The Ozarks Spook Light
Wed, 10/18/2023 - 12:13pm admin
Of the numerous curiosities and phenomena coming out of the Ozarks, the Spook Light of Hornet, Missouri, located in Newton County, may have the longest shelf life. Numerous eyewitnesses, from the early twentieth century to recent times, have described it as a bobbing jack-o'-lantern, a shimmering blob, or a will-o’-the-wisp floating in the sky.
Like other mysteries of the Ozarks, legends about the Spook Light abound. Here’s a sampling: It’s the ghosts of two young Native American lovers looking for each other; the ghost of a murdered Osage chief; the spirit of a Quapaw maiden who drowned herself in the river when her warrior was killed in battle; or the lantern of a lost miner searching for his children stolen by Indians.
For generations, the Spook Light has been the subject of newspaper articles (as early as the 1930s), magazines, tourist brochures, film documentaries, and TV shows. It has been a tourist attraction; a location for church hayrides, as well as a favorite “parking” spot for teenagers. Moreover, it has been investigated by UFO hunters, physicists, reporters, and the military, with mixed results.
Some Ozark legends and tall tales have fallen by the wayside, but the strange, glowing orb that has appeared for decades, and some say for over a hundred years, reportedly, still floats low in the sky a few miles southwest of Joplin, near the border between Missouri and northeastern Oklahoma.
I first heard about the Spook Light in junior high school when classmate Joe Corn told our seventh-grade class he had seen this bright, white ball in the sky at the end of a gravel road one night when he had gone to Joplin with his parents and grandparents to visit relatives. To confirm my recollection, I sent an email to Joe and he called me back within minutes.
Joe had no problem recalling his sightings of the mysterious light—he had also seen it when he was high school. For me, writing an article, this was great. An opportunity to interview someone I knew to be creditable that had actually seen it.
Of his sightings, Joe said, “It was fascinating. I could see it from a half-mile away in this valley between two big hills. To me, it looked the size of a beachball. It was bright white and not yellow as some say—just yellow around the edges. It was brighter than any lights from back then and not like a flashlight or lantern—it had no beam.”
When I mentioned some skeptics argued the light was the reflection of automobile headlights from Route 66, Joe said, “It didn’t look like car lights.” He had also heard the theory that it was swamp gas, and said, “It was dry as a bone when I saw it, and it would have been hard for anything to ignite.”
I asked him if the light had defined edges like an orb, and he said, “It was round, but the edges were like a flame, but if it had been actually burning, it would have set the woods on fire.” He makes a fair point. After all these years, if the light was a fire in the sky, the surrounding woods would be charred by now.
My investigation took a more scholarly turn a few weeks ago at the Missouri Writers Guild conference in Columbia when I spoke to prolific author Larry Wood, who literally wrote the book on the Spook Light. Larry has written professionally for over forty years, and during much of his career, he has specialized in historical nonfiction, including several magazine and newspaper articles about the Spook Light. As an aside, a few weeks ago, I noticed his book Murder & Mayhem in Missouri on the book rack in a Walgreens near my house.
At the conference, Larry gave me a copy of his book, The Ozark Spook Light, but before reading it I had some preliminary questions. I’d heard Native Americans had seen the light in the 1800s, and asked him if that didn’t disprove the automobile lights theory.
His answer was intriguing and enigmatic. “If they actually saw the light.” Hmmm? I suppose like other legends, it would involve a hundred years of hearsay. And there was little to document such an event back then. He added to the complexity: “The light seen back then could have been from a campfire in the distance.”
After reviewing his book, I followed up with more questions for Larry Wood:
LW: When did you first hear about the Spook Light?
Wood: I first heard about the Spook Light as a high school or college student living in the Springfield area during the 1960s.
LW: Tell me about your early experiences stalking the mysterious light?
Wood: My first experience stalking the mysterious Spook Light came in the summer of 1975. After I moved to Joplin to teach school in the fall of 1974, I heard a lot more about the light than I'd heard in Springfield and decided to check it out for myself when school got out for the summer.
LW: Describe your feelings when you first saw the Spook Light.
Wood: When I first saw the Spook Light, I was fascinated by it. I wasn't sure what it was, but it
was intriguing. It was an orange glow that grew brighter, then dimmer, then disappeared altogether before reappearing. It appeared to come closer and then retreated.
LW: What is your opinion of automobile headlights as the source?
Wood: I think the automobile light theory is valid. There have simply been too many scientific studies done concluding that the main source of the Spook Light is headlights on Old Route 66 to dismiss the theory out of hand. Also, it simply makes sense, because the vast majority of people who see the Spook Light do so while peering down what is called Spook Light Road (E-50 Road) to the west, and that road lines up perfectly with a three or four-mile stretch of Route 66 between Quapaw and Commerce, Oklahoma.
LW: Is the Spook Light still visible today?
Wood: Ironically, the Spook Light is much less visible today than it was during the 1970s and 1980s, which is strange if headlights are, indeed, the primary source of the light. But conditions have changed. Fewer trees lining the road, so less of a tunneling or sighting effect than there used to be. Also, there is now a red flashing light (such as is used to warn airplanes of tall structures) along the road that interferes with one's ability to see the Spook Light.
LW: In researching the book, did you discover any information that was surprising?
Wood: I was surprised by how well the completion of Route 66 in the early 1930s coincided with the first dissemination of information about the Spook Light. For example, the first printed mention of the light I found was in June 1934, just a year or less after paving of the old highway was finished. This, of course, strengthens the headlight theory.
LW: Based on your research and personal observations, do you have an opinion as to the source of the phenomenon.
Wood: As I've indicated, I accept the headlight theory, but that doesn't mean I dismiss all the stories about the light having been seen long before cars were prevalent in the area. I think the number of such reports are exaggerated, and I think many of them are tall tales, but I don't dismiss all of them. If the conditions are such that headlights can be seen twelve miles away, I think one could also see lanterns or campfires or other types of lights that far away. And that, I believe, is what mainly accounts for the early stories. I'm still intrigued by the Spook Light, even if it mainly is headlights, because that is something pretty phenomenal in itself—being able to see headlights from 10-15 miles away.
In a 1,200-word newspaper column, it is impossible to cover all the issues surrounding the Spook
Light. But in 100 pages, including a thorough bibliography, The Ozark Spook Light, by Larry Wood, is a fascinating story of the history, legends, investigations, and eyewitness accounts surrounding this Ozark phenomenon.