Legend tells how wandering spirits of the dead will appear as “ghost lights,” appearing in the atmosphere without plausible explanation. These lights are said to also be connected to the devil and fairies. One such example in folklore would be the will-o’-the-wisp, often appearing to travelers near swamps and bogs. Some even connect them with UFOs. While these lights are legend, however, one has been verified to actually “exist” — The Hornet Spooklight, appearing for over 100 years at the Devil’s Promenade on the border between Missouri and Oklahoma, west of the eponymous town of Hornet. But are spirits really at work around the Ozarks, or is there a far more mundane explanation?
The Spooklight, also known as the Joplin Spooklight or the Tri-State Spooklight, resembles a single ball of light or several lights grouped so closely together as to be almost indistinguishable. Described variously as green, orange, yellow, red, or even blue, the color fluctuates between accounts, with some saying that the light resembles that of a camping lantern as if held aloft by some unseen hand. Most observations of the light are from a distance; however, some claim to have witnessed it up close, while most agree that it travels away from those approaching and disappears if the observer tries to catch it. Early accounts say that local residents had seen lights over their land and in the woods, yet modern witnesses say the light appears along the four-mile gravel road, the Devil’s Promenade, always traveling east to west. The light almost always appears at night, with the best time being between 10pm and midnight.
Many legends tell of its “true” origin.
One such legend tells of how a miner returned home from a hard day’s work down the pit only to find his wife and children had been abducted by local Native American tribesmen. Grabbing his lantern, he went into the night to search for them, vowing to never stop his search until they were found. Another legend says that a local native princess fell in love with a man from Hornet. Her father, the tribal chief, refused to sanction the marriage. Instead, the two were forced to run away to the nearby Spring River. Pursued by braves, they took each other’s hand and leaped over a cliff, never to be seen again. Their spirits, however, still wander at night as the Hornet Spooklight.
Most oral accounts of the Spooklight agree that the mysterious light has appeared ever since the late 19th century, with one of the most infamous photographs of the phenomena being taken in the early 1900s. While it wouldn’t appear in newspapers until 1935, the first actual documented account of the light was in 1881, yet unconfirmed reports date back to 1866. Local folklore even connects the Spooklight with the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of 100,000 Native Americans between 1830 and 1850, naming the first sighting as having taken place in 1836.
The appearance of the Spooklight was confined to the local area in Missouri and only spread beyond after World War II when the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers studied the appearance of the light, being unable to come up with a satisfactory explanation, officially stating that the phenomena were of “unknown origin.” The mystery led to sightseers flocking to the area, roads near where the Spooklight was known to appear becoming packed with cars. Such was the popularity of the phenomena that numerous souvenir shops and even a “Spooklight Museum” popped up along the Missouri–Oklahoma state line.
The light really has no definitive answer, with the most common explanation being that simple car headlights are responsible. While this conflicts with many accounts, headlights have been observed moving similarly to the Spooklight when viewed over the hills around Interstate 44 and toward Route 66. This is the explanation favored by professor Allen Rice of the University of Central Oklahoma, who in 2014 undertook research into the claims. The professor and a team of researchers found that they could perfectly recreate the Spooklight using car headlights and taillights from a location south of Quapaw.
However, while this may explain most of the sightings, witnesses falling prey to the legends and perhaps seeing what they want to see, this fails to explain the accounts that predate the car, nor some in vastly different locations such as backyards or even passing through a vehicle. One answer that might offer an answer is swamp gas, one of the common explanations for the legend of the will-o’-the-wisp. However, there is no known ignition source, nor is the light affected by wind and rain. Another explanation is atmospheric electrical charges, the favored conclusion of an Arkansas professor who studied the phenomena in the 1960s. This hypothesis notes that shifting rocks deep below the planet’s surface can create an electrical charge and the entire area sits on a fault line that runs east from New Madrid, Missouri, toward Oklahoma. This line was responsible for four earthquakes in the eighteenth century, and these electrical charges are commonly associated with such quakes.
The possibility exists that the modern sightings of the Spooklight and the historical accounts differ, with those seeing the light in our own era are not seeing the same their ancestors did. The significant evidence that the sightings are mostly connected to headlights cannot be discounted, nor can the many historical examples. While horsemen and carriages would often carry lanterns, this again fails to account for many witnesses’ statements, leaving electrical charges possibly being the most likely answer. While imagination and folk tales might offer a more romantic answer that appeals to our sense of spirituality and innate curiosity toward a possible world beyond, the answer to the Spooklight seems more Prozac. As with many paranormal phenomena, tall tales and local gossip created an atmosphere where many witnesses were willing to suspend their own disbelief, seeing the normal as extraordinary.
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