Strange Lights Through Time

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For thousands of years, people have been seeing strange lights in the sky. One of the first such recorded sightings was by the Israelite prophet Ezekiel in the 6th Century BC:

And I saw, and behold a whirlwind came out of the north: and a great cloud, and a fire infolding it, and brightness was about it: and out of the midst thereof, that is, out of the midst of the fire, as it were the resemblance of amber.

Charles Fort, the legendary late 19th-early 20th century aggregator of bizarre unexplained phenomena, cites numerous reports of mystery lights in his 1919 compendium The Book of the Damned, including this mention of the so-called “false lights” repeatedly seen over Durham, England in the 1860s:

…there is something about lights that were seen against the sky, but as if not far above land, oftenest upon the coast of Durham. They were mistaken for beacons by sailors. Wreck after wreck occurred. Fishermen were often accused of displaying false lights and profiting by wreckage. The fishermen answered that only old vessels, worthless except for insurance, were so wrecked.

In 1866 (London Times, Jan. 9, 1866), popular excitement became intense. There was an investigation. One witness described the light that had deceived him as “considerably elevated above ground.” No conclusion was reached.

If only Google had existed in Fort’s time. Today, with a few keystrokes and clicks of the touchpad buttons, it’s possible to uncover mystery lights sightings all over the globe. In August 2009, for example, the Australian news web site PerthNow ran photos taken by a reader of strange lights that appeared over the city, and his account of the sighting:

The photograph, which shows a green saucer-like shape and a reddish light to the left, was taken looking east over the Perth Hills towards Kalamunda at about 7:45pm on Friday night.

The PerthNow reader, who gave us his name but did not want to be publicly identified fearing he could be ridiculed, said: “This is a genuine photo I took last night. It has not been tampered with in any way (apart from cropping and downsize to jpg).”

The photographer stresses that he did not believe he had photographed a UFO, but has no explanation for the coloured lights which appeared on the digital images. “I was photographing the moon and didn’t see the red and green lights until viewing the images on my computer.”

In December 2009, the British newpaper the Daily Mail reported a peculiar display of “spiral blue light” that startled residents of Norway.

The mystery began when a blue light seemed to soar up from behind a mountain in the north of the country. It stopped mid-air, then began to move in circles. Within seconds a giant spiral had covered the entire sky. Then a green-blue beam of light shot out from its centre – lasting for ten to 12 minutes before disappearing completely. Onlookers describing it as ‘like a big fireball that went around, with a great light around it’ and ‘a shooting star that spun around and around’.

Russian military officials probably disappointed UFO enthusiasts when they admitted, after initial denials, that a secret missile test gone awry had probably caused the weird display.

We have plenty of sightings here in the U.S., too. America’s mystery lights capital is Marfa, TX, where residents occasionally observe “ghost lights” on a stretch of highway east of the city.

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Some attribute the lights to UFO’s, secret chemicals left by the US Army, and spirits of Apache ancestors, while others believe that they are caused by a process called the piezoelectric effect, in which the expansion and contraction of rock formations puts pressure on quartz crystals and causes a buildup of electrical energy that occasionally is released as ball-lightning-type light. A 2005 University of Texas study offers a more mundane explanation: lights tracked by the researchers from May 11 to 13 of that year seemed to be attributable to automobile headlights travelling along U.S. Interstate 67 between Marfa and Presidio.

Paranatural: Mystery Lights” premieres Monday Feb. 1 at 9P et/pt.


  1. turbinedog
    March 2, 2010, 2:49 am

    Does anyone else think they can explain the Brown Mountain’s segment’s lights by the fact they left the other eyepiece of their repurposed night vision goggles uncovered? And incident light, such as from their walkie talkies entered, and hit the beam splitter, then came back down into the eyepeice the digital camera was using?

  2. TCRamblers
    March 2, 2010, 6:24 pm

    turbinedog: I don’t know…maybe the Princeton experts would have caught that…they examined the equipment fairly well. I recorded the show and will go back and check, but I remember seeing the other goggle eye piece as covered.
    Grew up in Western NC and always heard about the Brown Mountain lights and wanted to go see them, but no one else would go with me. Glad I got to see them, even through the TV. But one group should have been on the mountain itself to watch for the lights there.

  3. ChristopherMcCollum
    March 2, 2010, 10:15 pm

    Good catch, turbinedog. However, I can confirm that TCRamblers is correct in the assumption that the experts at Princeton did indeed check for that, as well as part of the film crew when we were at the lodge evaluating the recording. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time in the segment to show all the tests that were run.
    TCRamblers: It’s a bit of misnomer, because the Brown Mountain Lights are seen all over the area, and we were focusing on the Linville Gorge that evening of filming, so our viewing angles showed somewhere in the range of 2 square miles of forest. However, we have been camping in the area for years, so rest assured, we have done that. 😉

  4. Gary Shields
    March 3, 2010, 2:41 am

    Underground mineral deposits, such as copper, are not unknown out West. Large deposits of this ore, builds an electrical field of ions, and the electron flow can go from the ground up, or the air down, depending upon humidity, and salt in the air at the time.These ions can energize salts in the air burning lightening storms or they may be captured between the upper atmosphere and the earth surface like a capacitor with a charge in the middle of it, not knowing which way to go, to cancel itself out. It’s known as a positive ground. One minute the charge is less, then the next, more positive and notice, "The two balls collide in the air ?" They could repell each other, then they can’t and the next minute, poof, the ions dispurse, (The ions went positive with equal force to each other the repelled each other in equal directions, like the sun exploding. No more ions.

  5. KillerBean
    March 3, 2010, 4:54 pm

    I was wondering if there is any follow-up on that spectrometer experiment to see the composition of these lights. This should’ve been first thing to check. Helpful should be also using remotely operated model plains to fly cameras as some of these lights were stationary. I hope we see more on that topic later.

  6. ligegeorge
    March 7, 2010, 5:35 pm

    Several internet sites report the government has secret aircraft. One of these alleged craft (Lockheed TR-B) is said to be black and triangular shaped and can manipulate gravity. It is descibed as noiseless with 3 lights in corners. It seems to me that alot of people have pictures This craft and others is alledged to come from technology the government is keeping secret. The scientific community needs to pursue proving these craft exist. The global implications and knowledge have ability give hope to our world. Imagine clean energy, imagine air travel in mins. This new area of space travel and exploration would bring prosperity to all human kind.

  7. seeker314159
    June 5, 2010, 3:28 pm

    Maybe the Brown Mtn. lights, which were much more frequent many years ago, were/are caused by Townsend Glow phenomena due to the rising radon gas in the area. Usually the lights were seen after a good rain. The radon gas (or…special helium) would rise up through the ground, travel to the highest point nearby (most negative) and then dissipate. It’s less frequent now because back in the 1970s or so, there was a great deal of mining going on in that area, which held the highest deposits of high grade of "ore." Just ask the locals that used to feed the crews, they know. Any way, as mentioned above, the sightings are far less frequent now since there’s far less of a supply of the source of the Brown Mtn. lights. Hope this helps.

  8. doceddoh
    September 8, 2010, 2:13 pm

    I think Radon link must be a factor.Lights have been linked with earthquakes and radon output increased at this time. In the program there is a link with lightning.Electrical conduction radon emitting rock like granite was shown.A decay product of radon is boron 222 which has a half life consistent with duration of lights. The emission of alpha particles in this would cause local ionising effects and explains the death of bacteria. Is there a physicist about who can help take this hyothesis further?

  9. johnny
    south shields
    August 3, 2014, 10:11 am

    in 2011 i filmed and photographed the durham false lights. i was perhaps only a few hundred yards away from souter light house which was actually built because of all the ship wrecks blamed on the mysterious strobing luminosities.

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