They arise from the earth and take flight through dark skies. Incandescent enigmas that tumble and twirl like sentient beings made of light. Some stay awhile, mesmerizing witnesses into shocked gasps and mumbled curses. Others dart back out of existence as quickly as they appear, leaving their startled observers to wonder what it was they just saw. Although they vary in size and color and frequency and duration, all are united by the uniquely mysterious origin of their existence. No one can say with certainty what they are. But all agree on one thing: Ghost lights are a trip.
Depending on who you talk to and where they’re from, the phenomenon of atmospheric ghost lights goes by about as many monikers as there are spoken legends and folkloric fables to explain them. They’ve been called spook lights, mystery lights, marsh lights, feu follets, swamp gas, ball lightning, will-o’-the-wisps, friar’s lanterns, and hinkypunks.
More often, the mythology behind these ghost lights is far more fascinating than any possible scientific explanations. And the stories, which are often passed on through word of mouth like some decades-long game of creepy telephone, show us just how much humanity still relies on old-school oral traditions.
The Ghost of Buck Hill Road
On a lonely road near Round Lake, Ontario, about two hours west of Ottawa, there walks a ghost. At least that’s how folklore describes the mysterious light sometimes seen moving parallel to and around the area of Buck Hill Road. According to the local legend, sometime during the 1930s, there lived a logger with his wife, daughter, and family dog. One night during a fierce storm, the logger went outside for an armload of firewood. When he returned, his daughter was gone, having disappeared into the blizzard in search of the dog. The logger raced into the snowstorm after his daughter with only a lantern to light his way. Sadly, the girl was gone, never to be seen again—but the logger, heartbroken and unwilling to accept the loss, never gave up looking…even after his own death. Nearly a hundred years later, he’s still out there searching, and the numerous sightings of a mysterious light seen moving alongside the road seems to present evidence of that.
Witnesses have reported unusual phenomena upon seeing the Buck Hill ghost light, including car engines dying, electrical consoles failing, and an eerie feeling of something “not being right.” The Buck Hill legend also incorporates a bonus ritual that’s not often associated with these types of ghost light appearances: the flashing of car headlights. Local word has it that to encourage the ghost light to show itself, visitors should flash their headlights three times. And if that doesn’t work, crying, “Daddy!” three times in imitation of a child’s voice should do the trick.
The St. Louis Ghost Train
The St. Louis Ghost Light—also known as the St. Louis Ghost Train—has been reported by residents of the village of St. Louis in Saskatchewan, Canada, for nearly 100 years. What makes this phenomenon a bit more unique than some is the fact that it’s been seen as two separate lights: one as the bright white light of an approaching train, and the other as a smaller reddish globe that appears to dance in front of it. This paragon of peculiarity is said to take place nightly atop a wooded patch of prairie scrub where the Canadian National Railway once cut through. Allegedly, this is the area where sometime in the 1920s, a brakeman was accidentally struck and beheaded when he climbed off the train to remove an obstruction on the tracks. The lights that now haunt this stretch of land are said to be that of the approaching train, and the lantern of the hapless railway worker as he either tries to stop the approaching train…or as he searches the brush for his head. Although it’s been suggested that the light is caused by distant car lights, the fact remains that the lights have been seen in that area since long before cars were commonly used in that area.
The Tlahuelpuchi of Mexican Folklore
Mexico is a country rich in history, and it certainly doesn’t lack for a diversity of terrifying myths and legends. One such mythological creature that dates as far back as the Aztec Empire is the Tlahuelpuchi, a spirit that takes the form of a woman, enjoys drinking blood, and even has psychic powers. This vampire/sorceress combo is a bruja, or witch, that can morph from human form to steam but is more commonly seen as lights that flit above the dark countryside on various errant errands. To this day, superstitious parents place scissors underneath their newborn babies’ cribs because it’s believed that tlatepuchis are repelled by metal.
The Min Min Light of Australia
Ghost lights aren’t just the province of small towns and villages in North America. Far and away in the great Australian Outback, scary things abound, both creepy-crawly and ethereal. One such frightening phenomenon that falls into the latter category is called the Min Min light, which was first documented in the 1838 book Six Months in South Australia but dates back before European colonization. Although the origin story of the Min Min light is murky, the name itself is thought to be derived from Australian Aboriginal language, and there’s mention of the light in early Aboriginal folklore. People who see the light most often describe it as fuzzy and circular, about a quarter the size of the full moon, dancing on the horizon in various colors that run the range from white to red, yellow, green, and sometimes blue. Although they’re mostly harmless, some tales exist of daring individuals (or maybe foolhardy is a better word?) who took up chase after the Min Min light and were never heard from again. Our recommendation is better safe than sorry.
The Aleya Ghost Lights
The marshes of West Bengal are said to be haunted by the ghosts of fishermen who met their untimely demise and have returned to warn the living—or lure them to their deaths—in the form of unexplained hovering lights and shadowy apparitions. Fishermen who have encountered the Aleya are said to experience confusion, lose their bearings, and even their lives if they fall under the spell of the lights and attempt to follow them. Still other stories say the Aleya ghost lights have been responsible for saving the lives of fishermen by warning them away from certain dangerous areas.
The Naga Fireballs
In Thailand along the Mekong River, crowds of thousands gather for the Phayanak Festival every October to witness the Naga fireballs—red-orange lights that appear to rocket up from the river and appear briefly in the sky before winking out. The festival is held every year toward the end of Buddhist Lent when Naga, a giant mythological river serpent, is said to deliver Buddha back to Earth, sending up balls of fire as it moves through the water. Because of the highly popular nature of the event, there’s no shortage of video footage of the Naga fireballs, nor is there any shortage of more mundane reasons for their existence.
Ghost lights have been attributed to everything from atmospheric disturbances to chemistry to ancient spirits. What is the truth? Listen to the Castle of Spirits Podcast episode 16 to hear Ghostkeepers Vince and Jane discuss their theories, ideas, and experiences with this enigmatic phenomenon.