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The Brown Mountain Lights: Solved! (Again!)

Joe Nickell, PhD, a former private detective, did graduate work (both coursework and independent studies) in folklore. Among his many investigative books is The Science of Ghosts.

So-called “ghost lights” are reported at various sites worldwide, the term being applied to luminous phenomena that, many claim, defy explanation. However, Rosemary Ellen Guiley in her The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits (2000, 156), cautions: “Many reports of ghost lights can be explained naturally, such as car headlights or phosphorescences known as ignis fatuus” (literally “foolish fire,” e.g., combustion of marsh gas).1

Among the most famous ghost lights are the Marfa Lights, after a town in Texas, reported first by a settler in 1883 (Lindee 1992; Guiley 2000, 156); the Hornet or Ozark Spooklight, south of Joplin, Missouri; and the Brown Mountain Lights, near Morganton, North Carolina, reported since 1913 (Guiley 2000, 156–157; Corliss 1995, 71–72).

There are also ghost lights at sea— for example the Bay Chaleur Fireship, seen off the coast of New Brunswick, Canada, and attributed to the phenomenon of St. Elmo’s fire (Corliss 1995, 72–73).2 In 1999 at Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, I investigated the Teazer Light, another reputed phantom ship in flames. Although the rare light did not appear to me during a vigil, my research turned up an instance when the phenomenon proved to have been the moon, just coming over the horizon and being viewed through a bank of fog (Nickell 2001, 188–189).

Here is my report on the Brown Mountain mystery, based on lengthy research and two visits my wife, Diana, and I made to Brown Mountain in 2014 (the first, however, becoming a fiasco when the area was shrouded in fog!). (See figure 1.)

Evolution of the Lights

In investigating the Brown Mountain Lights, I discovered that the phenomena—plural—have evolved over time, along with explanations for it. I consider that there are three main historic periods or phases:

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