Ghost Lights or Natural Wonder? Exploring the Brown Mountain Lights

From the paranormal to the scientific and even the illegal, theories abound as to the source of North Carolina's Brown Mountain lights. Read on for the illuminating facts.

14 May 2024

In the secluded reaches of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, there have been sightings of mysterious lights for over a century. Known as the Brown Mountain lights, these eerie illuminations have drawn attention for their peculiar behaviour and sporadic appearances.

Explanations of the phenomenon have ranged from the scientific to the paranormal and extraterrestrial. Yet, without a definitive answer, the lights at Brown Mountain have taken on the status of being classed as ‘ghost lights’: in other words, unexplained illuminations.

So, are these North Carolina mountain lights a natural wonder, supernatural phenomena, or something else entirely? For instance, could the Brown Mountain UFO theories have merit? Join us as we cast light on the answers.

Brown Mountain Ghost Lights

Appalachian Mountains, North Carolina (Credit: Teresa Kopec via Getty Images)

Characterised by its rugged relief, Brown Mountain is an unassuming ridge in the foothills of the Appalachians. But it’s also the site of a phenomenon that’s been repeatedly reported since at least the beginning of the 20th century: the Brown Mountain ghost lights. Like other examples of ghost lights, the illuminations at Brown Mountain appear sporadically and seemingly without cause.

So, what do they look like? Well, descriptions of them have changed over time. Originally, they were seen wavering above the peak of the mountain before slowly dwindling away. By contrast, more recent accounts are of flickering lights under the tree line, akin to the scattered, erratic movements of handheld flashlights. What’s more, the lights have never been seen by people actually on Brown Mountain, but only from various vantage points around it.

History of the Brown Mountains Lights

US Geological Survey marker (Credit: powerofforever via Getty Images)

While records indicate that the Brown Mountain lights reports began near the turn of the 20th century, some say there are Cherokee legends of strange lights from as early as the 13th century. As it is told, these were woven into stories of these being the spectral torches of grieving wives forever seeking their fallen warrior husbands. However, there doesn’t seem to be evidence of such lore.

The documented history begins more concretely in a 1913 Charlotte Daily Observer article, detailing an enigmatic light that engaged a local fishing club with its mysterious appearances and disappearances. It also stated that the lights tended to manifest at 9:30pm or 10pm nearly every night.

Subsequent fascination led to increased public and scientific interest, prompting investigations by prominent institutions like the Smithsonian and the U.S. Weather Bureau, and no fewer than two explorations by the US Geological Survey in the early 20th century. With this growing interest, so grew the number of theories posited to explain the lights.

Debunked Theories

Artistic impression of copper moonshine stills (Credit: Daniel Eskridge via Getty Images)

The explanations proposed for the Brown Mountain lights vary widely. They have been likened to will-o’-the-wisp or the glowing decay of organic matter known as foxfire. However, these did not fully account for the observed behaviours of the lights.

Swamp Gas

One theory suggested that the lights were caused by swamp gas; however, this was quickly debunked due to the absence of nearby marshes and the inconsistent behaviour of marsh gases, which do not ignite spontaneously to produce such effects.

Moonshine Stills

Another explanation proposed that the lights were reflections from illicit moonshine stills hidden in the mountains. Yet, no evidence has substantiated this theory, and the logistics of such an operation on a large scale make it improbable.

Andes Light

The phenomenon known as Andes light, involving silent electrical discharges in mountainous regions, has also been considered. However, the geological and atmospheric conditions at Brown Mountain differ significantly from those in the Andes, making this comparison tenuous.

Brown Mountain UFO Theories

Illustration of a UFO over a mountain (Credit: ursatii via Getty Images)

Since the mid-20th century, there have been a number of Brown Mountain UFO theories circulated. These highlight the erratic movements and unexplained behaviours of the lights, which some claim indicate intelligent control, unlike any known natural phenomena. However, as with the natural theories, there’s no supporting evidence.

Electric Light at the End of the Tunnel

Locomotive headlights (Credit: Aschen via Getty Images)

According to Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one. In this case, such a theory was posited as early as 1913 and again in 1922, in each of the US Geological Surveys carried out at Brown Mountain. And that is that the lights at Brown Mountain, or a proportion of them, have man made origins.

Specifically, the 1913 report stated that they were those of a locomotive. Indeed, such a train had been regularly scheduled on the plains beyond the mountain since 1909, with a nearly nightly stop nearby at 9:53pm. And it was in this same year that locomotives began operating with powerful headlights.

For a time, this theory was dismissed, after critics pointed to a period in which trains were suspended and yet the Brown Mountains lights continued to be observed. However, this did not take into account automobile headlights. Indeed, cars were also on the rise in the period.

The 1922 report went into even more detail, summarising that, of the North Carolina mountain lights, around 47 percent were automobile headlights, 33 percent were locomotive headlights, 10 percent were caused by stationary lights, and 10 percent by brush fires.

Maintaining the Mystery

Brown Mountain, North Carolina (Credit: Brenda Y. Nichols via Getty Images)

And so, the Brown Mountain lights, though less mystifying under the scrutiny of science, remain a fascinating topic for both researchers and folklore enthusiasts alike. And there will always be those who prefer their mysteries to remain just that.


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