Mysterious Light Still Attracts Tourists to the Upper Peninsula, Despite Explanation

Aug 6, 2019

This story was originally broadcasted on NPR's Morning Edition.

Since the 1960’s, a bright white light has appeared outside a tiny town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Some people think it’s a paranormal occurrence, but researchers have another theory.

Mackenzie Martin has the story.

On a clear night just outside of Paulding, Michigan, 12 cars are lining up on both sides of a dead-end road under a dark sky full of stars. They’re here to see the Paulding Light, an intensely bright white light that appears at the top of a distant hill multiple times every night. 30 young adults, families, and old friends are staring at the horizon in anticipation as mosquitos buzz about.

Paulding is a small unincorporated community that’s part of a town of just more than 200 residents. Needless to say, most nights there’s not a lot going on.

Some here tonight have seen the light before, like John Willims from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who has been coming up to see the light for 20 years.

“It bounces up and down,” he says. “If you see the real one, you’ll know.”

Others, like Rich Henrion from Norway, Michigan, drove 80 miles to try to see the light for the first time. He’s wearing a Paulding Light sweatshirt that glows in the dark.

“I have three grandkids ages 6, 8, and 10, who are quite intrigued by this,” he says. “So I gotta check it out myself and make sure it’s not too scary.”

Roughly a third of the Paulding General Store is dedicated to Paulding Light merchandise claiming the mystery is still unsolved.

Aaron Halvorson is here for the second time from Presque Isle, Wisconsin. He first came as a 12-year-old child 30 years ago.

“It started kind of at the top of the trees and it looked like it was coming down the hill towards us,” he says. “I remember my grandpa saw it coming at us and he just threw the car in reverse and got out of here. I loved it. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but it was super creepy.”

A local legend goes that it’s a lantern held by the ghost of a fallen railroad brakeman, but in 2010, a group of student researchers from nearby Michigan Technological University investigated the light with a telescope. After cross referencing it with traffic on a highway nearly five miles away, they concluded that the basis of the spectacle… was actually car headlights piercing the darkness here in the Upper Peninsula.

One of the researchers, Jeremy Bos, is now an assistant professor at Michigan Tech. He says that research wasn’t exactly embraced by everyone.

“It’s ranged from stories coming back to me of folks in Paulding wanting to run me out of town to not being welcome there to people saying do I want to tell their kids there’s no Easter Bunny,” he says. “But at the same time, there’s a lot of other people who have said ‘thank you, I’ve always told people when I go there that it’s obviously car headlights, and they don’t believe me.’”

The Paulding Light has drawn thousands of tourists to Paulding, especially in recent years. Paulding General Store owner Michelle Strong says she directs tourists to the light on a daily basis. A third of her store is dedicated to Paulding Light merchandise claiming the mystery is still unsolved.

She says some people don’t want to know what’s causing it.

“I believe there are people who don’t want to have an answer to it and want to enjoy the fun part of it. There are other folks that are uncomfortable with not knowing, so they have to give it an answer,” she says. “It’s deeper than car headlights. There’s a spookiness to it.”

For an hour and 15 minutes, we watch the light appear... and then go away. Aaron Halvorson isn’t very impressed, especially considering how exciting it had been when he saw it as a child.

Then, suddenly, the light appears to move up and down and red lights appear. It’s over in an instant, but it changes Halvorson’s entire perception.

“That wasn’t car lights,” he says. “I have no idea what I saw, but that was pretty freaky.”

Others aren’t so sure.

“It almost looked like a police [car] pulling someone over, didn’t it?” says Rich Henrion.

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Michigan Tech’s Jeremy Bos says their research can explain some of these moments away.

He says it basically comes down to confirmation bias. He thinks people see what they’re already looking for.

“The whole goal wasn’t to rain on anybody’s parade, it was just to try and excite people about science and answer a question for people who are looking for it,” he says. “We have myths and fables and they’re valuable to us as humans and there’s no reason the Paulding light can’t be one of those… But to say that there’s no explanation for it? I want to say that there is if you’re looking for one.”

Based on the last half century, it’s unlikely there will be consensus on the cause of the light.

To form your own opinion, you’ll have to drive up to Paulding, Michigan.