In 1966, a group of high school boys were out at Michigan’s Ottawa National Forest when they witnessed something so frightening they ran straight to the local sheriff.
The boys witnessed what has since been dubbed the Paulding Light, which witnesses describe as a bright white light glowing amid the trees, deep in the woods.
The light changes size and shape before fading and disappearing.
Legends began to pop up as more and more people witnessed the phenomenon.
The official story claims the light emanates from a swaying lantern held by the ghost of a railroad brakeman who was crushed to death when he tried to stop an oncoming train from crashing into stalled cars on the tracks.
Over a century ago, the National Forest had railroads running through it.
The abandoned tracks remain hidden beneath layers of foliage, rusting and eroding away.
Some believe the light is that form a ghost train and still others believe it is the glowing spirit of a grandparent searching for a grandchild. The grandparent uses a lantern that constantly goes out and needs to be relit, explaining why the light will sway and eventually die out.
UFO hunters believe the light is a sign of intelligent extraterrestrial life while some claim it’s simply swamp gas or something related to the Northern Lights.
While many hold to the belief the light belongs to some poor undead creature, critics believe the light is simply headlights appearing as one from a great distance and the location happens to be a highway barely seen through the trees. This belief is strengthened by the construction of a highway that was complete roughly the same time the teens discovered the Paulding Light in the 60s.
Regardless of what people believe the light really is, the forest remains the state’s most popular tourist spots.
The Detroit Free Press reported the U.S. Forest Service erected a large sign to guide travelers and sight-seers to the site.
“I’ve seen it where there’s 50 cars there, both sides of the road and all the way back,” 43-year-old Jason Lannet, the owner of the Paulding General Store, explained.
His store rests at the town’s only intersection only a few miles from the site. “I get a million people that come looking for directions because they’re lost,” he explained.
Curious visitors aren’t the only ones interested in watching the Paulding Light.
The small, rural town doesn’t boast many other attractions and watching the Paulding Light became a large social event.
Lannet recalled watching the the light with friends. As teens, his group would drink beer and hang out with other townsfolk who wanted to see the strange phenomenon.
“I know from when I’ve been out there it’s weird when you see it,” Lannet said.
“‘Cause every night it’ll be dim and then it’ll come. I’ve seen it where it looks like it’s in the ditch right next to your car. I wish I knew what it was.”
While some people enjoy speculating and making up legends, others have made efforts to identify the Paulding Light’s true origins.
In 2010, an electrical engineering grad student from Michigan Tech in Houghton heard of the phenomenon and decided to study it as part of the Society of Photo Optical Instrumentation Engineers, a student club focusing on the study of optics.
Jeremy Bos and nearly twelve other club members drove to Paulding with telescope and spectrograph.
They left the tech at the site and took turns driving down the highway while blinking the headlights in a prearranged pattern.
They looked through the telescope, which showed the headlights of oncoming vehicles and they shot a video to post online for any naysayers. The flickering people witnessed was actually the moment a vehicle went over a hill.
Though the students were content with their success, many refused to believe the Paulding Light could be chalked up to headlights viewed from an 8-mile distance through dense forest.
Many witnesses continue to plant their feet and confront Bos with their theories.
“It’s the same with anything,” Bos explained. “There is scientific evidence to disprove all sorts of things, and people still choose to believe the more fantastical, maybe because they view science as taking away the mystery of things and they want to hold onto some of that mystery.”
Bos and his club reported locals harassing them for conducting the experiment in the first place.
Some went as far as calling the club’s experiment a waste of government money, despite the club being self-funded.
Linda Schulz, a 55-year-old resident, claimed: “Even in the Native American history they talk about the light, and this is long before there were roads. People want to debunk this mystery and say it’s headlights. You might be able to see them from a distance. But when the real mystery light shows up, it’s a light of its own.”
Bos believes the experiment did more to ruin the mystery for people than come against a deep-set belief. “I had a good friend of mine ask if next I wanted to disprove Santa Claus for the kids,” he stated.
Whether people are willing to believe the Pauling Light is evidence of alien technology, an ancient secret, ghosts or headlights, the experience is at the center of the entertainment and continues to be enjoyed by thousands each year.