Mystery of the Paulding Light

Benjamin Radford




What do you know about the mysterious “Paulding Light” reported in Michigan? Any idea what it is?
–A. Onion


Mystery buffs in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula often seek out a lonely road at a remote spot in the woods near the Wisconsin border hoping to see a mystery known as the 
“Paulding Light.” Some come prepared with bug spray and beer, while others arrive empty-handed. All, however, harbor hopes of seeing the mystery for themselves. Lights such as those seen in the Upper Peninsula are often referred to as ghost lights or spook lights.

Some traditions link floating lights with death—accounts from centuries ago suggest that if a person saw three distinct unknown lights in the sky, it was an omen that three deaths should be expected soon. Though such superstitions are rarer today, the association between mysterious lights and ghosts or the supernatural lives on in folklore.

These lights are not merely encountered as factual, visible anomalies but instead often appear in the context of ghost stories. Local folklore provides a legendary “explanation” for the lights—part of a long tradition of creating narratives to explain natural celestial processes.

Fans explore and post videos of their experience, speculating endlessly about the light’s origin. In the case of the Paulding Light, John Carlisle of The Detroit Free Press explains:

Legend says the light comes from the swaying lantern held by the ghost of a railroad brakeman who died when he was crushed as he tried to stop an oncoming train from hitting railcars stalled on the tracks. This was logging country more than a century ago, and local residents say there were a number of railroads that ran through the forest and are now buried in the underbrush. Some believe it’s the light of the train, which itself is now a ghost. Some claim it’s the distraught spirit of a grandparent looking for a lost grandchild with a lantern that needs constant relighting, the reason the light seems to come and go. (Carlisle 2016)

Other places with similar reports include the Brown Mountain Lights of North Carolina (see Joe Nickell’s column on the topic [Nickell 2016]), Missouri’s Ozark Spooklight, and the Marfa lights near Marfa, Texas. There are many natural explanations for curious lights seen in the skies, and a single blanket explanation cannot account for them all. Instead, it depends on the specific circumstances of each location: some areas may contain groups of bioluminescent animals, including fireflies (which are in fact beetles); other locations may have types of fungus that emit light. Other explanations include aircraft lights, reflections from stars or planets distorted through layers of different temperatures, and will-o-the-wisp—glowing swamp gas seen over marshes and wetland caused by the oxidation of decomposing organic matter. The lights are seen only under certain conditions and circumstances; many visitors wait in vain for hours and see nothing. Eyewitnesses to the same phenomena sometimes offer different descriptions of what they saw: some are said to briefly flicker in place; others are said to dance or shoot across the sky like a UFO.

The distant lights’ fickle nature makes them difficult to fully investigate. Members of the SyFy television show Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files—for whom mundane curiosities and obvious camera artifacts are often characterized as eternally insoluble mysteries—tackled the Paulding Light case but, predictably, failed to solve the mystery and proclaimed it unexplainable.

However, Carlisle notes that in 2010 a team from Michigan Tech led by electrical engineering student Jeremy Bos

brought a spectrograph and a telescope to the dead-end road, sent each other driving down the new highway while blinking their lights in a prearranged pattern, and recorded the results. Every time the light appeared, one look through the telescope showed what sure looked like the headlights of oncoming cars, which could be seen clearly through the lens, sometimes with the distinct outline of the car coming down the road, which is about 8 miles away. The group even shot a video through the telescope so others could see, and posted it online. The flickering, they said, was caused when cars went over a hill.

Some believers dismiss such explanations as far-fetched, acknowledging that while known light sources do exist in the direction of the lights and may account for a few reports, others would be too faint to be mistaken for the spook lights. Ordinarily that may be true, but under certain circumstances low clouds cannot only reflect but amplify ambient light from roadways and nearby towns. Indeed, Bos analyzed local atmospheric patterns and found that “Heat rising off the pavement may sometimes contribute to the light’s distortion . . . [and] an inversion layer in the line of sight between the road and the Paulding Light viewing spot may also create very stable air, which could account for the light’s visibility about four and a half miles from US-45” (Goodrich 2011).

It’s very difficult to conclusively rule out all the possible known sources of light that could be mistaken for spook lights—automobile headlights, campfires, aircraft, cloud reflections of distant city or vehicle lights, insects, and so on—and inevitably some reports will remain unexplained. At the end of the day, of course, it’s more fun to imagine the distant glimmer is a ghostly railroad brakeman’s phantom lantern than the headlights of a 2005 Honda Civic.



Benjamin Radford

Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits (2018).