FAIRBANKS — Members of Interior Alaska’s only paranormal investigation group search for ghosts using tools seen on TV shows like “Ghost Hunters” and “Paranormal State.”
As they describe it, these shows may be onto something in their portrayal of the spirit world but are not necessarily as accurate about the ghost-hunting lifestyle.
For one thing, members of Seekers of Paranormal and History — SOPAH — are suspicious of TV shows where there’s a demon lurking in every episode. In their experience, finding otherworldly evidence in 50 percent of cases is more typical. In two recent cases they believe they found evidence of a UFO, in the form of strange lights, on Murphy Dome, while a search for a Bigfoot-type creature on Chena Pump Road revealed mostly moose tracks.
For another, ghost hunting is not always glamorous. In an interview on a sunny day at McCafferty’s Coffee House, a setting about as different as you can get from the locations SOPAH investigates, group members described the hobby as kind of slow grind punctuated by periods of thrills.
The all-volunteer crew stays up all night on Fridays videotaping a location. Then they find time around their day jobs to review some 72 hours of recordings — most devoid of any paranormal content — during the next week.
Every month SOPAH members take written tests about subjects like equipment and different types of haunts.
“We want to stay professional. We want to know what we’re talking about,” said founder Ryan French, who came to McCafferty’s with investigators Blake and Julie Cogan, a husband-and-wife team. “If a client comes up to us and says ‘I’ve got this going on, what can you tell me about it,’ I don’t want one of my investigators saying ‘Uhh, I don’t know, let me get back to you.’”
• • •
French said he saw his first ghost, the spirit of a Comanche woman, in Austin, Texas, when he was 16. As he describes it, the woman was a frequent presence in his home. The family never got used to it, and it would sometimes watch them as they watched TV. He joined his first paranormal group five years later in 2000.
In 2009, after coming to Fairbanks with the military, he founded SOPAH. He’s still active-duty military but was hesitant to speak about his military work because he wanted it to be clear that his SOPAH hobby is not connected with his job. He was joined by his friend Cogan, who also saw his first ghost at 16 and used to work in a what he said was a haunted firehouse in Pennsylvania. Cogan got his wife, Julie, into paranormal searches during an investigation of their apartment. The team now has nine members.
Studying the spirits sometimes inspire ridicule from people who don’t believe in ghosts or fear from people who think ghosts should be left well enough alone.
“Many people find that they are afraid to come forward with their claims for fear of what others might think or say. That is why we are here, to help you with the utmost confidentiality,” reads the “about” section of SOPAH’s website.
But the group has found no shortage of Fairbanks residents with ghosts in their closets or unexplainable bumps in the night in need of investigation. Some investigations, often in private homes, are done confidentially. For others, including several local businesses and facilities, SOPAH posts videos and photos of their findings on their website. SOPAH does not charge for its investigations. The group has twice been to the Polaris building, Fairbanks’ largest vacant structure.
The group’s four evidence videos on their website looks like a horror movie, filmed under green or gray shadowy light. Some have scary music. In some clips SOPAH members look frightened, such as a scene at Geraldo’s Italian Restaurant where Julie Cogan asks a team member for reassurance after someone reports being grabbed by an unexplainable presence. Other times the team is aggressive in trying to communicate with spirits through the flashing light of a ghost meter, which measure magnetic fields.
“Are you trying to run away from us?” Ryan asks a flashing light in a video taken at a Borealis Energy while another investigator laughs and cheers him on. “We’re not here to hurt you.”
• • •
Before gathering in darkened rooms for their investigations, SOPAH members first research their subject. That’s why “history” is in the name of the organization. They interview the residents or owners of the property about anything strange they may have noticed and research websites like Ancestry.com. In an investigation earlier this year at the Tanana Valley Fairgrounds, SOPAH was able to provide the client with a photo of fair founders Harry Badger and George Gasser that the fairgrounds manager had not seen before.
Then there’s debunking. SOPAH investigator Josh Fortini, who recently moved to Colorado, had the official title of “resident skeptic” in the group, but all the investigators play a role in trying disprove the claims made by clients.
“The first hour that we’re in there we take the claims that they give us and we go in there and we try to debunk them.” Ryan said “We check for drafts, we check for weak hinges. We’re constantly checking and if we can’t figure out why it’s doing (something strange) we start leaning more toward it being paranormal. Especially if it happens while we’re there and we’ve already tried to debunk it.”
When they were asked about the most compelling piece of evidence they have seen on a Fairbanks assignment, the three SOPAH members who came to the interview all spoke at once.
An investigation into reports of a teen ghost girl at the Masonic Lodge produced several memorable experiences, including a black mass and a video camera that inexplicably kept transmitting video after it was unplugged. Most spirits are pretty innocuous, but several investigators claim they have been grabbed at or even scratched by ghosts. In the case at Geraldo’s restaurant, the group reports they heard a growl they say might have been from a demon.
Is any of it real?
Decide for yourself. In addition to the video’s on its website, SOPAH videos can also be found on the Travel Channel Website. The group was featured Oct. 20 on the program “Legends of Alaska.” They’re also planning to do a mini-series on KSUA-TV on a series of four investigations on the UAF campus.
They occasionally invite listeners of their 8 p.m. Friday radio program to come on investigations.
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545.