Brown Mountain Mystery: Lights, rarely spotted, spark lots of speculation

Jun 9, 2006


The Brown Mountain lights dance in the night sky, shimmering and mysterious … at least that's what I've heard.

The lights - seen in the night sky over Brown Mountain - have been reported as far back as the 18th century. The lights will be the focus of the Brown Mountain Lights Heritage Festival this weekend.

On a recent trip to the Brown Mountain area, I didn't see any lights.


But I did meet several people who said that they have seen the lights.

David Mull, a scruffy, enthusiastic man in his mid-50s, has been fascinated with the mysteries of Brown Mountain since he was a child. In the early '60s, a folk song called "(Legend of the) Brown Mountain Light," performed by Tommy Faile, led to a boom in interest in the lights.

Mull was about 8 at the time. As the song grew in popularity, roadside lookout points - previously used for gazing at the scenery - became hot spots for gawkers hoping for a glimpse of the lights. One hotel owner charged people 50 cents a car to park in his lot. Mull's dad balked at the exorbitant charge, so they found another place to park. Mull has made himself an expert on the lights. He has produced two documentary videos, The Brown Mountain Lights and The Mysterious Lights of Brown Mountain, and touched on the subject in several other documentaries.

Mull said he saw the lights when he was a child and has seen them many times since. But sightings are still a rarity, even for him.

Mull said that it's hard to say what he does for a living. Mostly, he said, he sells videotapes of his documentaries, raises and sells carnivorous plants, and does odd jobs. He devotes much of his plentiful energy to the Brown Mountain lights and other local lore.

Mull offered to act as a tour guide. He met us in the parking lot of a Kmart in Morganton and led us to several of the best places to see the lights.

A pre-dusk visit to one of the most popular lookout points from the 1960s craze was a bust - trees had grown and blocked out the view. Besides, it wasn't dark enough to make out the lights - though Mull theorized that they are still there in the daytime, just harder to spot. Another stop at the lookout point several hours later turned up no lights other than fireflies.

A drive down Highway 181 into Pisgah National Forest and then up a winding, four-mile dirt road led us to Wiseman's View, a lookout point with a spectacular view of the Linville River Gorge, including the distant Brown Mountain. There were plenty of lights to be seen, especially with binoculars, but most of them belonged to houses, radio towers and the like. Two rock balconies overlooking the gorge provided an ideal vantage point - and for those with a healthy fear of heights, a bit of vertigo.

We weren't the only ones on the balconies that night. The Clarks - parents Josh and Laura, and kids Jesse, 8; Jenna, 4; and Justin, 14 - make frequent trips to Wiseman's View from their home in Old Fort to see if they can spot anything. Josh and Laura said they have seen the lights only once in about 20 visits, but the results were spectacular.

"The light comes on slowly and goes to a bright glow," Laura Clark said. "They move; they jump all around." She wasn't quite sure how to describe the lights. "Until you see it, it's hard to say what you saw."

On the night that we met her, her father was visiting from Texas and the family had turned the visit to the park into an excuse for a picnic. They left without seeing any lights. But shortly after their departure, Mull excitedly pointed in the distance - not toward Brown Mountain, but down in the Linville River Gorge, where the Clarks had their one sighting.

"There, did you see it?" he asked eagerly.

We didn't. Mull said he saw a burst of light, almost like an explosion, that was gone too quickly for him to take a photo. He talked about it the rest of the evening, though, and wondered if it might have been a headlight. He decided that he would camp out there in the near future to see if he could see it again.

There are plenty of theories about the origins of the lights, Mull said.

The folk song by Faile said that the light comes from a ghostly lantern held by a spectral slave looking for his master. And other supernatural theories depict the lights as the ghosts of murder victims, Indian warriors slaughtered in some ancient battle, star-crossed lovers or the victims of a train wreck trying to find their way to safety.

Scientific theories hold that the lights could be a rare form of lightning called "ball lightning" or an energy discharge generated by quartz in the region. Some people say the lights are created by lithium, but Mull scoffed at that last theory.

"It's just B.S.," he said.

Jesse Clark had another theory. "It might be people walking around with flashlights."

Could the light be caused by the fire under moonshine stills? Or by the moonshine itself?

"Some people say you need a little mind alteration to see these things," Mull said with a laugh.

One of Mull's pet theories is that the lights are small time warps or "wormholes" into another dimension. And then there's the notion that they are UFOs, or - more specifically - aliens from the planet Venus who once abducted a local man, who later made a living selling books about his experience and running the now-long-gone Outer Space Rock Shop and Museum.

"I don't know if you can get much further out than that," Mull said.

Even though Mull came up with the wormhole theory - inspired in part by other theories, he said - he tries to keep an open mind about the origins of the lights. "It's better to hear new stories if you haven't got preconceived notions," he said.

But there's one theory he doesn't subscribe to. "The light may not even really exist - but it's hard to believe that's true," he said.

Although he has been studying the Brown Mountain Lights in earnest for more than 20 years, Mull said he hopes that no one ever solves the mystery of the lights' origin.

"It might make a person famous," he said, "But it might end the folklore."