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Strange & Unexplained - Ghost Lights

[- Luminous Phenomena -]
Ghost lights are luminous phenomena, usually either points of lights or spheres, whose appearance, behavior, location, or regular manifestation puts them, at least ostensibly, into a separate category from ball lightning or unidentified flying objects. Ghost lights are often taken to be supernatural or paranormal, and in many cases, especially those in which they appear regularly over a period of time in one place (as with the famous Brown Mountain lights and the Marfa lights), legends have grown around them, typically associating the lights with apparitions of the dead.

Lights in folk tradition

Over three hundred years ago Nathaniel Crouch wrote in The English Empire in America (1685) that the Indians "have a remarkable observation of a flame that appears before the death of an Indian or English upon their wigwams in the dead of night; I was called out once about twelve a clock ... and plainly perceived it mounting into the air over a church.... You may certainly expect a dead corpse in two or three days."

Three decades earlier, in 1656, John Davis, vicar of Geneu'r Glyn, Cardiganshire, Wales, recorded his and others' observations of varyingly colored lights which foretold deaths. These lights could be encountered anywhere: in the open air, on their way through a door, or inside a house. A small light presaged the death of a child, a bigger light that of an adult. Several lights together meant as many deaths. His wife's sister, Davis said, had observed five lights in a room; that night, in that very room, five servants suffocated to death in a freak accident.

In 1897 R. C. Maclagan published a long survey of ghost-light traditions, stories, and reports from Scotland's West Highlands. Typical of them are these tales told by an Islay man:

One time lights were seen moving about at night on the rocks on the shore near Kilchearan. Shortly after that, a vessel was wrecked there, and the body of a man was washed ashore at the spot where the lights had been seen. One time lights were seen on Lochandaal, between Bowmore and Blackrock. Not long after that, two young men were crossing the loch on a small boat, and at the place at which the lights had been seen the boat was capsized and the two lads drowned.

Such widespread traditions of "corpse candles" continued into the twentieth century. As a Welsh informant told W. Y. Evans-Wentz early in the century, "The death-candle appears like a patch of bright light; and no matter how dark the room or place is, everything in it is as clear as day. The candle is not a flame, but a luminous mass, lightish blue in color, which dances as though borne by an invisible agency, and sometimes it rolls over and over. If you go up to the light, it is nothing, for it is a spirit."

In February 1909, for example, newspaper accounts told of the excitement generated in Stockton, Pennsylvania, over the "appearance at night of an arrow of flame, which hovers over the spot on the mountain where the dismembered body of a woman was found in a barrel two years ago.... The light appears every night at about 9 o'clock and hovers over the spot until midnight, but it disappears when anyone approaches the spot to investigate. The superstitious villagers say it is the avenging spirit of the slain woman come back to keep alive the history of the crime so that the murderers may some day be apprehended."

Lights also were associated with appearances of fairies. A young Irishman who attended Oxford University with Evans-Wentz provided him with this account:

Some few weeks before Christmas, 1910, at midnight on a very dark night, I and another young man (who like myself was then about twenty-three years of age) were on horseback on our way home from Limerick. When near Listowel, we noticed a light about half a mile ahead. At first it seemed to be no more than a light in some house; but as we came nearer to it and it was passing out of our direct line of vision we saw that it was moving up and down, to and fro, diminishing to a spark, then expanding into a yellow luminous flame. Before we came to Listowel we noticed two lights, about one hundred yards to our right, resembling the light seen first. Suddenly each of these lights expanded into the same sort of yellow luminous flame, about six feet high by four feet broad. In the midst of each flame we saw a radiant being having human form. Presently the lights moved toward one another and made contact, whereupon the two beings in them were seen to be walking side by side. The beings' bodies were formed of a pure dazzling radiance, white like the radiance of the sun, and much brighter than the yellow light or aura surrounding them. So dazzling was the radiance, like a halo, round their heads that we could not distinguish the countenance of the beings; we could only distinguish the general shape of their bodies; though their heads were very clearly outlined because this halo-like radiance, which was the brightest light about them, seemed to radiate from or rest upon the head of each being. As we travelled on, a house intervened between us and the lights, and we saw no more of them.

Lights in Wales

In early December 1904 a 38-year-old Welsh housewife and folk evangelist, Mary Jones of Egryn, Merionethshire, allegedly experienced a vision of Jesus, and in short order she became the leading figure in a Christian revival which in the weeks and months ahead attracted international attentionnot because of her message, which was simply the tried and true one, but because of the peculiar phenomena that accompanied it.

The lights themselves were not unusual, but they had an odd quality: sometimes-though not always-they were visible to some persons but not to others who should have been able to observe them.

A London Daily Mirror reporter related a sighting he experienced in the company of the newspaper's photographer. The two had stationed themselves one evening in Egryn, where they hoped to see the lights. At 10 P.m., after a three-and-a-half hour vigil, a light resembling an "unusually brilliant carriage lamp" appeared at a distance of 400 yards. As the reporter approached it, it took the form of a bar of light quite four feet wide, within a few yards of the chapel [from which Mrs. Jones conducted her ministry]. For half a moment it lay across the road, and then extended itself up the wall on either side. It did not rise above the walls. As I stared, fascinated, a kind of quivering radiance flashed with lightning speed from one end of the bar to the other, and the whole thing disappeared. "Look! Look!" cried two women standing just behind me; "Look at the Light!" I found they had seen exactly what had appeared to me. Now comes a startling sequel. Within ten yards of where that band of vivid light had flashed across the road, stood a little group of fifteen or twenty persons. I went up to them, all agog to hear exactly what they thought of the manifestations-but not one of those I questioned had seen anything at all!

The witness does not say what, if anything, his photographer saw, or why the latter took no photographs. (No photographs of the lights are known to exist, and some contemporary accounts even assert, improbably, that the lights could not be photographed.) Arguably the climate of excitement and expectation caused the reporter to hallucinate, but the Daily Telegraph writer was not the only journalist to report such an experience. If anything, the incident recounted by Beriah G. Evans of the Barmouth Advertiser is more puzzling.

Evans wrote that while walking with Mrs. Jones and three other persons early on the evening of January 31, 1905, he saw "three brilliant rays of light strike across the road from mountain to sea, throwing the stone wall twenty or thirty yards in front into bold relief, every stone plainly visible. There was not a living soul there, nor house, from which it could have come." Half a mile later, a "blood-red light" appeared in the middle of the village street a foot above the ground and immediately in front of them. It vanished suddenly. Only the reporter and the evangelist saw these things.

"I may add," Evans wrote in a subsequent magazine article, "that a fortnight later a London journalist had an almost identical experience. He, and a woman standing near, saw the white light, now a broad band, crossing the road near the chapel, and climbing and resting upon the wall. A group of half a dozen other people present at the same time saw nothing. Others have had an almost precisely similar experience."

Still, other light manifestations claimed not only multiple but independent witnesses. Once, as Mrs. Jones was holding a revival meeting in a chapel in Bryncrug, a ball of fire casting rays downward illuminated the church. It was also observed by passers-by. On another occasion, Mrs. Jones and three companions were traveling in a carriage in broad daylight when a bright light with no apparent source suddenly shone on them. The occupants of two trailing carriages including two skeptical journalists, witnessed the sight as did Barmouth residents who were awaiting her arrival.

Some representative sightings:

December 22, 1904, 5:18 P.M.: Three observers saw a large light "about half way from the earth to the sky, on the south side of Capel Egryn, and in the middle of it something like [a] bottle or black person, also some little lights scattering around the large light in many colors." January 2, 1905, 10:40 P.M.: "Hovering above a certain farmhouse ... it appeared to me as three lamps about three yards apart ... very brilliant and dazzling, moving and jumping like a sea-wave under the influence of the sun on a very hot day. The light continued so for ten minutes. All my family saw it the same time." Early January, between 10 and 10:30 P.M.: "I saw two very bright lights, about half a mile away, one a big white light, the other smaller and red in color. The latter flashed backwards and forwards, and finally seemed in the same place again, but a few minutes after, we saw another light which seemed to be a few yards above the ground. It now looked like one big flame, and all around it seemed like one big glare of light. It flamed up and went out alternately for about ten minutes."

On February 23 the Advertiser took note of a recent report by two men, one a prominent farmer, of a "gigantic human form rising over a hedgerow. Then a ball of fire appeared above and a long ray of light pierced the figure, which vanished."

In the midst of all of this, Mrs. Jones and some of her followers were also encountering Christ and angels, who would manifest themselves in dreams and visions. One dark night, as she walked along a country road, Mrs. Jones said she encountered a shadowy figure who turned into a black dog and charged her, only to be dissuaded when she broke into a hymn. The attacker was, of course, Satan. These sorts of experiences are invariably personal and subjective and thus susceptible, to those so disposed, to secular psychological explanations. The lights, on the other hand, remain a mystery nearly a century later.

The appearance of the lights in the context of an evangelical revival may or may not be coincidental. Certainly it is true, if we look at the broader historical view, that anomalous luminosities are usually observed in a purely secular context. Still, there are precedents. During a religious revival in Ireland in 1859, a "cloud of fire" was seen to descend from the sky and then hover over open-air assemblies of the faithful.

Lights in one place

In hundreds, possibly even thousands, of places around the world, "strange lights haunt the earth," anomaly chronicler Vincent H. Gaddis has written. "These types of UFOs are not flying saucers or balls of lightning. They are usually small in size and appear close to the ground. Their outstanding characteristic is that they are localized to one area or place."

Such lights become the focus of legends, not infrequently of lantern-bearing ghosts searching for something they lost in life, such as (in some of the more morbid traditions) a head. Not many of these have ever been properly investigated, but on those rare occasions when scientists or other serious researchers have addressed themselves to the task, the results generally have been disappointing-at least to those who wish to have their mysteries remain forever enigmatic or who, on the other hand, have their own more exotic explanatory hobbyhorses to ride.

Many of the lights turn out, for example, to emanate from the headlights of cars on distant highways, or from stars and planets refracted through layers of air of varying temperatures. Sometimes the claim that the lights were a part of folklore even before the invention of the automobile or the locomotive proves itself to be folklore. Yet even ghost lights which are convincingly explainable in prosaic terms yield up occasionally puzzling reports, as if to confuse those of us who want to keep things simple. It may be that these are only anomalies of human perception, of course, but sometimes the witnesses are scientists and other trained observers.

There are, however, unambiguously mysterious lights which serious, sustained investigations by sober field researchers have not been able to lay to rest. The two major current examples are the lights at the Yakima Indian Reservation of south-central Washington and in the Hessdalen Valley of Norway.


The thinly populated reservation is 3500 miles square, divided between rugged wilderness in the west and flat lands in the east. Beginning in the late 1960s (though sporadic sightings had occurred before then), forest rangers, fire-control personnel, and others began reporting the movement of bright white lights low in the sky over rough terrain on both the north and south sides of Toppenish Ridge, which cuts through the reservation's east-central section.

When these reports came to the attention of W. J. (Bill) Vogel, chief fire-control officer, by his own account he would greet them "with knowing smiles, an embarrassed shuffling of papers, and advisement to 'keep us informed'." Then late one night, as he was on patrol south of Toppenish, he saw something above a hill. "It was easy to see then that the object most certainly was no aircraft," he said. "Also there was no discernible lateral movement. Even without binoculars the object's teardrop shape, with the small, pointed end above, was obvious. Brilliantly white in the center, the outer edges were fluorescent tan or light orange with a surrounding halolike glow. Its most awe-inspiring feature was a mouselike tail or antenna protruding from the small end and pointing upward. The antenna, as long as the object itself, was segmented into colors of red, blue, green, and white which were constantly changing brilliancy and hue.

Over the next 90 minutes Vogel took a series of photographs of the object, which eventually vanished to the south over the Simcoe Mountains. It would be only the first of a number of sightings he would make. Soon Vogel was busy collecting and investigating sightings on the reservation. Most of the reports he gathered were from his own fire lookouts, all trained and reliable observers, but he also interviewed many local people who had seen the lights.

Later investigators included astronomer and former Air Force UFO consultant J. Allen Hynek. Hynek persuaded the Tribal Council to allow an observer to set up equipment on the reservation and to monitor the lights' activity. The observer, David Akers of the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (APRO), brought with him cameras and other devices. On August 19, 1972, his first night on the reservation, Akers, accompanied by Vogel, saw two round, glowing, reddish-orange lights circling, changing places, and going on and off as they maneuvered beneath the tops of hills west of White Swan, a town at the reservation's north-central region. He took four photographs. Other sightings and other photographs followed until Akers left the reservation at the end of the month.

Unfortunately, technical problems with his equipment prevented him from getting the other kinds of hard data he was seeking, but Akers left convinced that "something very strange and unusual is taking place." He returned to the reservation over the next few days to interview witnesses and to see and photograph more strange aerial phenomena.

In later years Greg Long (who would write a book on his research) would join the investigation, working closely with Vogel (since deceased). Examining the detailed records of Vogel and Akers, Long found lights that appeared at ground level, above ground level, and at high altitudes.

Some of the strangest cases reported by fire lookouts involved apparent mental communications. Though most of their sightings were of distant lights, on occasion lookouts saw the phenomena at no more than several hundred yards, yet somehow were prevented from getting closer. Lookouts reported "hearing" a voice inside their heads saying, "Stay back, or you'll get hurt," and feeling restrained. One lookout saw a shaft of bright, purple-colored light shining down around her cabin. When she tried to go outside to investigate, she felt as if "two magnets [were] repelling each other" and blocking her exit. Puzzled but determined, she even ran at the entrance several times but could not get through.

Observers often reported feeling as if they were seeing something they were not meant to see, and more often than not they removed themselves from the presences of the lights or objects they had come to investigate.

It must be noted that some reports were of craftlike structures and a few were of alien beings (described as skinny and long-haired and -nosed). Consequently the Yakima phenomena may have more to do with UFOs than with the sorts of purelight manifestations with which we are concerned here. Still, as UFOs, those at Yakima are out of the ordinary in being bound to one place and in looking like-at least in most of their appearances-ghost lights. In any case, the sightings have subsided substantially since 1986.


The Hessdalen lights also subsided in 1986, but for a period of several years they were the target of a determined investigation which combined the efforts of ufologists, scientists, and locals. The Hessdalen Valley, stretching across 12 kilometers of central Norway near the Swedish border and holding no more than 150 inhabitants, began to experience odd luminous phenomena in November 1981.

The lights sometimes appeared as often as four times a day, often below the horizon along mountain tops, near the ground, or on the roofs of houses. Usually white or yellow-white, they typically were shaped like cigars, spheres, or an "upside-down Christmas tree." In this last instance, according to miner Bjarne Lillevold, the light was "bigger than the cottage beside it. It was about four meters above the hill and had a red blinking light on it, there seemed also to be a curious 'blanket' over the whole thing. The object moved up and down like a yo-yo for about 20 minutes. When it was close to the ground, the light faded, but at the height of the maneuver it was so bright that I could not look at it for long. When the light was near the ground, I could see through it as though it was made of glass."

Occasionally, according to other witnesses, a red light maintained a position in front. The lights hovered, sometimes for an hour, then shot off at extraordinary speed. Most of the time they traveled from north to south.

Investigators from UFO-Norway brought valley residents together to discuss their sightings on March 26, 1982. Of the 130 who attended, 35 said they had seen the lights. Soon afterwards two Norwegian Air Force officers interviewed natives and later told reporters that the "people of Hessdalen have been seeing luminous objects since 1944, but many years passed before they dared to talk about the sightings." It is unclear what the 1944 reference means; numerous sightings of what would come to be called UFOs occurred in northern Europe during World War 11, but such sporadic, seemingly random reports should not be confused with the phenomena that took place with great frequency in Hessdalen in the early to mid-1980s. The 1944 reference may be to one of the former. No one else was told of such recurring lights prior to 1981.

Though sightings declined for a time in 1983, that summer Scandinavian ufologists formed Project Hessdalen and secured technical assistance, including the active participation of scientists, from the Universities of Oslo and Bergen. A variety of equipment was set up on three mountains. The results from the month-long winter vigil January 21 to February 26, 1984) were interesting but inconclusive: some sightings, radar trackings, and photographs. When laser beams were aimed at passing lights, the lights seemed to respond. Once, on February 12, one such object "changed its flashing sequence from a regular flashing light to a regular double flashing light, i.e., flash-flash ... flash-flash ... flash-flash. After about ten seconds we stopped the laser and the light immediately changed back to its previous flashing sequence. After about another ten seconds we repeated the exercise and again the light responded by changing to a double-flash sequence. In all we repeated this exercise four times and every time we got the same reaction from the light."

The investigators disagreed on what the phenomena could be, with some holding forth for a geophysical explanation and others suspecting some guiding intelligence. Erling Strand, one of Project Hessdalen's directors, thought it " strange that they [the lights] existed for a five-year period" to be "recorded in Hessdalen and nowhere else." Another investigator, Leif Havik, wrote of the "coincidences" that enlivened the investigation:

On four separate occasions, it happened that we came to the top of Varuskjolen, stopped the car, went outside, and there "it" came immediately and passed by us. The same thing happened once on Aspaskjolen. All these instances happened at different times of the day and most of the time it was an impulse which made us take an evening trip to Hessdalen by car.... On some occasions other observers had been looking for hours without success Coincidences" also happened to the video equipment which recorded the radar screen. One evening the pen of the magnetograph failed to work. At the same time the video tape had come to an end, and the phenomenon appeared less than one minute later. The next evening we made certain that the pen had sufficient ink and turned on the video recorder ten minutes later than the night before. We thought that now everything was ready for the usual 10:47 "message." [One light appeared regularly at 10:47 P.m.] The video tape ran out at 10:57 P.M. and we thought that tonight "it" had failed us. But at 10:58 the usual phenomenon appeared.

In terms of hard scientific data, the results were disappointing. Project investigators logged 188 sightings. Some, they determined, were of passing aircraft. Of four photographs taken through special lens gratings, only two showed light spectra of sufficient clarity to be analyzed. Project adviser Paul Devereux said of these, "One spectrum of one 'high strangeness' object was analyzed and showed a wavelength range from 560nm [nanometers] to the maximum the film could respond to-630 nm.... The spectrum analyzer did not register anything unusual while lights were being seen, but odd readings were obtained at times.... These showed up as ,spikes' at approximately 80mHz [megaHerz]." In 40 percent of the sightings, changes in the magnetic field registered on the instruments.

Looking back on the episode, University of Oslo physicist Elvand Thrane, who had participated in the research, remarked, "I'm sure the lights were real. It's a pity we cannot explain them."

Other luminous anomalies

Writing of anomalous lights, sociologist of science James McClenon observes that the "circumstances of a report frequently determine its interpretation. A ball lightning effect that occurred during an electrical storm would be termed 'ball lightning'. . . . Other cases with the exact same appearance but occurring in other circumstances would be called UFOs, psychic lights, or will-o'-the-wisps depending on the context and the observer's assumptions and interpretation." He then relates a story, which the informant "solemnly affirms to be true," of a ball of light witnessed during his youth. The ball, one foot in diameter, approached the boy's bedroom from outside, magically opened a window, sailed around the house, and left via the front door, which also opened. "The respondent has not previously reported this observation," according to McClenon, "because it seems to defy classification."

Ball lightning, whose existence most physicists and meteorologists now accept, continues to defy explanation, at least in the sense that so far no one has been able to find a physical mechanism that accounts for all its features. We do know that ball lightning nearly always appears during thunderstorm activity, is seen just after and near a lightning strike, lasts a few seconds to (rarely) a minute or two, and often disappears in an explosion which leaves a sulfurlike odor. Clearly, whatever the surface similarity in shape and luminosity, true ghost lights are not examples of ball lightning.

Other hypotheses, notably Paul Devereux's "earthlights" and Michael Persinger's "tectonic stress theory," propose geophysical explanations for such luminous phenomena, but neither explanation has won any significant scientific acceptance. Devereux's in particular seems a thin scientific veneer for a kind of British nature mysticism, and Persinger's has been criticized on a number of methodological grounds. Both hold that ghost lights are the product of subterranean processes which not only create luminous energy on the surface but generate hallucinations in observers.

Probably ghost lights are a number of different things, from the ridiculously mundane, to the exotically natural, to the certifiably enigmatic.

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