Bobbing and bouncing along a dirt road in northeast Oklahoma is the Hornet Spook Light, a paranormal enigma for more than a century. Described most often as an orange ball of light, the orb travels east to west along a four-mile gravel road, long called the Devil’s Promenade by area locals.
The Spook Light often referred to as the Joplin Spook Light or the Tri-State Spook Light, is actually in Oklahoma near the small town of Quapaw. However, it is most often seen from the east, which is why it has been “attached” to the tiny hamlet of Hornet, Missouri, and the larger, better-known town of Joplin.
According to the legend, the spook light was first seen by Indians along the infamous Trail of Tears in 1836; however, the first “official” report occurred in 1881 in a publication called the Ozark Spook Light.
The ball of fire, described as varying from the size of a baseball to a basketball, dances and spins down the center of the road at high speeds, rising and hovering above the treetops before it retreats and disappears. Others have said it sways from side to side, like a lantern carried by some invisible force. In any event, the orange fire-like ball has reportedly been appearing nightly for well over 100 years. According to locals, the best time to view the spook light is between 10:00 p.m. and midnight and tends to shy away from large groups and loud sounds.
Though many paranormal and scientific investigators have studied the light, including the Army Corps of Engineers, no one has been able to provide a conclusive answer as to the origin of the light.
Many explanations have been presented over the years, including escaping natural gas, reflecting car lights and billboards, and will-o’-the-wisps, a luminescence created by rotting organic matter. However, all of these explanations fall short of being conclusive.
As to the theory of escaping natural gas, common in marshy areas, the Hornet Light is seemingly not affected by wind or rain, and how would it self-ignite? The idea that it might be a will-o’-the-wisp is discounted, as this biological phenomenon does not display the intensity of the ball of light seen along the Devil’s Promenade. Explanations of headlights or billboards are easily discarded, as the light was seen years before automobiles or billboards were made and before a road even existed in the area.
One possible explanation that is not as easily discounted but not yet proven conclusive is that the lights are electrical atmospheric charges. In areas where rocks, deep below the earth’s surface, are shifting and grinding, an electrical charge can be created. This area, lying on a fault line running east from New Madrid, Missouri, westward to Oklahoma, was the site of four earthquakes during the eighteenth century. These types of electrical fields are most commonly associated with earthquakes.
Other interesting legends also abound about the light, providing a more ghostly explanation. The oldest story is of a Quapaw Indian maiden who fell in love with a young brave. However, her father would not allow her to marry the man as he did not have a large enough dowry. The pair eloped but were soon pursued by a party of warriors. According to the legend, when the couple was close to being apprehended, they joined hands above the Spring River and leaped to their deaths. It was shortly after this event that the light began to appear and was attributed to the spirits of the young lovers.
Another legend tells of a miner whose cabin was attacked by Indians while he was away. Upon his return, he found his wife and children missing and is said to continue looking for them along the old road, searching with his lantern.
Others say the Spook Light is the ghost of an Osage Indian chief who was decapitated in the area and continues to search for his lost head with a lantern held high in his hand.
Sightings of the Spook Light are common, sometimes even reported to be seen inside vehicles. A few people, who have been walking along the road at night, have even claimed to have felt the heat of the ball as it passed near them.
Reportedly, the moving anomaly, growing brighter and dimmer, larger and smaller, can be seen approximately 12 miles southwest of Joplin, Missouri. To get to Devil’s Promenade Road, take Interstate 44 west from Joplin but before you reach the Oklahoma border, take the next to the last Missouri exit onto Star Route 43. Traveling south for about four miles, you will reach a crossroads which is Devil’s Promenade Road.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated January 2023.
Readers Stories about the Spooklight:
Reader’s Story from Hornet, Missouri
I was doing some walking down memory lane this evening and came across your website about the old Hornet Spook Light. Your site seems to be one of the few that is updated, and I thought I would share my story of the Spook Light.
My dad was born in Seneca, near Hornet and Joplin. In fact, our family cemetery is in Hornet – generations of folks who lived and died on the prairie. It is a really amazing place. My dad is something of an adventurer, and I think he got that from his mom. She would tell us amazing and hilarious stories of cows jumping through the barn window, the wagon turning over and dumping everyone out on their way to church, and surviving countless tornadoes in “tornado alley.”
I remember my grandmother telling her story of the Spook Light. It seems that when she was in high school, it was common for buses to take tourists – and locals – to see the light.
The night she went, they had a truly close encounter. It seems the light not only appeared but actually came down the road toward their bus, rested on the hood, and then burst into a bright, blinding light and vanished. I don’t know if she ever went again. I heard the story many times, and she never changed or embellished it. She was in her 80s when she died about 15 years ago, so it was a very long time ago when she had her encounter.
My dad, as I said, is also an adventurer. Until I married, we would all vacation every year in that section of Missouri, visiting the family and exploring every little road and interesting spot on the map. I’ve explored countless deserted cabins and been through just about every little museum in the area. So, of course, one night, we had to see the Spook Light.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I know I was in high school, so that would have been the late 70s, early 80s. It was late when we got there, and I only saw a few cars in the area. Dad parked, and we waited. Yes, it showed up. I’ve read the explanations of the light…and some very reputable and determined people claim it’s cars on the highway. What I saw was certainly NOT headlights. We watched a car drive down the road toward the light. The light was above the car as it passed under it – and the light was brighter and larger than the tail lights receding in the distance – so I don’t see that headlights even farther away could appear that large, even if you could logically assume that the light was above the car, because the highway was higher than the road…I understand all of that.
What happened next convinced me that it was not headlights. The large light split into two smaller lights – and yes, they looked like headlights. So, I assumed it was just that and was somewhat disappointed…until the lights moved into a vertical position, held that position for several seconds, then moved back to a horizontal location, joined, and vanished. If a car could have accomplished that feat, it had somehow driven in a traditional way, then on its side, righted itself and managed to blend its headlights into one bright light and vanish.
I wasn’t a child – I was at least 16 years old. I know what I saw and I’ve never seen anything like it since. I have no explanation for it. I believe I saw the Spook Light. I don’t believe it was an alien or ghost; I am convinced there is a logical scientific reason behind it. But whatever it is, it certainly wasn’t headlights that night! Perhaps other sightings can be attributed to headlights, but not that summer night 30 years ago!
My dad wants to take my sister and our families back to the old family farm one more time – my daughter, niece and nephew have never been to Missouri. I’m planning to ask for an evening at the Spook Light. Maybe we’ll get lucky and pass the mystery on to the next generation!
Submitted by: Cassandra Krummel Golden, November 2009
Reader’s Story from Hornet, Missouri
I saw on your list of most haunted places the name of a place close to my heart. The Spook Light at Hornet, Missouri. My great uncle, Garland Middleton, owned a museum there for many years. He inherited the nickname “Spooky” from the former owner. The Spook Light has been studied by scientists from all over, the Corps of Engineers, and many more people for over a hundred years, and it has never been explained. I have seen it lots of times myself. I’ve seen it split into four glowing balls, turn red, then blue, and disappear. It’ll be in front of you. then disappear and then be behind you. It literally went through cars. Sometimes it comes out sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t. The best time to see it is after midnight when it’s really quiet. They tried to close the road it to the public several years ago. Talk about a 4-state uproar!!!!!! It’s still open. 🙂 The story goes back to Indian days.
Submitted by: Diane Melton, October 2005
A Reader’s Story About the Spooklight in Oklahoma
My name is Jackie, and I grew up in Quapaw, Oklahoma, attending grade school and high school through the 10th grade before we moved. My father grew up with the light, and I would have to say I saw the Spook Light at least 175 times or more during the time that I lived there in the 1960s.
There used to be an old bar near Spook Light Road where my dad would take us when we had company from out of town. We kids loved to go there, play pool, and listen to the old man who owned the bar tell us stories about the light. Often we would sit outside on the car to watch for the Spook Light. We had to be really quiet, or it would not come out. As we watched, all of a sudden it would appear at the other end of the road. My dad would leave his lights out and try to creep up on it, but always, by the time we got near the light, it would suddenly be behind us.
It was a regular tradition that our family would attend the Indian pow-wows on every 4th of July holiday. On one of these occasions, after we left the pow-wow, we went to my Aunt’s house, which was just right off Spook Light Road. As we were drying there at about 10:00 p.m., a light came up behind us, weaving back and forth across the road like a drunk. My mom insisted that we pull over and let the car pass; however, as soon as we did, the light took off across the land.
I have seen it with a big white light with a small green one below it, as well as it sometimes appearing as a red or yellow-orange colored orb. I believe, at one time Readers Digest came out with a story in the late 1950s or early 1960s. On another occasion, my father took me and all our friends out into the country, where we had such a bizarre experience it would make you believe almost anything. At this place, there was a fence upon the land where an Indian and his wife were said to have been killed by a white man. According to the legend, the Indian stated before he died that, he and his wife would always be around. At the fence, dad had us hold our hands out with a piece of bread over the fence. Suddenly, we would feel something taking the bread from our hands. Even with a flashlight, you could see that it was there one second, and the bread was gone the next. This was very scary to me at the time.
When I grew older, my dates always took me to Spook Light Road, and along the way, we would cross the Spring River Bridge, its wooden structure rocking side to side so badly that I was frightened before we ever reached Spook Light Road. I always saw the light appear near Quapaw, Oklahoma.
I don’t know if it is the same now as it was back then, so I will be making plans to go home to Quapaw, Oklahoma, to see it again. My Aunt Mary, who was raised with me, will go with me. It should be fun as we talk about our old stories and try to find the light again.
Submitted by: Jackie Oliver, June 2005
Joplin, Missouri – Lead Mining Capital