Mason Winfield’s Twilight on the Western Door: The Spiritual, Supernatural and Paranormal
Witch Lights | Part 2
© 2015 Mason Winfield
About, about in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night.
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge
We’ve all seen the occasional light at night we couldn’t explain. Not many of us thought to make anything out of it, at least if it was close to the earth. It was almost surely an illusion, we think. Light-sources are all around us today, almost anywhere we are. It could be an aircraft low on the horizon or the headlight of a car on a hilly winding road. It could be a reflection of almost anything. It could even be stationary, a beacon or street light we glimpse only from the exact perspective through layers of foliage. A breeze that rustles a branch yards distant can screen the sight of it. As we change position to mark it again, it seems to wink and move.
Some of the time, though, the light is in a place that shouldn’t have lights: a graveyard, a ruined castle, a vacant house, or an old battlefield. Some of the lights people say they see behave unnaturally. They fly like living critters. They don’t radiate their light; they contain it. Those are the ones that attract comment – and legend. Their folk names in English are most often “ghost lights,” “spook lights,” or “witch lights,” those oft-reported features classified by British author Paul Devereux as ALP, “anomalous light phenomena.” They are often associated with sites or small regions that have historic, religious, or geological peculiarity.
The folkloric witch light is usually described as a self-contained source of luminescence like a Japanese lantern or a glowing volleyball. It stays close to the surface of the earth, seldom rising more than a dozen feet off the ground unless within one of the levels of a human structure. Some are even stationary, simply appearing and disappearing. These lights can come alone or in fleets, and pale or in many colors. They can streak, dart, dilly-dally, or drift. They can also hover and beam like beacons.
Of course the mass if not the entire body of these “spook lights” people have reported and still report must have natural causes simply unknown to the experiencer. But since they are things people say they see that cannot be caught for study – and they have entered folklore – they have to be classified as apparitions. This puts the “witch lights” in the same category as ghosts.
Witch lights have unfortunately become linked to the UFO phenomenon in the literature and many published reports, and that’s not what we’re talking about here. I say, “unfortunately” because it’s certain in almost every case that witnesses are describing two very different things, easily told apart. Many UFOs do not appear as light-forms. The ones that do are vast and distant and make their exits into the stratosphere or over the horizon. Witch lights are earthly phenomena.
I should also clarify that, with the ALP, we are not talking about the orbs that, for the last ten or so years, have been the stock in trade of TV-style ghost hunters. Orb is an old word for something circular or spherical. It’s often used to mean the eye. The “orbs” that the surveillance ghost hunters talk about are images that turn up on photographs. Orbs are generally splotches of white that don’t radiate like natural sources of light. And no one saw them at the time the pictures were taken. You can see witch lights.
In world legend the witch lights are typically attributed to ghosts, spirits, witches, wizards, and supernatural beings like fairies. They are thought of as either the beings themselves or manifestations of their handiwork. Contemporary whites tend to link them with ghosts, and reports of phantom lights are indeed so common at some allegedly haunted sites – particularly the big, gloomy, ominous ones in which no one lives – that they feel like throw-in rumors manufactured to augment the other stories. As ghostly forms, they are not up there with other upstate archetypes like the Little Girl Ghost, the White Lady, the Old Soldier, or the Old Chief, but they are reported worldwide, and they’ve been around a long time. It’s not hard to see how they’ve entered legend.
Their most common haunts are marshes, battlefields, temples, and imposing allegedly haunted sites (including castles, churches, forts, and mansions). Natural spaces like lakes and valleys and transportation avenues like lanes, roads, trails, and railroad lines can also gather rumors of being haunted by mystery-lights. The folk imagination almost always supplies a back story.
When the witch lights come solo and peck and poke at a human pace, typically around head-height, they are often thought to represent the souls of people who carried lanterns, expiating life’s desperations: mournful watchmen, doomed train conductors, and mythical figures like Jack o’ the Lantern or Will of the Wisp, wandering the lonely spaces between earth and afterlife. When stationary, they are thought to be markers or sentries. En masse, their associations tend to be broader: a lost troop of soldiers or souls looking for the afterlife. When their appearances steep a place or a region it’s often taken as a sign of many ghosts or a tradition of occultism.
The lights are fixtures of legend for the Native Americans of upstate New York, and it’s a living tradition. For the Iroquois/Longhouse nations, they come in two categories. When they are small and particularly impish, they are often associated with the Little People, the Djogao, “the Indian Fairies.” These “Jungies,” as they are nicknamed today, are some of the most interesting figures of upstate folklore. Most common, though, are the basketball-to-beachball sized lights, the classic “witches’ torch” virtually characterized in many a Longhouse tale.
Like other Longhouse nations of New York, the Seneca and Tuscarora have elaborate stories about these “witch lights,” the Ga’hai (GUH-high), a name that could be the same in all the six Longhouse languages. A number of 716-area code sites are said to be their haunts. A whole hill southwest of Salamanca is named for them, and between it and the I-86 is a lane called “Witches’ Walk” where they are often reported. Other Western New York sites proverbial for witch lights include the defunct West Shore railroad line that cuts through the Tonawanda Seneca Reservation, “Indian Hill” by the Cattaraugus Seneca Reservation, Squakie Hill at the north end of Letchworth State Park, and “Indian Hill” at the northwest edge of the Tuscarora Reservation in Lewiston. Other reputed witch-light zones lie further east, in traditional Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk territory.
Iroquoians tend to be suspicious of any type of moving, unexplained light. Not all are hostile, of course, but all are thought so latently powerful that it’s a big risk going anywhere near them. Their Algonquin-speaking neighbors in the Northeast worry only about the ones that are greenish in shade. Those are clear signs of witches. Lest you think these lights are only for “superstitious” Natives and legend-haunted areas on reservations, whites have reported seeing them for centuries, and all over the state. The Niagara Frontier holds fine examples of most of the site-types.
Some stretches of train lines have reports of ghostly light-forms. A whole section of North Tonawanda along the riverside and north of the Erie Canal is called, with variants, “Ghost-Man’s Pass” because of legends about a light. In the late 1880s, a flap of ghostly lights was associated with north-south New York Central Railroad lines between Attica and Batavia and between Indian Falls and Corfu (nicknamed the “Peanut” line). Both cycles were seriously reported as episodes in the newspapers. Some witnesses got to see them in action closely. It’s hard to be sure what could have been going on here. Other lines in Niagara, Orleans, Monroe and Ontario counties that boast such folklore were associated with rail disasters.
I’ve heard of ghost-light reports at monumental Buffalo-area sites like H. H. Richardson’s Towers and a Craftsman home on Park Street in Buffalo, as well as the Ruskin Room tower of East Aurora’s Roycroft Inn. A couple of the area’s legendary haunted houses have featured ALP, typically during periods of vacancy, along with the kitchen sink of other reports.
All the standing forts along the great river – George, Erie, Mississauga, and Niagara – were the sites of wartime clashes as well as long occupations by standing garrisons. Each has its mystery-lights spotted by terrified or astounded witnesses at distance after dark. Likewise many of our cemeteries with pop reputations for being haunted – Forest Lawn in Buffalo, Elmlawn in Kenmore, Guernsey Hollow in Frewsburg, the First Presbyterian in Lewiston – host some kind of phantom light among their reported effects.
Much the way Walt Disney’s studios turned a house-mouse into Mickey, folklore can personify basic natural phenomena and spin it into story-cycles. Even if you believe there’s nothing more than that to the witch lights, regional traditions of sightings could certainly be signs of some kind of unexpected energy that occasionally shows itself as light-forms. Because of the tendency of these lights to be seen on railroad beds – those broad, straight, artificial, and often metal-ribbed channels across landscape – one wonders if something atmospheric or even geophysical could be involved in their appearances.
© 2015 Mason Winfield
Mason Winfield is the author of eleven books on supernatural-paranormal subjects. He is the host of a podcast program on the GPY network also called Twilight on the Western Door. At Twilight on the Western Door we welcome questions and comments.