“We’re on a north-flowing river; a lot of people have associated north-flowing rivers with high spiritual activity. We sit on several different ley lines, which are lines deep within the rock underneath the city of Rochester. Our rock layer goes down very far, and we have underground water, and we have Lake Ontario with a strange magnetic pole. We have so many things in Rochester that if you put it all in a bucket it would be like a paranormal bingo. Rochester would get bingo almost every time because we have all these little things.”
If you’re interested in the spectral happenings in Rochester, both new and old, Rob Pistilli is a good local expert to speak with. Founder of Monroe County Paranormal Investigations, Pistilli and his team are not only well versed in the long and storied past associated with our area but also spend their free time investigating paranormal happenings locally.
“We are an all-volunteer group that assists people who feel that they’re having issues in their homes or their businesses revolving around the paranormal, hauntings, and that kind of thing,” Pistilli tells me when I ask about the group. We meet in the middle of a hot day at Matilda Coffee in NOTA. He makes time to meet with me after saying he has been “on the road all day.” I never clarify if he was on the road all day hunting ghosts, but in my head, I imagine him driving up and down rural western New York in a van not unlike the Mystery Machine, full of ghost-hunting equipment in the back.
“We take no money; we make no money. I’m the worst business owner ever. I’ve been doing this since 2002, and I’ve never made a penny doing it. We try to help people who think they’re having a problem, who don’t have another place to turn.”
Understandable, I muse. A common thought that runs through the head of anyone watching a haunted house movie is “Well … just leave.” After spending the summer casually trying to buy a house (and failing spectacularly), I realized for myself just how financially tied you can be to your property. When something begins to happen in your home that you feel threatened by, you look for an expert to help.
“Here comes the cliché part from Ghostbusters. Well, who are you going to call? We would like to be that person that you call because we want you to feel secure in the place that you live,” says Pistilli.
“When you think about a home or an apartment, that is your biggest expenditure. We want you to feel safe in the place that you call home. Often we’re counselors more than investigators. We’re grief counselors and sometimes we’re emotional counselors, we’re there solving problems for people that nine times out of ten are not (paranormal related).”
“Do you find that most of it is not? I don’t know what the right word is … credible?” I ask. I struggle throughout our conversation to find the right words to describe his profession without sounding like I’m not taking it seriously. There are suddenly fewer ways to say “haunted” when you’re speaking to a specialist.
“I would say that it’s somewhere between seventy-five and eighty-five percent of it,” he responds.
I get easily sidetracked talking to Pistilli. I tend to be excited by any topic surrounding the occult. I hope to get some professional opinions on the locations in Rochester that are most often attributed to having paranormal activity, but I can’t help but poke around some other topics. We touch on the Fox sisters, who claimed to be mediums communicating with spirits from beyond the grave in Rochester in the early nineteenth century. They made a living by facilitating contact with spirits for the wealthy and curious. Despite confessing later in life that the entire career was a hoax, the sisters are still heralded as birthing a movement that created nation-wide interest in contacting the dead.
“The people that lived on East Avenue and in the nice neighborhoods were able to have mediums and seances in their homes, while the people that lived in the more working-class neighborhoods could not. So along came these boards where they could do it themselves,” Pistilli says, talking about Ouija boards. “It was a way for every man to experience these things. I say this a lot too: to the believer, no proof is needed; to the skeptic, no proof will be accepted. So, if you believed that you had this little board and you were opening a portal and communicating, who says that you weren’t?”
I finally get around to what I’m here for: What Rochester-based ghost stories are credible and which are little more than fiction? I have done a little fishing as to what places members of the community widely consider to be haunted, and one location comes up again and again.
“I talk about it all the time. People think of the White Lady’s Castle—White Lady’s Castle was a hotdog stand,” says Pistilli. “There was never a house there ever in the recorded history of the town that goes all the way back to the 1600s. There are no land deeds for anywhere near there other than the zoo.”
The White Lady’s Castle, for those who are not versed in the haunted happenings in Rochester, refers to some vaguely medieval-looking ruins located near the lake at Durand-Eastman Park. There are unlimited variations, but the most common story is that the ruins were what remained of a vast estate that housed a nubile young woman and her overprotective mother. After the daughter’s disappearance, the area is said to have been haunted by the spirit of the mother, who will terrorize young people in the area.
Pistilli asserts that many urban legends like this one were started around the 1950s by mothers to discourage their children from feeling each other up in a parked car in quiet areas.
I can’t help but ask him what locations could frighten even the most experienced of ghost hunters here in our city.
“The armory for sure, 100 percent. Two of the craziest things that have ever happened to me in the paranormal have happened to me in that building. Once I was actually lifted up off my feet and thrown backwards. I landed on another investigator.”
The other event he describes involves being beckoned to the basement of the building by spirits clearly speaking his name. He says that a gut feeling saved him from what could have been a scary night.
We touch on some other locations that he believes are hosting ghosts from the past: Mount Hope Cemetery, the Eastman House, and the Eastman Dental Dispensary. He says he has heard rumblings about the abandoned subway tunnels that run under Rochester but firmly asserts that his team does not investigate private or restricted areas.
Going into this talk with Pistilli I assumed that people working in modern day ghost hunting were thrill seekers or perhaps interested in gathering data to satisfy their own curiosities.
“I think that what we battle most is that sideshow appeal. That fact that people are looking at us and expecting, you know, the sideshow, when in reality it’s us just being us. Using whatever talents we have, whether it be a talent for research or a talent for picture taking or a talent for audio recording or a talent for communicating; whatever it is, none of us is anything special. We’re a group of people that get together to best utilize our talents to help others.”
You can find out more about Rob Pistilli and the MCPI on its Facebook page, Monroe County Paranormal Investigations or at monroeghost.com.