Location: Southwest Missouri on the Oklahoma border, near Joplin, Missouri and Quapaw, Oklahoma
Appearance: Yellow or orange ball that travels eastward down the road, sometimes at great speed. The light can emit sparks and may hop, sway, spin, or move in arcs. May land on the hood of vehicles but also will display avoidant behavior if directly approached. Occasionally the light splits into two or more lights.
- The light is said to be the spirits of a star-crossed Native American couple.
- Some say the light is a beheaded Indian chief.
- The light is the ghost of a miner searching for his kidnapped wife and children.
- The light is the Devil himself.
Other explanations: Perhaps swamp gas, car headlights, electrical disturbances caused by the New Madrid fault.
Additional notes: The light was a popular tourist attraction for a time and even had a small museum dedicated to it in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Hornet Ghost Light, also known as The Joplin Spooklight, the Tri-State Spooklight, the Neosho Spook Light, the Seneca Light, the Devil’s Jack-O-Lantern, or simply “The Spooklight,” is located in extreme southwest Missouri on the Oklahoma border. The closest towns are Joplin, Missouri and Quapaw, Oklahoma. Hornet is an abandoned village close to the location of the sightings.
The earliest written reports of the lights appear in local newspapers from the mid-1930s. The spook light has been extremely well-known since then, and by the 1960s a museum (now defunct) dedicated to the phenomenon had sprung up. The light has been listed in official tourist brochures and websites from the surrounding cities for many decades and has been featured in countless newspaper articles. Although many articles on the Hornet Light mention a report or pamphlet from 1881 referencing the “Ozark Spook Light,” this publication doesn’t seem to actually exist. Like many spooklights, this bit of history seems to have been retconned.
Legends about the light abound. Folklore attributes the light to the spirits of a star-crossed Native American couple from various local tribes such as the Quapaw, a beheaded Indian chief, or an ethereal miner searching for his wife and/or children who were kidnapped by Indians. Because of these stories, before the 1960s, the spooklight was often referred to as the “Indian Light.” Another old tale relates the light directly to the Devil himself. Legend had it that if a bridge in the area was crossed a certain number of times, the Devil would appear. The road the ghost light appears on thus became known as “The Devil’s Promenade.”
Several theories have been put forward to try to explain the lights, including the oft-mentioned swamp gas. Other ideas include minerals in the air set to light, electrical or sub-atomic disturbances caused by the New Madrid fault, and heat rising from the ground at the end of each day.
Car headlights have been put forward as the cause of the light since at least the 1940s. In my original write up on this phenomenon in the 1990s, I reported that in 1946 the Army Corps of Engineers supposedly studied the Hornet Light and could not find a cause for it, calling it a “mysterious light of unknown origin.” It’s likely I got this information from one of the many reference books I owned at that time on ghosts and hauntings. However, Paul A. Roales, who maintained a website on the Hornet Light in the mid-2000s, was finally able to track down the original source of this claim. He writes:
From an article titled: “Solving The Mystery Of The Tri-State Spook Light” in The Kansas City Star of Sunday, May 19, 1946, on pages C1 and C2 by Charles W. Graham (a member of The Star’s Staff) it states that under the command of Maj. Thomas E Sheard of Camp Crowder, they contacted Richard Y. Jones, chief of the civil engineering dept., who with his friend Joe Duck had already determined the cause of the lights but had never officially reported their findings, and began an investigation. Using car lights and synchronized watches on a scheduled system on the Quapaw road, they were able to reproduce virtually all of the observed phenomena commonly reported as the ghost light.
It thus appears as though the engineers did in fact attribute the lights to car headlights.
Physically, the Hornet light is described as a yellow or orange colored ball that travels eastward down the road, sometimes at great speed. The light emits sparks and a few witnesses have reportedly felt heat as it came close to them. The light does some interesting acrobatics as well. It has been variously described as hopping, swaying, spinning, or moving in arcs. Some have reported that the light “landed” on the hood of their car or even inside the car. However, the light will avoid anyone who deliberately approaches it. It has been known to disappear in front of a person and then reappear behind them. Occasionally, the light splits and then rejoins.
(1) Date received: Tue, 13 Jul 1999
I used to live in Miami, Oklahoma and frequented the spooklight road at least two or three times a week for about 18 months or more in 1967-69. As you are aware, there are documented reports of the light being seen in wagon and buggy days, way before the advent of our smog machines we call cars!
Also, I was there one night with other people, and we waited until there were no cars present except our own. If you are familiar with the road, there is a small creek way down the road… a mile may be a close guess. That particular night the spooklight was not seen at a distance. It came within about 50 feet of our hood and was as big as a basketball. We had been out there many nights before but all yelled, “Turn on the lights!” My sister did so, which took forever it seemed. They were hidden headlights on a 1968 Ford Galaxy. That was no car light that close, sir.
Thanks again for your site. Your site is very refreshing compared to the run-of-the mill stuff I usually see.
My sister now lives fairly close to the Marfa Ghost Lights in Alpine, Texas. My mother has seen those lights and says they are not at all like the Hornet light. Oh well. They are something!
(2) Date received: Thu, 2 Sep 1999
I work at Radio Disney, and thought you would be interested to know: We’re preparing a “theater of the mind” ghost story series for the 13 nights leading to Halloween. One of the stories will be about the Joplin Spooklight, which my mother saw very up-close when she was in her 20s, in the 1950s. I interviewed her about her experience, and then did research on the light. It really is amazing. The radio drama I’ve written from her story is (mostly) accurate, with just a few added “Joplinite” characters for drama purpose.
However, when she and her three friends drove from Springfield to Joplin to find out more about the light before they tried to see it, the locals were not very friendly concerning the Spooklight. But, in similar vein to other experiences, the light floated down a road toward them, disappeared, then reappeared behind them. About a foot behind my mother’s head, to be exact.
I hope someday to take her back, so we can both see this odd phenomenon.
(3) Date received: Mon, 20 Mar 2000
My friends and I drove from Springfield to Joplin on a Sunday night in 1998 and arrived there around midnight. My friend Dave, who had been there and seen it before, told me to go down this dark gravel road and park. Then he had me turn out my headlights. We were just sitting there and nothing was happening. Then he said for me to flash my brights. I did.
Not five seconds later down the road, I saw what looked like a red laser pointer. It grew bigger and bigger in a matter of seconds. Then it turned into a big white round light about the size of a basketball. It bounced in and out of trees. Up and down the road. It came so close it lit up the whole inside of my car like daylight. Then I turned my car on and started chasing it down the road.
It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve been once after that and the same thing happened. It was totally worth the hour drive to Joplin, to sit there for 15 minutes and watch the spook light. I am definitely a believer.
(4) Date received: Tue, 23 Apr 2002
Late in the evening during the summer of 1998, four of my friends and I went to check out this legend known as the spook light. We probably arrived on the road at 2:00 in the morning or so. The second we turned onto the road we noticed a small light way off in the distance. Looked miles and miles away.
We kept driving up the road at idle speed, all the while the light changing colors, moving, disappearing, reappearing, and changing size. Sometimes the light had a reddish color to it, sometimes a greenish glow, and sometimes it looked white.
After about an hour of being out there we came over a hill and a white/yellowish basketball-sized light was at the bottom of the hill not more than seven feet from our vehicle. We had no lights on for the whole amount of time we were out there and we didn’t see anyone or anything else while on the road.
To the side of the light I could swear there was almost a purple haze to the right. The light got about three feet from the car, then spun around in a two foot circle parallel to the ground. We all got very scared and had the car in reverse at full speed in no time flat. After going back over the hill the light was gone.
This is the real deal. I was in high school at the time at Pittsburg High School in Pittsburg, Kansas. I went to school the next day and mentioned the incident to my art teacher, and she told me her story of the spook light and about how the light was nowhere to be seen, and just about as they were going to leave it lit up inside of her car. I’ve heard many stories somewhat like mine and there is no way that gasses are causing this paranormal activity.
(5) Date received: Wed, 24 Dec 2003
Over this Halloween I went to the Hornet Light. My mother, aunt, uncle, and two of my cousins went there. If you do see the light it is amazing. Well, we went there and there were tons of people there. It is hard to find the light, because the people don’t turn their headlights off or anything.
After about a half an hour we saw something off in the trees about 500 feet away. My little cousin, my uncle, and my mother went closer to see it. I went with them but all of a sudden the light got very bright and I started running back as fast as I could to the car. Call me a chicken, but I was scared. They stood there for about ten minutes and came back.
In the meantime when I was with my aunt we saw the light split in two. My mother tried to take a picture but when she tried it wouldn’t show up. After they came back, we decided to drive closer to it. Personally, I thought that was a bad idea.
Well, we drove closer about to where my mother and uncle had been. We stopped and they looked for it again. Come to find out there was a house there and the house had those street lights by it. So my uncle and aunt said we probably didn’t see the light.
Since they had been there before my mother believed them, but I didn’t. What we saw that night I say was the light. It’s pretty cool to be out in the middle of nowhere and find something that amazing.
(6) Date received: Tue, 31 Aug 2004
I just wanted to say thank you for your article about the Hornet Spook Light and also for posting other readers’ encounters with it. I lived in Welch, Oklahoma three years ago and have seen the spook light several times. It’s very interesting to read about other people who have seen it and to find that their experiences are similar to mine! I guess you could say that I’m skeptical when it comes to ghosts, UFOs, and the like, but the spook light is definitely real. This is no flash light or swamp gas. I saw it with my own eyes and it gave me the creeps!
Date received: October 1998
This is a story my grandfather told me once. When I say once, I mean it. It was a while ago, and I could be elaborating on it, but only a little. If I do, I apologize. There are others, but this is one I think other people would find most interesting because there may be others who know about this. It’s about the lights in Hornet. I don’t remember if it’s Mississippi or Missouri.
At any rate, at one time my grandfather took a trip to see them. He had heard about them and wanted to see them for himself. There is apparently a field outside of town. He got there and stood up at the road with other people who had come for the same reason. It was some time after dusk. Presently, an orange globe, like someone carrying a lantern, started bobbing along the horizon.
My grandfather decided he was going to go down and see what it was. Some other people tried to convince him not to go, but he decided he would. He walked down off the road. The field wasn’t totally level, and he had to go down some gullies. When he got to the top of one very close to where he judged the globe to have been, it wasn’t there! He looked around, but it was nowhere to be seen. He walked back, and when he turned back at the road, it was back again!
This made him a little upset. Some of the people asked him what it looked like close up, and he said, “It wasn’t there, didn’t you see it disappear and come back when I got back?” One of the others there replied, “No, it didn’t go away, it floated right around you the whole time you were there! Are you sure you didn’t see it?” When I was told it, my grandfather swore to me that it was true. I was about five, but it was easy to tell when my grandfather was kidding me. Anyone else who was there when my grandfather was can attest to this.
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Updated 04-18-21. -Obiwan