Case File: Marfa Lights
Location: Marfa, Texas
Date: 1883 to present
Description: Marfa is a town and former railroad water spot in West Texas surrounded by cattle farms. It has since become a UFO tourist spot due to the local unexplained activity. The lights seen in Marfa vary in size; some are about the size of basketballs, while others are the size of flashlight lights. They appear to float a few feet in the air. Sometimes, several appear at once, merging together or moving about in a group. They are usually white, yellow, or orange; sometimes, they are red or blue.
History: During the 1800s, cattle by the thousands were herded by cowboys across the arid plains of central Texas near the town of Marfa. One evening in 1883, during a roundup in Pasiano Pass, a sixteen-year-old cowhand named Robert Reed Ellison noticed a strange glow off in the distance. He and his partner saw a ghostly light shimmering in the darkness. It appeared to be a few miles away, near the base of the Chinati Mountains, and it hovered just a few feet above the ground.
According to Robert’s daughter, Julia Plumbley, he and his partner first thought that the lights were probably a campfire from Native Americans or other travelers. However, they kept seeing them every night for over a year. The lights would bounce up and down, then bounce back and forth. They had no explanation for the lights. Other settlers also told Robert that they had seen the lights, but when they would go to investigate them, they would find no ashes or other evidence of a campfire. Around the same time period, O.W. Williams, a lawyer and surveyor, reported seeing similar lights in the area.
In 1916, Hallie Stillwell was eighteen-years-old when she witnessed the same phenomenon. She and several others had decided to come to Marfa to attend to some business. As she and her companions were talking and driving down a road, they saw lights over on the Chinati Mountains. They stopped their car, got out, and watched the lights. Hallie knew that it could not have been any kind of car lights.
Hallie and her companions first thought that it was a campfire from either Native Americans, Mexicans, or ranchers. However, they noticed that it did not act like a campfire at all. As they watched, the lights started moving. Hallie said it was peculiar and she had never seen anything like it before. She and her companions did not know anything about the lights. They said, “well it couldn’t be anything but a ghost.” From then on, they called them “ghost lights.”
In 1943, the mysterious lights were seen again near Marfa’s army airbase. When Chauncey "Fritz" Kahl first saw the lights, there was no vehicular traffic at night. Fuel was rationed, so any lights were uncommon at the time. He said that when the moon was out, it was beautiful. But when the moon was not out, it was so dark it was “awesome”. One night, he and another airman saw the lights in the distance. The lights were totally foreign to anything in and around the airbase. They were very curious after seeing the lights. They tried to locate the lights' source, but were unsuccessful. They inquired in the village of Marfa about the lights. Residents said, “Yeah, sure. We’ve got little lights. So what else?”
In 1973, geologists Pat Kenney and Elwood Wright witnessed two cantaloupe-sized balls of light come "barreling" out of the southwest towards them at "almost 200 miles per hour." One sped off toward the abandoned Marfa air base, while the other slowed down and hovered 200 feet away from them. They said that the light seemed to be "daring" them to chase it, as if it possessed some sort of intelligence.
The lights have been continually seen near Marfa, usually in an area about ten miles to the east called Mitchell Flat. They only appear at night, at any time of year and in any weather. They are usually seen a couple dozen times per year. But surprisingly, the witnesses are not frightened of these ghost lights. In fact, most seem to regard them with affection.
Marfa resident Grace Everman says that she has seen the lights several times. Teacher Lee Bennett said that she was with a group of three others when she saw the lights. She and another person saw them, but the other two did not, even though they were all looking in the same spot. She has been unable to find an explanation for it. Another teacher, Sheri Eppenauer, has also seen the lights. She says that she can see them better on some nights than others.
Over the years, there have been several attempts to try and determine what causes the Marfa lights. However, most of the people in Marfa who have grown up and lived with the lights do not really need an explanation as to what they are. The fact they exist at all, bringing a touch of magic into their day-to-day lives, is all they need to know. Fritz is certain that they exist and is fine with them not being explained. Julia does not want to find out what they are; she wants to leave them as a mystery. Hallie says that she is not going to try and solve it. She is content with them being ghosts, and is “going to let the ghosts take care of them.”
Background: Some legends claim that the lights are the ghost (or the lantern) of an Apache Indian Chief, Alsate, who was killed by Mexicans when he refused to give up his desert home. Some Native Americans from the area thought that the lights were fallen stars. Others believed they were the "wandering ghosts" of Spanish conquistadors. Still others believed they were "dancing devils" or invading soldiers.
Investigations: Over the years, explanations for these mysterious lights have ranged from ball lightning to St. Elmo’s fire to fireflies to jack rabbits with glow worms attached to their tails. Some paranormal enthusiasts have suggested that they are space aliens. Native superstition even has it that the lights are the ghost of an Apache chief who refuses to give up his desert home. As of yet, no one has been able to conclusively determine the origin of the lights.
Since he was a child, journalist Kirby Warnock wanted to find out what the lights were. They were his “Loch Ness Monster”. He wanted to catch them and find out what they really were. He and his brother believed that the reason no one had ever gotten close to the lights was because they were using motor vehicles, such as airplanes, jeeps, and cars. They believed that if they took out on foot across the desert, they could “sneak up” on them.
One night, Kirby, his brother, and some friends got their gear and a camera together, then went out into the desert. They tried for about four hours to walk up close to the lights. However, they could never get very close to them. It was almost like they were a mirage. The lights kept moving a little further and further away from the group. Kirby felt as if the lights knew what he and his group were doing. He believed that the lights were “teasing” them and staying a little bit ahead of them. However, distance was deceiving in the desert. They could not tell if they were looking at a light as big as a tire or as small as a cantaloupe. They were unable to get close enough to see how big they really were.
In July 1989, Unsolved Mysteries asked three scientists from the local observatory and university to conduct a formal investigation into the lights. One investigator was a professor of chemistry, another a geologist, and the third an astronomer. With them were eleven other technicians and observers.
The lights have been seen near the Chinati Mountain range. A radio beacon is also visible in front of the peaks. A highway winds its way through the mountains. In order to prevent the misidentification of headlights, two marker lights were placed at the borders of the road. If any lights were spotted outside these markers, and scientists could not explain their source, then investigators could be certain that they were observing the ghostly phenomenon.
The investigators used special nighttime viewing equipment. At 11:59pm, an unknown light appeared. It was to the right of the radio beacon and the right marker light. In the middle of an empty plain, a ghostly glow could be seen. A video camera also recorded the same light (shown above). Observers were certain that the light did not come from a manmade source. After a few minutes, it disappeared. Then, just moments later, it appeared again. Finally, a few moments after that, it disappeared once again.
What was it that the cameras recorded? Chemistry professor Dr. Avinash Rangra says that they know the lights are there. They know they are of natural origin and are not manmade. However, he is not sure how to explain them. Dr. Edwin Barker of the McDonald Observatory says that they are not car lights. He is certain that people are seeing real activity in the atmosphere.
One scientist thought the lights might be refracted starlight. Another thought they might be luminous gases produced by small earthquakes. However, they are not sure. All they could say for certain is that it was a natural phenomenon as yet unexplained by science.
- The case first aired on the October 25, 1989 episode.
- It is similar to the Gurdon Light in Arkansas.
- It was also featured on Sightings.
- Actor James Dean was allegedly so obsessed with the lights that he kept a telescope in his Marfa hotel room during the filming of the movie Giant in 1956.
Results: Unresolved. Since the broadcast, sightings of the Marfa Lights have continued. In 1991, Edson Hendricks, an electrical engineer and MIT graduate, witnessed an hour-long "lights show" in a viewing area near Marfa. According to him, the lights: stopped, reversed direction, got brighter, split in two, sped up, faded, and finally disappeared. He believes that a combination of solar activity and small seismic movement causes some sort of lightning, that is then seen as the Marfa Lights.
In 1994, minister Alton Sutter, his family, and a fellow minister drove to Marfa to see the lights. After waiting for about an hour, they saw several small balls of light heading towards them. They described them as "floating fluorescent balloons". The balls of light went around the group, with one of them landing on the ground. Alton went over and picked it up; the light then went out.
In 2003, the town of Marfa used $720,000 from the federal government and the Texas Department of Transportation to create the "Marfa Mystery Lights Viewing Center", a large viewing platform with mounted binoculars off of U.S. 90, about nine miles east of Marfa. The area is considered one of the "best places" to view the lights.
In 2004, the University of Texas sent the Society of Physics Students, a highly respected professional association, to investigate the lights. In December 2005, they concluded their investigation, determining that the lights were most likely caused by car headlights on a nearby highway. They discovered that when the lights appeared, they were precisely correlated with car headlights on U.S. 67, a highway near Marfa which is about fifteen miles south of the viewing area. They said that the lights were "completely predictable" and fully repeatable, based on the cars on the highway. They compared photographs of the lights at night with photographs taken in the same location during the day. The lights are shown to be in the same location as the highway in the daytime photographs.
The group contributed the strange movement of the lights to a magnifying or shimmering effect caused by a "superior mirage." A superior mirage occurs when objects appear higher than their actual position. It can make distant objects (even those below the horizon) appear to hover in the air. However, this does not explain the reports of lights seen in the 1800s, or lights that were seen far from the highway.
In 2011, another group, headed by Karl Stephan, an engineering professor at Texas State University, investigated the lights. They came to similar conclusions, believing that the lights were caused by cars on U.S. 67. Using sensitive infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers, they found that the atmospheric conditions of the land outside Marfa were unique; the conditions warped and distorted the lights coming from the highway as they traveled across the land. By the time the lights reached the viewing area, they would look like "weird, white, floating orbs." However, the group notes that there are some sightings that they could not explain, such as lights that move backward, dance, or disappear suddenly.
Retired aerospace engineer James Bunnell has also investigated the lights. He speculates that the lights may result from high-energy particles, or plasma, that rain down from the inner Van Allen Radiation Belt. Although most of the plasma is absorbed by the earth, some, he thinks, may be repelled by a layer of volcanic rock in the area. The plasma would then shoot around, acting like the lights seen by witnesses. He has been unable to confirm his theory, however. Another theory by Bunnell is that the lights are the result of igneous rock under Mitchell Flat that creates a piezoelectric charge (electricity produced under pressure by solid matter).
Others speculate the lights may be caused by phosphine and methane, the same gases that create glowing lights associated with swamp gas. The phenomena is also known as "will-o'-the-wisp". Although Marfa is nowhere near a marsh, there are significant reserves of oil, natural gas, and other petroleum hydrocarbons in the area, which could include methane. This theory has yet to be confirmed either.
One opthalmologist suggested that the lights are simply an optical illusion caused by the eye's refraction. Because every person's refraction is different, this could explain why some people see the lights, while others do not. Once again, this theory has not been confirmed.
Several of the Marfa Lights witnesses have since passed away, including: Hallie on August 18, 1997, at the age of ninety-nine; Julia on September 19, 2000, at the age of ninety-five; and Fritz on May 30, 2004, at the age of eighty-two.
- Marfa Lights at Wikipedia
- "Marfa Lights Mysteries" Website
- Marfa Lights on Visit Marfa Website
- Mystery of Marfa Lights Continues in Texas Town - October 8, 1985
- Marfa Lights mystery, mystique persist - April 23, 2000
- An Experimental Analysis of the Marfa Lights - December 10, 2005
- The Truth Is Out There - Texas Monthly - June 2006
- The Marfa Lights: A Real American Mystery - April 11, 2007
- What's going on in Marfa? - December 19, 2010
- Quantitative intensity and location measurements of an intense long-duration luminous object near Marfa, Texas - August 2011
- What Are the Marfa Lights? - June 19, 2013
- Scientists Can’t Fully Explain These Strange Floating Lights in Texas - May 9, 2017
- The mysterious 'Ghost Lights' of Marfa, Texas - January 17, 2018
- Lockney native filming movie about storied Marfa lights - June 24, 2019
- What may cause the mysterious 'Ghost Lights' of Marfa, Texas - May 5, 2020
- The Marfa Lights: Examining the Photographic Evidence - 2020
- Mystery of the Marfa Lights remains unsolved over a century later - November 4, 2021
- Fritz Kahl and Hallie Stillwell on Find a Grave
- Julia Plumbley Death Record