Ghost Lights A.k.a. Will O The Wisp: A Worldwide Phenomenon

These days, when we talk about mysterious lights in the night, most people immediately think of UFOs.

However, there could also be another paranormal phenomenon at play:

Ghost lights.

The most common reports of UFOs describe them as objects or vessels that can fly at incredible speeds (when not hovering silently in the air).

In many cases, they leave witnesses with a distinct sense of an extraterrestrial presence.

Ghost lights, however, (as you might imagine) have a much more ghostly feeling to them.

While UFOs can often be seen far up in the sky, ghost lights usually stay closer to ground-level.

They are also said to be much smaller in size.

Much like UFOs, though, ghost lights have been reported throughout human history, all over the Earth.

Reported Habitats & Traits

Ghost lights are most often observed deep inside forests or in remote desert areas.

Other common places include graveyards, lakes, swamps, and marshes.

The mysterious lights have been spotted in many different countries and cultures.

While the theories of their origin differ depending on the region, their description remains about the same.

They are around the size of a basketball or softball, have varying colors (mostly white, yellow, or reddish), and seem to possess, or be controlled by, a consciousness.

More often than not, ghost lights are seen hovering just above the ground or a body of water.

The glowing orbs are also known to wander.

Sometimes, they move away when humans walk towards them.

Other times, they seem to follow a person who tries to leave them behind.

Ghost Lights In Europe

Ghost lights have been sighted for hundreds (if not thousands) of years in many different European countries like Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, and Latvia.

However, no country has a richer history of this mysterious phenomenon than the United Kingdom.

Throughout the isles, ghost lights are known by many different names:

  • Will-o’-the-wisp
  • Jack-o’-lantern
  • Jenny with the lantern
  • Peg-a-lantern
  • Hobby lantern
  • Friar’s lantern
  • Hinkypunk

Out of all of these, “will-o’-the-wisp” is the most commonly used (often referenced in fantasy books and games, such as the Elder Scrolls series).

The second-most popular term is “Jack-o’-lantern”, which gave rise to the iconic Halloween decoration we know today.

Origins & Behavior According To Folklore

Nearly all of the aforementioned names stem from the old belief that a magical being (often an impish elemental spirit or fairy) carried around a kind of lantern.

It was said that these entities made their lanterns shine brightly during the night to lure people into the woods.

When a curious person had been baited far enough, the spirit would blow out the light and watch the confused victim stumble around in the dark.

In other cases, however, the normally-mischievous beings would use their lights to guide lost children or elderly people back to their families.

Because of this, the UK’s folk had a rather mixed relationship with the will-o’-the-wisp.

Ghost Lights Throughout The World

While the UK has the richest folklore regarding ghost lights, the luminous orbs have also made their marks elsewhere on the Earth.


In Japan, they are most commonly referred to as “Hitodama” (meaning “human soul”).

These are said to be the spirits of dead people that appear to the living as balls of pure energy.

Folklore from the Okinawa region state that the lights often appear before births and after deaths.

Much like UK’s will-o’-the-wisp, Hitodama have also been known to lead people away from their homes and into forests or mountains.

This has allegedly led to deaths in some cases, which have given the lights a malevolent image among some families.


On the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent, the Bengali people have long known of ghost lights as “aleya”.

These are said to be the souls of dead fishermen that can sometimes be spotted over lakes, rivers, and marshes.

As with the Japanese and European accounts, the Bengali ghost lights have been known to be both mischievous and helpful.

Sometimes, they’ve hovered around a fisherman’s boat, causing fear and confusion.

Other times, they’ve aided someone by highlighting a plentiful fishing spot or a hazard that could lead to a damaged hull.


In Australia, ghost lights have long been observed as well— by both natives and settlers.

There, they’re known as Min Min lights — named after the small outback settlement where the first recorded sighting took place.

Australian accounts are often marked by the light approaching someone over and over again before finally disappearing completely.

Most of the time, they move at about walking speed, but have also been seen keeping up with cars.

According to the aborigines, sightings of the ghost lights have increased as more and more people settled in the country.

Ghost Lights In The USA: The Marfa Lights

The United States has also had its fair share of ghost light sightings — better known as “spook lights” in some states.

They are usually seen in rural areas — both in woodlands as well as desert landscapes.

The most famous place for sightings is located near the small town of Marfa in West Texas.

Due to their relatively-frequent showings in this area, these spook lights have been dubbed “the Marfa lights”.

The luminous anomalies were first documented in 1883.

A ranch hand by the name Robert Ellison reported seeing them late one evening when he was herding cattle.

According to him, people who had lived there previously said they’d seen the strange lights many times through the years.

They also noted that when they tried to get close to them, they would quickly vanish into thin air.

Marfa Lights In Modern Times

As the 1900s progressed and more people started moving into the area, rumors of the Marfa lights started spreading to other towns and states.

By the latter half of the century, thousands were coming to the small town each year to get a glimpse of the mysterious phenomenon.

The influx of visitors eventually became so great that the town made an annual event called “the Marfa Lights Festival”.

Locals started businesses revolving around the anomaly and a designated viewing area was set up at one of the hotspots.

Despite the eagerness of the tourists, however, the Marfa lights (like all ghost lights) were (and are) still a rare sight.

Common Descriptions

According to eyewitness accounts, the lights in Marfa look very similar, if not identical, to the spook lights reported elsewhere.

They are said to be luminous spheres about the size of basketballs or softballs.

Usually, they hover just above the ground, and disappear and reappear frequently.

Their colors range from a bright white or yellow to blue or orange.

Like other ghost lights, the Marfa lights tend to move (or fade) away when people try to get close to them.

Hunting The Marfa Lights

James Bunnell, a former NASA aerospace engineer who grew up near Marfa, is the most prolific researcher regarding the phenomenon.

After returning to the small Texan town in 2000, Bunnell caught a glimpse of a grand display of lights which he claimed had no rational explanation.

Using his background in science, he spent over a decade documenting nearly every light-based anomaly near Marfa.

As part of his efforts, he installed three automated monitoring stations with 9 cameras each.

This allowed him to capture any strange happenings from many different angles.

Based on Bunnell’s extensive investigation, most of what people reported as the Marfa lights could be explained by ordinary sources.

However, a small number of the lights, he states, “are truly mysterious and of completely unknown origin”.

His detailed research, including 34 first-hand accounts + 120 illustrations and photographs, is laid out in his book “Hunting Marfa Lights”.

What Are Ghost Lights?

Over the decades, many skeptics have attempted to rationalize all the ghost lights sightings from around the world.

Among the most popular explanations is the classic “swamp gas” — often invoked in UFO matters as well.

More specifically, it’s theorized that the luminous orbs are made by the oxidation of phosphine, methane, and diphosphane.

Most of mainstream science favor this theory since many ghost lights are seen among swamps and marshes where such compounds are common.

Missing Pieces

While it’s true that sightings are often reported in or around such areas, this explanation leaves several puzzle pieces untouched.

For example, swamp gas doesn’t produce the constant light intensity the will-o’-the-wisp is known to have.

The abilities of steadily hovering above the ground and moving around freely are not accounted for, either.

Additionally, as mentioned, ghost lights have been reported in dry, desert landscapes in countries like the United States and Australia.

Still, despite this completely different environment, the luminous orbs have more or less the same shapes, colors, and behaviors.

Attempted Recreations

Throughout the years, some scientists and skeptics have attempted to recreate the will-o’-the-wisp with different experiments.

Among the most notable is Alan Mills — a British geologist.

In 1980, he tried to reproduce the phenomenon inside a controlled environment using phosphine and natural gasses.

Despite his best efforts, though, he only accomplished making a short-lived green light that was followed by a pocket of hot air.

His experiment also produced a sizable smoke cloud, which is usually not reported in ghost light encounters.


Whether they’re elemental spirits, fairies, or something more acceptable by our modern sensibilities, ghost lights are still being reported all around the globe.

Should you find yourself in a remote desert or forest in the middle of the night, keep an eye out for a bright light in the distance.

If you fail to see any rational explanation, you may just have stumbled upon the legendary will-o’-the-wisp.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on reddit
Share on pinterest

Table of Contents