For more information about ghost lights, check out my book A Survey of North American Spooklights: Eyewitness Accounts and Information on 20 Anomalous Lights, available on Amazon in ebook and paperback. Below is a condensed version of the book.
You may have seen ghost lights before, or heard about their existence in a location near you. Usually this phenomenon is described as a glowing ball or balls of light. The lights seem to come in every color of the rainbow, although at some sites the balls emit only one or two colors of light. The lights can sparkle, be stationary or in motion, high in the air or low to the ground. Generally the lights are said to exhibit some sort of bizarre behavior, such as vanishing or displaying evasive action when one moves too close to them.
Ghost lights have also been called will o’ the wisps, spooklights, and earthlights. Mysterious light phenomena such as will o’ the wisps have been well-known and documented for centuries in Europe. The lights are often seen in boggy or swampy areas, which has led to speculation that they are caused by natural ignition of volatile swamp gases.
In the United States, the most ghost lights are found in the southern and western portions of the country. The lights are fixed to a specific location, often near railroad tracks, and the local geography may include forested, mountainous, or swampy terrain–usually, although not always, an environment that engenders limited visibility and prevents direct sight lines. Unlike other forms of strange phenomena, ghost lights are comparatively reliable in their appearance, and in some places the lights have been the subject of scientific study.
Many theories and legends surround these mysterious lights. Some scientific attempts at explaining the lights include reflections from nearby traffic or towns, ignited gas from marshland, and, where ghost lights exist near faultlines, some sort of sub-atomic particle reactions. Common folktales told by the locals usually involve ghostly Indian braves, phantom trains and their decapitated railway workers, murdered women and/or children, or buried miners–tragic figures that can be connected with a lamp or torch. Unfortunately, encroaching development in many communities has seemed to extinguish some of the old reliable ghost lights, indicating that the lights probably do have a natural explanation. In fact, a few of the locations described in older stories I received effectively no longer exist due to civilization moving in.
I personally visited one of these sites in late 2017 and the narrow “ghost road” described in the reports I’d received in the 1990s and 2000s had been expanded and the vegetation cut back. The improved visibility in the area revealed an obvious source of the ghost lights—a road that ran exactly parallel to the one I parked on. It was easy to see how headlights filtering through the formerly thickly-wooded area could have seemed more mysterious in the past. Unsurprisingly, a sighting hasn’t been reported there in many years.
Unlike other paranormal or supernatural phenomena, ghost lights can be objectively observed by more than one party at a time. They show up reliably, display more or less consistent characteristics, and can be captured on film. Although their origin may be a matter of debate, the lights are not imaginary. This makes them unique in the sense that they can be categorized and studied, at least to some extent.
Spooklights in America and Canada are heavily tied to car culture. Most of the ghost light sites were not popular until after the advent of the modern automobile in the last six decades of the 20th century. Much of the folklore attached to the lights comes with “instructions” for calling them with one’s vehicle. Typically, this is performed by parking the car in a certain spot and flashing the headlights a prescribed number of times. This theme is so prevalent that it’s unusual to find a ghost light location that doesn’t “require” the light-calling as part of the ritual of visiting.
In his book Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena, William R. Corliss divides “nocturnal lights” into five categories: Will-o’-the-wisps, ghost lights, hot natural flames, UFO-like lights, and physiological and psychic lights. This website concerns itself with the first two categories.
CHARACTERISTICS OF GHOST LIGHTS
Ghost lights exhibit a variety of characteristics, with lights at different sites showing their own patterns. Individual experiences are widely disparate, but the following represent the most typical characteristics shown across all surveyed lights.
Ghost lights can come in any color, but the most common color reported is white. Next most common are yellow, orange, and blue, with red and green not far behind. The lights at many sites are reported to come in a variety of colors or shift colors as they shine.
Movements can be roughly categorized into quick movements and slow movements. In the majority of cases, slow movement consists of a swaying or bobbing motion, or a meandering drift at a pace no quicker than a human walk. Quick movements, on the other hand, comprise flitting, bouncing, shooting upwards, or even moving at incredible speed (with the latter usually observed from a distance). Some lights are described as blinking out and then reappearing within seconds much closer to the observer. The strangest characteristic of ghost lights is the seeming tendency of some of them to either approach or avoid the observer.
This is the most inconsistent attribute of ghost lights, with reports ranging from a single, relatively stationary light to hundreds of lights at once. The number of lights observed seems somewhat–although not perfectly–related to the distance at which they are observed. For instance, most multi-light sightings take place from a great distance, such as looking down into a valley or up at a mountain, while many (although by no means all) of the single lights are seen at a much closer range.
Size and Shape
The majority of lights seem to be smaller than the human body, with the average size range perhaps between that of a baseball and a large beach ball. Not all lights follow this rule. Some are described as huge balls of light, while others are described as rod-shaped or “whirling”. However, the majority seem not to be too large.
Twinkling, flickering, and glowing–these are the three words most often associated with ghost lights. Brightness thus varies, but in many cases is described as bright enough to read by. Ghost lights can fade out gradually or disappear in an instant.
OTHER NAMES FOR GHOST LIGHTS
Ghost lights have many names. Following are some of the other terms you may have heard in connection to this phenomenon.
The derivation of this name is obvious, as many ghost lights are associated with ghostly legends. The seemingly intelligent behavior of some ghost lights can also be quite spooky!
This term has been in use for well over a century in the literature, if not considerably longer. Translated from the Latin into colloquial English, it means “Fool’s Fire”, likely a nod to the fact that most ghost lights are, in fact, cool rather than warm.
According to Sean Palmer, this term was invented by Paul Devereux in 1982. The term earth lights is often used to refer specifically to light phenomena produced by seismic activity.
William Corliss notes in his Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomenon (page 68) that this term came from UFO literature.
Will o’ the wisps are a specific form of ghost lights, those which hover over or close to marshes or swamps. Will o’ the wisps are most often explained away as ignited swamp gas.
This is a term used in Europe to refer to either will-o’-the-wisps or mysterious lights that are found in and around wooded areas.
FEATURED GHOST LIGHTS ON GHOSTS.ORG
Some ghost lights are quite well-known and in a few cases have even been turned into tourist attractions. These are the more famous ones that I’ve written separate articles for on this website. The text of these articles is also included in my book, The True Ghost Stories Archive: Spooklights, available on Amazon.
Anson Lights – Anson, Texas
Bingham’s Light – Dillon, South Carolina
Bragg Road, Big Thicket, Saratoga Ghost Light – Bragg, Texas
Brown Mountain Lights – North Carolina
Chapel Hill Light – Chapel Hill, Tennessee
Codgell Spooklight – Codgell, Georgia
Cohoke Light – West Point, Virginia
Crossett Light – Crossett, Arkansas
Dover Lights – Dover, Arkansas
Gurdon Ghost Light – Gurdon, Arkansas
Hansell Road – Bucks County, Pennsylvania
Hornet, Joplin, Seneca, Tri-State, Neosho Spook Light – Missouri/Oklahoma
Maco Light – Maco, North Carolina
Marfa Lights – Marfa, Texas
Oxford Light – Oxford Township, Ohio
Paulding Light – Watersmeet, Michigan
Rich Mountain Light – Mena, Arkansas
Scugog Island – Port Perry, Ontario
Senath Light – Hornersville, Missouri
St. Louis Light – St. Louis, Saskatchewan
OTHER ARTICLES ON GHOSTS.ORG:
St. Albans Light
Min Min Lights
Inola Ghost Light
Florida Ghost Light
British Columbia Light