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Investigating Alaska's paranormal a serious business -- with growth potential

Ben Anderson
Aaron Jansen illustration

Alaska’s a big place, and that means there’s a lot of room for things to hide. We’re not talking about bears or bugs or any other critters roaming the Last Frontier, but rather the less tangible -- the unusual, the undocumented, the supernatural. Alaska has a long history with the paranormal -- from its mythic past full of unusual creatures, to its modern-day infestations with cryptic beasts like Bigfoot and the Lake Iliamna Monster, down to purported alien abductions that became fodder for Hollywood not too long ago.

Some in Alaska are dedicated to tracking down and recording the paranormal in the state, even if it means overcoming skepticism and applying methodology to the paranormal.

Recently, an ad for the Fairbanks region on the popular classified website Craigslist said that it was seeking an individual to train as a paranormal investigator. It was an unusual ad, written with none of the over-the-top silliness that sometimes indicates ads on the site that were created by someone just joking around. Instead, it asked interested applicants to submit a two-page application, consisting of a cover letter and a resume.

“Will train for free over the next two months,” the ad reads. “Must be at least 18, preferably over 21. You will be expected to do research. Be prepared for paperwork.”

The ad is indicative of how the person behind it, 30-year-old Jessie Desmond, approaches paranormal investigation: professionally and seriously.

Desmond is a recent graduate of UAF, holding a degree in history, and currently works at the Fairbanks Community Museum. She’s been investigating the paranormal since she was a teenager, and has worked with several organizations devoted to such investigations. She is a member field investigator for the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), which examines reported alien sightings and abductions around the world.

When she spoke with Alaska Dispatch in late June, she said that she had “just wrapped up a Bigfoot investigation,” and was preparing to embark on a ghost investigation with the one person who had properly responded to the ad at that point.

Unlike some investigators, Desmond looks into all sorts of unusual accounts, from ghosts to cryptids to UFOs.

“Some (investigators) just want to specialize in one area, like cryptozoologists,” Desmond said. “They’re interested in things like bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, something extinct or mythological. Then you have UFOlogists, who look at UFO activity.”

But Desmond’s inspiration has led her to seek out the inexplicable in all its forms.

“I grew up on a steady diet of ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘X-Files’,” Desmond said. “So my dream was to eventually become like (Fox) Mulder.” Mulder is the protagonist of “The X-Files,” an FBI agent who examines paranormal events wherever they are reported.

According to Desmond, the key to carrying out a successful paranormal investigation is to do it in as official a manner as possible. She’s working on a book about proper ghost investigation techniques.

“There are a lot of how-to books out there,” she said. “This is more than a how-to book. This has what type of equipment to bring, how you use it, how you take readings, how you write a report, what to do with your report.”

She said that by keeping herself detached from the subject, it can help legitimize the investigation, even in the eyes of a skeptic.

“I’m a history major, you know? And we get this big ‘objectivity’ phrase pounded into us for a long time, and really that’s how people are going to take a paranormal investigator seriously -- by being objective and trying to rule out all the possibilities,” Desmond said. “If it’s a nonbeliever, I try to stick directly to the facts.”

That's what Desmond attempted to do recently with that Bigfoot investigation she’d mentioned. She was following up a 2009 report of a Sasquatch sighted in a relatively inhabited area of Fairbanks. According to the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, there have been only a few sightings of the rumored creature in the area surrounding the Interior city.

In 2009, a person reported seeing a Bigfoot while driving in the area of a local elementary school. Desmond was curious why such an archetypically secretive creature would be in such a populated area. She said she compiled sightings from several other people, then began looking for explanations for the out-of-place rumors.

That summer saw an abnormally-high rate of forest fires in Alaska, including the vast Minto Flats and Tanana Flats fires, and Desmond theorizes that the fires could have driven the cryptid out of its natural habitat in a less-populated region to the edges of the city.

The goal of any paranormal investigator is to help lend credence to reports of unusual phenomena. Of course, just as some are true believers, others are natural skeptics, and the two may never see eye to eye. But by focusing on video and photographic evidence -- though still very frequently open for debate -- paranormal investigators hope to provide more concrete evidence.

Neelie Ravencast, one of the founding members of the decades-old group Investigation of Paranormal in Alaska (IOPIA), agreed with the use of photography and recordings as the most important tool in a paranormal investigator's arsenal. Neelie and her co-founder have been conducting investigations for more than 20 years in the state -- they also recently took a trip to Fairbanks to look into reported hauntings around the Birch Hill Cemetery with Desmond.

Ravencast and Desmond were excited about that investigation because one photograph, taken by Desmond at the cemetery on May 27, revealed what Desmond referred to as an “apparition.”

If you don’t see it right away, it’s in the background on the right side of the photo, in the form of a white blur near the birch tree. You can also click here for a slightly larger version of the photo.

As with much paranormal evidence, the photo could be seen as one thing by a believer and explained away by a skeptic. A 2005 Gallup poll revealed that about one-third of Americans believe in ghosts.

Skeptics say that the equipment used by investigators -- typically electronic equipment like still and video cameras, audio recorders, and Electromagnetic Field meters -- actually doesn’t provide any real evidence of spectral activity.

The IOPIA website has a catalog of what are known as Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP), which purport to capture ghosts speaking on audio recorders during Alaska investigations.

The recordings are eerie and certainly sound like the phrases listed with the recordings, but could be interpreted as just feedback; additionally, reading the phrases before listening to the recordings could also introduce some persuasion bias, where the suggestion that the recordings contain voices can lead to some people hearing voices where they might not have before.

But again, as a testament to and reason why belief in the paranormal persists in cultures around the world, the evidence is certainly open for debate. Still, both Desmond and Ravencast asserted that the electronic evidence is among the best a paranormal investigator can ask for.

"Photographs, video, EVPs, those are usually our favorites to get, because they’re actually answering questions or commenting on what we’re doing, or threatening us," Ravencast said.

She said that paranormal investigation has become much more commonplace in the decades she’s been doing it. In the early days, she said, “We’d get thrown out, physically removed from places where we were asking about ghosts. Now, everybody asks us to come to their place.”

Some of the credit for that is due to paranormal investigation reality shows like “Ghost Hunters” and “Paranormal State.” However, Desmond and Ravencast both expressed dislike for such shows, saying that they reveal nothing about the real process of investigation, which more often consists of sifting through hours upon hours of audio and video taken at the site, and hundreds or thousands of photographs.

Other people are also trying to legitimize paranormal phenomena in the eyes of the nonbelievers -- recently, scientists at Oxford University asked for anyone with purported Bigfoot hair or DNA samples to send them in for testing, and even Alaska's Lake Iliamna monster has recently gotten the scientific treatment, as one biologist theorizes that it may be a Pacific sleeper shark adapted to freshwater.

So, for someone who believes in the paranormal -- ghosts, poltergeists, UFOs -- is it ever scary to chase after these supernatural beings? Not for Ravencast.

“I am not scared of anything,” she said, “and people are like, ‘wow’ when they hear that. I’ve had everyone try to scare me. They’ve tried to throw things at me. I just don’t get scared.”

But as long as Alaska remains as big and mysterious as it always has, there should be plenty out there to scare the rest of us.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com