FAIRBANKS -- Jessie Desmond has been drawn to ghost stories since she was a child growing up in nearby North Pole. But even back then, as she read “Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark” by Alvin Schwartz, it wasn’t just the creepy words and pictures that hooked her. Instead, the author’s notations about the stories’ origins piqued her curiosity.
“You realize those stories are based on local folklore,” she said. “Those books were a big deal to me.”
That interest didn’t wane as she entered adulthood. Back in 2001, as she worked toward a history degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, she posted fliers around campus looking for people who shared her interest in the paranormal.
Living in Fairbanks today, Desmond, 31, makes coffee at a downtown shop and looks for opportunities to investigate ghosts, elves, aliens and Bigfoot. And she wants to share what she’s learned.
Last year, she published “The Professional Ghost Investigator” to instruct others on proper methodology, as she sees it. Now, she’s working on connecting with two groups of people interested in the topic. The Alaska Paranormal Network, she hopes, will be a place where people can share stories and sightings. The Paranormal Explorers of Alaska, or PEAK, will take it a step further. They’ll go into the field to investigate.
I sat down with Jessie in Fairbanks earlier this month to ask about what she does, how she goes about it and what she has experienced. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length.
Q. Tell me what “paranormal” means to you.
A. Paranormal, to me, means more than what we perceive to be normal. Ghosts. If someone sees a UFO or has an encounter with aliens, that’s more than what’s considered normal. Psychic abilities. Bigfoot. Anything like that. It’s more than normal.
Q. Is there a particular aspect that you are most focused on?
A. Probably more spiritual stuff. Right now I’m looking into demonology as a side project. I know that right now I’m saying it lightly, but it’s a lot of heavy research.
Q. What will PEAK do?
A. Right now we’re doing a lot of training, because we have a lot of new members. We do a lot of ghost investigations, because that’s what I’m most familiar with, and those are what I deem to be the most simple. We do Bigfoot. Right now we’re also putting together an investigation on little people -- elves. And that’s somewhere around Delta Junction.
Q. How does one do a ghost investigation?
A. If you’re like, “This building’s supposed to be haunted,” then you’re going to talk to people and interview people and see what they have to say.
Q. Ask what they experienced?
A. Or if they have any kind of experiences at all, because some things might be urban legend. Not so much truth. Just rumor.
You’re going to also collect your baseline information. You could map a place out if you’ve never been there before. Take some initial pictures. Make notes about old electrical wiring. Or if there’s an elevator – this general area might be more noisy.
Then you present it to your team and say, “Hey, I have this pre-investigation information for you guys.”
You set up where you’re going to be located, and you set up your time frame. Then you go and investigate with your equipment, your EMF detectors and your flashlights…
Q. What’s an EMF detector?
A. Electromagnetic frequency detector. It gives you a reading of electrical activity. Most places are zero. The idea is, if there’s a ghost around it’s going to be in a mass of energy. So it’s going to give off some kind of electromagnetic frequency, and it spikes the meter. But other things that spike the meter would be old electrical wiring and heavy machines. You have to really be aware of the structure that you’re in.
Q. Any other equipment you need?
A. There’s a lot. A voice recorder. Different types of cameras. On the voice recorder you can get EVPs, which is electronic voice phenomenon. So you might not hear it, but it’ll pick up on the recorder.
Q. What’s an example of that?
A. My first EVP I ever got, I got up at Birch Hill (Recreation Area). It was one of those ones with a microcassette. It was springtime, and I’m trudging up the hill, and I just wanted to test it out and see what the range was, and see what it would pick up and wouldn’t pick up. You can hear me crunching through the snow. I didn’t go up very far, then I came back down. And I was just asking questions, you know. “Is anyone here with me? What’s your name?” Just general questions. And I got a “hello,” but you had to turn up the volume all the way in order to hear it. When you did that, it was a very clear and definite female voice saying hello. It was really icy out. I shouldn’t have listened to it on the ride home, because I almost slid off the road. It freaked me out.
Q. What was going through your head?
A. I just wasn’t expecting it, so it just startled me more than anything. And I was so excited. I got home and I played it for everyone.
Q. Was there any feeling of fear?
A. Nope. It was total excitement. I was just like, “This is the coolest thing ever.”
Q. Any other equipment?
A. I have a portable forensics -- like CSI kind of forensics -- kit that I take with me. And it’s for collecting small particles, like hair and stool, that's questionable. I also have a casting kit that I take with me. You just have to be prepared for that kind of stuff.
Q.What do you do with the hair samples?
A. You don’t touch them with your bare hands. You always do your PPE, your personal protective equipment, and immediately send it to a third-party laboratory for analysis.
Q. Where do you do that?
A. There’s quite a few places in town.
Q. What do you ask them to look for?
A. So far I haven’t collected any evidence. I really want to be that person to collect it and send it to a third party and get something, but it just hasn’t happened yet. Also, I have a Geiger counter…a radiation meter. If there’s a close encounter of the third or the fourth kind, then I want to have that Geiger counter available. So far I haven’t had an opportunity yet. I'm the assistant state director for ... Mufon (The Mutual UFO Network). I usually get cases that are, like, photos of stuff, maybe a little bit of video footage. Just close encounters of the first kind, I guess. First or second.
Q. What’s been the most memorable encounter you’ve had?
A. I’m not supposed to say where it happened, because of the type of business it is. They don’t want to scare people away. A couple years ago, PEAK was out investigating a ghost. We were in this tiny little hallway, maybe three feet at the most wide. We were all single-file. One of our rules is that you don’t wear anything that smells on an investigation, and there was this heavy floral whiff that went right past me. I was like, “Who wore the perfume?” I was so mad because I thought someone wore perfume. I turned and I looked down the line, and you could see everyone like, “What’s that?” And everyone smelled this floral perfume. That was a ghostly smell, and the whole group smelled it.
Q. How many people would you say are a regular part of the network?
A. Right now it’s brand new, so…me. Sometimes I feel like I’m beating a dead horse with it. I would love to be paid to do this kind of stuff on a full-time basis and live somewhat comfortably. And not have to run an overheated café. I’d like to be Mulder.
Q. That would involve investigating all these things?
A. Yeah. In Alaska, there’s a lot of village mentality. Everyone’s pretty closed-mouthed about stuff if they don’t know you. It took me almost a month of going down to Nenana on the weekends to start getting people to talk to me about Bigfoot. There’s a lot of stories out there, and people just don’t want everyone to know that they’ve had an experience. Everyone’s kind of paranoid… So many people just have no idea that Alaska is full of paranormal stuff.
Q. Is it that they have no idea or that they choose not to believe?
A. I think the media does a pretty good job of keeping it out of sight a little bit.
Q. You must encounter people that are really dismissive pretty often.
A. Oh, yeah. It kind of comes with the territory. You get people who tell you that it’s crap. But everyone has a story. Even if it’s the most conservative, super-religious person in the world who has no belief in that whatsoever, they have a story. It's not their personal story, it's like something that happened to their brother's girlfriend or something. But there’s always a story to be told.
Contact Alaska Dispatch News photographer Marc Lester at marc(at)adn.com