Image from celticcaper
As a kid, one of my must-see TV shows was called 'Real People,' an early example of reality programming that fell somewhere between 'That's Incredible' and 'Ripley's Believe It Or Not.' The most memorable episode revealed footage of a phenomenon called the Spook Light, an unexplained light that appears on a country road on the Missouri-Oklahoma border. Though it was nothing more than a shaky dot on the screen, I was rattled by the sight of it. To make matters worse, as I watched this apparition through my fingers my dad said, "That's not too far from where we live." For the remainder of my childhood I was haunted by the notion of autonomous lights in my area, often afraid to look out car windows at night.
By high school I was no more comfortable at the thought of the Spook Light, but a journalism assignment prompted my friends and me to track down my longtime phobia. We drove to Seneca, Missouri, the town closest to the light, and informally interviewed patrons of a nearby gas station. More than half of them claimed to have seen it which filled me with both hope and terror. We were also offered a slew of conflicting tips on how to witness the phenomenon. These new instructions combined with the many how-tos we'd already collected at home left us confused.
We arrived at the road and experimented with the many suggested techniques: parked or moving, headlights on or off, watching from both in and out of the car. All of these tests were performed in a state of constant dread. We didn't see the light, though the night did climax when a huge, barking black dog lunged towards our open van sending us right out of our minds.
Throughout young adulthood I revisited this dirt road at least a dozen times. The ritual expanded to include a night on the town in nearby Joplin, Missouri that involved pizza and a thorough exploration of the mall. Eventually the Spook Light search became secondary, just a way to wind down the evening with some mild disappointment.
One time we did see a small light at the end of the road that seemed to disappear when we moved closer. But this dot on the horizon didn't come close to the head-full of stories I'd been collecting, tales of two multicolored ghosts charging at viewers, splitting and merging, sometimes vanishing and reappearing so close behind that you could see your own shadow. I knew the real Will-o'-the-Wisp would mess with your radio reception and was even fond of passing through cars if both doors were open. What I saw did not satisfy.
This month, as part of my proactive Halloween celebrating I decided to visit Spook Light road again, twice actually. Two weeks ago some friends and I relived my youthful tradition and added to the event by stopping at every flea market and secondhand shop between here and there. (A number of the photos in my last post are from that trip.)
We wound up in Spook Light country around 9:30 PM and saw a few other ghost hunters parked about. I noticed the road has been paved since the days of yore. As with most advances this had both positive and negative effects. It was a smoother ride with less potential for a blow out, however a good chunk of creepy charm is now gone. Another sign of the times is that Google maps actually has it listed as "Spook Light." Convenient yes, but gone is the adventurous act of constructing and following your own homemade map that was based on discussions with real witnesses. This was part of the build-up, and it felt like we were in on a great secret.
These advances may explain why it was relatively busy that night, for a country road. That is to say we were annoyed by a passing car about every five minutes. At one point a truck pulling a hay ride passed as the riders playfully yelled at us. After picking our spot we passed the time talking, and listening to themes from horror movies. Stare at this photo for one hour and you can relive the experience...
After an hour with no sign of spooks my friends were ready to get back.
The following weekend had been set aside for commercial Spookhousing with my friend Scott, and since I had just discovered that the Joplin community had at least eight(!) to choose from, it became my destination once again. I was also determined to visit the Spook Light under more optimal conditions, which meant going later and staying longer.
After quizzing some locals and looking at online spookhouse ratings (what a time we live in!) we decided on two. First was the Twisted Forest, which was one of the more involved haunted attractions I've been to.
I appreciated their waiting system. Rather than standing in line, you take a number and sit around one of many fires as 'Night of the Living Dead' plays...
The attraction consists of a series of spooked up buildings connected by a wooded trail that culminated in a dark maze that had us stuck for at least ten minutes. The walkthough begins with a three minute long short film outlining the story of the Twisted Forest. I thought this was a great touch since a narrative always trumps random scares, and it builds anticipation since you know you're about to meet every horrible thing in the video.
Here's one of several photos I took before getting reprimanded by a fourteen year old...
Our next stop was called The Manor...
I appreciated it's classic haunted house facade that looks like it's up year round.
With the artificial spooks behind us we were ready for the real thing. Having loaded up on Fall-themed coffee we arrived at the remote road at about one in the morning. To our dismay there was still a good deal of activity, probably due to the Halloween season. This isn't to say that the Spook Light requires total peace, but it was distracting, and you're never sure of these late night drivers' motives or sobriety. After about a half hour things got quieter, just a couple other determined Spooklighters occasionally changing vantage points.
One of our fellow enthusiasts approached our car and put down the window, and I got excited to hear their report. The woman asked if we had broken down (presumably because I flashed my hazards when I first saw her top the hill.) Once I explained our mission she coldly proclaimed that parking on the road was forbidden. I used my conflict averse technique of thanking her for this helpful bit of information. I did ask her about the best way to spot the light given this newly-learned constraint. She just repeated her rebuke.
It seems that the lady is a self-proclaimed Spook Light road enforcer. I don't think ill of her since I'm certain that the road attracts all kinds of ne'er-do-wells, and I wouldn't want their shenanigans in my backyard either. I've since found recent online reports of Spook Light seekers getting approached by official law enforcement, not just some lady in a truck. Some accounts said they were threatened with a citation, and another said they were allowed to stay for ten minutes. Some folks claim there were 'no parking' signs there, but maybe they've been stolen since.
The situation needs a solution because it's an occurrence that continues to get national media coverage (most recently on the Travel Channel) and has been part of local lore for a century. People will never stop investigating it. Years ago there was a Spook Light museum and shop. Maybe it's time for another one. Okay, do I need to open this? Yes, I believe I do.
UPDATE: Here's a recent news story discussing this predicament.
Anyway, our solution was to drive down the road a bit, turn around, and park in a new spot.
On my many visits, one thing I've noticed is that even if the Spook Light doesn't show itself there are often magical (and sometimes spooky) moments. Our recent visit had three (four if you count the lady.) The first was when Scott thought he was seeing things, a dark shape moving around the car. An evil Spook Light perhaps? Turned out it was a black cat. But a black cat on Spook Light road is cool!
The second occurred when I heard something substantial shuffling in the grass right outside my car window. It sounded much larger than a cat and I gave Scott the willies when I said, "There is something out there." just as some loud steps confirmed my claim. I shined my flashlight into a field and the beam was met with two huge green eyes! I yelled! It was a cow. The last moment of magic was seeing a massive falling star perfectly framed by the windshield. Halfway though its decent it looked like it smeared in the sky, like a glowing green line of magic marker. I've never seen anything like that before, and there was no better place to see it.
As the clock passed two it finally seemed like we were the only ones around. We were able to try a variety of viewpoints and walk up and down the road. Then we saw a light. Was it headlights? It wasn't. Here's a snippet of the video footage I got. And if you like your footage short and shaky, you're in for a treat. The light wasn't moving around, just my hand.
We drove toward it and it stayed on the horizon up to a point, and then it vanished as the road descended. We continued in the same direction and it reappeared. It was always far away, much like that first time I saw something out there. But it seemed more colorful and flicker-y than a streetlight. It also seemed to split into two and three pieces.
We took our time trying to systematically rule out all the surrounding residential lights. We drove to the very end of the road and could see no source. Then we went back to where we started and saw it again. It stayed "on" throughout the rest of our visit, as long as we stayed in the right vantage points.
We drove up and down the road so many times we were able to predict when it would become visible. The predictability took away some of the mystery and made it seem less like a traveling ghost and more like a reflection or a refraction. Except that this light was seen here in the 1800s when cars and streetlights were sparse, especially in that part of the country.
It didn't do a fraction of what the stories claim, but now I will answer "yes" when asked if I've seen the Spook Light. I'm convinced what we saw is the same thing that everyone else sees.
We packed up and I left feeling more satisfied than I have on previous visits. It was after three, and as we were about to turn off the road we saw the lady enforcer once again. And I thought I was hardcore.
As a Spook Light-seer I feel I'm qualified to give tips on how to see it. So here they are...
Tips on seeing the Joplin/Hornet Spook Light:
1. Don't go in October. This has to be peak season for Spook-Lighters (and I would assume patrollers.) It's much better in solitude.
2. Go on a week night.
3. Go very late, like well after midnight. Again, all of this is done to avoid activity.
4. Be aware of the moon cycle. I don't know that one is better than another for seeing it, but I like it when the night is dark as possible.
5. If you approach from the East, go about a quarter mile down the road (yes, right where Google Maps indicates). Go past the residence on the left until their street light is no longer visible.
6. Face West and watch where the road meets the horizon. You will see the red lights of a radio tower to the right.
7. Bring a flashlight.
8. Bring a still and/or video camera.
9. Bring a tripod for your cameras. (I was kicking myself for forgetting last time.)
10. Bring a telescope. (Again, kicking myself.)
11. If you can find a place to park in the grass, then do.
12. Turn on some form of car lights when cars approach from either way.
13. Be a decent human being and drive slowly, don't litter, don't vandalize, be quiet, and don't show up on any mind altering substances. Know that it is patrolled, and there may or may not be a penalty for parking on the road.