• We have updated the guidelines regarding posting political content: please see the stickied thread on Website Issues.
So I've been looking at current academic work on will o the wisps; there's basically almost nothing. What's more, the few studies there are suggest the phenomenon is no longer seen (so anyone working on it is very keen to hear of any sites).

A scientist called Allan Mills, who died a couple of years ago, made a heroic effort to recreate it in the lab using the basic methane / phosphine template, writing papers in 1980 and 2000. Though he got the gases to ignite they burned very differently, suggesting that some additional process or chemicals were involved in the slow, 'cool' flame of will o the wisps. While he developed some ideas about what might be going on, some of the gases involved were apparently too dangerous to work with!

One of his colleagues has suggested that the basic marsh gas 'recipe' might also have some additional chemical contribution from microbes, and that maybe one reason the WOTW has vanished is that the microbes themselves have become rare in the current environment due to changes in agriculture. So - there's still a genuine mystery of sorts here.
 
Great record

R-2576181-1614970168-7524.jpg
 
Last edited by a moderator:
Part of the problem with the will o' the wisp phenomenon relates to the different types of lights that are sometimes attributed to the "will o' the wisp" category.

I've seen multiple types of nighttime lights that have been called will o' the wisp at one time or another:

- a statically-located flickering flame-like light hovering over stagnant water or waterlogged / marshy ground;

- dimly luminescent wispy clumps of apparent vapor floating like mini-fogs, sometimes over water or wet terrain and other times within a forest under humid conditions;

- a vaguely discrete small point source of light (like a small star out of focus) at a distance in a forest; and

- a clearly-defined discrete globular light bobbing along a forest trail at a walking pace (see my 2011 post).

I've also seen smaller discrete lights that resemble the lit end of a cigarette and move at a walker's pace. This last category resembles:

- Seminole10's (mislabeled) "foxfire" encounter (2004 post in this thread); and
- The late Chester's Invisible Smoker report from 2012.

I'm still not sure all these different forms of nighttime lights are the same thing.
 
Last one for a bit. This is an 1839 account from Powick in Worcestershire.



This is a bit closer to what I was thinking of in terms of a light able to be perceived as 'flying' - in this case I suppose driven by the wind.

l tried to get an exact location for this incident from old OS maps, but - surprisingly, considering the detail given - l wasn’t able to pin down the locus.

maximus otter
 
  • Like
Reactions: BS3
l tried to get an exact location for this incident from old OS maps, but - surprisingly, considering the detail given - l wasn’t able to pin down the locus.

maximus otter


I think I managed to get this one, possibly.

It talks about a "Brook House" on the Upton road about a mile from Powick.

There is a "Careys Brook House" alongside the Careys Brook about a mile south of Powick. (Edit - sorry, Powick not Upton. It's on the Upton road).

https://maps.app.goo.gl/r4JppDywwigRn46FA

One location mentioned in 19th century accounts that does still possibly exist in the right condition to produce the phenomenon is Scotton Common, which was said to be a reliable place to see them in November.
 
Last edited:
I think I managed to get this one, possibly.

It talks about a "Brook House" on the Upton road about a mile from Powick.

There is a "Careys Brook House" alongside the Careys Brook about a mile south of Upton.

https://maps.app.goo.gl/r4JppDywwigRn46FA

One location mentioned in 19th century accounts that does still possibly exist in the right condition to produce the phenomenon is Scotton Common, which was said to be a reliable place to see them in November.

Damn! l studied both the 6” and 25” to the mile OS maps - virtually contemporary with the date of the incident - and there was no house in that area with “Brook” in its name.

maximus otter
 
  • Like
Reactions: BS3
Part of the problem with the will o' the wisp phenomenon relates to the different types of lights that are sometimes attributed to the "will o' the wisp" category.

I've seen multiple types of nighttime lights that have been called will o' the wisp at one time or another:

- a statically-located flickering flame-like light hovering over stagnant water or waterlogged / marshy ground;

- dimly luminescent wispy clumps of apparent vapor floating like mini-fogs, sometimes over water or wet terrain and other times within a forest under humid conditions;

- a vaguely discrete small point source of light (like a small star out of focus) at a distance in a forest; and

- a clearly-defined discrete globular light bobbing along a forest trail at a walking pace (see my 2011 post).

I've also seen smaller discrete lights that resemble the lit end of a cigarette and move at a walker's pace. This last category resembles:

- Seminole10's (mislabeled) "foxfire" encounter (2004 post in this thread); and
- The late Chester's Invisible Smoker report from 2012.

I'm still not sure all these different forms of nighttime lights are the same thing.

I don't think they are all the same - very old accounts tended to describe all nocturnal lights as "meteors", while a lot of more modern ones bundle earthlight-type things, luminous insects in with true ignis fatuus, or confuse the issue by suggesting older accounts might have been seeing luminous insects, owls etc.

However a lot of the accounts I have linked to above seem to talk about a consistent phenomenon - a mostly blue or blue-purple 'flame' associated with marshes, graveyards, middens, old battlefields etc, which drifts up to a few feet over the ground either in one place or which appears to show movement. The latter (eg rising over a hedge, or briefly following you) can appear 'intelligent' but seems to be mostly down to air currents.

Interestingly given the deadly reputation of the phenomenon in some contexts, phosphine is highly toxic even at quite low concentrations (this is presumably one of the things Mills wasn't permitted to work with).

Your light bobbing along a forest trail sounds quite different in some ways and you may be correct to class it with 'earthlights'
 
Last edited:
Another 19th century site for the gazetteer: Beaford Moor, Devon.

This is still an SSSI so may just possibly retain the right conditions to produce a will o the wisp.
 
Last edited:
For people with an unhealthy interest in chemistry, here's a plausible explanation of the phenomenon by Prof Josef Zychowski, based on modern-era WOTW reports over a WWII-era grave site in Niepolomice Forest, Poland.

Short version: it's hydrogen, phosphine and diphosphene, an unstable mixture that can combust in a damp atmosphere. Interestingly he suggests that the gases are polarized, explaining why they could be attracted to, or repelled from, witnesses. Certain weather conditions (high moisture and an inversion layer) also seem to favour the phenomenon.
 
Last edited:
There's some more information on modern-era will o the wisp reports in, of all things, a government-commissioned paper on the pollution caused by cemeteries. This includes an appendix of "recorded occurrences of ignis fatuus in the UK": you will recognise a couple of these (eg Powick, 1839).

It's interesting that Dunoon appears in 1985 given J H Humphrey's report from there in 1840. The Mill Hill, 1980, one was apparently caused by "sewage sludge".

Whitbeck, Cumbria pre 1552
Powick, Worcs. 1839
Badsey, Worcs pre 1830
Fakenham, Norfolk pre 1900
Bungay, Suffolk pre 1900
Norfolk Broads, Norfolk pre 1900
Rudham, Norfolk 1839
Syleham, Suffolk 18th C
Crowborough, Sussex 1891
Kinlochbervie, Highland Region 1980
Dunoon, Strathclyde Region 1985
Newton Steward, Dumfries and Galloway 1930
Blundellsands, Merseyside 1902
Middleton, West Midlands c1950
Tregaron Bog, Dyfed 1984
Okehampton, Devon 1941-44
Wherwell churchyard, Hants 1991
Thorney Island, West Sussex 1935
Blo-Norton, Norfolk 1960
Dengie Marsh, Essex 1980
Eastbourne, East Sussex. 1920
Pevensey Marsh, East Sussex 1938
Morfa Bychan, Gwynedd c1694
Leg of Mutton, Mill Hill, London 1980
 
Controversy! in the Guardian's "Speculative Science" column on will-o'-the-wisp theories. An assertion that it's due to methane and phosphine elicits an almost angry response from the President of the "Society for Bioluminescence and Chemiluminescence" arguing that it has to be down to bioluminescent fungi, that the phosphine theory is "utterly without foundation", and that there has "never been a reliable (ignis fatuus) sighting".

I think my own reading shows there have been, in fact, several good, close-quarters 19th century sightings, but I had never realised there was still such robust debate around the phenomenon. It's almost as bad as ufology!

Also on that page is an interesting anecdotal account of will-o'-the-wisps in Japanese graveyards, where people were apparently buried a lot shallower than is traditional here, plus a reference to the natural flames at Mount Chimera in Turkey ('hot' burning natural gas, so not will-o'-the-wisps, but a fascinating thing nonetheless).
 
My most compelling earthlight / ghost light / will o' the wisp experience also happened in the American South - in northeast Tennessee (in the Appalachians). It was similar to Seminole10's sighting in that the light first appeared to be moving so as to suggest it was held by someone walking.

NOTE: I'm certain I posted this years ago on FTMB, but it appears the post has been lost. Anyway ...

It was summer 1963. My Boy Scout troop was spending a week at (the now-defunct) Camp Tom Howard, just off US Hwy 421 east of Bristol, Tennessee. (Note 1) Each troop had its own campsite, with tents, cots, and a campfire pit. Our troop's campsite was perhaps the most isolated one of all. It was situated up on a spur ridge that rose from the camp's central area and led up onto / into the wooded mountain overlooking the camp (Holston Mountain). A steep trail led up from the camp's center onto an ridgeline with 'peaks' and 'sways'. You crossed over two minor 'peaks' along the trail before arriving at our campsite, where the trail terminated.

The campsite was basically just a clearing atop the ridge. A row of tents ran along each side of the ridge's crest, which was open with the campfire pit in the middle. At the upper end of the clearing sat the leader's tent. Behind that tent the ridge became steeper as it ascended to the flank of the mountain above. The ridge dropped away steeply on each side, and we were surrounded by mixed deciduous forest with medium undergrowth.

My best friend and I occupied the tent sitting next to where the trail entered the campsite. It was past 'lights out', on a clear and moonlit night. We were lying on our cots talking. The tent's front flaps were pulled back so we could look out into the woods and the valley below the ridge.

We noticed a light maybe 60 to 80 yards away - in the direction of the first 'peak' one crossed when following the trail up to our site. The light appeared to be discrete, round, and yellow with a slight greenish tinge - somewhat like a bright firefly. However, once we determined its location it was clear the light was too big to be a firefly, and it wasn't blinking. The light appeared to slowly bob up and down. We then realized that the light was also apparently moving along the trail (along the ridge crest) toward us. We originally thought it must be someone with a flashlight coming up to our camp. Since it was a rules violation to be out after bedtime, we positioned ourselves to find out who it was.

We watched the light continue to follow the trail, slowly bobbing up and down as if being carried by someone walking. We watched it descend slightly from the first 'peak', climb and cross the second 'peak', and approach our position. The light seemed to be continuous, except for blinking obviously associated with passing behind the undergrowth bordering the trail.

The undergrowth stopped where the trail entered our site's clearing. My friend and I were only about 15 feet away from the point where the trail entered the clearing, so we could get a clear look at whomever was out after hours.

After some 2 to 3 minutes of our continuous observation, the light entered our site's clearing. Instead of the flashlight we originally presumed, it turned out to be a sphere of pale light floating along some 3 to 4 feet in the air above the trail. It was no smaller than a golf ball, and no larger than a tennis ball. It was pale yellow with a slight greenish tinge. It was a single spherical shape with no features.

As it came out from the underbrush lining the trail, we had a clear view across the clearing (and on to the valley beyond) with the ground before us illuminated by moonlight. There was no person (or anything) holding the light up. There was only the light itself.

It continued at its sedate walking pace - bobbing up and down as if with footsteps - up-slope through the center of our campsite. It barely missed the leader's tent at the clearing's uphill end before continuing up onto the steeper slope leading upward to the mountain, thus disappearing into the forest. All this happened in total silence.

My friend and I compared our observations, and we agreed we'd both seen the same thing (as described above). During our week at camp we asked around about weird phenomena (ghost tales, etc.) associated with the camp, but nobody knew of any such lore.

I've never been sure how to categorize what I saw. Right or wrong, in my experience 'foxfire' referred to static luminescence and 'will o' the wisp' to tenuous or flame-like lights. What we saw that night certainly wasn't static, and it had a consistent discrete spherical shape. I don't think it falls under 'ball lightning', because it moved at a sedate pace and there was no storm activity at the time.

In recent years I've come to associate this sighting with 'earthlights', because it definitely followed the crest of the ridge and thus suggested a possibly geological origin or correlation.

Note 1. Camp Tom Howard's location is marked on the Shady Valley Quadrangle (TN / VA) topographic map from USGS (available online). I believe the ridge upon which the campsite sat would be just below the word 'Howard' appearing on the map.

Following the very sad news about EnolaGaia I was looking again at some of his own remarkable, and remarkably exactly described, Fortean experiences and the one above threw up something very interesting which I now wonder whether he was aware of.

In 1958 an aircraft crashed on Holston Mountain. On the evening of the crash - rather later than contact was lost with the aircraft, but before authorities were aware of where it had gone down - local residents reported flickering lights on the mountain. Later that night a motorist reported a 'bright light' on the mountainside.

When the wreckage was found, however, it was clear that the lights could not have been due to crash survivors, as there weren't any, and there were no footprints or other signs that people had been at the crash site. What's particularly interesting is that it was apparently suggested that these lights were due to a piezoelectric effect - I'm sure this might have some relevance to our friend EnolaGaia's own 'will-o-the-wisp' experience just down the hill.
 
A 2014 research paper:

"This paper draws a comparison between the 700-year-old historically reported will-o'-the-wisp phenomenon and the more recent discovery of extremophilic colonization of hostile environments; both have been observed as present in isolated, stressed environmental regions and originating from biological phenomena."

https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsta.2014.0206

The author goes on to state:

"The reason is simply that the will-o'-the-wispsightings have now disappeared completely."

Hmmm... in this age of the motor car very few people are out traversing the fens and peatlands of Britain at night. It is often said that all our truly wild areas have vanished since industrialisation, however that is not true, for example;

"... peat bogs (nine per cent) make up more of the UK than urban areas (six per cent)."

and:

"Professor Rae said: “It may feel like a very densely populated urban nation, but the reality is that the vast majority of the land area of the UK is not built on.

“Given that 83 per cent of the population of the UK lives in urban areas it is not surprising that some people hold the opposite to be true. However, from a land cover point of view, the United Kingdom is in fact dominated by pasture and arable land."

https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/land-cover-atlas-uk-1.744440

I know researcher Paul Sinclair (Truth Proof) has received reports of anomalous lights that fit the description of Will-o'-the-wisp from the Yorkshire fenlands. People used to trek across bogs and fens at night because it was the shortest route from a-to-b but nowadays we use roads.
 
  • Like
Reactions: BS3
I think there's an element of that (fewer people in the right places at night) going on; I also think tighter environmental regulation, particularly around farming and waste disposal, probably makes a difference too, as the specific chemistry and conditions seem to rely on organic matter being present. I'm not sure it's possible to say the phenomenon has disappeared entirely, but it is no doubt fleeting, difficult to see, and has been very rare since at least the 19th century.

Note that the one 1990s record in that list I posted above was in that classic will-o-the-wisp setting, an old and presumably slightly marshy churchyard - rather like Zychowski's site in Poland in many respects.
 
A possible ghost light encounter:

"The object’s movement was peculiar. He described it as accelerating in a “super strange way like someone grabbing the movement slider thing on a 3D object in a blender or something and just swinging your mouse as fast as you can to get it to move in a straight line.”"

https://mendofever.com/2023/02/26/a...n-the-darkness-of-the-mendocino-county-night/

There does seem to be a commonality to some of the 19th century and earlier reports that talk about distinctive movement, usually a bobbing motion.
 
I think there's an element of that (fewer people in the right places at night) going on; I also think tighter environmental regulation, particularly around farming and waste disposal, probably makes a difference too, as the specific chemistry and conditions seem to rely on organic matter being present. I'm not sure it's possible to say the phenomenon has disappeared entirely, but it is no doubt fleeting, difficult to see, and has been very rare since at least the 19th century.

Note that the one 1990s record in that list I posted above was in that classic will-o-the-wisp setting, an old and presumably slightly marshy churchyard - rather like Zychowski's site in Poland in many respects.
So many of the natural bogs have been drained to form usable farmland that I'd guess we have a lot less observable bog than we had in the 19th century, when it would have been quite common to have wetlands dotted around the place before efficient drainage. Also, thinking about the 'organic matter' thing, maybe in those days before adequate policing and modern police methods, it was more common for people to 'disappear' into bogs?

And, given witness perceptions being skewed by expectations, maybe one person's 'bobbing light as though being carried' might be another's 'gliding'? If you thought a light was caused by a person carrying a lantern, would be you be more likely to perceive it as 'bobbing', whereas if you saw it as a 'ghostly apparition' you may perceive it to be gliding along, perhaps?
 
Here is one more Will-o-the-wisp connected note I've come across recently from Herefordshire, preserved in the journal of the Woolhope Field Club and written by H. Cecil Moore. This relates to the tale of the 'Aymestrey Night Bell'. Anyway the story, recorded in 1828 by a vicar called Edward Baines who had connections with the area, was that the church at Aymestrey formerly had a bell in the tower that was rung at a particular time at night "for the benefit of any traveller who might be led astray by a Will-o-the-wisp in the wood, just across the Lugg, called Pokehouse". The rent from a small piece of land was according to Baines once used to pay someone to ring the bell, although the sum was so small that the custom lapsed by the late 18th century.

'Pokehouse' is translated by Moore as "the abode of Puck".
 
Given the proximity of the quarry, I wonder whether the ringing of the bell was more to help people who may be lost in the wood to orientate themselves and therefore not fall to their deaths...?
 
As I mentioned before, I work in a school (caretaker). One of my duties is opening up the school in the morning at 6am. When I first started many years ago, the school field was half its current size and was bisected by a metal fence. The other side, though owned by the school, was in public use. The area is quite rural.
Opening up the school one dark morning about twenty years ago, I saw a small light bobbing along the ground on the other side of the fence. It travelled about half way over the Field before returning on its path then suddenly vanishing. It crossed my mind it might be a will o the wisp.
I was a little unnerved especially when a few mornings later I saw it again.
I saw it several times more over the next few weeks and still couldn't figure out what it was.

As the mornings grew lighter the mystery was solved. A man was taking his dog for an early morning walk before going to work. His work pants had high vis patches on the knees which reflected the school's security lights as he walked, only to vanish as he walked into shadow where the light couldn't be reflected.

If I'd only had the first few sightings, I'd have still been considering a supernatural explanation.
 
Given the proximity of the quarry, I wonder whether the ringing of the bell was more to help people who may be lost in the wood to orientate themselves and therefore not fall to their deaths...?

After a bit of nosing around Google Books, it seems that some folklorists are of the opinion that the 'Night Bell' legend might be related to the old custom of ringing a 'curfew' bell after sunset.

In most of the country this died out after the Reformation, but it hung on later in a few places, and it's possible that the 'Pokehouse' story was attached to the Aymestrey bell by locals who had forgotten the medieval origins of the custom. Of course this doesn't preclude the possibility that will-o-the-wisps were once seen in Pokehouse Wood, or that they were the source of its name.
 
Did anyone spot the will o' the wisp in the film ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, flickering nearby the track to the castle? Blue rings of fire. It was a nice touch.
 
As I mentioned before, I work in a school (caretaker). One of my duties is opening up the school in the morning at 6am. When I first started many years ago, the school field was half its current size and was bisected by a metal fence. The other side, though owned by the school, was in public use. The area is quite rural.
Opening up the school one dark morning about twenty years ago, I saw a small light bobbing along the ground on the other side of the fence. It travelled about half way over the Field before returning on its path then suddenly vanishing. It crossed my mind it might be a will o the wisp.
I was a little unnerved especially when a few mornings later I saw it again.
I saw it several times more over the next few weeks and still couldn't figure out what it was.

As the mornings grew lighter the mystery was solved. A man was taking his dog for an early morning walk before going to work. His work pants had high vis patches on the knees which reflected the school's security lights as he walked, only to vanish as he walked into shadow where the light couldn't be reflected.

If I'd only had the first few sightings, I'd have still been considering a supernatural explanation.
TOP debunking there. :cool:

By 'high vis' do you mean 'reflective'? That stuff catches me out too.

In a job years ago I'd regularly set off a row of movement-activated taps by, as @Monstrosa cleverly deduced, walking past them in my reflective cycling jacket.
I was warned that some toilets have the same set-up, and by jingo, they do! :omg:
 
Back
Top