One of the stranger children’s programmes from the 1980s was Willo the Wisp, featuring an evil TV set, a Cockney caterpillar, a lumpy dog-thing called the Moog and a benign, diaphanous narrator, Willo. Doubtless lost to its young viewers at the time – this journalist included – was the inspiration behind the programme’s title.
Steeped in English folklore, will-o’-the-wisps have long been perceived as bad omens. These ghostly flickering lights emanating from marshland were said to lead nocturnal travellers into “dark waters” and even portend death. While the name will-o’-the-wisp is now widely used for any non-celestial spectral lights – regardless of topography – across the globe myths surrounding them are surprisingly consistent.
To Australian Aborigines they are “corpse campfires”; for Mexicans the spritely bruja is believed to be the soul of a witch. In South America they are simply luz mala: “evil light”.
Urbanisation and light pollution may explain a lack of evidence for will-o’-the-wisps in countries like the UK, yet sightings persist across remoter parts of the world. North Carolina’s Brown Mountains remain a hotspot for lights that hover, move erratically and change colour. In a valley in central Norway, the Hessdalen Lights – multicoloured clusters of glowing orbs that dart across the landscape – have been witnessed for decades. In a recent episode of the Monster Talk podcast, researcher Jerry Drake and his wife describe a close-up encounter with a floating ball of light at a roadside in Iceland.
Australia’s most celebrated will-o’-the-wisp has its own visitors’ centre, “Encounter Show” and song. Drawing on Aboriginal folklore, country star Slim Dusty’s 1968 Min Min Light is the ballad of a boy who follows a light “far into the night”, never to return. Located in Western Queensland, the lights are described as airborne fiery orbs with a tendency to follow rather than to lead. They can appear out of nowhere, split in two and allegedly interact “intelligently” with observers. The “Min Min Lights” are most often encountered on the 225-mile road between Winton and Boulia, where drivers often mistake them for approaching headlights until they pass and either vanish or bounce across the road.
Scientists continue to offer explanations of swamp gas, fireflies, headlights, self-igniting plasma balls and even owls with a fondness for ingesting bioluminescent fungi. All attempts to shed light on such a multifarious and mercurial phenomenon remain, as yet, satisfyingly unsatisfying.