Space & Innovation

Mysterious 'Ghost Lights' in Forest Draw Thrill Seekers

Mysterious lights in the sky come in many forms ... but what causes them?

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Ghost hunters and mystery buffs in Michigan's Upper Peninsula often seek out a lonely road at a remote spot in the woods near the Wisconsin border hoping to see a mystery known as the Paulding Light. Some come prepared with bug spray and beer, while others arrive empty-handed. All, however, harbor hopes of seeing the mystery for themselves.

Mysterious lights in the sky are of course as old as antiquity and come in many forms, ranging from meteors to UFOs. Lights such as those seen in the Upper Peninsula are often referred to as ghost lights or spook lights.

These lights are not merely encountered as factual, visible anomalies but instead often appear in the context of ghost stories. Local folklore provides a legendary "explanation" for the lights, part of a long tradition of creating narratives to explain natural celestial processes (Greek mythology held that the sun was not a stationary dying star, but instead the god Helios driving his golden chariot around the Earth).

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Some traditions link floating lights with death, accounts from centuries ago suggest that if a person saw three distinct unknown lights in the sky, it was an omen that three deaths should be expected soon. Though such superstitions are rarer today, the association between mysterious lights and ghosts or the supernatural lives on in folklore.

Fans explore and post videos of their experience, speculating endlessly about the light's origin. In the case of the Paulding Light, John Carlisle of The Detroit Free Press explains that a half-century old "legend says the light comes from the swaying lantern held by the ghost of a railroad brakeman who died when he was crushed as he tried to stop an oncoming train from hitting railcars stalled on the tracks.

This was logging country more than a century ago, and local residents say there were a number of railroads that ran through the forest and are now buried in the underbrush. Some believe it's the light of the train, which itself is now a ghost. Some claim it's the distraught spirit of a grandparent looking for a lost grandchild with a lantern that needs constant relighting, the reason the light seems to come and go."

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Other places with similar reports include the Brown Mountain Lights of North Carolina, Missouri's Ozark Spooklight, and the Marfa lights in Texas. There are many natural explanations for curious lights seen in the skies, and a single blanket explanation cannot account for them all. Instead, it depends on the specific circumstances of each location: some areas may contain groups of bioluminescent animals, including fireflies (which are in fact beetles); other locations may have types of fungus that emit light.

The phenomenon of St. Elmo's Fire -- glowing lights seen at the tops of ships and airplane wings -- can be created by an electrical discharge, especially during rough weather. Other explanations include aircraft lights, reflections from stars or planets distorted through layers of different temperatures and will-o-the-wisp, glowing swamp gas seen over marshes and wetland caused by the oxidation of decomposing organic matter.

The lights are only seen under certain conditions and circumstances. Many visitors wait in vain for hours and see nothing. Eyewitnesses to the same phenomena sometimes offer different descriptions of what they saw. Some are said to briefly flicker in place. Others are said to dance or shoot across the sky like a UFO. The lights are often faint and may be influenced by imagination and misperception -- if not liquor.

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Solving the Mystery

The distant lights' fickle nature make them difficult to fully investigate. Members of the show SyFy television show "Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files" tackled the Paulding Light case but failed to solve the mystery. Others, however, succeeded. As Carlisle noted, "a few years ago ... a group of engineering students from a nearby university conducted experiments at the viewing site and claimed to have solved the mystery once and for all, in a fairly unexciting way."

In 2010, a team from Michigan Tech led by electrical engineering student Jeremy Bos "brought a spectrograph and a telescope to the dead-end road, sent each other driving down the new highway while blinking their lights in a prearranged pattern, and recorded the results. Every time the light appeared, one look through the telescope showed what sure looked like the headlights of oncoming cars, which could be seen clearly through the lens, sometimes with the distinct outline of the car coming down the road, which is about 8 miles away. The group even shot a video through the telescope so others could see, and posted it online. The flickering, they said, was caused when cars went over a hill."

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Indeed, Bos analyzed local atmospheric patterns and found that "Heat rising off the pavement may sometimes contribute to the light's distortion... (and) an inversion layer in the line of sight between the road and the Paulding Light viewing spot may also create very stable air, which could account for the light's visibility about four and a half miles from US-45."

It's very difficult to conclusively rule out all the known sources of light which could be mistaken for spook lights -- automobile headlights, campfires, aircraft, cloud reflections of distant city or vehicle lights, insects, and so on -- and inevitably some reports will remain unexplained.

If you want to do your own spook lights investigation but don't have spectrographs and telescopes on hand like Bos and his team you could just begin hiking toward the source of the distant lights -- though perhaps drones would be more practical, especially over rough terrain. Scientific explanations are fine but at the end of the day, of course, it's more fun to imagine the distant glimmer is a ghostly railroad brakeman's phantom lantern than a headlight of a 2005 Honda.