A Ghostly Glow in the Sky: What Are the Brown Mountain Lights?

    The unexplained lights have been fodder for many a strange story over the years.

    During the daylight hours, there is little that makes Brown Mountain stand out from the ridges and valleys that surround it. The ridge, situated near the town of Morganton in western North Carolina, is not especially tall or striking, yet it is home to one of the most famous unexplained phenomena in the United States. 

    For decades–or maybe even longer, depending upon who you ask–mysterious lights have appeared above Brown Mountain, baffling onlookers and resisting the explanations of even the most skeptical observers. Unlike many local legends and strange sights, the so-called “Brown Mountain Lights” are surprisingly reliable, showing up in the same approximate location so often that mile marker 310 on the Blue Ridge Parkway is also known as the Brown Mountain Light Overlook.

    Brown Mountain

    Photo Credit: Thomson20192 / Flickr

    Most witnesses describe the eerie phenomena in the same way. They are glowing orbs, reddish in color, and usually appear about the size of a basketball. The lights show up somewhere above the ridge, seeming to rise from the trees, and then hover in view for a time before disappearing and reappearing someplace else.

    How long the lights have been making their appearance above the mountain is up for some debate, but they have been a part of the local landscape since at least 1913, when they were mentioned in the pages of the Charlotte Daily Observer.

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    Of course, local legends account for the lights in a variety of ways. Some say they have been seen above Brown Mountain since the time before Europeans settled the area, and that the Cherokee attributed them to the spirits of women searching for men who had died in battle. Other stories link the lights to the disappearance and possible murder of a woman named Belinda in the 1850s. So the legend goes, the woman disappeared one day while in the Brown Mountain area. Locals suspected the woman's husband of murdering her. As searchers combed the woods of Brown Mountain, an eerie light appeared overhead. Those who witnessed it believed the flickering light was the woman's ghost, either returning to haunt her murderer or attempting to help searchers find her body. 

    Perhaps the most famous variation on the story of the Brown Mountain Lights, however, comes from a song of the same name. Country music singer Scott Wiseman penned the tune and first performed it with his wife Myrtle Eleanor Cooper. Together the pair took the stage as Lulu Belle and Scotty and performed throughout the the 1930s and 1940s, earning the nickname the Sweethearts of Country Music. The song speaks of "A strange ghostly light appears every night / Which no scientist or hunter can explain." The eerie glow "shines like the crown of an angel" above Brown Mountain, before fading from view "as the mists come and go."

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    According to North Carolina Ghost Stories, Wiseman grew up in a small town near the lights. His uncle, who took Wiseman hunting on Brown Mountain when he was young, would tell the story of the lights. The song was later covered by a variety of artists, from the Kingston Trio and Acoustic Syndicate, to Sonny James and Roy Orbison, among others.

    Because they are so unusually predictable, the Brown Mountain Lights have been heavily observed, photographed, researched, and studied over the years. Two studies were conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey–one in 1922 and one a few years earlier–while noted skeptics have gone to the mountain to observe the lights and attempt to explain them away.

    While less spectral justifications offered include the reflection of automobile headlights or train lights or the always-reliable “swamp gas” explanation, those who are, perhaps, a bit more credulous point out that there are no swamps in the area, and reports of the lights predate the widespread use of automobiles and persisted during a massive flood which shut down all electricity–as well as auto and railroad traffic–in the valley below the ridge. 

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    Other possible naturalistic explanations for the lights include an unusual electrostatic discharge generated by a slowly-moving geological fault line which runs beneath the mountain. Whatever the true nature of their origins, the Brown Mountain Lights remain a potent and compelling attraction, drawing in spectators every year who come just to see the mysterious and eerie light show.

    If you want to see the Brown Mountain Lights for yourself, there are a variety of places to view them from. Popular places to park and watch for the lights include the Blue Ridge Parkway between mile marker 301 and 310, as well as the Brown Mountain Overlook on Highway 181 and the peak of nearby Table Rock. If you’re planning a trip, locals say that the best time to see the lights is early on a dry, clear, and moonless night between September and November. 

    Photo Credit: Alchetron

    Featured photo: Alchetron; Additional photo: Thomson20192 / Flickr  

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