An odd phenomenon occasionally seen in the Ozarks is the “spook light,” also known as ghost lights, foxfire, will-o-the-wisp, etc. Spook lights were sometimes seen around cemeteries, sometimes in the woods, and according to legend, those who followed such lights would often never return. There were other legends about them as well, for example, that they indicate the presence of buried treasure. Bram Stoker, in his classic novel Dracula, mentions the belief that blue, flickering lights are found at buried treasure sites. Stoker was an Irishman, and many of the legends of the will-o-the-wisp are Celtic in origin. Most of the original settlers of the Ozarks were of Scottish and/or Irish descent, and brought many of their beliefs with them from the Old Country.
Probably the best-known ghost light can still be seen between Joplin and Seneca, Missouri, the so-called Hornet Ghost Light. Seen since 1886, it is supposedly the lantern of a miner who disappeared in the area. It has been seen by thousands of people through the years. Viewers have described it as being the size of an egg up to the size of a washtub, its color as being red, green, blue, or even purple. Researchers have attributed it to the light of an airport (Quapaw Airport), car headlights, and even geological disturbances. Vance Randolph, the Ozarks folklorist, relates seeing it in his book Ozark Magic and Folklore, and further tells of people claiming to have been close enough to it to feel heat and to have seen it leap over cars that were driven up to it. He also says that “old-timers” talk of having seen the light prior to the invention of the automobile, and the belief that the light is the ghost of a murdered Osage Chief or a Quapaw maiden who drowned herself. The light can still be seen today, weather permitting.
Ozarks inhabitants have often spoken of “spook lights,” “ghost lights” or “graveyard lights” for generations, and many towns have local legends about them, i.e., lights seen in cemeteries. Randolph tells of stories of lights seen near “a little buryin’ ground” between Spokane and Walnut Shade in Taney County. It was described as “bluish” and “moving about as fast as a man walking.” He also quotes from a letter written by a minister in Hartville, MO, telling of a light seen at 4:15 p.m., Dec. 23, 1925, in Little Creek cemetery. The light was described as “a pillar of fire, about ten feet high with a flaming star at the tip of it,” and which appeared four times. I believe that this more properly describes the will-o-the-wisp. Those who have studied this phenomenon believe that will-o-the-wisps are caused by spontaneous combustion of methane produced by decaying vegetable or animal matter (“swamp gas”), although exactly how this happens is still unknown. Another possible explanation has to do with the element Phosphorus, found in bodies. Discovered in 1669, it was observed to glow (the name “phosphorus” means bringer of light). It has been theorized that phosphorus escaping from graves may have glowed or phosphoresced while seeping out.
People walking through the Ozarks at night have often told of seeing a dim light or glow away in the woods. Those brave enough to walk up to it found that it came from a decaying tree limb or stump. This is caused by a variety of the amillaria fungus, which sometimes glows in the dark, and is usually identified as the source of “foxfire.”
I grew up in Crane, a small town in Stone County, Missouri. My grandparents lived near the railroad tracks of the Missouri Pacific Line, close to an area called the “Cut” where the track cut through hills creating bluffs. As a child, this was a fascinating place to play and explore but a scary place to go at night. Crane Creek is fairly close, also, running under an old timber railroad bridge. I was told that near this lies an old cemetery, so old that the headstones can no longer be found and that occasionally one could see ghost lights moving around at night. These, naturally, were supposed to be ghosts or “haints.” My family’s involvement with ghost lights began before I was born. My grandfather and my uncle were out walking, at night, in the area of the Cut when they saw what was described as a light “about the size of a railroad lantern or a man’s head,” floating in the air about ten feet high. They decided to follow it. It led them into the Cut. My uncle circled around to the other side of the Cut, at which point they entered to trap whatever it was between them. It floated eerily through the middle of the Cut, maintaining its height, then disappeared as they came up to it. It should be mentioned that my grandfather was a section hand for MOPAC and thus would have been aware of any railroad maintenance work being done. My grandmother recently told me that two boys at one time had rigged a rope in the Cut and pulled a lantern back and forth, at night, as a prank. However, my uncle and grandfather knew of the prank; this was not it.
Most people nowadays have never seen a will-o-the-wisp, or at least I’ve met few who admit seeing one. I’m luckier than most in that respect: I’ve seen one. It occurred when I was in my early teens, around 1963. I was spending the night at my grandmother’s sleeping in a back bedroom. It was a warm summer night and I was lying awake, thinking. Suddenly I heard a buzzing or humming noise and glanced out of the open window. I saw a weird blue light, about the size of a golf ball. It was very pretty in an eerie sort of way, but I wasn’t frightened. It was level with or higher than the window, which was about 15 feet off the ground. It moved slowly upward, over the roof ledge and out of sight.
I may very well have seen some sort of spontaneous combustion
of “swamp gas” or whatever, but I’m not sure I like that sort of scientific,
rational explanation for every mysterious event. I rather prefer
to think that I saw a candle of some sort held by a wandering spirit.
Perhaps at some time in the future I will again see “spook lights.”
© 2004 John Harris All Rights Reserved