Nestled far from the nearest city of Hickory, the Brown Mountain region of North Carolina has been a subject of fascination for more than 100 years, for nearly every night along the mountain ridges mysterious lights can be seen for which scientists have failed to find any logical explanation. From sunset until dawn, globes of various colored lights, ranging in size from mere points to 25 feet in diameter, can be seen rising above the tall trees and flickering off again, as they fall to the mountain passes below.
Various legends have sprung up about the origin of the lights. Some say the Cherokee spirits and Catawba braves made the lights and search the valley for maiden lovers. It seems that the two tribes had a big battle hundreds of years ago, in which nearly all of the men of the two tribes were killed. Apparently this legend has some basis in fact, because at least a half a dozen Native American graves have been found in the area.
According to some local residents, the lights first began to be sighted on a regular basis sometime in 1916. At the time it was thought that the mystery lights might have been caused by the headlights on locomotives or cars running through a nearby valley. However, during the spring of that year, all bridges were knocked out by a flood and the roads became too muddy for cars to travel—yet the Brown Mountain lights were seen in greater number than before.
Some who have witnessed the phenomena believe that the lights are intelligently controlled. They say that they have seen them butting into each other and bouncing like big basketballs. Certain observers swear that they have tracked the lights at speeds of almost 100 miles per hour. On one Saturday night in 1959, according to some area residents, more than 5,000 persons turned out to see the lights.
Some of the spookiest lights on record are the ones linked popularly to ghosts and their haunting grounds. In the little town of Silver Cliff, Colorado, ghost lights have plagued the local cemetery since 1880. Silver Cliff is itself almost a ghost town: In 1880 it boasted a population of 5,087; by the 1950s it had only 217 inhabitants.
The ghost lights reached the mass media in the spring of 1956 in the Wet Mountain Tribune, and on August 20, 1967, in the New York Times. Local folklore has it that the lights were first seen in 1880 by a group of miners passing by the cemetery. When they saw the flickering blue lights over the gravestones, they left in a hurry. Since then, the lights have been observed by generations of tourists and residents of Custer County. Many of these witnesses have noted that the curious blue lights cannot be seen as clearly on the sandstone markers. This convinced several spectators that the lights were only a reflection of houselights in the valley.
Not so, insisted county judge August Menzel. In the New York Times he told of the night when everyone in Silver Cliff and nearby Westcliff shut off their lights. Even the street lights were turned off, but the graveyard lights still danced as brightly as ever.
If the ghostly gravemarkers cannot be attributed to the reflection of ordinary house and municipal lights, just what can they be? Old-timers and younger theorists have come up with many suggestions. Some believe that the lights are reflections from the stars. Yet the lights are just as clear on a starless, moonless night. Others theorize that they are caused by phosphorescing ore and glowing wood—but the darker the night, the brighter the lights. It was suggested that radioactive ores were causing the flickering lights. But Geiger counters were then employed to cover the entire area, and no radioactivity was discovered.
Finally the seekers of a plausible explanation confessed total bafflement. None of the theories would hold water, and the lights themselves could never be approached for a close enough look. As soon as anyone came too near, the lights would disappear, only to pop up again in another section of the cemetery. Photographers were hired, but no one managed to capture the elusive blue lights on film.
At this point the old-timers simply smile and provide the fitting explanation for any classic ghost story. According to local legend, the cemetery, which is still in use, is the final resting place for many miners who died while digging precious ores. The flickering lights of the graveyard resemble the little lights worn on the miners' caps, and the ghostly lights belong to the restless souls of the miners, who still search for the gold they never found.
A far more notorious ghost light is located in the tri-state area of Spooksville, in a corner of Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Spooksville's ghostly light is advertised as a tourist attraction, and brings in countless numbers of the curious. The mysterious light, known variously as "spook light" or "ghost light" to the visitors and inhabitants of the region, was officially dubbed a UFO by the U.S. Air Force.
This alone has caused the Spooksville area to be called the "UFO" airport.
In appearance the ghost light resembles a bright lantern. Often the light dims before the spectators, then bounces back over the mountains in a brilliant blaze of light. Hundreds of firsthand encounters with the mysterious ghost light are on record. These accounts demonstrate actual experiences with the unknown, sometimes frightening, but always interesting.
During World War II (1939–45) the U.S. Corps of Engineers scoured the entire area, using the latest scientific equipment of the time. For weeks they tested caves, mineral deposits, and highway routes, exhausting every possible explanation for the origin of the mystery lights. They finally left, confounded.
Perhaps the most famous spook lights in the United States are the eerie illuminations that appear in the night sky just east of Marfa, Texas, a small ranching community southeast of El Paso. Settler Robert Ellison, who feared that he was seeing Apache campfires in the distance, first spotted the strange lights in 1883. When he investigated the next day, he could find no ashes where he had seen the lights. Local folklore soon attributed the ghost lights to the spirits of slain warriors seeking peace, the ghosts of murdered settlers, the restless spectre of the Apache chief Alsate, or the quests of lost lovers yearning to be reunited. Some area residents have stories of being guided home to safety by the mysterious lights, while others tell of being terrified by close encounters with the glowing orbs.
Theorists have ascribed the Marfa Lights to natural phenomena, such as ball lightning, electrostatic charges, or gas emissions. Certain scientists have blamed a combination of solar activity and seismic activity that creates a kind of underground lightning that on occasion rises above ground level to be seen as the eerie lights.
There are many more ghost lights haunting the nooks and crannies, mountain peaks and valleys, of the planet Earth. Experts have tried to explain the mystery of spook lights by using the existing structure of physics and known natural phenomena, such as ball lightning, will o' the wisps, and swamp gas, but so far all attempts at scientific explanation have been unsuccessful.