JENNIFER ANDERSON loves listening to people that aren't really there.
From irritated pioneers to lonely prostitutes, the Oregon native's heard it all—a result of many long nights recording seemingly one-sided conversations with eroding gravestones and empty basements. And she's not stopping anytime soon.
"Ghosts are just as real as you and me," says Anderson, who received a degree in physics years back. "We're all just electricity floating around up here. Might as well make the connection."
Anderson isn't alone in her paranormal pursuits. Whether it's rumors of werewolves in St. Johns or UFOs over Milwaukie, the Portland region has been teeming with folks on the hunt for the unexplained since the 1940s. From blurry Sasquatch photos, creepy underground tunnels, abandoned chemical weapon and nuclear waste sites—the Pacific Northwest was tailor-made for unexplained phenomena. Hollywood even knows it.
So what makes Portland such a hotbed for the paranormal? Is it the volcanic current trapped in the nearby Cascade Mountains? Is it an extraterrestrial attraction to Oregon's various military bases? Or is it just the curiosity of the population itself, raised in a city where weirdness is a badge of honor?
One thing's for certain: Paranormal activity has been a staple of the Northwest for a long time—and it's not going anywhere.
UFOs owe a lot to Oregon. The state was the first to coin the term "flying saucer," after a sighting over the Cascade Range—weeks before the famous 1947 Roswell, New Mexico, UFO incident. It even produced some of the first and most famous photographic evidence of UFOs in Oregon (and in the nation) taken in McMinnville, now home of the annual UFO Festival.
"Regardless of what skeptics say, history tells you that this is the place," says Clyde Lewis, host of Ground Zero, a talk radio show dealing with paranormal topics. "Oregon is the paranormal capital of the country."
Lewis moved himself and his nationally syndicated show to Portland in 1999 from Salt Lake City, solely for its spooky history.
"It's a dark place," says Lewis. "And for some reason, the paranormal is drawn to it. So I was, too."
Ghost hunter Jennifer Anderson, head of North Oregon Paranormal Investigators, agrees that the area's present-day paranormal attraction sprouted from its gloomy history, specifically during the pioneer days. She says that compared to the East Coast, the Northwest had a much more tumultuous and tragic past of colonization.
"With pioneers crossing thousands of miles to get here, some perishing along the way, it wasn't an easy transition," says Anderson. "It's a haunted land."
Anderson says she recently visited a river crossing spot in Eastern Oregon with a history of pioneer drownings. "Not only were the houses near the bank haunted, but I could feel the spirits in the air," she says.
She's also sensed the dead's tragic past on late-night patrols with her small group of investigators. The most common phrases she claims to capture on her small hand-held recording device used on these hunts are "Help me" and the occasional angry "Get out!" Once, while traipsing though Portland's Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery, she was unsure whether she was walking on an unmarked gravesite. "I hope I'm not walking on anyone," she said aloud.
Back home, listening to the night's tape recording, she heard a clear "I don't know" after her question. "A lot of these people had troubled, tragic lives," Anderson says. "It lives on in what we hear."
Alien investigators, on the other hand, say that the land itself could be luring in the unearthly.
"We've got a large volcanic underlay of quartz here," says Charlie Robinson, member of Northwest Paranormal Investigations. "Quartz! It may act as a battery to attract other beings' attention. And then there's the military bases."
Oregon has more than 50 major military facilities—ranging from air force bases to armories—a wealthy amount for a state its size. Robinson suggests that the military institutions may draw attention from undercover aircrafts, extraterrestrial or earthly.
"Who knows who we've attracted," he says.
Despite its eerie past, many people see the open-minded community of Portland as key in keeping paranormal interest afloat.
"It's the whole 'Keep Portland Weird' thing. People here have a different mindset than others," Robinson says. "They have the ability to believe in things we can't see. Or at least not discount it."
Robinson says that most people who are interested in investigating the unknown do so because of a personal interaction with the paranormal. But in Portland, many simply want to believe.
At a recent Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) meeting in a Portland church, a group of 25 eager UFO investigators discussed the reason they were there. Some were old veterans who always questioned unusual objects they had seen in the sky while on duty, others had dedicated years of their lives to taking video footage of flying objects hovering over their backyards. One couple even said they often interacted with beings in different dimensions in their own home.
But the majority of the attendees had never seen a UFO in their life. Curiosity, they said, was the biggest draw.
"I grew up reading every sci-fi book I could get my hands on," one thirtysomething man said. "And even though I haven't seen anything specifically to prove it, I think there's got to be something out there."
Eyes trained on a photo of a bright orange orb displayed on the room's projector, a teenage girl shyly echoed the man's reasoning. "Yeah, I'm just curious, that's all. What if?"
Even local skeptics are open to the possibilities. Jim Todd, OMSI's director of space science education and member of Rose City Astronomers, is known by MUFON as one of the top debunkers in the area. However, he sees reason in the group's mission.
"Considering that Oregon has one of the best dark sky viewing in the United States, there is great interest in the viewing of celestial wonders," says Todd. "The belief that we on Earth are not alone in the universe is a persistent one, and follows a human inclination to investigate the unknown."
And while Robinson is an active member of Northwest Paranormal Investigations, he still dubs himself the "group skeptic." After going on over 300 ghost hunts with the group, Robinson says he only truly believes three of them could be real hauntings (McMenamins' Edgefield, the Klondike Restaurant and Bar in St. Helens, and the Heathman Hotel).
"I question everything and tear it apart," says Robinson, laughing at his stubbornness. "That way we're certain we're providing accurate, scientific data. We want to be taken seriously."
Robinson's dedicated drive to be taken seriously comes from the fact that so many paranormal groups aren't. From clearly Photoshopped UFO photos to videos manipulating filtered Star Wars clips, it's effortlessly easy to find a hoax piece of evidence online. He says that the only way paranormal investigators can be seen as reputable scholars, rather than kooks, is to crack down on these "scams."
"You can't prove anything by manufacturing something," says Robinson. "Until we can weed out the hobbyist investigators, the future's a little cloudy."
Even the media's played a part in belittling the bizarre. Radio host Lewis says that one of his "dreams" would be to eliminate the media's use of The X Files motto.
"You see TV anchors mention a potential UFO sighting over Portland and laugh," says Lewis. "Well, you know what they say, 'the truth is out there,' they say. It's bullshit. This is more real than plopping down in front of your TV to watch Snooki."
As for the future of Portland's hunt for the paranormal? Investigators agree: It's complicated. With the endless stream of fabricated material popping up on YouTube and the media, it's an uphill battle for those who want to be trusted.
MUFON State Director Tom Bowden says that belief in UFOs in particular will only be accepted on the mainstream level if it comes from someone that people can trust, similar to the nation's politics system.
"I mean, heck, people trust guys like Paul Ryan, who is full of crap. It's all a matter of credibility," says Bowden, who's been working for years to bridge the gap between academia and "UFOlogy." "The only way people will believe is if they hear it from someone with a great deal of leadership and following."
Regardless of achieving the widespread belief in the paranormal, Robinson says that there's still a lot of work to be done in the field locally.
"This is an excellent area. We're dripping with paranormal activity here waiting to be found," he says. "We've only just scratched the surface."