The Hornet Spooklight

[Tri-State Spook Light Cover]
Tri-State Spook Light booklet cover, circa 1955. Scanned by Celtic Caper. Licence: fair use (cf. Wikipedia).

The Hornet Spooklight, named after a town in Missouri that's no longer on the map, is perhaps the most well known and frequently visited anomalous light in the United States. About the nature of the light not much is known, but it's been regularly appearing for visitors since the 19th century. Being in the Tri-State area between Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma, the light is actually most frequently seen on Oklahoma land.


Background & History

The light is usually seen at night, especially from 10pm into the early hours of the morning. People who have had close encounters with the light describe it as being anywhere between the size of a baseball and a basketball or larger. It can be almost any colour, and may change colours or have multiple elements, but is most frequently described as orange or yellow. Its light is strong enough to illuminate the surface of a road, and is often compared with a lantern or headlight. Indeed it usually looks like a lantern or distant headlight, and many people often take it for such until it exhibits unusual behaviour such as darting across a field and then suddenly extinguishing itself. Local residents have seen it in their back gardens, hovering outside their bedrooms, and bobbing along past their porches.

The area has been studied many times, including most famously by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1942, who concluded that the phenomenon was due to the refraction of distant headlamps on Route 66, which was completed in 1933. Yet many, many witnesses have recorded seeing it before 1933, and even back into the 19th century before cars were invented. Nevertheless the refraction theory is very popular, and the construction of Interstate 44 in the 1960s has only helped to bolster it. In 1986, Keith Partain came up with the theory that there are two kinds of sightings: the misidentifications of distant car lamps, and the encounters with the real spooklight. This would explain why the light has remained so popular over the decades, and seems very plausible indeed when all the evidence is taken into consideration.

For example, most sightings of the light are from Missouri looking west into Oklahoma. Vistors drive along either E40 or E50—both of which have been called Spooklight Road or, confusingly, the Devil's Promenade—for perhaps a mile and then look towards the west and directly at there I44 and R66 are, just over a small hill. Trees line the sides of the roads. It's not too surprising that most of the lights seen from this vantage point in this direction are distant and indistinct. On the other hand, there are the other type of report: for example, people having seen a light in the west, only to drive towards it and then have it reappear behind them. Or the sighting of Garland "Spooky" Middleton, proprieter of the "Spook Light Free Museum", where the light tumbled along sparkling into a field amidst some cattle.

The shack known as the Spook Light Free Museum, or the Spooksville Museum, was built on the intersection of E50 and State Line Road by photographer Arthur Posie Meadows. It was later run by Leslie W. Robertson, who subsequently sold it to his brother-in-law Middleton. Open nightly from 6pm to 1am, it was expanded to include a pool table and bar, and in the early 70s once attracted 271 visitors in one night. It was destroyed by fire, possibly in the 80s after Middleton passed away, and no longer stands.

Where is the Spooklight?

[Hornet Spooklight Area]
Map of the Hornet Spooklight area. Credit: Sean B. Palmer

Quick Directions

If you can approach from Interstate 44, the best route is to take the Seneca exit near Joplin, turning south onto Highway 43, and thence onto the light:

Spooklight Area

The eastern edge of the spooklight area is on Gum Road, just before the intersection with State Line Road. The light was seen to the south of the end of Gum Road back in the days of the horse and buggy, before cars became popular. Thereafter it is said to have moved further west, especially along E40 in the early part of the 20th century. In the 1950s it is said to have moved again, this time slightly south to E50. In fact, sightings of the light seem to have continued along E40 after this time, and even along Gum Road, so that the whole area can be considered rife spooklight viewing territory—if one is not interested in distant refraction from I44 and R66 of course.

Another common approach is to stay on H43 until the intersection with Iris Road, turning right (west) onto Iris and then right again (north) onto State Line Road. In this way, you approach the spooklight area from the south. This method is especially common given the belief that E50 is the only place where the spooklight can be seen.

Other Names

Because it's the most famous American spooklight, the Hornet Spooklight is often referred to as simply "The Spooklight". As with most spooklights, however, the Hornet part is usually included to indicate of the closest town. Hornet is indeed the closest town to the actual location of the light, but things aren't that simple: most maps don't even include Hornet because it's basically a ghost town, and being associated with a spooklight is lucrative for tourism. So the spooklight is often named not after Hornet, but after Seneca, Joplin, Neosho, Quapaw, and even the Tri-State Area in general.

On 9th July 2006, I conducted a quick survey comparing lots of different names for the light to see how often they were used on the web. Here's a summary of the results, from most to least popular:

Notes and Trivia

In a report of fires in eastern Oklahoma, the following two lines appear, very likely indicating times when the fire services were called for the spooklight:

The latitudes and longitudes given refer to points in the spooklight area, just off of State Line Road, and north and south of E50.

Sean B. Palmer