Left: Image on U. S. Park Service sign at one of the viewing points of the Brown Mountain Lights on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Center: Two of the Brown Mountain light manifestations videotaped by Greg Little. Right: Dr. Greg Little. All text and images © by G. Little.
The Brown Mountain, NC Lights Videotaped: A Field Observation—July 2003
By Dr. Greg Little
Since I became aware of their existence in the mid-1970s, the Brown Mountain lights have held a fascination for me. They have been cited in UFO literature as a manifestation of flying saucers as well as in skeptical publications citing them as much ado about nothing. The lights are so well known that an X-Files episode was done on them. Despite being near them numerous times, I never managed any attempts to view them until July 2003. And the attempt was successful. I managed to shoot about 6 minutes of digital video of several dozen lights manifesting over the top of Brown Mountain. Two frames of the video are reproduced for this article, but the quality is nowhere near the quality of the film when shown on a TV. Lora Little will show the entire film at the A.R.E.’s Ancient Mysteries conference in October.
Brown Mountain is located on the lower end of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, about 10 miles north of Morganton. The mountain forms a U-shape with a high peak on one end standing at about 2600 feet. The lights are reported to often appear at dusk and peak in frequency during the first two hours of darkness. They have sometimes been seen throughout entire nights. Yet they are elusive and long periods have gone by when the lights make no appearances. In an important 1984 article in INFO Journal, Michael Frizzell reported that the genuine appearances of the lights are rare.
There are numerous good viewing locations of the phenomenon, but only three of these are easily accessible to the public. The different viewpoints create quite different perceptions of the lights. From one vantage point, the lights form inside the U-shaped mountain ridge and gradually float to the top of the mountain. They then seem to hover, pulsate, and change color before gradually disappearing. The number of lights varies between one to literally hundreds at a time. From the other vantage points, only the top of the long mountain ridge is visible. From these views, the lights seem to appear on the top edge of the ridge and then slowly move upward and hover. They pulsate, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes change colors, blink on and off, and typically last several minutes before disappearing. After a few minutes, the same sequence of events occurs again.
History of the Lights
There are countless articles and reports on the lights but they give different and occasionally conflicting information on the history of phenomenon. Many of these articles state authoritatively that the lights were first seen on one date or another. These dates vary greatly.
In July 2003 we visited the Morganton public library and examined an extensive file of articles on the lights. The earliest newspaper article in the files was from The News Herald (April 27, 1916). Ten men, including a doctor, minister, and several college professors, set up five different camps as lookout points on April 11, 1916. Four distinct and different appearances by the lights were made during the night. They described multiple globes of light forming inside the U-shaped mountain, which gradually floated to the top of the mountain ridges while slowly moving back and forth in ravines.
An article from The State (4/23/55) cited the first newspaper account as appearing in the Charlotte Observer in 1913. But the Summer 1972 issue of New Horizons cites the first written reports as appearing around 1850. A July 2, 2001 article in the Morganton newspaper seems to have run down the first known written source: an obscure 1771 journal written by a German engineer who studied the lights.
Despite the controversy over who is credited with the first written account of the lights, the history of the phenomenon goes back much further in time. The Cherokee and Catawaba tribes inhabited the area in remote times, and a legend survives in their lore to explain their observations of the lights (cited in The News Herald, 7/30/62). According to this legend, sometime around the year 1200 a massive and bloody battle was fought on Brown Mountain between these two tribes. The lights that were frequently observed moving around the mountain were the ghosts of Indian maidens looking for their lost warriors.
Our July 2003 Sightings
On July 13, 2003 Greg and Lora Little, accompanied by John and Doris Van Auken, checked into a motel at Morganton with the intention of making an attempt to view the lights. That afternoon, we drove to the Brown Mountain viewing points to determine the best position for later that evening. A husband/wife couple was serendipitously at the first lookout viewing the mountain ridge with binoculars. A conversation with them revealed that they had seen the lights many times from this point and that the best time to see them was between 9:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. They reported that they had seen “thousands of lights on their last trip to the mountain,” about a year ago.
We then went to a second lookout on the Blue Ridge Parkway and saw an informational sign on the lights erected by the U.S. Park Service. We decided to return to the initial location at about 9:15 p.m. and then proceeded to a restaurant. For the next hour and a half we sat in the restaurant and watched as a violent and torrential thundershower roared through Morganton. It seemed that an excursion to the mountain would be impossible. Later we slowly drove the 10 winding miles back up to the observation point through a dense fog, which seemed to tell us that the trip would be fruitless. But when we arrived at the lookout at 9:20 p.m. it was clear. The rain had stopped and no lightning was seen. The sky was completely overcast in dense clouds and we could discern the long ridge of one side of Brown Mountain. A dense fog could be seen at the base of the ridge, but the rest of the mountain was clearly visible.
The Lights Are Videotaped
Almost immediately we began to see faint lights pulsating on the top edge of the ridge, standing 3.5 miles in the distance. A tower, blinking a red light, could be seen much further in the distance on a high peak behind the Brown Mountain ridge. All of us could see many small white lights blinking on the top ridge of the mountain, but what we were seeing wasn’t completely clear and our group of four was spread out over about 60 yards. Because trees and brush have grown along the once-cleared lookout point, I carefully stood on top of a guardrail elevated about three feet off the ground. A digital video camera on a tripod was partially stabilized by placing two of the three legs of the tripod on the top edges of the guardrail. The camera was put into a “Nightvision” mode and a 20x true telephoto was employed. What appeared in the viewfinder was astonishing.
The video with the telephoto lens brought the dim light movements and pulsations to life. About 6 minutes of video was shot of literally dozens of lights. They all first appeared as faint globes of white light on the top edge of the ridge. Initially, one or two could be seen, then perhaps a dozen. Then it was about 30-40 and many of them appeared to move slightly above the distant ridge. Then they would shine brighter and pulsate, occasionally changing in color from white, to red, to green. At times the entire ridge, miles in extent, was teeming with points of lights. Other descriptions of the lights have stated that they look like a city, and that certainly is an accurate statement. Some of the lights would slowly move upward and then gradually fade. Occasionally, all that could be seen was a single white light that would pulse at irregular intervals from a dim glow to a bright flash. After a few moments, another formation of lights appeared over the entire mountain’s miles-long ridge and then repeated the pulsing sequence until they dimmed and faded out. Then it all occurred again. After 6 minutes it seemed to be over. We quickly drove to the Blue Ridge Parkway viewing site, but the mountain was completely enshrouded in fog. Returning to the original site, it was too late. This vantage point was also covered by fog.
Reviewing The Video
Upon our return to Memphis I loaded the video footage into a computer movie program. The two images accompanying this article come from single frames from the computer-loaded footage. But they do not truly depict the 6-minute display. Viewing the footage on a television clearly produced the best results as it looked exactly like the image had on the small LCD screen on the camera while I videotaped the event. Unfortunately the Nightvision mode on the camera makes the recorded footage appear only in black and white. But we saw only 3-4 of the lights actually change colors.
The film was so “spectacular” that it left no doubt that we had observed something impressive. It did look like a city and I had some nagging doubts because it simply seemed too easy. I knew that others had tried and failed to see the lights after many years of frequent observation. But after reviewing photos in several articles previously published about the lights (Argosy, December 1968; The Oak Ridger, 5/29/78) it was more than obvious that what we had videotaped was exactly what others had photographed.
Explanations of the Lights
Many interested individuals, scientific groups, scientists, and universities have attempted to explain the ongoing phenomenon. All of their explanations fail to account for one aspect or another of the lights. A 1922 study by Georgia Tech made the most frequently made conclusion. The lights, their report summarized, defy simple explanations.
A 1913 study by the U.S. Geological Survey appears to have been the first “official” attempt to explain the lights. The study concluded that the lights were reflections of a train locomotive light as it moved along rails. But the supervising geologist neglected an important fact. A flood that occurred the prior year had washed away the rails of the track and rebuilding had not been completed. No trains were running when he studied the lights. His report became a laughingstock not only because there was no train headlight at the time, but because he failed to explain how the headlight reflected into dozens of lights spread over tens of miles and that the lights had been seen long before trains existed.
Others have concluded that the lights are “Andes Lights.” These are flashes of lightning observed discharging from clouds to the peaks of the Andes Mountains. Yet the Brown Mountain lights in no way resemble lightning. A host of other improbable and discredited explanations have also been offered by scientists. These include radioactivity (a theory now completely discredited), Foxfire (a dim light that can sometimes be seen on decaying wood), St. Elmo’s Fire (a glowing discharge of electricity usually observed on a ship’s mast), chemical reactions (including a reaction between hydrogen sulfide and lead oxide), and swamp gas (brief fires usually caused by methane gas discharges).
The current explanation favored by skeptical scientists is that the lights are refractions caused by the mixing of warm and cold air in the valley formed by the U-shaped mountain. According to this idea, lights from towns and cities at great distances from Brown Mountain are somehow refracted through a swirling mass of air. But this explanation simply ignores the long-term history of the lights when no electricity was present.
The most recent skeptic to authoritatively “explain” the lights away was by Don Caton, a physics and astronomy professor at Appalachian State University. Caton has vowed to debunk the lights and other popular myths. In a May 20, 2002 article in the Winston-Salem Journal, Caton stated he was seeking to teach students how to distinguish between science and pseudo-science. He asserts that about “90 percent of the strange light sightings can be attributed to man-made sources. Maybe 10 percent of it is interesting science such as atmospheric optics playing tricks.”
According to Caton, he is certain that the 10 percent of the lights that are “interesting science” are caused by reflections of stars around Brown Mountain. He and his group have made numerous trips to observe the lights at Brown Mountain, but they had yet to see them a single time. Perhaps the lights are telling him something.
Are They Earthlights?
Two of my previous books (People of the Web and Grand Illusions) partially concerned a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “earthquake lights” or “earthlights.” Scientific teams studying fault lines and areas of varying amounts of seismic pressure have photographed these discharges of luminous balls of light. The lights that spontaneously appear from fault lines have been photographed from satellites, cameras set up at intervals along fault lines, and even within volcanoes. A series of appearances by similar formations were extensively studied at Toppenish Ridge on the Yakima Reservation in Washington in the late 1970s by Greg Long. The lights at Yakima were videotaped and triangulated by several teams organized by Long, including participation by the U.S. Forest Service. The lights were discovered to be emerging and following some of Toppenish Ridge’s fault lines—nearly 100 of which are easily visible. After the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, the Yakima lights all but disappeared. This is an interesting clue to the phenomenon.
The exact source of earthlights is unknown, but many scientists believe that it may be caused by piezoelectricity: the creation of an electrical current when a crystal (or any crystalline rock for that matter) is put under pressure. The idea is that as seismic pressure builds in massive rock plates, massive electrical charges are created. These charges follow the path of least resistance eventually emerging on the surface where they form a plasma—a charged, glowing ball of particles suspended in the air. The Canadian neuropsychologist Michael Persinger has been studying the phenomenon for decades and, along with a U.S. Geological Survey geologist, has reproduced the effect in labs.
Persinger’s primary interest has been in the nearly unbelievable effects the plasma’s magnetic field has on human consciousness and he has published nearly 200 articles on it in journals. Persinger’s research indicates that people who come into close contact with these charged plasma forms experience altered states of consciousness producing a host of strange visions: UFO abductions, apparitional phenomena, sightings of improbable creatures (e.g., Bigfoot), fairies, and alien-like creatures.
Close-up Observational Reports at Brown Mountain
Most articles on the Brown Mountain lights assert that no one has ever seen them as they form or has seen them close-up. Such efforts—and many attempts have been made—do usually fail, however, there are reports of close viewings. Frizzell’s 1982 INFO article relates a fairly well known story of the erection of a tower on Brown Mountain in 1962 by three area businessmen. The 50-foot metal tower was intended to enable a close study of the lights, but not long after its erection it was quickly dismantled. One of the first evenings that the tower was manned by a large group of watchers, a “sizzling ball of fire” buzzed the members creating a panic in them.
Several other people claim to have seen the lights close-up, but the most credible report was published by John Bessor in Fate Magazine (March 1951). A local resident told Bessor that one night while he and several others were on the summit of Brown Mountain they watched as a light formed just over their heads. It was “as long as a man’s arm” and emitted a sizzling sound as it pulsated several times and then disappeared.
Another report of a close encounter with the lights was reported in Argosy (1955). A local nurseryman, Paul Rose, stated that when he was 16, the lights guided him out of a bog on the mountain after he became lost. By far the most incredible story of a close-encounter with the lights was given by Ralph Lael (also reported in Argosy). Lael claimed that the lights are created by aliens who live inside the mountain. They apparently took a liking to him because they took him inside the mountain and showed him their base. Then they took him on a trip to Venus. While that idea is today considered to be preposterous, as are all the other “space brother” contactees of the 1950s, Lael’s report is consistent with the kind of hallucinatory phenomena Persinger believes are caused by the powerful electromagnetic field created by earthlight plasmas.
Is An Eathquake About To Occur?
The skeptic’s ideas about reflections of light causing some of the Brown Mountain lights seem plausible. But they do not account for all of the light manifestations—this is even admitted in the skeptic’s own articles attempting to debunk the lights. Several facts lend credence to the idea that the “genuine” Brown Mountain lights are earthlights. The first is that a large fault line, called the Grandfather Mountain Fault, runs directly under Brown Mountain. The second fact, however, seems to indicate that the lights are not explained by anything else offered by scientists—they simply appear to be some form of electrically charged plasma coming from earth sources, similar to those studied extensively at the Yakima reservation in the 1970s. For example, there are firsthand reports of sizzling balls of light. There is a credible report of a close-up view of a light forming and the more strange accounts of odd experiences.
Persinger’s extensive research found that earthlights tend to increase in frequency many years before a large earthquake or volcanic eruption. In addition, the lights are usually seen far away from the actual epicenter of subsequent earthquakes or erupting volcanoes. If that is true, and if the Brown Mountain lights are earthlights, it may be that an earthquake may be looming. But this is not a dire warning. Persinger’s research showed that many of the earthquakes associated with reports of anomalous lights are often relatively small.
Above: Frame from video of several lights—note the three near the middle-right side.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Native American Mounds & Earthworks — by Dr. Greg Little