Some say you don't choose the thug life; it chooses you. In Jayne Harris's case, she chose to become a paranormal investigator. The 32-year-old from Stourbridge, a town in the West Midlands of England, initially trained in psychology before devoting herself full time to ghost-hunting and research. These days, Harris is regularly spotted in national newspapers, writing for magazines such as Paranormal Galaxy and offering expert commentary on one of her more specialist passions: Haunted dolls.
Women have always been part of supernatural and horror tropes—think of teen scream queens like Neve Campbell and Jamie Lee Curtis, or uniquely feminine urban legends like Bloody Mary or the Bell Witch. Less well-known is the female ghost hunter. Hollywood may boast an all-female Ghostbusters lineup for a forthcoming sequel, but real-life paranormal investigation remains a male profession.
This is where Harris, a no-nonsense brunette, comes in. Her company, HD Paranormal, has over 15,000 fans on Facebook. She investigates reports of haunted objects and leads events for supernaturally-inclined members of the public. There are even HD Paranormal hoodies for sale. In a field dominated by men, Harris is positioning herself as Britain's foremost female haunted doll specialist. Broadly spoke to her about industry sexism, ouija boards and why she keeps haunted dolls in her basement.
Broadly: Can you tell me a little about what brought you to this industry?
Jayne Harris: My parents were very interested in the paranormal so I heard lots of stories from them. When I was about 16, I started going to various spiritualist churches and seeing psychic mediums. Then my cousin died in a car accident when I was 17. That was the catalyst for me. It sparked more than a curiosity— I really wanted to reach out and maybe find some evidence that there was something more.
How often do you genuinely find a haunted object or doll in someone's house?
In our experience, when we get called to people's homes, we can explain the activity through normal explanations in about seven out of 10 cases. If someone feels that they're hearing knocking noises, we'll examine everything from pipework to spaces in the attic where you might get mice. If the lights are flickering, it often needs rewiring. You're trying to rule out all of the possibilities so that what you're left with is the true case of what is going on.
Do spirits tend to flock to dolls or are people just more likely to find them creepy and think something's going on?
It's not specifically that dolls tend to attract spirits. I just think that when something paranormal is going on with a doll, it instantly grabs people's attention because of the films that have been out there. We've seen Chucky and all these other films with murderous dolls and people latch on to that. [But] it's not a spirit or ghost that's actually inside a doll, but activity associated with it that moves with the object.
We all jumped back from the table because we thought we saw the ouija board on fire.
We had a lady who called us because of a shoebox of old photographs. She had some things going on in her house and realized that it coincided with when she had this box. She started seeing a woman as clear as you or I: Dark hair, white blouse. When we took the box, she stopped seeing the vision in her house. That's how we explain what spirit attachment is: It's basically a type of haunting. Instead of a location, it's focused around an object. But cases like that don't tend to capture imaginations as much as the dolls do.
OK, so what would cause a spirit to get attached to a doll?
There is one explanation from an American specialist called John Zaffis: He thinks that because as children we put so much of our imagination and creativity into [dolls], we become almost attached to them and put part of ourselves in there. It's something we look to one day uncover properly—that's the holy grail for any paranormal investigator, getting that absolute proof.
What is the closest you've gotten to that kind of proof?
My most extreme experience was actually while using a ouija board [ten years ago] with a group of investigators. A doll was involved—someone believed it had some evil connections. We never got evidence of that, but while we were using a ouija board we all had what you can only describe as a group hallucination. We all jumped back from the table because we thought we saw the ouija board on fire. It only lasted about 10 seconds and when we touched the board it was completely cold.
On your website, you have a section that lets people adopt these dolls. How does that work?
We get called out all the time to people's homes to help them with objects. For every item we take, we reimburse people. We have a set rate for everything, whether it turns out to be paranormal or not. As you can imagine, we end up spending a lot of money, but that's the risk you take when you're in research. If anyone contacts us and shows an interest in owning anything from the collection, we'll have a chat with them about it and whether they're suitable.
I've seen people on eBay claiming to sell haunted dolls. How is this different?
I'm against eBay sellers because there comes a level of responsibility in what you're doing. You're effectively passing something onto someone to have in their homes that could bring about paranormal activity. That's why we use the word 'adoption' because we want people to understand that there's a big responsibility when you're taking on something like this. We keep in touch with everyone who has items from our collection because they may need advice at some point.
How do you figure out if someone's right to adopt a doll?
If I speak to people over Skype, I get to know them. I ask people if they've had any paranormal experiences or if they've got any specific religious beliefs. We always find out if people have got children at home. There's no way of making sure that people are safe but we need to know that we've done our bit.
Why would people want to buy a haunted doll, anyway?
Generally the people we deal with are other paranormal investigators who want to set up their own experiments and research. We've got a lecturer at a university in Derby who recently had an item from us because he wants to find his own evidence of the paranormal. We pay £20 to every person whether [an item] turns out to be paranormally active or not. So imagine we probably get eight or nine call-outs a month. We're spending close to £200 out of our research budget. On average, we spend 15 to 20 hours researching an object to the point that we're certain there is some kind of paranormal activity associated with it, then we'll work it out. The doll that we passed on to the guy in Derby was about £60. We're not making huge amounts of money here… We just like to keep the pot going so that we can continue doing what we're doing.
When we had our first daughter, my husband said it's all very interesting and exciting to have all of these [dolls] but we need to be moving some of these on.
Are you never scared or nervous doing your job?
It all depends. Sudden jumpy things can unnerve you a little. If a lightbulb blows or something falls from the shelf or the wall then obviously that makes you jump. But if you've got an interest in the paranormal and you read quite a lot about it, you know what you're getting and what to expect.
What do you do when you take away these dolls? Do you keep them in a room in your house?
In our basement. There's an area that is purely just for research because it's the only place where we know, to a degree, that it can remain controlled. That's where we set up our experiments, motion detectors, that sort of thing. It is quite time-consuming and laborious. When you set night vision up, we put the tape in and we leave it to run. Every morning I'll review that footage. I'm listening out for sounds or anything at all but it's very rare to actually get anything visual or concrete. When you do get one thing, you think, "Wow that's interesting" and it seems to make it all worth it.
How many objects do you have in total?
At the moment maybe 15. We used to have a huge collection at one time—I wouldn't get rid of everything. When we had our first daughter, my husband said it's all very interesting and exciting to have all of these [dolls] but we need to be moving some of these on.
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In your last email, you mentioned that paranormal investigation is a male-dominated field. What's your experience of being a woman in the industry?
My experience has generally been positive, but it is slightly more difficult when you're trying to be taken seriously as a female paranormal investigator. I get a lot of comments and messages from people when they first find my website, like, "You're pretty." You think: "That's got absolutely nothing to do with anything." You wouldn't think it happens in this day and age but it does. You've always got that extra boundary to get over when you're trying to be taken seriously. But it's one of those things it doesn't stop me—the paranormal has always been my passion.
Do you think you're taken less seriously because of your gender?
Not by everyone, but I do think there's a small pocket within the paranormal community—as there probably is generally within society—that almost sees it as a little bit less viable or less serious [when] it's a woman.
I'm not really a believer, but I do find the whole idea of the paranormal fascinating. So what do you say to people who don't believe—do you try to convert them?
You'll never persuade anyone of anything; that's just human nature, and we're all equally stubborn in our own beliefs. No one could ever convince me that there isn't something more after this and likewise. I think what keeps it interesting is that it's a variation of opinion: There's a whole spectrum of beliefs and wherever you fall along that, as long as you're respectful to everyone else, you're always going to have interesting debates.