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Ghost lights: Believe if you dare


Ghost lights: Image of the horizon at night, with several lights above the horizon, several marked as Marfa lights, and one marked as not a Marfa light.
View larger. | A famous example of ghost lights near the town of Marfa, Texas. They’re called the Marfa lights, and you can see some in this photo via Manny Ruiz at Papiblogger.com. Used with permission.

Ghost lights used to be called will-o-the-wisps. They were a weird glow over swamps or bogs. Nowadays, people report strange lights in the sky in all sorts of places, often over highways. Some are more famous than others. The ghost lights closest to EarthSky’s hometown of Austin are in the desert-like Davis Mountains near Marfa, Texas: the famous Marfa lights. But people also report strange lights seen from along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Brown Mountain in North Carolina, near the small town of St. Louis in Saskatchewan, Canada, along famous U.S. Route 66, and in other places in North America.

There are modern, very ordinary explanations for some of these lights. Yet people still love to try to spot them. Explore some of the well-known mysterious North American ghost lights below.

The Marfa lights

Nowadays people sometimes travel long distances to seek out ghostly lights in the sky. A famous example in the state of Texas is the Marfa Lights. People have spotted them for years near the tiny and remote (and, in recent decades, hip) West Texas town of Marfa.

I’ve never seen them from the viewing platform near Marfa. But an astronomer pointed them out to me in the late 1970s, on the first of many visits to the McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, Texas. We were standing outside at night, on a catwalk of one of the large telescope domes. And we saw them across a great distance: two unmoving lights, a brighter one and a fainter one above the horizon, in a place where no bright stars should be.

Reports from some other eye-witnesses are much more elaborate than mine. Supposedly, the lights are “brightly glowing” – “basketball-sized spheres” – “shining in many different colors” – “hovering at about shoulder height.” Or sometimes, people say, they shoot around rapidly in any direction. Or they appear in pairs or groups. Or they may divide into pairs or merge, disappear, reappear, and sometimes move in patterns that seem regular. The town of Marfa loves them, and has placed highway markers indicating where on-lookers can pull over to watch for the lights.

Map of Texas with a red dot that indicates the location of Marfa.
The red dot indicates the location of Marfa, Texas. It’s remote! Image via Wikipedia.
McDonald Observatory Otto Struve Telescope, with a mountain in the background.
McDonald Observatory Otto Struve Telescope, completed in 1938. I saw my first Marfa lights from the catwalk of this telescope dome. Inside the dome, by the way, there’s an old library, which is a not un-creepy place to be alone at 3 a.m. No offense, Otto. Image via McDonald Observatory.

Eyewitness account of the Marfa lights

Papiblogger.com has a nice account of his family’s viewing of the Marfa lights.

After several driving delays and a huge gas shortage scare, we finally arrived in Marfa past dinner time at night … From our kids’ perspective, Marfa’s big draw, of course, are the Mystery Lights, a Texas version of Alaska’s aurora borealis. To make things interesting I brought a professional digital camera and a tripod and took time-lapse images of the Marfa Lights from the observation deck where everyone normally sees them.

If you look at my un-doctored photos, you will notice a red light surrounded by other brighter lights. All appear to be around the same size but what’s interesting is that the white lights surrounding the red one clearly have some movement. For the record, I don’t believe there’s anything magical or alien-related to the lights. But I do find them interesting, especially knowing that many experts and some documentaries have studied them and no one knows what to say they are.

Where to go to see Marfa lights
They’re said to be seen, typically, south of U.S. Route 90 and east of U.S. Route 67, five to 15 miles southeast of Marfa. As mentioned above, there’s a city-sanctioned viewing area. Best thing to do is go to Marfa, Texas and ask … well, anyone. Marfa is only about an 8-hour drive from the city of Austin, if you don’t stop for lunch. And if you do stop for lunch, I recommend La Familia in Junction, Texas. Have fun!

Marfa lights according to skeptics
The most credible explanation is that they are simply car headlights, seen from a great distance and distorted by temperature gradients. Critics of this explanation quickly point out that people have been reporting sightings of the Marfa Lights for over 100 years, since before cars existed. Meanwhile, Brian Dunning of the podcast Skeptoid disagrees, saying:

Well, apparently, the Marfa Lights have not been around all that long, after all. The earliest accounts come from a rancher named Robert Ellison in 1883. However, upon closer inspection, it appears that there is no actual record that Robert Ellison ever saw such a thing. There are reports from his descendants that Ellison said he saw lights, but there is no written record, not even when he wrote his memoirs about his life in the region in 1937. Curious that he would leave that out. Apparently, all evidence that the lights existed prior to the arrival of automobile highways in the region is purely anecdotal.

I know that – from Mount Locke, where McDonald Observatory is located – I’ve seen lots of “jumpy” lights low in the sky, while looking across the long flat distances like those you find in West Texas. Once a saw a very bright light in the east, not long before dawn, moving in a strikingly erratic way in the sky: up, down, sideways, really strange-looking! But, as I stood and watched for 20 minutes or so – and as Earth turned beneath me – the light rose higher in the sky and revealed itself as the brightest planet, Venus.

More ghost lights: Brown Mountain lights

From the Blue Ridge Parkway near Brown Mountain in North Carolina, people sometimes say they see mysterious, red, circular lights. An early account of them dates back to a report by a fisherman in the September 24, 1913, Charlotte Daily Observer. He said he saw:

… mysterious lights seen just above the horizon every night.

Where to go to see Brown Mountain lights. If you want to see them, try this advice from Wikipedia:

Try the overlooks at mile posts 310 (Brown Mountain Light overlook) and 301 (Green Mountain overlook) and from the Brown Mountain Overlook on North Carolina Highway 181 between Morganton, North Carolina and Linville, North Carolina. Additionally, good sightings of the [Brown Mountain] Lights have been reported from the top of Table Rock, outside of Morganton, North Carolina. One of the best vantage points, Wisemans View, is about 4 miles from Linville Falls, North Carolina. The best time of the year to see them is reportedly September through early November.

Brown Mountain lights according to skeptics. A USGS employee, D.B. Stewart, later studied the area and said the fisherman had seen train lights. Brian Dunning of the podcast Skeptoid agrees. On the other hand, in 2016, a scientist and an engineer – Daniel Caton and R. Lee Hawkins – both at Appalachian State University announced that they had video evidence of the Brown Mountain Lights.

The St. Louis light

Apparently, there used to be train tracks near the small town of St. Louis in Saskatchewan, Canada. We read they were taken out after a passenger train derailed. Now it’s said that a ghostly railway man, holding a lantern, haunts the tracks, looking for a baby that died in the accident. It’s said the light appears in the distance along the track bed but has no easily identifiable source.

Where to go to see St. Louis lights. St. Louis is south of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. The light sightings near the old railroad tracks happen about five miles north of St. Louis. By all accounts, the gravel road that leads to the place is unmarked and hard to find. Best bet: Go to St. Louis, and ask someone.

St. Louis lights according to skeptics. Alysha and Shannon were in the 12th grade, living in northern Saskatchewan, when they won science fair gold medals for investigating and eventually duplicating the St. Louis Light phenomenon. Their project suggested that the lights of distant vehicle lights is diffracted. Read about their science project here. By the way, before beginning this project, Shannon told VirtualSaskatchewan that she believes in the paranormal, while Alysha claimed to be the skeptical type. The project apparently started when Shannon told Alysha how she and a group of friends “freaked out” when they spotted the ghost train during a road trip to St. Louis, and Alysha scoffed.

The Hornet Spook Light on Route 66

The Hornet Spook Light is a strange phenomenon observed off Route 66, along a four-mile gravel road near a small town, Quapaw, Oklahoma. The nearest large city is Joplin, Missouri. Most report a glowing ball of orange light along this road known as the Devil’s Promenade. Reports of the glowing orb have come in for over 100 years.

Observers describe the strange lights as bouncing and spinning balls of light ranging from baseball to basketball size. They glow with different intensity, while racing down the road at high speed and changing colors. They also come and go and sometimes bounce like a ball thrown up in the air. The light seems to dance through trees, or over the top of fields. Yet, if a driver tries to approach the light, it disappears.

Reports say the light most often travels from east to west along the four-mile gravel road. Locals say the most likely time to see the spook light is from 10 p.m. until around midnight. They also say it seems to stay away from loud noises and large groups.

Where to go to see the Hornet Spook Light. The MarkoZen Blog has a great story about the Route 66 Spook lights and said:

On a four-mile rural road eerily nicknamed the Devil’s Promenade, just off the old Route 66 in the north-east corner of Oklahoma, a paranormal mystery has puzzled spirit seekers for more than 100 years. The Hornet Spook Light – a mysterious, basketball-sized glowing orb named for the former town of Hornet – has been appearing in the night sky here since 1881. No-one knows what this peculiar, smouldering ball of light signifies, where it comes from or what it’s composed of. Even the Army Corps of Engineers have concluded that it’s a “mysterious light of unknown origin”.

Hornet Spook Light according to skeptics. One explanation for the Hornet Spook Light is they are lights from automobiles or billboards on the nearby highway. Swamp gas or ball lightning are also frequently brought up to explain the eerie phenomenon. Another suggested cause is they come from electrical atmospheric charges generated in the ground from the Madrid fault line running through the area. In fact, several severe earthquakes hit the area in the early 1800’s from this fault line.

Joplin Spook Light

Ghost lights in history

In English folklore, a will-o-the-wisp was a distantly viewed lantern or torch carried by a fairy or other mischievous spirit. And if travelers approached them, these ghostly lights were said to recede so that the bone-tired wayfarers were drawn farther and farther into the bog.

Our modern-day carved pumpkin at Halloween is associated with this old story and tradition. Will-o-the-wisp and jack-o-lantern meant the same thing in old England. On the festival of Samhain, people made turnip lanterns, sometimes with faces carved into them. Samhain took place around the same time as our Halloween, a time when fairies and spirits were said to inhabit the night.

Remember, Halloween comes at a time of the year when the nights are growing longer. We in the electric light era don’t fully appreciate the primal fear to be had from this daily increasing darkness. It’s said that turnip lanterns were used to light one’s way outdoors on a Samhain night. The lantern might have represented the spirits and otherworldly beings, as in I’m with you guys.

But we’re so much more sophisticated than that today. Aren’t we?

Ghost lights: Yellow turnip with 2 eyes and a mouth with teeth.
Ghost lights and will-o-the-wisps are associated with our modern-day jack-o-lanterns. Here’s a traditional Cornish jack-o-lantern, made from a turnip. Image via Wikipedia.

Bottom line: In folklore, ghost lights were strange lights seen over swamps or bogs. But are they? Here are some places popular known for ghost lights. Believe in them … if you dare!

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