Ghosts, Ghouls, and Other Paranormal Activity in Westchester

Discovering the undead with local investigators Katonah Paranormal



illustration by Dushan Millic

One of the biggest movie successes of the summer was The Conjuring, a haunted-house tale that’s sure to be a popular DVD pick this Halloween. While the movie was ostensibly about the series of horrors visited upon the family who lived in the house, it’s also about married couple Ed and Lorraine Warren—characters based on real people—paranormal experts who try to help rid the house of spirits.

If the story of the Warrens captivates you, you might be interested to know that Westchester has its own paranormal experts: Katonah Paranormal (katonahparanormal.com), comprising sisters Kathy and Karen O’Donnell; Barry Pirro, who specializes in electronically capturing and analyzing preternatural vocal data; and Jennie Rigano, the group’s newest member.

All members of the group have admitted to having had supernatural experiences going back to childhood. “When I was 12, my piano used to play by itself at night,” Pirro says. “I would try to record it. I was a ‘ghost hunter’ at 12.” Kathy and Karen both have had what Kathy describes as “lifetimes of experience,” but only talked with each other about their relationship to the “spiritual realm” as adults. Kathy founded the group together in in 2003.

Today, when a client calls with unexplained phenomena, they ask the client  to rule out typical culprits: faulty plumbing, bad wiring, electromagnetic fields. If that doesn’t work, they’ll perform an in-person investigation. 

“We’ll go in and do the meet-and-greet,” Karen says, “and the person will say, ‘Do you want me to tell you what’s been going on?’ and we’ll say ‘No.’” Instead, the investigators prefer to use their own intuition and perception to figure out what’s been happening at the house. “Then we compare notes with the client,” Kathy says, “and it’s usually very accurate.” Pirro says he once had a vision of a stained-glass window hidden inside a closet before ever setting foot into the house; sure enough, when he finally went inside, the homeowner opened a door and said, “And there’s your window.” (This type of “precognitive” information, as the team calls it, is common.)

They all have stories upon stories of the places, objects, and beings they’ve encountered: a spirit of a man who didn’t realize he’d had a heart attack, an antique bed that gave nightmares to anyone who slept in it, a bedroom colored with an oppressive feeling of depression for all who entered, an organ that caused paranormal problems for three different owners (until the last owner locked it into a storage unit and refused to pay the bill).

Then again, clients don’t have to rely just on what the investigators report they can sense in a house. They bring with them devices aimed at gathering evidence: cameras, recorders, electromagnetic-field meters, and motion and vibration sensors. Afterwards, Pirro combs through the recording looking for electronic voice phenomenon (EVP), or voices—clearly not their own—that they couldn’t necessarily perceive in person, but were caught electronically. He has a library of sound files of snippets and sentences he’s captured: “Don’t leave”; “Get out”; “I tried to look”; “What happened?”; “You freak”; “Be patient”; “Don’t do that.” Pirro says that EVP isn’t a rare occurrence. “Almost always, I get something,” he says. Photographic evidence is also fairly common and is shared with the client.

You may have seen these techniques before, on TV shows like Ghost Hunters. Though they’re grateful to them for bringing this kind of work into the mainstream, Katonah Paranormal’s members emphasize that their mission is to educate and help people and spirits. “[The hunters on TV] always end up leaving,” Kathy complains. “’We found all this evidence…bye!’ What are they doing to help those people?”

“There are paranormal groups out there—you can find them all over the place,” Pirro says. “They’re there for the thrill or the scare factor. They’re running around cemeteries at night taking pictures. We’re not like that at all.”

Katonah Paranormal separates itself from those groups in that it strives to help the homeowners get rid of the spirits that might be hanging around—a process they call “clearing.” That’s, of course, assuming the homeowners want the visitors to leave. As Pirro notes: “You’d be surprised at how many people, when you say ‘Would you like us to help these spirits move on?’ say ‘No, we kind of like them in the house.’”

Want to hear some of these EVP recordings? We managed to get Katonah Paranormal to send us a few of their creepy soundbytes—here.

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