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Appalachia's ghost lights

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

Mysterious floating lights have been seen on Brown Mountain, North Carolina, for centuries and have yet to be explained.


Brown Mountain Overlook is located in Morganton, N.C. and has a famous mystery behind it. On random nights, floating ghost lights can be seen from different locations overlooking Brown Mountain. These lights date back over a hundred years with some of the earliest reports of seeing these lights coming from Cherokee Indians, settlers and Civil War soldiers.


These lights appear in different forms with some saying they look similar to fireworks, while others say they are floating orbs. Despite the form they appear in, there seems to be no explanation. For some, something supernatural is the most likely cause.


“There are many sayings on what it could be but the best that I heard was when the old timers used to say that it was a slave looking for their master carrying a lantern," witness Johnny W. Ollis said. "Some say that it is gas vapors rising from the mountain. As for me, I believe in the supernatural so I believe that it could be the tortured souls of slaves that passed and are looking for freedom from their pain."


Ollis grew up in Jonas Ridge, N.C. which is only five miles from the Brown Mountain Overlook. He said he has been to the overlook countless times and has only seen the lights a few times. He describes what he saw for the first time as a ball of fire.

“When coming home one night from my grandmother's house in Morganton, N.C., there was what looked like a ball with fire coming out of both ends," said Ollis. Since that time, we have seen several smaller lights floating on the side of the mountain."


In the early 20th century, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) ran investigations to see what was causing the lights. USGS determined that the lights were likely being caused by train headlights or city lights. The railroad was eventually washed out and the lights continued to be seen. One witness, Johnny Poore, says he is not sure what he saw.


“When we went, we were really young, and daddy told us about a slave walking through the woods looking for his master," said Poore. "The lights moved and sort of looked like someone carrying a lantern. I’ve been there in the daytime and there's nothing, it was definitely not a person. I honestly don’t know what it was.”

Poore says the experience was very strange and he has no explanation as to what the lights could have been. Many who have seen the lights cannot explain what they see. Since sightings are not very common and are very random, it is hard to study and capture these strange lights.


Dan Caton, a professor of Physics and Astronomy at Appalachian State University, has studied these lights for over 20 years. He said it is very hard to capture and study the lights because they are so unpredictable.

Caton set up cameras to try to see the lights, but it was not easy to distinguish. The lights are very unpredictable and random. He said the individual close-up reports are the most interesting.


“There are some people who are seeing some interesting things that we just don’t know what they are,” Caton said.


While there are people who see unexplainable things on Brown Mountain, Caton said most of the lights that people see are manmade. Many people are not familiar with lights in the night sky and are mistaking something simple for the mystery lights. He said ball lightning could be a cause, although ball lightning itself is hard to explain.


“I was looking around and suddenly, about pretty high in the sky more than halfway up a really bright, starlike light," said Caton. "It was the only thing in the sky at the moment. It didn’t have any motion, it just reached brightness for several seconds and then went away. Now was that a light? I don't know."


Reports of strange lights continue and explanations, scientific and paranormal, continue to grow. While sightings of recurring strange lights are not unique to the area, they do spark interest in the mountains. There may never be a true explanation for what people are seeing on the mountain. These famous mystery lights will always be a part of the area and continue to fascinate those who see them.

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