Illuminating the Hornet Spooklight
Legend has it this ghost light has been spooking people in Missouri for hundreds of years.
It goes by many names: the Hollis Light, the Joplin Spook Light, the Ozark Spooklight, the Tri-State Spooklight, the Hornet Spooklight, or often just the Spooklight. It has as many spooky explanations as it has names: that it's the lantern of a miner of old searching for his lost family; that it's the spirits of forbidden lovers who plunged off a cliff; that it's the ghost of a murdered native American chief. Whatever it is, the Hornet Spooklight has been fascinating eyewitnesses for many, many years; and continues to be reported as unsolved or as confounding all efforts to identify it. Today we're going to shine the light of science on this wondrous apparition.
Hornet, Missouri is so small that it hasn't even had its own post office since 1902. It's an unincorporated community amid the beautiful green farmlands of western Missouri, not far from the state's meeting with Kansas and Oklahoma. It's only about eight miles from the city of Joplin — which is also known for the same Spooklight, and which is where you'll probably stay if you travel there to see the light. Chambers of commerce get plenty of mileage out of the Spooklight. It is not an insignificant draw for tourist traffic, and promoting it as an unsolved mystery is what seems to get the best traction.
The best place to see the Spooklight — and you can go there today and have a pretty decent chance of seeing it — is along a four-mile road called E 50 Road a bit west southwest of Hornet. It runs straight east and west. The road has two ominous nicknames: Spooklight Road and the Devil's Promenade. Publications you come across may give either or both place names, and now you know where to find them. Be on that road looking to the west — ideally atop one of its rises — between 10pm and midnight, and keep an eye out for a shimmering, hovering blob of white light straight over the end of the road.
You can find decent photographs and videos of it online. What you'll learn from these is that the lights always appears hovering at the horizon, and always to the west. This contradicts many claims floating around that people approached it, walked around it, had it floating about around their house, saw it flying overhead, or other things that surely would have been filmed if they were true. There is no evidence, other than dubious verbal anecdotes, that anyone has ever gotten up close to it or that it's ever been seen in any other direction. This fact gives us a starting to point to identify it.
The true cause of the Spooklight is disappointingly not supernatural. It is, in fact, one we've encountered multiple times before right here on Skeptoid. Way back in 2008, in episode #133, we covered the Min Min Light in Australia, which, after experimentation by a University of Queensland professor in 2003, was proven to be car headlights over the horizon. The geography in that part of the country causes warm air to be trapped close to the ground after nightfall, producing good conditions for a superior mirage that makes the headlights visible even though they are below the direct line of sight. (A superior mirage is one in which the refracted object appears higher than it actually is; thus the headlights could be seen hovering just above the horizon when in fact they are just below it.)
Even longer ago, back in 2007, we covered the Marfa Lights in Texas in episode #38. The explanation for these lights turned out to be less exotic. It was proven in 2004 by the Society of Physics Students at the University of Texas to be simply a direct line of sight view of car headlights on distant Highway 67. As with the Min Min Light, the country between the ideal sighting location for the Marfa Lights and the relevant stretch of Highway 67 is laced with shallow ravines, trapping warm air, and causing refraction of the lights. This makes them appear to shimmer and wobble.
In 2010, we talked about the Brown Mountain Lights in North Carolina in episode #226. There are a number of different light phenomena all reported as the Brown Mountain Lights, but one of the most famous — and most repeatable — was a distant train that had been making the same run each night since 1909. It was very far away, and as the horizon was usually obscured by haze, it appeared to be hovering in the air above Brown Mountain when viewed from an adjacent ridge top. No unusual refractions at all needed to be involved.
All of these ghost lights shared one more thing in common: they were accompanied by claims of reports from long before the invention of automobile headlights. Believers in a supernatural source for the lights always had a pass to dismiss the headlight findings, since the lights had been reported long before headlights existed — in some cases hundreds of years before. Except, they hadn't.
It's one thing to assert the existence of old reports, and even to publish modern articles citing them. One can even give names and dates and detailed retellings of the stories. But it turned out, after much exhaustive research by many, that not one of those stories had ever existed in print until well into the 1900s. That's not to accuse the modern authors of outright fabrication, although that undoubtedly happened in at least some of the cases; the stories could have been verbal anecdotes passed from person to person like a game of telephone. Regardless, the bottom line is that there is no defensible reason to suspect any of these lights were ever seen before headlights were around to make them.
The Hornet Spooklight is no different. Although even some of the local Native Americans insist that the sightings predated the automobile, it's an assertion that lacks any evidence, so it can't be used to prove anything. Most articles online repeat an often-claimed assertion that the first published account was in an 1881 report or pamphlet or article called The Ozark Spook Light but nobody has ever produced a copy of it. Journalist Paul W. Johns, in a series of articles for The Marshfield Mail newspaper, searched extensively for evidence that such a publication ever existed, but came up empty handed. Only one article gave a name for its supposed author — Foster Young — but Johns found no record of any such author either.
Johns went to great pains to find the earliest published accounts. Its very first mention in a book, so far as Johns or anyone else has been able to find, was in the 1947 book variously titled either Ozark Magic and Folklore or Ozark Superstitions by author Vance Randolph, who told exciting tales of witnessing the light himself. Johns found that no published accounts at all placed the existence of the Spooklight earlier than 1926. And as it turns out, 1926 plays an important role in the Spooklight's story — a seminal role, in fact. That's because 1926 is the year that the road we now know as Route 66 was built through the area. So you might ask what does Route 66 have to do with the Hornet Spooklight?
Thirteen miles due west of Hornet, and seventeen miles west southwest of Joplin, is the town of Quapaw, Oklahoma. To enter Quapaw from the south, take Route 66 due east. About half a mile south of town, Route 66 takes a big, wide, gradual turn to the left to enter the south end of town. As you round that long curve, your headlights will sweep past the distant towns of Hornet, Joplin, and others — every place that the Spooklight has been reported. Although the geography is mostly flat farmland between Quapaw and Hornet, there is a bit of low rolling country west of Hornet, and you would not typically have a direct line of sight to Quapaw or to Route 66.
Cutting north-south right between Quapaw and Hornet is the Spring River, which prevents Route 66 and Spooklight Road from being continuous with one another. They're on exactly the same line. Spooklight Road dead-ends before the river, and Route 66 makes that broad turn northward into Quapaw. Above the Spring River, the temperatures are colder at night than above the surrounding landscape. Given the right evening temperature conditions and the placement of the Spring River, a superior mirage — viewed from Spooklight Road looking toward the oncoming headlights on Route 66 — would make those distant headlights not only visible, but also seem to shimmer and move a bit.
This is not just conjecture; that distant headlights from that spot were the cause of the Hornet Spooklight has been tested and confirmed a number of times over the years — in fact, it's been known for a lot longer than the causes of both the Min Min and the Marfa lights. In 1936, a writer with the byline AB MacDonald wrote in the Kansas City Star that, in their opinion, the Spooklight was car headlights on Route 66; but no mechanism was proposed. It was 1945 when the idea of a superior mirage was first put forward, by a Dr. George W. Ward of the National Bureau of Standards and the Midwest Research Institute. He published his theory in a local paper, and the following year, an Army major named Thomas Sheard set out to confirm it. Sheard used an airplane to fly west from Spooklight Road, and found another road about 10 miles away that lined right up with it (his description indicates that it was probably Route 66, but no identification was given in his publication). He placed a car on that road after dark, and communicating with it by radio and with observers on Spooklight Road, had it flash its headlights. The observers confirmed that a Spooklight appeared and disappeared exactly as the car turned its headlights on and off, proving Dr. Ward's theory had been right on the money.
In 1955, eight young men from Kansas City did a thorough investigation of their own, using a 3-inch telescope to observe the light from Spooklight Road. They found that the light, under magnification, was not one but several lights, as many as seven. This makes sense, as there would usually be more than just one car approaching on Route 66. They went to that broad bend in the road south of Quapaw and used spotlights, flashbulbs, and fireworks to confirm telescopically that that particular location was the source of the light. Particularly interestingly, they also sent their guys out and took temperature readings all along that stretch between Spooklight Road and Quapaw. They confirmed the cool air around the Spring River relative to the warmer air above the surrounding land.
And then in 1965, Robert Gannon repeated the same experiment for a writeup in Popular Mechanics. A local who accompanied him said "I hear that if you look at it through binoculars, it sometimes seems to break up." This is consistent with cars constantly coming toward the vantage point, but sometimes breaking up, as there are often gaps between groups of cars.
We could go on all day, quite a few people have repeated the experiment; many have published, many more have not. It's a direct view of car headlights from Route 66 if you're on a rise on Spooklight Road; it's car headlights refracted into a superior mirage from that bend in the road if you're in Hornet, Joplin, or anywhere else in the region with a view through the trees. If I were to go there, I'd recommend we get there during the day and set up a pretty good telescope to look due west down the road, to make certain we were at a point where neither Route 66 nor any other distant roads could be seen. And then we'd wait. And it would be a wait well worthwhile: For the chances are that we'd see something that doesn't seem it should be possible: a hovering, shimmering ball of light where no Earthly light source could be visible. For it's the moments like these that make mysteries fun; all the more so when you know what you're seeing but your eyes and your brain can't seem to reconcile with one another. That, my friends, is why we love solving mysteries here on Skeptoid.
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