RALEIGH, N.C. — Two orange orbs, just about 10 feet off the ground, floated past Steve Woody and his father as they hunted deer more than 50 years ago. The mysterious lights passed them, then dropped down the side of a gorge in the Blue Ridge foothills.
For at least a century, the Brown Mountain Lights have confounded residents and tourists in a rugged patch of Burke County, bobbing and weaving near a modest peak. Are they reflections from automobile headlights? Brush fires? A paranormal phenomenon, or something natural not yet explained by science?
“I didn’t feel anything spooky or look around for Martians or anything like that,” Woody said. “It was just a unique situation. It’s just as vivid now as when I was 12 years old.”
Whatever the explanation, tourism officials are hoping all those decades of unanswered questions add up to a boost in visitors making their way to scenic outlooks around Linville Gorge with the goal of spotting something mysterious.
Unexplained mysteries like the Brown Mountain Lights have been the subject of cable TV documentaries and have fueled vast online communities of amateur investigators. Ed Phillips, Burke County’s tourism director, is hoping to capitalize on that.
Earlier this month, a sellout crowd of 120 paid $20 a head to attend a symposium on the lights at Morganton City Hall, and there was a crowd outside the door hoping to get in at the last minute.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Phillips said. “I could have sold 500 tickets.”
Interest in the lights has waxed and waned since the first known printed reference to the phenomenon appeared in The Charlotte Observer in 1913. John Harden, a Raleigh-based radio personality, devoted an episode of his 1940s series “Tales of Tar Heelia” to the lights, saying they “not only have attracted the attention of the people of this state, but have aroused the curiosity of a nation as well.” There was also a folk song, recorded by The Kingston Trio and others, that posited the lights came from a slave wandering the hills with a lantern in search of his master.
The profile of the lights has dimmed in recent years, although the number of reports doesn’t appear to be falling off. Making the area a destination for fans of the unexplained and anomalous helps give Burke County an edge, Phillips said.
“When you look at everything, you look at what people are really interested in, and the Brown Mountain Lights was something I really wanted to bring back to people’s attention,” he said.
There are plans for another symposium and a contest with a cash prize for the best photo or video of the lights. There are even T-shirts and refrigerator magnets for sale in the area now.
Also in the works is a regular event tentatively called the Brown Mountain Paranormal Expedition, where people will pay to hear a presentation on the lights at a dinner, then travel by bus to overlook sites where the lights have been reported. The events will be guided by Joshua P. Warren, an Asheville native and paranormal investigator who plans to allow attendees to use equipment like night vision goggles in hopes of spotting the lights.
“The folks who attend will have a true firsthand experience of what it’s like to be out there trying to judge what’s happening with this mountain,” Brown said.
The Brown Mountain Lights have drawn serious scientific interest since the 1920s, when the U.S. Geological Survey issued a report concluding the lights were reflections from automobiles, trains and brush fires.
Daniel Caton, a professor in the physics and astronomy department at Appalachian State University, thinks that’s part of the explanation for what people have reported seeing over the years. But Caton thinks there’s more to the lights, at least in some cases.
Caton said that about seven years ago, he was ready to give up studying the lights when he began hearing from people who said they saw them from mere feet away, not miles across the Linville Gorge. Those accounts sounded to Caton a lot like firsthand reports of ball lightning, a little-understood but naturally occurring phenomenon involving luminous spheres often said to move or bounce a bout in the air.
Caton hopes to eventually set up cameras at viewing sites that will feed to his website, allowing anyone to watch for the lights at any time. While he’s skeptical, guessing that 95 percent of reports of the lights are something like airplane lights, Caton still thinks there are eyewitness reports worth checking.
“The cool thing is, if ball lightning is preferentially made by nature in the Linville Gorge, at least we have a place to look for the conditions that might create it,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s hopeless to try and study ball lightning because it’s just randomly made and you don’t know where to look for it.”