MagazineJanuary 2013UFOs, Bigfoot, and the Brown Mountain Lights

UFOs, Bigfoot, and the Brown Mountain Lights

The paranormal is more than a Halloween prank to Josh Warren. It’s the final frontier of exploration.

“A lot of people get touched in this building. There’s lots of hair pulling,” Josh Warren says, addressing a group of 30 or so people, most of whom are probably hoping they get their hair pulled at some point tonight. We’re gathered in the bar/lobby of a mega-dance club on the edge of downtown Asheville looking for ghosts. Actually, it’s three different clubs in one massive building, originally built in 1924 as a YWCA. For a decade, the building was a school. Now, people dance here and occasionally see ghosts. We’re going to follow Warren through the building’s tunnels, basement, and closets with an arsenal of ghost-hunting meters in hopes of making contact with the spirits that supposedly still walk the dark halls. If you believe Warren’s over-arching theory about paranormal activity, we might be getting a peek into another dimension. Welcome to the new frontier of exploration. Asheville native Joshua Warren will be your guide.

Warren is decked out in black suit pants, dark purple shirt, and black vest. He has a gold Masonic ring on one hand and a deep voice made for radio. He just turned 36, but has been working in the paranormal field for 20 years, publishing his first book of scary stories at 14 and writing his first articles for the Asheville Citizen-Times at the age of 16. Later in the evening, a man old enough to be Warren’s father will approach him tentatively and gush about how Warren’s work has inspired him to become a ghost hunter himself. Warren is one of the leading paranormal investigators in the country. He has a radio show, a new mystery museum, more ghost tours than he can count, has authored 12 books, and is a regular talking head on news and cable programs concerned with things that go bump in the night. Now, Warren is getting his turn on the national stage as a key investigator on the Paranormal Papparazzi, a new Travel Channel show that sends Warren and his cohorts to all corners of the country to investigate paranormal claims. Warren looks for UFO’s in Texas, the Lizard Man in South Carolina, and digs into potential military conspiracies in North Carolina. Whether you believe in Bigfoot or not, you can’t deny the entertainment quality of the show, which is modeled after the fast-paced celebrity news show TMZ.

Tonight, a group of fans and amateur ghost hunters is following Warren through the ‘20s era building, crawling through tunnels, peeking into closets, and exploring a swanky penthouse apartment. Guests of the club have reported encounters with ghosts, from hair pulling to full-on apparitions. Legends of deaths surround the building and the original club owner’s ashes are on display in the penthouse apartment on the top floor. Creepy? How about this: there’s an empty indoor pool…in the basement. Tell me, how do you not see a ghost when you’re standing in the deep end of an indoor pool in the dark holding an EMF meter?

“I love haunted, creepy mansions. This place continues to amaze me,” Warren tells us while giving us a tour of the building, which feels a bit like a maze with small hallways and steep stairwells. We’re participating in one of the first paranormal investigations of this building. It’s the beginning of a year-long study Warren is hoping to undergo. His team has already gotten impressive results (a partial apparition, physical contact, meters showing strong electromagnetic fluctuations) in a short time. The group is excited as we crawl into an earthen tunnel near the building’s boiler room where one of Warren’s team experienced physical contact with a ghost on a previous night. But Warren didn’t make his name with just ghosts. If anything, the man is best known for his extensive study of the Brown Mountain Lights, a paranormal phenomenon that has baffled scientists in all fields for decades.

On the edge of Pisgah National Forest, at the base of North Carolina’s High Country, people have reported seeing bright, floating balls of light rising from the low-lying ridge of Brown Mountain. The Cherokee saw the lights well before Europeans showed up. Since settlement, thousands have witnessed the lights, which have been newspaper fodder since the early 1900s. The U.S. government has investigated the phenomenon at least three times since the 1920s. The Smithsonian Institute has even poked into the mystery behind the glowing orbs, but no institution has released a definitive explanation of the lights.

“Brown Mountain is the closest thing the Southern Appalachians has to the Bermuda Triangle,” Warren says. “Basically, all you have is a mountain in Pisgah where people see weird lights sometimes. But it has become a blank slate where every person can project his or her beliefs onto it. Ghosts, Native American legends, UFOs, conspiracy theories…whatever you’re into, you can find a theory for the Brown Mountain Lights. Even with scientists. Chemists think it’s gases, astronomers think it’s an optical illusion, physicists think it’s plasma. It’s a multi-faceted phantasmagoria of odd beliefs.”

Brown Mountain
Josh Warren (right) scans the Brown Mountain overlook for clues to the mysterious lights.

Some witnesses say the lights are prophetic and appear before significant events. Others insist the lights are conscious beings that can communicate. People have “lost time” while witnessing the lights. Warren spent 15 years studying the phenomenon, digging through the various legends, collecting first person accounts, and working with a variety of scientists in hopes of solving the mystery behind these floating balls of light. According to Warren, the mystery behind the Brown Mountain Lights isn’t paranormal at all. It’s natural.

“I think most of the lights are the product of a natural phenomenon similar to ball lightning being produced by geological conditions,” Warren says. “There’s a reason why it’s been a mystery for so long. These lights are the product of obscure variables that are tough to recreate and test scientifically.”

Brown Mountain is full of tunnels with rushing water. It’s also made of layers of quartz and magnetite and iron, which are known electrical conductors. According to Warren, if the weather patterns align (heavy rain, cold air) with the KP Index (a measurement of how disturbed the earth’s magnetic field is), and the amount of carbon in the air, the mountain becomes a big electrical capacitor as rushing water charges layers of the rock with electricity, releasing plasma balls similar to ball lightning. Warren was able to recreate the phenomenon in a lab, creating similar plasma balls by recreating the variables at Brown Mountain on a tiny scale. The experiment and his findings landed Warren on the cover of the science journal, Electric Space Craft Journal.

“I take a skeptical approach to my paranormal investigations, because if I don’t look over every detail before I present it to the public, I’ll look like an idiot. I’m always looking for holes and weaknesses. The paranormal is the last option I look at,” Warren says. “But, the scientific explanation of Brown Mountain’s lights doesn’t account for the strange stories surrounding those lights. We have to accept that we’ve only uncovered some of the beta. We don’t know the whole story of Brown Mountain. It begins with a natural phenomenon, but the effect begins to spin off in other directions. If you have that much energy concentrated in one place, maybe that allows people to see other dimensions?”

Which brings us to Bigfoot.

Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, has been spotted by hikers, bikers, truck drivers, farmers, and accountants all across the country, from the suburbs of Florida to the dank forests of Washington State. Every year, people spend thousands of dollars on equipment and countless hours in the field doing what they consider legitimate research in hopes of uncovering the physical evidence to support what they whole-heartedly believe–that there is a species of man-like apes lurking somewhere deep in the Great American Forest. Warren has a unique theory about the mythical man/beast.

“Here’s the Bigfoot conundrum,” Warren says. “Thousands of people have claimed they’ve seen Bigfoot, but there’s no physical evidence to prove an 800-pound ape is running around every state in the country. So everybody who says they’ve seen Bigfoot is either wrong, or lying. But they can’t all be full of it. I’ve talked with enough level-headed witnesses to know that many of these people believe they saw Bigfoot. They believe it and I believe them. I view Bigfoot not as a physical thing, but as an apparition, or an inter-dimensional experience.”

In other words, people are getting a glimpse at another world, parallel to our world.  It sounds like the stuff of Alice in Wonderland and, more recently, TV shows like Fringe. For some, the idea of a multi-dimensional universe, where other planes exist around us beyond our perception, can be tougher to swallow than the notion of a massive ape surviving for centuries in their backyard. But Warren’s notion of multiple dimensions is actually based on a popular theory in physics called string theory, which proposes our universe has 11 different dimensions, only four of which we can currently perceive–three spatial dimensions (like longitude, latitude, and elevation), and time.

According to Warren, a place like Brown Mountain, because of the tunnels of rushing water and quartzite, might act as a sort of paranormal portal enabling us to tap into these other dimensions.

“If a place is supercharged with electromagnetic energy, we may be able to glimpse these things that are outside of our own dimension. You get a glimpse of the other side, then it disappears. It’s frustrating for scientists because you can’t recreate the scenario. Science needs repeatability.”

Though Warren can’t test his notion of multiple dimensions (in his defense, string theory can’t yet be tested either), the investigator believes it might be the glue that holds all of the paranormal phenomena people experience in this world together. Ghosts, UFOs, cryptids like Bigfoot and Chupacabra…all glimpses at another dimension. It’s a unifying theory detailed in his latest book, The Secret Wisdom of Kukulkan.

There’s no mention of multiple dimensions as we explore a former dressing room on the third floor of the ancient YWCA. This is where the hair-pulling ghost supposedly hangs out. We set up laser-pointing light grids, and crank up EMF meters and EVP recorders. Some people have downloaded ghost-hunting apps for their iPhone. Strange things happen. Women in our group get groped inexplicably. Intense headaches come and go. But no one sees a ghost. Still, Warren is excited about the night, and the prospect of exploring the building further.

“The world is much more complex than we can grasp. How do you begin to address the most puzzling questions facing mankind?” Warren asks as we finish the YWCA investigation. “There are easier ways to make a living, but this is what excites me. It makes me feel alive to be on the edge of what we know and what we don’t know. It’s the explorer’s instinct. A lot of exploration has already been done. Not only have we been to the moon, I can look at your house from space while sitting at my computer. But this—ghosts and cryptids—this is the last great adventure.”

Four Paranormal Sites Worth Checking Out

1. Brown Mountain Lights 

Stories of the lights extend back to the Native Americans. They rise against the ridge and disappear into the night sky. You can see them today, particularly after a rain on a cold evening, from the Brown Mountain Overlook on NC Highway 181 outside of Morganton.

2. Judacalla Rock 

The largest petroglyph in North Carolina, Judacalla is a 16-foot by 11-foot soapstone boulder with markings unlike any other petroglyphs. The unique nature of the markings has baffled archeologists for decades. Archeologists estimate the petroglyphs predate the Cherokee Indians. Cherokee legend states the rock was created by a mythical giant that controlled the weather and jumped from mountain to mountain.


Sightings of a large bird-like man were reported over the course of a year in the mid-60s in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. The Mothman reportedly had 10-foot-long wings and glowing red eyes. The sightings stopped abruptly after the collapse of the Silver Bridge, which killed 46 people. However, several sightings have been reported in recent years. There’s also a statue in Point Pleasant.

4. Ringing Rocks Park

This is a boulder field high on a hill in Pennsylvania that contains thousands of large rocks that sound like bells when they’re struck. Scientists know the rocks are volcanic, but no one can explain why they ring like bells. Interestingly, Pennsylvania is one of the top 10 states for UFO sightings, according to the National UFO Reporting Center.

Places to Go, Things to See: