By Jenny Neyman
It was a dark and scary night.
Dark, because it was winter in Alaska. Scary, because Mayme Ohnemus, of Cooper Landing, and her friends were hearing strange noises outside the Upper Russian Lake cabin they were camping in.
“At one point we were kind of getting spooked. We’d seen a lot of really large bears, and we heard some noises,” she said.
The ladies were enjoying their sojourn to the cabin, which they do nearly every year to play pinochle, eat and enjoy each other’s company.
It was the company of something unknown outside the cabin that they did not enjoy.
“It was pitch black out and we were trying to see what was out there without going outside,” Ohnemus said.
One of the women peered out the window. Ohnemus got up to join her. As she approached the window, her friend screamed.
“I started walking toward the window and someone was looking out the window and she said, ‘Oh man, it’s huge! It’s just huge!’” Ohnemus said.
Fear gripped the occupants of the cabin — until Ohnemus realized she was the “huge” thing approaching the window.
“I had a nightgown on, and I’m fairly large. Anyway, it turns out it was my reflection in the window. The closer I got to the window, the bigger it got,” she said.
“It was scary as heck for us. I kind of hated that I was the big thing coming toward the window.”
Ohnemus was the specter in her own spooky tale. That’s the closest thing to a ghost story the longtime Cooper Landing resident could remember.
In Alaska, hearing things go bump in the night and catching glimpses of something large and hairy in the woods are common occurrences, and often explainable as bears or moose, rather than ghosts or mythical monsters.
In all the years Gary Titus has been tracking history with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, he said he couldn’t think of any reports of monster sightings or unidentified objects, flying or otherwise.
“We’re just not that exciting here in the Kenai,” Titus said.
Or maybe we are, and people just don’t want to talk about it. Investigation of Paranormal in Alaska Web site, www.freewebs.com/iopialaska, lists several reports of eerie phenomena on the central peninsula.
There’s a list of 18 reported UFO sightings from Kenai, Cooper Landing, Sterling, Soldotna and Nikiski, the oldest in 1963 and the most recent in 2005. And there’s one reported sighting of Bigfoot, in the 1980s on Skilak Loop Road.
There also are a few reports of paranormal encounters. One states that a woman’s wailing cries were heard at night outside a cabin in Cooper Landing, and a spirit began to appear in the living room.
An unnamed person from Kenai reports on the site that they picked up a woman hitchhiker and watched her completely disappear when she got out of the car. The next night the reporter says they saw a woman standing in their bedroom, who again disappeared.
Another report at a private residence in Kasilof says there were: “Cold spots, the smell of perfume in the master bedroom, (and) a male presence in the furnace room.”
There are no names, dates, addresses or contact information listed with the reports, so there’s no way to tell whether a ghost was to blame, or if the house was perhaps just poorly insulated and someone didn’t want to admit going overboard with the Chanel No. 5.
The most elaborate report comes from Sterling, where experts purportedly recorded paranormal activity in a residence at 10 p.m. Aug. 28, 2004. The owner of the home, an unnamed woman, reported seeing a shadowy figure crawling toward her at night while she was in bed, and heard a man’s voice whisper, “I want you.”
There are recordings that can be played on the site, where a man’s voice is heard saying things like, “One more bouquet” and, “Get you people in time, Tony.”
And there are word-of-mouth stories. There’s supposedly a house in Soldotna with a reputation of having an unwelcome feel, a ghost that’s appeared near the old Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai, and unexplained disturbances in a Soldotna store where a man was killed.
Details of the stories are difficult to track down and tough to corroborate. It’s even harder to find people willing to talk about them publicly or in print.
That may be the scariest part about ghost stories these days — fear of what others might think if you say you’ve seen, heard of or believe in ghosts.
Alan Boraas, professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College, said ghost stories can be very real to those who experience them.
“I personally believe that there are dimensions that science can’t really explain yet. I’m not saying that they can’t be explained or even need to be explained, but there are elements that people sense — and some sense them more than others — that are difficult to explain,” he said. “They are often put into the category of ghosts. So they’re unnerving, but nevertheless real to the person experiencing it.”
Ghost stories can carry cultural significance.
“Culturally, ghosts embody what we fear, so they become a sort of a personification of that fear, or sometimes just an essence that we fear,” he said. “So to confront the ghost is to confront the fear.”
He gave an example of “Nantina,” an evil essence that represents the fear of losing a child, from the Dena’ina culture of the Kenai Peninsula. Children were warned not to wander far at night when fog came in because it was Nantina’s breath and they might disappear.
“So that’s a way to express those fears by personifying them as Nantina, in this case, or whatever else they may be. So what’s loosely expressed as ghosts or spirits in the north will run the gamut as absolute dreaded fear up through neutral entities, up through the absolute good. It all becomes a way of expressing the values we all have,” Boraas said.
A reluctance to acknowledge a belief in ghosts could be an outgrowth of a culture clash.
“Because they can’t be predicted and understood, people are nervous to talk about them for fear of being criticized or fear of being ridiculed or whatever,” he said.
“It’s hard for one belief system to understand another belief system, so that they become satanic or evil in a different sense because they challenge your own values. Some people would believe that those things shouldn’t even be mentioned, because they become part of that thing that undermines our own belief system.” Boraas said.
Boraas didn’t have any firsthand stories to share, but did have a spirit-related story from the pre-World War II era in Kenai to relate.
Kids then, as they do today, tried to prolong bedtime by telling parents they had to go to the bathroom. Indoor plumbing hadn’t arrived in Kenai at that time, so a nighttime potty break meant visiting the outhouse.
“Parents would tell them, ‘OK, but don’t forget about the Outhouse Spirit,’” Boraas said.
As the story goes, parents would tell kids about an Outhouse Spirit that lived under the seat and was particularly active at night. It would reach up from under the seat and pull victims down into the outhouse.
“That cured them of ever having to go to the bathroom to prolong going to bed at night, and to be sure to do what they needed to do during the early hours of evening,” Boraas said. “When you’re a little kid, you know, you’d think, ‘Whoa. No, I don’t want go to the bathroom anymore.”
Now that is frightening.