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Marfa’s Mysterious Lights

One of the greatest unsolved American mysteries...

marfa lights

screen capture from YouTube video.

The ghost lights of Marfa Texas are one of physics greatest unsolved American mysteries. These otherworldly lights usually look like they’re the size of basketballs though they can change size. They also appear in a variety of colors: yellowish-orange, red, blue, green, and white. This glowing phenomenon hovers, twinkles, flickers, merges together, splits into two, floats higher in the sky or darts across it. The lights instantly appear from nowhere and vanish in the same manner.  

There is no way to know when the Marfa lights will show up. They’ve been seen in different types of weather, in all seasons, and at various times in the evening: dusk, midnight, twilight, and so on. The lights only appear a dozen or so times a year. So, many people who look for them never see them, but a few people have seen them multiple times.  

Also, there isn’t a truly convincing explanation for what they are. In fact, the balls of glowing light have mystified people long before they were first reported in 1883, when a cowboy, Robert Reed Ellison, spotted the amazing orbs while herding cattle near Mitchell Flat.  He later found out that several settlers in the area had also seen them. 

Additionally, in the book Lore of the Ghost by Brian Haughton, he shares an Apache legend that the lights are the spirit of Apache Chief Alaste, who haunted the Chinati Mountains ever since his execution by Mexican Rurales (rural guard) in the 1860s. A similar Apache myth is that the lights are the campfires of the Chief’s tribe who were massacred by the Mexicans. 

 Scientific Observations and Speculations  

During World War II, pilots from Midland Army Air Field searched for the cause of the weird lights but never found the source. Then, in 2004, a group of physic students from the University of Texas at Dallas rationalized that headlights from cars on the nearby highway accounted for some of the Marfa Light sightings. However, viewers of the lights debunk that theory because the Marfa lights don’t move anything like cars. Also, there were sightings by many people decades before there were any cars in West Texas at all. It’s also been suggested that they are a type of mirage created by the refraction of light that occurs when a layer of cool air rests on top of a layer of warmer air. Another idea is they are like swamp gas—phosphine and methane coming in contact with oxygen which sometimes ignite and create glowing lights. However, all these theories are merely speculation at this point, there is still no proven source.

Viewing the Lights

Pretty much every night of the year, people stop just east of Marfa Texas at a roadside platform by a sign that reads, “Marfa’s Mystery Lights Viewing Area: Night Time Only.” In addition to mounted binoculars and bronzed plaques about the lights, there are picnic tables and a restroom. And the viewing platform is usually crowded. Here’s a video a tourist took from YouTube:

I used the Marfa lights in one of my short stories in my Project Enterprise: The Short Stories. I was asked to write a steampunk short story for an anthology and had been fascinated by the lights and the area since I sat down to write Tangled in Time. 

Perilously yours,

Pauline