My Creepy Search History: Corpse Lights

Corpse light. Saw you blink. No, it’s not some sort of bizarre emanation exuded by dead bodies. There’s not some inner shining glow (though, maybe, given that there are gasses and whatnot being expelled during decomposition… and wouldn’t that be something creepy?) Today we’re talking about Corpse Lights, also known as spirit lights, spook lights, hobby lanterns, corpse candles, orbs, lambent flames, strange lights, deadman’s candles, Jack o’ Lanterns, fetch lights, and will o’ the wisps depending where in the world you are, and who’s telling you the stories about the weird lights seen out by the cemetery late at night or while they were out walking the Old Straight Track.

I’m 98% sure you’ve probably seen or heard of some variation on these things referenced in pop culture someplace (somewhere friendly, like Pixar’s Brave, perhaps) and I’m here to fill in the blanks as to where they’ve come from. They are a personal favourite of mine, as they’re something I’ve gleefully included in my own work and I’m still exploring extensively. What can I say? I like playing with things that were dead.

Not literally. Figuratively I mean. You weirdo.

Welcome to My Creepy Search History, wherein I post the results of my internet searches which have been conducted for the purposes of research while writing fiction. In our first episode, we discussed the unfortunate circumstances of being Buried Alive: premature burial, the people who died twice, and the ways in which people have tried avoid being mistaken for dead.

Today we’re carrying on with the dead-stuff theme, but we’re venturing into the spirit world, the land of fairy, and the realms of the undead to gather inspiration from folklore and fairytale.

A Horror Writer’s research in the obscure and questionable

The top-tier material I consistently google for tends to be regarded as being a bit… odd: Cemeteries. Hauntings. Paranormal phenomena. Folklore. Urban legends. Various beasties ranging from arachnids to zombies. I research these things largely for inspiration in my writing, but also because they fascinate me. I’ve never been partial to gore-driven horror (slasher fiction and the like), but when it comes to hauntings, possessions, and malevolent entities, I’m all for lending as much authenticity to the supernatural element in fiction.

The result is a pretty bizarre collection of things saved to my bookmarks. I figured, why not share this stuff?

(Seriously: it’s helped me meet a lot of other people with similar interests.)

What is a Corpse Light?

It’s a term for a particular bit of folklore that pertains to the carriage and correct disposal of the dead, and whose appearance sometimes foretells the death of the person to see it. According to Wikipedia:

A corpse candle or light is a flame or ball of light, often blue, that is seen to travel just above the ground on the route from the cemetery to the dying person’s house and back again, and is particularly associated with Wales.[7] A corpse fire is very similar as the name comes from lights appearing specifically within graveyards where it was believed the lights were an omen of death or coming tragedy and would mark the route of a future funeral, from the victim’s house to the graveyard, where it would vanish into the ground at the site of the burial. The appearance was often said to be on the night before a death.[8]

They’re sometimes thought of as the spirits of the dead themselves, and sometimes omens, and sometimes regarded as emissaries who travel the paths between the worlds of the real and faerie. We find stories about Corpse Lights in Welsh, Irish, Scottish, British, Germanic, Asian, and Slavic lore.

Among European rural people, especially in Gaelic, Slavic, and Germanic folklore, the will-o’-the-wisps are held to be mischievous spirits of the dead or other supernatural beings attempting to lead travellers astray[9]. Sometimes they are believed to be the spirits of unbaptized or stillborn children, flitting between heaven and hell. Other names are Jack O’ Lantern, or Joan of the Wad, Jenny Burn-tail, Kitty wi’ the Whisp, or Spunkie.[10]

There are plenty of people who claim to have witnessed this phenomena for themselves, but oftentimes orbs have been debunked as varying atmospheric conditions, marsh gasses, luminescent barn owls suffering from fungal bioluminescence, or dust on a camera lens.

Personally, I like the idea that corpse lights are tied to the paths where funeral processions passed, and the occasional cemetery story where the lights will sometimes hover aboveground for a time until a person gets close, and then vanish into the graves to which they are tied.

Art by AM-Markussen

My Creepy Search History: Corpse Lights

Corpse road from Wikipedia

“Corpse roads provided a practical means for transporting corpses, often from remote communities, to cemeteries that had burial rights, such as parish churches and chapels of ease. In Britain, such routes can also be known by a number of other names: bier road, burial road, coffin road, coffin line, lyke or lych way, funeral road, procession way, corpse way, etc. Such “church-ways” have developed a great deal of associated folklore regarding wraiths, spirits, ghosts, etc.”

Will o’ the Wisp from Mysterious Britain & Ireland

“Wirt Sikes in his book British Goblinsalludes a common story about a Welsh Will o’ the Wisp (Pwca or Ellylldan); a peasant, who is travelling home late in the evening sees a bright light travelling before him, looking closer he sees that the light is a lantern held by a “dusky little figure” which he follows for several miles, suddenly he finds himself standing on the edge of a great chasm with a roaring torrent of water rushing below him. At that moment the lantern carrier leaps across the fissure, raises the light over its head and lets out a malicious laugh, after which it blows out the light leaving the unfortunate man far from home, standing in pitch darkness at the edge of a precipice.”

Will-o’-the-Wisp / Lambent Flames from The Earth’s Anomalous Lightforms

“The Will-o’-the-wisp has been recorded as flickering over marshy ground since at least the middle ages, as the quote above testifies. In the centuries that followed, dozens of antiquaries have recorded anecdotes and personal accounts of the ignis fatuus, with even Sir Isaac Newton mentioning them in his 1704 opus Opticks. The lights have also been incorporated into modern literature, e.g. Dracula, and have even had a children’s television show named after them. The most commonly cited explanation for them is that they’re the product of ignited marsh gas: most likely slowly leaking methane whose ignition is triggered by phosphene (also called phosphine or phosphorus hydride). Historical and contemporary accounts of these lights, however, often fly in the face of this explanation given that the lights are often seen to move, and to not emit heat.”

Corpse candles, lights from Oxford Reference

“One of the omens warning of impending death was the appearance of small faint lights flitting about near the home of the person fated to die, or along the road by which the funeral will reach the churchyard; they might also be seen hovering over the place where the grave would be dug. In areas bordering on Wales, where the belief was particularly common, they were called ‘corpse candles’, and in Sussex ‘corpse lights’; the 19th-century Sussex folklorist Charlotte Latham found the belief was widespread, but thought glow-worms might account for it (Folk-Lore Record I (1878), 49–50).”

Will-o-the-Wisp and Corpse-lights; Underground Folk from Clare County Library

“Crofton Croker, in ‘Florry Cantillon’s Funeral’, alludes to the ‘Blue Man’s Lake at midnight,’ a lonely place in the bog at Shragh, near Kilrush, where ‘a spectral figure enveloped in a bluish flame’ haunted the melancholy waters. Some of the ‘corpse lights’ shining in graveyards, ‘forts,’ and deserted buildings I have myself seen. In one case, I traced the light to the stagnant water, full of rotten leaves, in the fosse of a ‘fort,’ which, when stirred by waving branches, gave out phosphorescent light.”

Will O’ The Wisps, Corpse Candles & Spook Lights! from Paranormal Encounters

“Similar phenomena are described in Japanese folklore, including Hitodama (literally “Human Soul” as a ball of energy), Hi no Tama (Ball of Flame), Aburagae, Koemonbi, Ushionibi, etc. All these phenomena are described as balls of flame or light, at times associated with graveyards, but occurring across Japan as a whole in a wide variety of situations and locations. These phenomena are described in Shigeru Mizuki’s 1985 book Graphic World of Japanese Phantoms.”

Corpse Candles, Strange Lights, and Will O’ Wisps from Ghost Hunting Secrets

“Corpse candles (also called deadman’s candles, fetch lights, jack o’ lanterns, and will-o’-the-wisps) are very mysterious lights that are often seen in churchyards and graveyards.  According to ancient folklore (Welsh, Irish, and British lore), corpse candles hover over the ground and stop at houses or other sites where death is expected.  Candle lights may be red, blue or white and they are seen both indoors and outdoors.  At a distance, they look like flickering lamps or candle flames.  According to Welsh lore, if the lights are approached, they vanish or recede in brightness.”

 

Until next time, stay weird. 😉

Showing 3 comments
  • Icy Sedgwick
    Reply

    Whoa this is some interesting stuff! Corpse lights are fascinating – but they always make me think of the Will O’ The Wisp cartoon when I was little!

    • Kira Butler
      Reply

      I’ve never seen it! Will definitely have too look that up. (My most recent exposure to will o’ the wisps was in Pixar’s Brave.)

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  • […] things), we revisit Corpse Roads (I talked about them in conjunction with Corpse Lights in My Creepy Search History not so long ago too), check out some contemporary horror comics, and learn about the serial killer […]

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