The Marfa Lights: A Real American Mystery

What is the cause of the mysterious ghost lights outside Marfa, Texas?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Paranormal

Skeptoid #38
April 11, 2007
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
 

Tonight we're going to zip up our windbreakers and camp out in our folding chairs, drinking coffee from a thermos, until the ghostly Marfa Lights make their appearance, hovering and wavering out in the field before us.

In 1957, a magazine article first reported the mysterious phenomenon of hovering balls of light bouncing around the night near Marfa, Texas. About ten miles east of Marfa, in an area called Mitchell Flat, the odd lights appear perhaps a couple dozen times per year. They're about the size of basketballs and appear to float about shoulder high. Sometimes several appear at once, wavering about, sometimes even merging together or moving about in a group, splitting apart, and behaving in a most remarkable fashion. They only appear at night, at any time of year and in any weather, and are usually white or yellow or orange. Sometimes red or blue are reported, but most are white.

One unique characteristic of the Marfa Lights is that they are actually there and can actually be observed; their existence is definitely not just a story. The city of Marfa has even erected a viewing platform, where hopeful light spotters can be found every night. You can actually go there, and if you're lucky or patient enough, you will actually see the Marfa Lights.

The default skeptical explanation which is readily put forth is that the Marfa Lights are simply car headlights, seen from a great distance and distorted by temperature gradients. Critics of this explanation quickly point out that the Marfa Lights have been reported for hundreds of years, since long before there were any car headlights around.

Well, apparently, the Marfa Lights have not been around all that long, after all. The earliest accounts come from a rancher named Robert Ellison in 1883. However, upon closer inspection, it appears that there is no actual record that Robert Ellison ever saw such a thing. There are reports from his descendants that Ellison said he saw lights, but there is no written record, not even when he wrote his memoirs about his life in the region in 1937. Curious that he would leave that out. Apparently, all evidence that the lights existed prior to the arrival of automobile highways in the region is purely anecdotal. Throughout history there have been hundreds and hundreds of reported "ghost lights" that probably never existed outside of the observers' whiskey-soaked imaginations. Those ghost lights that have become famous are those few that are observable today, such as the Marfa Lights, and almost all have multiple versions of illustrious histories invented for them. A similar phenomenon in Arkansas called the Gurdon Light is said to be the swinging lantern of a brakeman accidentally beheaded by a passing train. Not surprisingly, the exact same explanation is put forth for the Big Thicket Ghost Light in Bragg, Texas. These ghost lights can't all be headless brakemen, so it's conceivable that the folk explanation is not true in every case.

So what are these lights, you ask, and why can't someone run out there and track one down? There are two reasons why this is easier said than done. First, it's illegal. All the property in the area is privately owned, most of it by people who are tired of these tourists chasing around in the night, and do not welcome them. Second, the terrain is exceptionally difficult to traverse. However, hardy souls have made the attempt on numerous occasions. At least two television shows have done just this, and wisely staked out people in different locations in an effort to triangulate and precisely locate the lights. But, as luck would have it, these triangulation efforts have never been successful. The only thing conclusively demonstrated was that the lights are not where they appear to be. This has effectively put to bed other theories, such as the suggestion that piezoelectric effects from the quartz bedrock causes ball lightning. If ball lightning was floating around out there, searchers would be easily able to triangulate and close in on it.

Unfortunately for all of those like myself who love a good mystery, and contrary to what's printed in all the Marfa tourism brochures and on all the ghost light web sites, the Marfa Lights have been thoroughly and definitively explained. The same explanation most likely applies to many similar lights around the world. If you prefer a mystery and don't want to hear it, then turn off your iPod now. It's a spoiler, and like all spoilers, it's disappointing.

May I have the envelope, please? The winner is ... the car headlights combined with some fascinating atmospheric phenomena. In 2004, The University of Texas sent the Society of Physics Students, a highly respected professional association, to investigate the Marfa Lights. Their official report, available at spsnational.org, found conclusively that when the lights appeared, they were precisely correlated with car headlights on Highway 67. The lights were completely predictable and the phenomenon was fully repeatable, based on cars on the highway. Quite a few photographs have been taken of the lights at night, which when superimposed upon a photograph from the same camera location during the day, show Highway 67 in the extreme distance, precisely in the same place as the light in the night photograph. The strange movement of the lights is attributed to the magnifying or shimmering effect caused by a so-called Fata Morgana mirage, a type of superior mirage, in comparison to the more common inferior mirage. Superior mirages, where objects appear higher than their actual position, can make distant objects — even those below the horizon — appear to hover in the air. Inferior mirages, where objects appear below their actual position, can make objects up in the air, such as a patch of sky, appear below the horizon, like the proverbial lake in the desert. Anytime the temperature gradients are suitable, the Marfa Lights should appear and behave predictably. Other independent investigations have also found the same correlation with cars on nearby Highway 90.

There are still critics who do not accept what the investigations have revealed, in some cases because of the stories of reports that predated the highways. These critics are reminded that there is no record of Marfa Lights reports before the appearance of automobiles in the area. And anyway, a lantern or other light would be affected in exactly the same way as the car headlights are today.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Some reports talk of the lights hovering above a person, moving around them, or behaving in other ways inconsistent with the SPS explanation. The Marfa Lights have been photographed and videotaped exhaustively, but none of that evidence supports such reports. Many such reports are probably hoaxes, imagination, or exaggerated recollections. However, it is very difficult to judge the distance of a light source distorted by a Fata Morgana inversion layer. Many reports of people getting within a few meters of a Marfa Light are probably quite genuine: Every visible indication would be that the light appears to be hovering eerily just out of reach.

Considering the evidential consistency and comprehensiveness of the SPS investigation, and its numerous independent verifications, I see no reason to doubt that the mystery has been conclusively solved, and certainly see no need for bizarre and unprecedented alternative explanations like the piezoelectric lightning balls. I'm still a little worried about encountering a headless lantern-swinging brakeman in the dead of night, but that's only because I'm afraid he might want my head, Ichabod Crane style.

Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Brown, Alan. Haunted Places in the American South. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002. 40-44.

Smith, Julia Cauble. "Marfa Lights." Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association, 18 Jan. 2008. Web. 13 Oct. 2009. <http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/MM/lxm1.html>

Stolyarov, Alexander, Klenzing , Jeff, Roddy, Patrick, Heelis, R. A. "An Experimental Analysis of the Marfa Lights." Society of Physics Students. American Institute of Physics, 10 Dec. 2005. Web. 1 Mar. 2007. <http://www.spsnational.org/wormhole/utd_sps_report.pdf>

Thompson, Cecilia. History of Marfa and Presidio County, Texas: 1535-1946. Austin: Nortex Press, 1985. 197.

Treat, Wesley; Shades, Heather; Riggs, Rob. Wierd Texas. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2005. 68-72.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Marfa Lights: A Real American Mystery." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 11 Apr 2007. Web. 25 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4038>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 68 comments

Went to see the lights last night at the veiwing area. After some research before our trip we found out that the chances of seeing the lights are very slim. however we did and there were plenty to see in two totally different spots. For seeing these in person cant rule out the headlight theory. However if it is headlights causing this really cool light show it is truly a crazy way for lights to react. Hard for me to swallow that one. Regardless was a great experience.

Chad, Bastrop<tx Mar 11 2013
March 11, 2013 7:55am

its fake

Kim, Marfa
March 14, 2013 11:06am

In the Western Upper Peninsula of Michigan we have the Paulding Lights. (google it) If the U of Texas Society Physics Students had done the same experiment at Paulding, they would have reached the exact same conclusion.

A bunch of us proved it back in the 1960's. We even created them by using a pick-up with flashers as well as other normal vehicles. We communicated with those radio phones truckers used to have in those days - before cell phones.

One we found the spot on the road near a hilltop that caused them, we could create them at will. After doing it a half dozen times, it got boring, so we hit a bar in Watersmeet, MI a few miles away. Almost got in a brawl with the locals when we explained our findings. The Paulding lights apparently brought a few bucks in the local economy

T J Cor, Iron Mountain MI
April 14, 2013 8:08pm

If a couple of people were to place themselves about a mile or so apart with cell phones and compasses.Then when the lights appear measure the angles. By doing this, one could determin the orgin and\or if the angles run parallel, then it is definitely a mirage. Has any one done this?

Francis, Elkridge Md
May 5, 2013 10:11am

I grew up in Marfa back in the early 50's and played on the Army Air field. Later, as a Navy/CG pilot I became involved in a UFO crash (piloted by human beings). The USAF confined me (as they do all Coast Guard pilots involved with UFO sightings and crashes) in a room at Ellington AFB until I read all their confidential material on UFO's. Behold, the mystery lights of Marfa are/were continuously monitored and listed under "category 3" UFO's. I later confirmed what was stated in their material with the operations officer of the Air Base during WWII. Not only did these lights take off,fly, and land with Marfa Army bombers, Mr. Kahl presented me with WWII Army confidential documents on Marfa that stated so. Not one, but most of the bombers (not civilian or military fighters) were escorted by these lights as did the "foo-fighters" of WWII throughout Europe. There is far more to this mystery than we will ever know. One thing for sure, atmospheric phenomena cannot withstand the prop wash of a B-25 bomber nor can a car fly. I would think some of this information could be found in newspaper articles. No doubt the lights of today are a far cry from the lights of old. I can still remember playing in that old hangar and crashed bomber that lay just outside the hangar.

Kim Thornsburg, Victoria, TX
May 21, 2013 8:44pm

I buy the car light and superior mirage theory. In Cleveland, when the atmospheric conditions are just right, we can see the coast of Canada across Lake Erie. This is really cool because the Canadian coast is beyond the horizon, being around 50 miles away. At night when this phenomenom is occurring, we can actually see car and street lights from Canada. For info on the mirage that happened last April see http://www.newsnet5.com/dpp/weather/weather_news/Rare-weather-phenomenon-allows-northern-Ohioans-to-see-Canadian-shoreline.

Melissa, Cleveland,OH
May 23, 2013 7:37pm

not headlights from a car. Went to Marfa couple weeks ago and got to see a good show. It was proven that the lights existed and were very active in the late 1800's up to today. no cars back then fellas. better than the Marfa lights is the wonderful big sky with all the stars and being able to see the milky way.

Randy, Fort Worth, TX
September 30, 2013 9:22am

I'll put this plainly--the UT students weren't looking in the right place. I grew up in Marfa. Yes, if you look more to the SW from the viewing area (as the UT students did) you will most definitely see car lights in US 67. No question. They will appear and disappear and move up and down in elevation as they are hidden behind hills momentarily. They are definitely car lights. However, the REAL Marfa lights are due south of the viewing site, and there is no highway in that line of sight. To orient yourself correctly, find the blinking red light to the SW of the viewing site. That is a Big Bend Telephone tower on 169. Now, turn back to the east until that blinking light is no longer in your field of vision (even peripheral). This will eliminate HWY 67 from your field of vision completely (look at a map to visualize this). Now you should see two or three static lights on the horizon. Those are vapor lights from ranch houses. From that position, you will see Marfa lights on the horizon--if you're lucky. They will be any moving light other than those static lights. The UT group may be respectable physicists, but they should have asked where to look first. They did see car lights, but it's because they were looking at a highway.

Eric Pierce, Lubbock, TX
October 25, 2013 10:43am

The leading proponent of the Marfa Mystery Lights is a former NASA engineer whose scientific methods are a hoot! He seems to be unwilling to share the GPS coordinates for his camera location, a compass heading, or an azimuth. I was able to copy and enhance one of his photos to see that the source of the lights was clearly a vehicle traveling down a road, sometimes pointing directly toward the camera. If I knew where the camera was located I could pinpoint the car's route.

Based on my own research, I believe the source of the lights is Nopal Road and other unpaved roads to the south of the viewing area.

Part of the problem seems to be that many people doubt that headlights can be seen from 20 miles away. Those same people seem to be unable to provide any science to support that claim; maybe that's just one those things that we all "know."

The Marfa Lights are real but definitely not a mystery.

Larry Bullis, Phoenix, AZ
January 17, 2014 1:02am

This will not add much to the solving of the "mystery," but in the early 90s, my wife and I visited Marfa. This was long before the so-called scientific studies, so we had no pre-concieved notion about the lights. We stopped at the popular site for viewing. After very little time we saw lights. Some were easy to explain, some were not quite so easy. Looking back now, I think some of the moving lights may have been traffic in the mountains on Hwy 67. There were a couple of static lights. We could determine neither the distance nor the size, but because they were static, we thought we would check them out. We drove southward. After a long distance, we found the source. We felt kind of silly when we came to the entrance of a ranch with vapor lights as mentioned by Eric Pierce, above. Having said that, there were some moving lights that were not anywhere near the mountain roads.

Anyway, it was romantic and I would do it all over again - just for the stars in the clear sky.

Chic Matthews, Los Angeles, CA
February 2, 2014 2:45pm

Make a comment about this episode of Skeptoid (please try to keep it brief & to the point).

Post a reply

 

What's the most important thing about Skeptoid?

Support Skeptoid
 

Newest
Tube Amplifiers
Skeptoid #437, Oct 21 2014
Read | Listen (14:57 )
 
Ionithermie
Skeptoid #436, Oct 14 2014
Read | Listen (10:11)
 
The St. Clair Triangle UFO
Skeptoid #435, Oct 7 2014
Read | Listen (13:56)
 
The Braxton County Monster
Skeptoid #434, Sep 30 2014
Read | Listen (11:26)
 
The Water Woo of Masaru Emoto
Skeptoid #433, Sep 23 2014
Read | Listen (13:28)
 
Newest
#1 -
The JFK Assassination
Read | Listen
#2 -
Fukushima vs Chernobyl vs Three Mile Island
Read | Listen
#3 -
Read | Listen
#4 -
The Baldoon Mystery
Read | Listen
#5 -
Listeners Have Another Say
Read | Listen
#6 -
Who Discovered the New World?
Read | Listen
#7 -
Tube Amplifiers
Read | Listen
#8 -
6 Problems with Wind Turbine Syndrome
Read | Listen

Recent Comments...

[Valid RSS]

  Skeptoid PodcastSkeptoid on Facebook   Skeptoid on Twitter   Brian Dunning on Google+   Skeptoid on Stitcher   Skeptoid RSS

Members Portal

 
 


Follow @BrianDunning

Tweets about "skeptoid"

Support Skeptoid

Name/Nickname:  
City/Location:
Email: [Why do we need this?]To reduce spam, we email new faces a confirmation link you must click before your comment will appear.
Comment:
characters left. Abusive posts and spam will be deleted.