field," says Brian Cardilli, one of two lead investigators at Monroe County Paranormal Investigations. "If you're in your house and you see something weird, most people's reaction is to run away from it, where we run after it."
Cases come in via e-mail or a phone hotline, and members will conduct a standard interview to gather information — all part of the organization's completely free investigations. "Sometimes you're able to get a good idea that it probably isn't paranormal right off the bat," Cardilli says. "But we still check it out anyway if they want us to. It's not an exact science by any means. There's a lot of different theories as to what you're looking for and how to find it, and in the group I tend to be one of the most skeptical ones. That's not to say I haven't had anything weird happen to me. When your pant leg gets tugged and there's nobody there, that's kind of unnerving."
The group is currently made up of 10 volunteer members, including teachers, construction workers, law enforcement agents, and firemen. These are people with day jobs, meaning the work has to be done at night. The investigations aren't done at night for some kind of scare factor: working at night also allows the members to concentrate on heightening their other senses, such as hearing.
A typical investigation starts with the lead investigator doing a walkthrough of a property with its owner, while the other members set up equipment. The technology used by MCPI includes cameras (still cameras, video cameras, and even night-vision cameras), recording devices, 360 degree microphones, and electromagnetic field meters.
Next the group will conduct a walkthrough with Rob Pistilli, the group's medium, a person who claims to be able to communicate with the spiritual plane. None of the interview or case details are shared with the medium, and the group relies on him as another tool to gather information, even if what he comes up with isn't as tangible as some of the discoveries that they will later use in reports.
"Whatever [the medium] picks up I can't use as evidence," Cardilli says. "Like if I wanted to put something on the website that could be proof of something, I'm not putting up a story that Rob was able to come up with this or this." The group instead prefers to rely on harder, more concrete evidence.
The group then splits into teams, taking different areas of a site, and then really exciting part starts: waiting.
"It actually becomes kind of boring," Cardilli says. "And when I say boring, I mean, you're sitting there, you're quiet. You might be asking questions, trying to get a response from something. But you're sitting there in the dark, and basically listening, trying to heighten your senses."
While some investigations may last only a couple of hours, it is not uncommon for them to run most of the night. Most reports the group receives are of unnatural occurrences happening later in the night, and the group stays as late as the case may dictate.
"We're there to help, to try to put your mind at ease or whatever. If we can explain it away as natural, perfect," Cardilli says.
Locally the group has investigated places such as Geva Theatre Center, where up in the costume room Cardilli was able to use a K2 EFM meter, which has a series of lights that will light up depending on the amount and strength of electromagnetic fields it detects.
"I put that thing down and it wasn't registering anything, and I said, 'If you're here, make the lights light up.' And they lit up," Cardilli says. "I said, 'OK, do it again,' and they lit up, all the way. I said, 'All right, now light it up once for no, twice for yes,' and proceeded to have about a 15-minute conservation and kept getting hits. And I have it on tape, where this was happening."
In the five years that Cardilli has been investigating he's only had such a conversation twice, the second time was in the basement of the Main Street Armory.
"That I can't explain," Cardilli says. "I have no idea how that happened scientifically. [The K2 meter] is not just going to do that."
Even after doing paranormal investigations for five years, Cardilli still feels that staying impartial, and being skeptical, is an important part of the field, and essential for being taken seriously.
"Every investigation I go into skeptical," Cardilli says. "I think you have to. If you go in looking for something that's paranormal, you're probably going to find it."
Within the group there are different levels of skepticism. Cardilli is not one to easily accept orbs — a contested photography phenomenon that may look like a blue or white speck in a photograph — as anything more than dust or light flares on a lens, while other members of the group may be convinced that the photo captures the presence of something paranormal.
"You have to have those arguments, otherwise you have no credibility," Cardilli says. "We do take what we do seriously. If you throw anything up on your website, you've lost your credibility. We know there are people out there who will never believe in what we do, and that's fine. Sometimes I have a hard time believing in what we do. But that's not what we're here for. We're not here to convince people that this stuff happens; we're here to help people."
Case files and photographs from MCPI can be seen on the group's website, monroecoparanormalinvestigations.com. You can also contact the group via its hotline at 585-506-8037.
Region 7, a regional paranormal-research group, was founded in 2008 by TJ Kulpa and Bill Mutschler, who discovered that one of their coworkers was a medium. They were all out grabbing a bite to eat and she brought up that she talked to dead people. Not your usual dinner conversation.
"She started getting to the point where she actually was doing readings, and it started not making logical sense the things that she would know," Kulpa says. "It came to the point where it wasn't just coincidence."
The meeting sparked an interest that Kulpa and Mutschler had shared growing up, but which work, family, and kids had made them forget. The pair started with a Syracuse-based group, but found it too chaotic. That group was bent on always finding something, instead of taking a clear and scientific approach to the investigations, they say.
"We're not scientists, but we at least know that approach." Kulpa says.
"A logical, methodical, disciplined approach," Mutschler says. (Kulpa is in product marketing and Mutschler is in business analytics.)
"When we first started this I had the perception there would be action. I don't mean action like people getting thrown down steps — it's not like 'The Exorcist' or 'Ghostbusters.' But I expected to actually experience something in person, and to this date I really haven't," Mutschler says. "Most of the times it's very quiet. You don't necessarily go away thinking anything happened, until after the fact."
In fact, with many investigations the group leaves thinking it has found nothing, only to pick up on something later while analyzing data, such as the hours of video and audio recordings a group may take during an investigation. Region 7 has found that keeping accurate records is important, because most interactions have been after-the-fact readings picked up by recording devices, and the group needs to know where every person involved was at any given moment to rule out human interference.
While other groups might post everything they find on their official websites or on Facebook and try to pass it off as evidence, Regionl 7 actually withholds much of its findings, and only shares data that the group feels is clearly paranormally influenced.
"It's stuff like that [groups posting anything and everything] which ruins it for those of us that are trying to make it some sort of scientific approach to this thing," Kulpa says.
"We have no reason to fake this. We aren't making money off of this, we have no reason to try to hoax people," Mutschler says.
"I think where we're different is because we have jobs that require logical progression through disciplined steps. Project management-type stuff — that's the approach we bring," Mutschler says. "We try to tell people that just because you run through the dark with a digital recorder does not make you a scientist."
Most of the sites that Region 7 has investigated to date have been commercial sites. Most private-residence requests it has received — even those by coworkers — back out at the last minute.
"We've even had people at work come up to us and say, 'Here's what's going on in my house and I'd love you guys to come. But you know what, I don't want to know. I don't want you to come and give me evidence that it's not my imagination anymore, because then I'm going to have to move,'" Mutschler says.
The group mostly investigates sites that its members seek out, including regional locations such as the Phelps General Store, the Palmyra Museum, Happy Valley (an allegedly haunted wildlife area in the Parish area), and it is currently working on scheduling to get into the Ragtime, a inn in Henrietta that is featured on local ghost-walking tours. The group has also traveled to the Civil War battlefields near Gettysburg, where despite the historical significance, didn't find as much as they had hoped.
"It's like catching fish," Kulpa says. "They're either on or off."
"When you're at the pond you know there's fish in there, you just might not get any that day you are there," Mutschler says. "Whatever's out there, whatever it is doesn't perform on command."
But even if the group doesn't find anything on a given night, it's still an experience that the members enjoy. "There is some excitement. It's cool to be in a cool old building at night with the lights out. There's something kind of intriguing about that, so that's kind of fun and exciting. But we're not running around looking for ghouls and goblins," Mutschler says.
Region 7 Paranormal Research covers the Rochester, Finger Lakes, and Syracuse areas. For more information you can visits its website at r7paranormal.com.
Joe Burkhart launched Beyond Known in 1980, and the group currently has 15 to 18 active members. But that's not to say that an investigation would consist of nearly two dozen people storming through a private residence.
"This isn't an adventure, this is something that actually is serious. This is something where you're dealing with people livelihoods," Burkhart says.
Burkhart had his own unexplainable experiences as a child, and at that time there were no local groups that he was able to connect with. That led to him forming a group on his own.
The organization's hotline averages two to three calls per month. And while, yes, it is investigating paranormal activity, it strives to do so with a human touch by recreating the scenario that led to the paranormal experience a client may have felt, document the conditions that led up to, during, and after the experience, and then ultimately consoling the individuals on what may have happened and how they reacted to it.
"In rare cases we'll find people that were actually ecstatically happy that they had had a ghostly experience or something, because it was something new to them," Burkhart says. "Usually the best course of action is to assist a person in being better able to understand and comprehend what it was they had experienced. By helping them to accept it more, they are usually able to handle it better. In other words, you take something from being an unknown and turn it into a known."
While the group relies on various field devices to monitor electromagnetic waves, spikes in temperature, and other quantifiable atmospheric data, the most important evidence-gathering device is something that anybody can hone.
"It's called common sense — we use the human mind," Burkhart says. "We use our own mental capacities, and so far it's never steered us wrong. We don't fail in what we do. We usually excel." The group also relies on the use of mediums, a common practice in the field.
It can be easy to get caught up in the spookiness. For Burkhart, it's something that has been a part of his life for more than 32 years. "To me this is second nature," Burkhart says. "To me, going out and investigating a site or conducting some research on the matter, it's more of a passion; it's more of a love. The sense of adventure disappeared years ago. To me ghost's a ghost and a UFO is a UFO, a so-called Bigfoot is a so-called Bigfoot. To me the real thrill is in determining and possibly recreating the experience itself."
The group is bound by a clause within its investigation agreement to keep its findings private, and given how personal some of these experiences are and how controversial the whole field can be, that public trust is something that the group takes very seriously.
Burkhart also brought up that privacy is important to clients who may wish to protect their personal or business life and not have people look at them differently because they have a paranormal investigation group come to their home.
"There are some businesses that do frown on people that are into the paranormal, they continue to be somewhat of an oddball or a flake and they may not wish to have that person continue under their employed," Burkhart says. "They don't want people to start thinking they are on the lunatic fringe, time to call in the guys with the white coats."
The group does not charge for its investigations, looking at them as a service to the community. "How can I charge you to come in and deal with something that you can't see?" Burkhart says. "When you're helping people, the reward is in helping individuals while also gaining access to potentially a new experience, where then hopefully we can get audio recording, video recording, or photographic recording of the phenomenon in question."
Beyond Known can be reached at beyond-known.com or at 585-385-6396.