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Brown Mountain Lights In The Spotlight

--By Scott Nicholson

A supernatural phenomenon or a trick of the light?

Brown Mountain, set on the Blue Ridge in the Pisgah National Forest of North Carolina, has been the home to "sightings" of mysterious lights dating back hundreds of years. Depending upon whom you ask, the lights are either ghosts, headlights, campfires, lost souls, or wishful thinking.

An Asheville, NC man who heads his own paranormal investigative firm has vowed to solve the mystery, even though other studies have failed to turn up a definitive cause for the lights.

Joshua Warren is President of L.E.M.U.R., the League of Energy Materialization & Unexplained phenomena Research, and the organization recently released a video that Warren says records the elusive lights.

Warren has never been the shy and retiring type. At the age of 13, he wrote his first published book, "Joshua Warren's Gallery of Mystery and Suspense." Since then, he has had six more books published, including the regional bestseller, "Haunted Asheville," and is the president of his publishing and multimedia productions company, Shadowbox Enterprises.

Now Warren has turned his eye to putting a centuries-old mystery to rest. The lights are said to be seen at irregular intervals at the top of the mountain. They sometimes are red or green, and witnesses report that they can show up in such density that they are impossible to count.

A U.S. Forest Service sign at an overlook says, "From early times people have observed weird, wavering lights rise above this mtn. then dwindle and fade away."

The lights have been attributed to Cherokee and Catawba lore as far back as 1200. The Native American legend explained the lights as the spirits of Indian maidens who went searching through the centuries for their loved ones who were killed in battle.

That doesn’t jibe with another theory which says that the lights are the ghosts of a Civil War soldiers who are doomed to carry candles across the mountain forever.

Another theory is that the lights are foxfire, a luminescent wood fungus. Those seeking a scientific explanation have also blamed marsh gas, though Brown Mountain has no marshes. One theory from the early twentieth century actually blamed a rash of moonshine stills.

St. Elmo’s Fire, usually associated with static electricity at sea, has been dismissed as a plausible excuse, and some have said the lights are reflections from adjacent towns thrown about by atmospheric distortions.

Those who claim the lights are caused by visitors from other planets have also yet to offer conclusive proof of their out-of-this-world theories.

Dr. Daniel B. Caton, Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Director of Observatories at Appalachian State University, has studied the phenomenon, of which he’s not yet convinced is actually a phenomenon.

"I've made more trips out there and have never seen them yet," Caton says. "I cannot study something I cannot detect.

"On my most recent trip, some others arrived after me and initially became excited about what was obviously just a campfire on the opposite ridge, raising my suspicion that people are mostly befuddled by ordinary natural and manmade lights (stars, campfires, headlights, camplights, etc.)--UFOs of another color."

For Warren, who makes his living researching paranormal activity, the lights are a legitimate mystery, though he also suspects that the effects are caused by a natural event in the physical world.

Warren positions himself as a skeptic and relies on technology when doing his "ghost-hunting." Warren collects such data as electromagnetic readings and infrared photography instead of relying on the "sixth sense" popular in horror movies.

Warren was hired by the Grove Park Inn to be the first person to officially investigate the Pink Lady apparition in 1995. His articles have been published internationally, and he has been featured in such mainstream periodicals as Southern Living, Delta Sky, FATE, New Woman, and Something About the Author, and has also been a columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times.

His website contains information and lore on the lights and, of course, links to where interested people can purchase his videos and books.

Caton says, "I did recently come up with a theory but I actually need to see them to begin verification. I also will not rule out manmade lights. In that regard, by the way, I will give no credence to reports of Indian myths until I see some historical, written documents predating electric/gas lights that report the Brown Mountain Lights."

"Native Americans had many stories and myths. Why do we set aside the Brown Mountain Lights as reality and others as fantasy? Simply repeating the myths over the recent decades does not make them true. If written word predating lighting exists, I would be interested in seeing it."

Warren says that in 1771, Geraud de Brahm, a German engineer noted the presence of the lights and wrote that they were caused by the spontaneous ignition of "nitrous vapors" carried by the wind.

"The mountains emit nitrous vapors which are borne by the wind and when laden winds meet each other the niter inflames, sulphurates and deteriorates," de Braum wrote.

A U.S. Geological Survey in the 1920’s attributed the lights to a mix of manmade sources, including headlights, house lights, and campfires. A 1977 "scientific study" tried to reproduce the lights through seismic activity but failed, though the researchers claim to have proved that reflected lights could bounce above the crest of the mountain.

Even Caton can’t ignore the popular appeal that the supposedly supernatural can have, especially to consumers. "Still, others do report seeing something, as supposedly taped in a recent video. The video may or may not be real--a visit to the web site of the producer of this money-making video will show someone who makes his money off ghost stories and other 'paranormal' products.

"I think you can see that my continued non-sightings have left me disappointed. It is difficult to work in time to do this sort of thing when I need to do my real science as well. I will continue trying to see them and make some measurements at my convenience."

Caton has some material on his ASU website about his research, and plans to add more information this year. But, with the entire wonder of the endless night sky to explore, Caton feels his spare time is best spent at the Dark Sky Observatory.

"Most people are clueless about dots of light in the night sky," he says. "Lack of education and increasing light pollution have left ignorance of astronomy as the default. And, even a trained observer can be fooled by the apparent close appearance of, for example, a bright meteor burning a hundred kilometers up in the sky. There are no reference points, no sense of depth."

Meanwhile, Warren and others will continue to ask questions and look for answers on the earthly plane and beyond. The lights are best viewed on Highway 181 between Morganton and Linville, NC, looking east, or at Wiseman’s View on Highway 105 looking southeast.

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