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It All Started with a Ouija Board: Ghost Hunters of the Finger Lakes

Peter, Patti and Chris Kanellis have an unusual passion. Their interest in the paranormal began as children at their grandmother’s knee when she would titillate the three with tales of her ghostly encounters. “Her stories were really vivid and she wasn’t one to lie about things,” Peter Kanellis explains. “[Grandmother’s stories] were scary and freaked us out but they also got us all to be intrigued by anything supernatural.” The young Kanellis' enjoyed dabbling with the Ouija Board too and, when it led them to a green station wagon where they were reuinted with their lost puppy, the three became steadfast believers in the supernatural world. Patti Kanellis still shares her grandmother’s old house and claims that invisible inhabitants roam the interior. Peter Kanellis references an old radio that suddenly begins to play in a closet, despite having ancient batteries and not being plugged in. Then there’s the camping light that has a habit of turning on at 3 a.m. despite absolutely no electrical reason for this to happen. What does a 21st-century ghostbuster look like? Pretty much like anyone else, according to Peter Kanellis. “We dress normally, in street clothes. Sometimes we wear our shirts with a logo. We’re definitely not Goths!” He’s an evening security guard, Ms. Kanellis is a nurse and Chris Kanellis is a handyman, which is useful when they’re ruling out scientific reasons for mysterious happenings. They call their business Ghost Hunters of the Finger Lakes and refer to themselves as “adult paranormal investigators.” They conduct approximately 10 to 15 investigations each year. Tracking down ghostly apparitions is a methodical job, one they all take seriously. “Most of our calls are legitimate and 90 percent of the time the people that call us are really scared; we’re their last resort,” says Peter Kanellis.

The process is fairly straightforward. After interviewing prospective clients over the phone, the Kanellis siblings do a walk-through to get a feel for the building’s atmosphere and ascertain what equipment they will need to pack for their return visit. “We use digital recorders, night vision and full-spectrum cameras, voice recorders and monitors to watch what’s going on all around the house. When people say they’re hearing footsteps on stairways or steps, we use our vibration box which detects anything walking by it,” Peter Kanellis notes. In true rural New York fashion, the siblings also rely on the trap cameras that hunters use to track wildlife like deer. Peter Kanellis is a huge fan of dousing rods, too. “They’re a locator that will point to certain areas in rooms where the energy is,” he explains. This part of the process can take anywhere from several hours to a few days. The Kanellis’ are willing to stay through the night or return multiple times if they have to, depending on who (or what) shows up. After capturing evidence through pictures, voices and energy spikes, the three sit down with their client, show them the images and noises they’ve gathered and explain their analysis. Then their clients have a choice: to coexist in the same house with the spirits, or to seek the help of a medium to clear the house (or at least quiet the spirit(s) down) by putting a blessing on it. “We don’t do that part,” Peter Kanellis explains. “But we have mediums in the area that we can refer you to.” The siblings believe they provide an important emotional service to some clients. “People who have spirits in their houses often think they’re crazy,” Peter Kanellis observes. “They’re embarrassed and afraid and they’ve begun to question their sanity. We’re able to help them validate that there is unusual activity going on in the house. If not, we can usually give them a scientific explanation for what’s causing the disturbance, like something that’s going on with their wiring or their pipes. We help them find peace.” Some of their most satisfying cases involve hauntings linked to past suicides. Their careful investigation and willingness to take the unknown seriously frequently helps bring a sense of closure to family members and friends of the deceased. Is it possible to be in this line of work if you yourself are scared? Well, yes, says Peter Kanellis. He, his brother and sister are often in remote parts of the Finger Lakes region. For safety’s sake the siblings rarely go into a haunted home or business alone. One episode that sticks out in his mind is an investigation in an 1800s barn in Canandaigua. “I heard footsteps walking all around me and suddenly all the batteries in my equipment just died; there was no energy left at all,” he recalls. “Chris went to get more batteries from the car and heard a sound on the gravel behind him, like footsteps. When he turned around to try to take a picture, something jabbed him really hard in the back.” They’re also leery of accepting assignments from clients who are into the occult or sects. “We’re just not really into that,” Mr. Kanellis notes. Despite frequent physical reactions during an investigation — like chills running down their spines or a feeling that something is touching their hair — the occasionally “creeped out” siblings are tenacious, and proudly claim they’ve never had to stop an investigation before it’s finished. Skeptics and disbelievers don’t bother the Ghost Hunters of the Finger Lakes because, they say, none of their evidence is doctored in any way. Early on, the siblings made the decision not to charge for their services. “We don’t want to go into an investigation feeling like we have to produce evidence; we don’t want that type of pressure,” they explain. However that doesn’t mean they don’t get a perverse sense of satisfaction when disbelievers are challenged by the spiritual world. “We’ve done a few documentaries with Ithaca College students for their various film projects. We like working with them but they’re pretty sure that there’s no such thing as ghosts,” he says laughing. “We took a group of them to an inn in Auburn and warned them that spirits like to drain camera batteries. They told us there was no way their batteries wouldn’t last through the whole investigation but sure enough they died and the kids couldn’t believe it; they were totally freaked out!”  Check out this Ithaca College video: Sometimes you just have to see it to believe it. One Friday night, New York States of Mind joined the Kanellis family and several hotel staff members in the damp, cobwebby cellar of a Seneca County hotel, on a hunt for any unusual activity. Some employees claim that they often hear two ghosts, supposedly a man and a young girl, though they’ve never actually seen them. This feeling isn’t unanimous though, and we saw one server retrieve a bottle of wine and hastily leave the premises upon seeing the Kanellis’ equipment — including the ghost box, an electromagnetic field meter to measure energy and static boxes to pick up energy. Arranging the items under a handy wine rack, Pete Kanellis takes out his dousing rods and the session begins. As the siblings and hotel staff pepper the apparitions with questions, the two rods begin to gently sway back and forth, as if moving by an invisible touch. In a subterranean room with a group of believers it’s difficult to resist the allure of the paranormal, and the staff’s stories of hearing wine bottles breaking, strange voices, and fire alarms and elevator buttons going off for no reason, can be shiver-inducing even though, despite all this extrasensory excitement, the ghosts seem to simply want someone with whom to communicate or have some fun.

As with their previous visit to the reputedly haunted hotel several years ago, the Kanellis family agrees with the staff that there are other-worldly forces at work in their wine cellar. The reporter must try to walk, not run, back upstairs where Happy Hour is in full swing and there’s no sign of anything out of the ordinary. The ghost hunters pack up their equipment in a large black case and return to their everyday lives — that is, until the next phone call.

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