Imagine you’re hiking the mountain at night.
The beam of your cell phone flashlight guides the way. You’re looking for a clearing to set up camp when your phone dies, and so does your only source of comfort. In the darkness, you hold your hand out to steady yourself, but you can’t even see your arm outstretched in front of you. You hope to grab a nearby tree to reorient, but you’re too afraid of grabbing something else. It’s here where you see a light flash red in the trees some hundred yards away. You freeze. Is it a helpful camper making their way through the brush? Headlights from a road somewhere? Or something more sinister? You fumble for your back up flashlight from your backpack. It glows to life and you find you’re in the same place, nothing has changed, and there is no camper headed your way.
This is the mystery of the Brown Mountain lights.
They unquestionably exist, but what are they? Reports suggest that they come in all different sizes and colors from red to white, yellow to blue. They appear high over the mountain, never close enough to understand what they are. Randy Russell and Janet Barnett in their book Mountain Ghost Stories And Curious Tales of Western North Carolina say that “The first documented sighting of the lights was in 1771, when Gerard William de Brahm, a German engineer visiting the area, wrote that Brown mountain emitted a nitrous vapor which was borne by the wind.” The vapor, as he explains, would catch fire, thus creating the appearance of the lights. A theory that later went on to be proved wrong. Other theories, like swamp gas and St. Elmo’s fire, were tested but again failed to truly explain the lights.
Joe Nickell, in his article “The Brown Mountain Lights: Solved! (Again!),” writes, “In 1977, a visiting team of scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory aimed a distant arc light to a point west of Brown Mountain where observers waited. The blue-white beam appeared as an “orange-red orb apparently hovering several degrees above Brown Mountain’s crest.” The scientists concluded that most of the sightings were indeed refractions of lights in the distance.” Nickell also mentions that the lights could be campfires, headlights, airplanes, and distant town lights. What he doesn’t mention, however, is the existence of the lights before electricity.
Some Cherokee Indians claim the lights have existed way longer than we have recorded.
The lights, they say, are their dead ancestors looking for lost loved ones from a war that occurred on the mountain. Ghosts, it seems, are the most popular explanation for the lights. Other folktales include spurned lovers lighting lanterns in the night in search of their beaus.
The most famous ghost story is that of Belinda. As Russell and Barnett write, “Before the War between the States, mountain marriages were made when a man and a woman decided to live together. So it was that Belinda, still a teenager and expecting a baby, was married to Jim.” Jim, as the story goes, was abusive and an adulterer. On the day of his child’s birth, Belinda and the baby went missing, never to be seen again. When the townsfolk heard of the disappearance, they went to the woods to find her.
Instead, they found her bloodied bonnet. As night approached, strange lights appeared. The search party followed the lights to a pile of stones where they dug up two skulls; one of an adult and one of a baby. In those days, the people believed that when the skulls of the murdered were held over the head of the murderer, he could tell no lies. Jim, however, when he was held down and questioned, the skulls dangling above him from the accuser’s hands, did not speak, and was said to never speak again. The lights, they believed, were the lost spirits of Belinda and her baby. Today the ghosts still wander. The myriad of ghosts stories surrounding the Brown Mountain Lights are all wildly different.
The mystery of the lights hit its peak when Ralph Lael claimed they led him to a mummified alien.
As Greg Newkirk outlines in his article “Ralph Lael and the Alien Mummy: The Missing Extraterrestrial Artifact and the Brown Mountain Lights,” Lael came face to face with one of the alleged lights and followed it to a crystal cave. The light addressed Lael in a booming voice and told him the secret of humanity and the planet “Pewam,” but warned him never to reveal the location of the cave. They rewarded his silence with a trip to Venus where he was examined by the local aliens and even copulated with one of the Native women.
When he returned to earth he was given a mummified alien which went missing after his death and only exists in blurry photos. The detailed hoax can be chalked up to nothing more than a plea for attention, but has, nonetheless, created a cultural phenomenon. Many now believe the lights are UFOs or aliens visiting Earth.
Whether you believe in aliens or not, the story is exhilarating.
Some part of us wants to believe it even if we consciously know it’s ridiculous. While ghosts and aliens seem like a bizarre conclusion to make, the less known explanation is that they’re actually fairies. Specifically a Will-o-the-wisp, which Deborah Byrd in her article “Ghost Lights: Believe if you Dare,” she describes as “a distantly viewed lantern or torch carried by a fairy or other mischievous spirit. These ghostly lights were said to recede if travelers approached them, so that the bone-tired wayfarers were drawn farther and farther into the bog.”
Her description is eerily familiar to the behaviors of the Brown Mountain lights. No one seems to be able to get close to them. Like Lael, all we can do is imagine what would happen if we were able to chase down one of these lights. Would they lead us to the mysteries of the forest or, perhaps, to our doom?
The lights, supernatural or not, continue to fascinate because we can play with our explanations for them. Our theories go from simple fun, like perhaps giant fireflies, to creepy like the ghosts stories of missing men and women.
More likely than not, the lights are refractions, headlights, or, at their strangest, ball lightning, but what makes them so fantastic is the lore behind them. Collective mystification is a phenomenon we rarely want explained away. Such is the case with the Brown Mountain lights. While many will claim there are no scientific explanations for the lights, the reality is that there are many. And so the question remains: what is the truth?