What Are the Mysterious Marfa Lights?

Marfa lights
The Marfa Lights in Texas have been unexplained since the late 19th century. Flickr: AlexandraBarao CC by 2.0

If there's one thing that people who have seen the Marfa Lights in Texas agree upon, it is that they are worth every effort to describe them. When the conditions are right, the lights mysteriously materialize, like deer quietly stepping into a meadow, as night falls on the wind-blown, forsaken West Texas landscape about 9 miles (14 kilometers) east of Marfa. Yellow orbs, like lamp-lit basketballs hover and twinkle — and at times gyrate — over the shrubby high-desert ground, in the shadows of the Chinati Mountains.

"They appeared in the darkness south of U.S. 90 between Alpine and Marfa," journalist Michael Hall wrote about seeing the Marfa Lights in a June 2006 story in Texas Monthly, "yellowish-white lights that glowed, faded, disappeared, and returned in different places. Sometimes they changed colors, other times they split apart. I couldn't tell if they were 10 miles away or a hundred, the size of a car or a house. I didn't understand them, but I didn't care. I loved those lights."


Just about everyone in Marfa, and many who have visited, has a story like that. Kathleen Shafer, an artist, geographer and author of "Marfa: The Transformation of a West Texas Town," has seen the lights, too. She moved to Marfa in spring 2017 after visiting regularly since 2007.

"I went out with a local to an undisclosed location who assured me that I would see them," she says in an email, of her first Marfa-Lights experience. "We leaned against my car as the day turned to dusk, and within a few minutes, the lights started. They really do dance around — playful like — as if communicating in some primitive way."

Though the lights can be seen from a distance and tend to "disappear" if observers approach, this is no tall tale, like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, one that stokes the imagination's embers. Many viewers record their experience — a Marfa Lights View Park encourages it.

The Marfa Lights have been visible for generations. But what they are is where people tend to stop agreeing. Many concede they're just seeing an optical illusion. But even if that's the case, what's causing it?


Small City, Big Lights

Marfa, Texas, is a small town (pop. 1,981 in the 2010 census) with an outsized reputation. It was founded in the 1880s merely as a water stop, and during World War II it served as a training hub for flyers at Marfa Army Airfield. (The airfield, in fact, is the private land where the lights appear, and WWII pilots flying overhead also reported sightings.)

The town has, in the 20th and early 21st centuries, improbably evolved into a tourism and cultural hub, and a center for minimalist and conceptual art. Through the decades, Hollywood productions have used the town as a backdrop in movies. And then there are the Marfa Lights. According to oral history, Shafer says, the lights were first sighted by rancher Robert Ellison as he drove cattle from Alpine to Marfa in 1883.


"He spotted lights flickering at the base of Paisano Pass, and he thought they were fires from Apaches," she says. "However, the next day when he approached the site of where these fires would have been, there were no ashes or other remnants of fire."

Despite having written an autobiography later in life, Ellison never mentioned in print seeing the lights. Another account claims O. W. Williams, a lawyer and judge, told friends and family about lights in the 1880s.

The earliest written account of the lights, however, appeared in the San Angelo Times in 1945, according to journalist Hall. The lights were also written about in a 1957 issue of Coronet magazine. Since then, the lights, which appear sporadically, have become a part of Marfa lore — and one of its main attractions.


What Causes the Lights?

Let's start with the most romantic of speculation: Some believe it is the ghost of Apache Chief Alaste, who (allegedly) haunts the area. Others claim it's space aliens trying to contact us, or the ghosts of Spanish conquistadors. Shafer says she's even heard people speculate that someone simply ties flashlights to jackrabbits and sets them loose. (No jackrabbits strapped with flashlights have been found in the area.)

Causes of the lights then veer away from ghosts and animals, and into the more scientific.


One possible explanation centers on how layers of air at different temps refract light. It's called Fata Morgana — basically a mirage. Marfa sits nearly 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) above sea level and possesses the atmospheric temperature gradients between warm and cold to conceivably create this mirage phenomenon.

Other explanations: glowing gases or electric charges caused by pressurized igneous rock.

But in 2011, a group of scientists published a study in the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics on the lights after coming to a much simpler conclusion: They determined that the lights are actually car headlights on nearby U.S. 67 that appear warped as they travel across 20 miles (32 kilometers) of flatland.

Of course, this is where the debate really heats up, because Rancher Ellison and Judge Williams claimed to have seen the lights in the 1880s, which was long before the automobile began carving its path across America. But — did they really see the lights? Because they didn't write it down.

"Many people who think they are seeing the Marfa Lights are undoubtedly looking at automobile headlights or ranch lights," wrote local historian Lonn Taylor in the Marfa newspaper The Big Bend Sentinel, "but it is clear that there were other lights out there before there were either automobiles or electricity in the Big Bend, and they are still out there."

Ultimately, it seems observers of the lights are at a crossroads in the barren Texas-scape: Those who would like to write off the lights as an illusion, and those who would write them off as an illusion, with a romantic twist.

"I think the lights are real," says Shafer, who believes the "atmospheric conditions" claim, "but I also think they are an illusion. So they are a real illusion, if that makes sense.

"If you ask a sour puss they might maintain that the lights are car headlights," she says. "I don't know that too many people agree on one explanation, but I think that most people in Marfa don't care what they are. There's no fun in knowing all the answers."