PISToLS Psychic Mediums Renee Desouio and Jeannine McKnight. Photo courtesy of PISToLS.
Why is “ghost hunting” an inept term for describing the attempt to capture evidence of spirits? “Because ghosts are already dead. If you’re hunting them, what are you going to kill?” Lana Putnam and her team of researchers are known collectively as PISToLS (Paranormal Investigations St. Lawrence Seaway). On an individual level they prefer to be classified as “investigators” — it’s a more accurate description of the philosophies behind their practice than the Hollywood nomenclature. “What we do is entirely oriented around helping people: on the spiritual side, we help guide people through circumstances they may not be able to understand, and on a humanist side we give back to organizations who help people on a regular basis … We have no interest in ‘making it big’ on some show.” It’s unusual for people with such an audience-grabbing occupation to eschew ambitions of reality T.V. superstardom, but it’s no fantasy.
“There’s a very specific procedure we take when preparing an investigation, because there has to be; that’s where the science of the occupation comes in,” explained PISToLS investigator Carl Davey, with regards to the large number of cameras and microphones that are set up to capture any activity. Mr. Davey, the group’s equipment guru, provided a demo on some of the tools of the trade. The devices are relatively straightforward for such a decidedly abstract field of study. Handheld electromagnetic field (EMF) meters are a staple for detecting the presence of any spirits, as it is hypothesized that spirits carry an electric charge not unlike the electric signals sent by synapses in the human nervous system. Each PISToLS member heads into an investigation wearing what are referred to as “magic ears,” earbuds hooked to a clip-on microphone that amplify any voices or noises that would be difficult to hear otherwise. Other innocuous and commonly available — albeit essential to the procedure — devices include heat sensors to detect abnormal cooling (indicative of a spirit’s presence), laser lights (which project grids that can easily indicate when a beam’s line is intersected by a spirit), and, most importantly: lots of cameras.
PISToLS uses up to 12 stationary cameras when conducting an investigation, and members have to be extremely conscientious about moving, talking or doing anything in general which may create confusion in the eventual reviewing of evidence. Incidental noises are accounted for, so if someone bumps into a table off-screen it will be noted and ignored in the reviewing process; there’s no chance it will be misconstrued as an example of activity. Members are directed in pairs throughout an investigation site, too, so as to cut down on potential pandemonium caused by investigators stumbling into one another rather than spirits.
“A lot of my time is spent reviewing evidence in this position,” said Ms. Putnam, as she hunched over and placed her hands on her ears, pantomiming the hours devoted to closely listening to recorded audio via headphones and a laptop. “We can only work with audio which is clearly an example of activity, so I end up getting rid of a lot of samples, which can be frustrating to the other members.” It’s all in the pursuit of legitimizing the practice though, so PISToLS has to approach each investigation from the perspective of a skeptic. When I asked the members why they began working in such an occult industry, each was refreshingly forthcoming with their answers.
“I do it in an attempt to try to figure out some of those ‘bigger questions,’” answered Karen Hollis, “There’s these happenings right in front of us and we got the opportunity to ask questions and record the findings.” A stay-at-home mom/grandmother, Ms. Hollis works with PISToLS in her spare time. Her favorite question to ask spirits goes along the lines of, “Where did you come from, and are there more of you?” Because the organization does not charge for their services, the group is comprised entirely of people who engage in the research on a volunteer basis. Therefore, careers within the staff range from former art teacher to ordained minister.
Ms. Putnam sees the study as more of a public service, but also as an exercise in something she’s found compelling since her teenage years. Another prime motivator, though, are the poor practices demonstrated in media regarding dealing with spirits. Having worked previously as a teacher, she was able to relate the act of teaching to investigating. “Walking into a room and screaming won’t get you anywhere, it’s a basic concept.” Ms. Putnam’s principles are rooted in ideals of sympathy and common decency toward others, and also religious teachings.
She begins each investigation with a prayer involving the whole team. Ms. Putnam strongly believes in the correlation between faith and protection from harmful entities, and also abides by a need for a more penitent state of mind when interacting with such a misunderstood subject matter as spirits. “Imagine someone walking into the room of your deceased grandmother or a young child, rummaging through the drawers and shouting out vague commands. How long do you think it would take for that entity to get offended or feel disrespected?” As a result, Ms. Putnam is incredibly strict with her team and how they behave when performing an investigation. Provoking any spirits into doing something radical for the camera? Explicitly forbidden in her book, and will result in her asking any violators to please leave the group and never come back. “It’s that type of ignorance that often gets people in situations that result in our involvement. They don’t realize just how dangerous things can become for the sake of getting a good scare.”
Ms. Putnam should know, she claims to have been the target of and witnessed violent outbursts on occasion. On one investigation of a demonic haunting, Ms. Putnam was physically struck by a particularly violent spirit. She played a recording of audio taken just before the incident, in which she is heard asking the entity what it would like her to do, to which a raspy voice clearly replies, “I want you to die.” Many members were present when Ms. Hollis cried out for no visible reason. Ms. Hollis states that her foot mashed by some unseen force during the interaction, and a bruise later developed. Not all interactions are violent, however, though they are varied. Ms. Putnam’s collection of recordings contained samples of unexplained voices of children playing, laughter in response to a joke made by a PISToLS team member, and even one of an investigator distinctly being referred to as a “jerk.”
Surprisingly, the whole group cited Ouija boards as a common cause of spiritual activity instigated unwittingly by the general public. “I have no idea why they’re sold as toys,” denounced Ms. Putnam. Spirits see them as an invitation to make contact, she explained, and repeated uses can often ends with a call to PISToLS. Their 14 full-time members (and two part-time members) are able to respond to inquiries in the Massena, Potsdam, Plattsburgh, Watertown, Alexandria Bay and Utica areas.
Luckily, a call to the organization resulting in an investigation is of completely no charge to the patron, something most people don’t expect. PISToLS operates solely for the purpose of assisting the public and spreading awareness, so they only collect profits for the sake of equipment upkeep and travel expenses when necessary. Mostly, however, their efforts are spent raising money to donate to organizations like the Red Cross. Most recently, PISToLS did a walkthrough with the public at the Black River Valley Club in Watertown which raised $1,270 for the Red Cross, making PISToLs’ year-to-date donation total close to $1,800. Attendees paid an admission fee to be led through a purportedly haunted location along with the expertise of the PISToLS investigators. Though it’s impossible to guarantee, PISToLS captured some notable audio activity during the Elks Club walkthrough, which made things all the more exciting for patrons and the investigators alike. “On one hand, we get to do research and pursue this thing were very passionate about, and on the other we’re also supporting this organization who helps people during tragic disasters,” stated Putnam. When I asked her which she preferred more, the scientist or social assistance role associated with her brand of investigation, she couldn’t pick between the two. “They’re both equally important to me,” she replied.“There couldn’t be one without the other.”