Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #7: North Carolina Ghost Lights and Legends

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Gritzner, Charles F. North Carolina Ghost Lights and Legends. Blair (June 25, 2019).

I’ve been collecting stories about ghost lights for a while, and had even thought about working up a long article or chapbook about them. I was therefore eager to read and review this book. I was pleased to see that it had some 20 more examples than I had collected (or had at least listed as ghost lights), with a grand total of 54 for his book.

Gritzner has a set format (that’s a good thing) in which he lists each light, first by region, then by county and town, as well as by folkloric motif. Then he sets out the nature and known history of the light. He’s visited a bunch of these sites. Where he has, he discusses his visit there and the terrain.

He also brings up possible theories, most of them scientific (personally, I think some of these lights are a natural phenomenon that is currently unknown but possibly related to the local electromagnetic fields). He even has photos of the sites and maps of their general distribution in the state.

I wanted to like this book more than I ended up doing so. For a start, I found the Kindle version really frustrating to work with. Usually, I can access my Kindle library from the site remotely, but I had to download this one onto my old computer, which meant that scrolling through the book took forever. I’ve seen the print version, which is nicely laid out. I will probably just pick up a copy of that for future reference. It’s easier than working with the Kindle version.

For another, despite the author’s claim in his introduction, his list has some significant holes and I also had a few issues with his methodology. For example, while he lists Teach’s Light on the Outer Banks in Hyde County, he’s missing the famous annual Flaming Ship of Ocracoke from the same area. He talks about the Momeyer Light in Nash County, but misses two Middlesex Lights two towns over (one of them a railroad light and one a death omen). He also doesn’t discuss Vollis Simpson‘s whirligig folk art, or how it influenced local urban legends like Acid Park, in Wilson County. Coverage of indoor ghost lights is also pretty spotty, especially in the capital.

Gritzner talks about his background in teaching geography for five decades, yet divides up the state in some strange ways. He does so roughly along the giant crossroad of I-95 (north-south) and U.S. 64 (east-west). Some of these ghost light stories (especially the Maco Light-type railroad legend of the headless conductor, which appears in several forms across the state) go back at least to the 19th century, yet 95 didn’t exist before 1958 and 64 before 1926.

So, why would a geographer divide the state up that way, instead of the traditional geological way of Coast (Outer and Inner Banks), Upper and Lower Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and Mountains? This leads to some puzzling conclusions like Gritzner’s claim that the Northeast has few railroad lights relative to the Southeast, even though Ahoskie (in the former region) has two major examples of that motif.

He makes some other odd assertions, such as that ghost lights occur only in remote rural places. But there are lights that appear inside houses and this condition is not even universally true for outside lights. Ahoskie and Tarboro, for example, are pretty large and established towns.

Gritzner’s research also comes across as a bit shallow. For example, he cites popular ghost story books as sources, yet shows little-to-no knowledge of local history books like those for Nash County that mention the Middlesex Lights. He mentions volume seven of The Frank C. Brown Collection, yet seems unaware that said book is part of a larger collection. This makes his conclusion that North Carolina has an unusually large number of ghost light stories (as opposed to the probability that North Carolina simply has a much larger and more coherent published collection of folklore than other states) questionable.

Further, there’s no mention of the ECU Folklore Archive, or the UNC Folklore Program at Chapel Hill, let alone the Rhine Research Center (in Parapsychology) in Durham. There’s no in-depth look at the geology of the regions and sites studied to get an idea of what kind of natural phenomena might relate to these lights. The author does look into the possibility of car lights in some areas, but doesn’t really look into how long ago the railroad may have put, say, street lights next to the tracks. Nor does he get into the complexities of possible double-refractions and other optical illusions, so his speculations mostly remain just that – speculations.

I’d still recommend getting this book. For all of its flaws, it is a handy reference, in a lot of ways, that hasn’t previously existed. I just wish it had a bit more methodological depth and range.

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2 thoughts on “Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #7: North Carolina Ghost Lights and Legends”

  1. There are a lot of ghost lights in North Carolina. There is one up here – the Paulding light. Since I moved up here, I’ve heard a lot of different stories as to what causes it. Most commonly, “ghost of a brakeman who got killed.”

    About ten years ago, some students from Michigan Tech came up and solved it. Headlights four miles away combined with an air inversion. Makes sense to me, especially since the light was first noted in the ’50-60s which is about when the highway went in.

    Anyway, per the article I read, the students were a little dismayed at how few people accepted their explanation. I’m a little sympathetic to the ones that didn’t though. I’ve never quite felt the need to solve a perfectly good mystery, unless there’s justice to be served.

    1. Well, part of the problem is that it’s a theory not a solution. It may well be true, but these theories often don’t hold up to experimentation or historical data any better than the supernatural ones.

      The headless brakeman/conductor is pretty widespread and vague, so I doubt it’s factual. No one’s been able to dig up anything particularly concrete about that. Personally, I think they should be looking at the composition of the soil at these sites.

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