What are the Marfa Lights?

The Marfa lights, also known as the Marfa ghost lights, have been observed near U.S. Route 67 on Mitchell Flat east of Marfa, Texas, in the United States. They have gained some fame as onlookers have ascribed them to paranormal phenomena such as ghosts, UFOs, or will-o'-the-wisp, etc. However, scientific research suggests that most, if not all, are atmospheric reflections of automobile headlights and campfires.

The first published account of the lights appeared in the July 1957 issue of Coronet magazine, the earliest source for anecdotal claims that the lights date back to the 19th century. Reports often describe brightly glowing basketball-sized spheres floating above the ground, or sometimes high in the air. Colors are usually described as white, yellow, orange, or red, but green and blue are sometimes reported. The balls are said to hover at about shoulder height, or to move laterally at low speeds, or sometimes, to shoot around rapidly in any direction. They often appear in pairs or groups, according to reports, to divide into pairs or to merge, to disappear and reappear, and sometimes to move in seemingly regular patterns. Their sizes are typically said to resemble soccer balls or basketballs. Sightings are reported occasionally and unpredictably, perhaps 10 to 20 times a year. No reliable daytime sightings have been reported.


“Forget what the believers and the skeptics say. Forget what you’ve seen, or think you’ve seen, with your own eyes. There’s no way to know if the Marfa lights are real — and that’s what’s so great about them.“ — Michael Hall

In his article “The Truth Is Out There“ from Texas Monthy, Michael Hall recalls conversations with locals about various enounters:

It was [on the Nopal Road] one night in 1973 that geologists Pat Kenney and Elwood Wright saw two cantaloupe—size balls of light come barreling out of the southwest toward them at about 200 miles per hour. The first sped off toward the abandoned Marfa air base, while the second slowed down and then hovered two hundred feet away. They wrote later that the light seemed to be “daring them to chase it... It seemed to possess intelligence!“

A little farther down the road, Alton Sutter, a minister from Monahans, had one of the more fantastic experiences [recorded]. It was 1994, and he, along with his wife, two sons, and another minister, had driven out to see the lights. It was cold, and they waited about half an hour. “Finally,“ he [said], “we saw one coming toward us, then a bunch of them, all small. If you ever saw The Wizard of Oz, the bubble the Good Witch arrives in, that’s what they looked like — fluorescent balloons floating, going all around us. One actually landed on the ground. I went over, and I took my glove off, reached down with my index finger, and picked it up; it was the size of the head of a pin. It went out, and I joked, ’Okay, I’m not going to prison for killing this Marfa light. It died on its own.’“

Charlotte met her first Marfa light purely by accident. It happened fifteen years ago, when she was in a car near Nopal Road. “I looked up about two hundred feet in the sky, and there were five lights hovering over us, almost like they were floating. I don’t know how big they were; they were like very close stars. After a few seconds, they went out one by one, systematically, and this shaft of energy was left. It was illuminated particles, if you will, coming down from where the bright lights were. I was awestruck.“

“Most of the time,“ [Joaquin Jackson, the legendary retired Texas Ranger] said, “what you see are lights from cars on the Presidio Highway. But one morning, I was headed to Marfa about five, five—thirty, and in the Flat, out near the lookout, I seen these lights come on. There were three, to the south, maybe a mile away, and they’d get real bright, then get dim, but before they went out, shooo! They’d shoot out across the horizon to the right in the blink of an eye. They were at different altitudes — up high and close to the ground — and that happened three or four times. Shooo! It damn sure wasn’t headlights. That’s the only time I saw something. I know one damn thing: It’s weird.“


For 20 nights in May 2008, scientists from Texas State University used spectroscopic equipment to observe lights from the Marfa lights viewing station. They recorded a number of lights that "could have been mistaken for lights of unknown origin," but in each case, the movements of the lights and the data from their equipment could be easily explained as automobile headlights or small fires.

In May 2004, a group from the Society of Physics Students at the University of Texas at Dallas spent four days investigating and recording lights observed southwest of the view park using traffic volume-monitoring equipment, video cameras, binoculars, and chase cars. Their report made the following conclusions: U.S. Highway 67 is visible from the Marfa lights viewing location; the frequency of lights southwest of the view park correlates with the frequency of vehicle traffic on U.S. 67; the motion of the observed lights was in a straight line, corresponding to U.S. 67; when the group parked a vehicle on U.S. 67 and flashed its headlights, this was visible at the view park and appeared to be a Marfa light. A car passing the parked vehicle appeared as one Marfa light passing another at the view park.

They came to the conclusion that all of the lights observed over a four-night period southwest of the view park could be reliably attributed to automobile headlights traveling along U.S. 67 between Marfa and Presidio, Texas. A 1965 investigation of The Spooklight in southwestern Missouri reached a similar conclusion.

Skeptic Brian Dunning notes that the designated “View Park“ for the lights, a roadside park on the south side of U.S. Route 90 about 9 miles (14 km) east of Marfa, is located at the site of Marfa Army Airfield, where tens of thousands of personnel were stationed between 1942 and 1947, training American and Allied pilots. This massive field was then used for years as a regional airport, with daily airline service. Between Marfa AAF and its satellite fields — each constantly patrolled by sentries — they consider it unlikely that any unusual phenomena would have remained unobserved and unmentioned. According to Dunning, the dominant explanation is that the lights are a sort of mirage caused by sharp temperature gradients between cold and warm layers of air. Marfa is located at an altitude of 4,688 ft (1,429 m) above sea level, and temperature differentials of 50—60°F (28—33°C) between high and low temperatures are quite common.

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