July 22, 2017


Count Dracula is, undeniably, the most well-known vampire in popular culture. When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897, he created a vampire type that differed significantly from traditional folkloric notions of vampires. Part of the explanation for his creativity stems from his drawing upon the real-life 15th century Wallachian prince, Vlad Tepes Dracul, also known as “Vlad the Impaler.”

Statue of Vlad Tepes in Targoviste, Romania

In the summer of 2017, I spent two months in Europe, visiting seven countries as I researched my book, Shapeshifters: A Cultural History. Part of that time I was in Transylvania in Romania, the home of Stoker’s Count Dracula, as well as Prince Vlad.

Romanians have a mixed view of Vlad. For some, he was a national hero, a stern but capable leader who defended his lands from invasions by the Ottomans. To others, he was a ruthless murderer. To be sure, Vlad kept law and order in his domains in a ruthless manner, with impalement being his favorite form of torture and punishment. At one point, he impaled 20,000 Turkish prisoners of war along a road upon which enemy troops would advance, striking fear in them. It is estimated that he executed at least 40,000 people during his reign and possibly as many as 100,000, leaving many of them on display in a forest of the impaled.

Vlad Dracul was born in 1431 in Sigishora and soon learned all the military and political arts necessary for a young prince to master. His father, also named Vlad Dracul, had made an alliance with the Turks and had accompanied the Turkish sultan, Murad II, on savage raids in Transylvania, which led to the family Dracula’s bloodthirsty reputation. When the senior Vlad Dracul died, his son became a prisoner among the Turks, where he became an officer and learned both Turkish military tactics and torture methods. In 1456, when he was barely 23-years-old, Vlad Tepes Dracula escaped the Turks, becoming the official prince of Wallachia.

His reign was marked with constant warfare against the Turks, against neighboring princes, and even against the Saxon boyars of his domains. He brooked no opposition and was brutal in repressing it, giving more credence to the bloody stories about him. In addition to his executions of prisoners and criminals, there were also rumors of sadistic practices and murdering of boys and girls in rituals designed to keep him young and healthy.

It is not clear how Vlad Dracula died; some say he was killed by the Turks, others by an assassin, nor is the exact date of his death known. It might have been in December 1476 or January 1477. His burial place is a mystery as well, although the most likely location seems to be in the monastery on the little island in Lake Snagov, about twenty miles outside of Bucharest.

The monastery on Lake Snagov where Vlad Tepes Dracul is buried.

I visited the monastery on a beautiful, sunny day, walking over the long pedestrian bridge that connects the little island with the mainland. The lake is pristine, calm and peaceful, with the homes of wealthy Romanians ringing it; Nicolae Ceausescu’s vacation home still overlooks the blue waters of the lake.

The monastery is small, really nothing more than a chapel, but it is richly decorated with icons and paintings and an elaborate, golden iconostasis. The burial place of Vlad Dracula is in the floor directly before the iconostasis and is covered with a large stone slab. A single vigil light burns upon it, placed before a portrait of Prince Vlad. I was the only person in the chapel and I knelt to touch the stone, wondering only partly in jest, whether his energy would still be palpable after so many centuries.

The author at Vlad Tepes Dracul’s burial site.

A few days later, I was in Transylvania. In Cluj-Napoca I stayed at Hotel Transilvania, the hotel where, according to Stoker’s novel, the fictional Jonathan Harker stayed as he made his way to visit Count Dracula. In the novel, the hotel is named the Continental but all the references and directions clearly point to Hotel Transilvania being Stoker’s model for his Continental Hotel. In the novel, Harker orders chicken paprika for his lunch at the hotel; today the hotel serves “Johnathan Harker chicken paprika.” The updated hotel is small, with rooms arranged around a central courtyard and the manager told me that he is in the process of creating a Jonathan Harker suite that will be outfitted in Victorian-era furnishings and Dracula memorabilia.

Hotel Transilvania

In Sigishora, a UNESCO World Heritage City, I visited the house where Vlad was supposed to have been born. It is now the Casa Dracula restaurant and is loaded with Dracula kitsch; dinner plates are emblazoned with a dragon—dracul means “dragon” in Romanian—you can buy a bottle of Dracula merlot wine, there are miniature busts of Vlad everywhere, along with portraits hung on the walls. But the piece de resistance is the upstairs room, drenched in red light, where the young Dracula was born. It took my eyes a few moments to adjust from the darkness into the red glare but when they did, I found myself in a room that was the worst spook house ever. An open coffin lay on the floor with a guy wearing fangs lying in it. He sat up and moaned, half-heartedly, I thought, when I entered the room. I told him to go back to sleep and went back downstairs.

Vlad Tepes Dracul’s birthplace in Sigishora


A corny vampire at Vlad Tepes Dracul’s birthplace

The little walled city is historically interesting, with many of its 14th and 15th century buildings still intact, but also catered to the tourists, many of them American, with all kinds of Dracula swag for sale. I found the same emphasis on marketing Dracula at Bran, where I had to walk through an entire bazaar to get to the ticket booth where I could purchase tickets to enter Bran castle. Stoker saw pictures of the castle in the British Museum and used them as the model for Count Dracula’s castle although, Prince Vlad didn’t use the castle.

Dracula kitsch


Bran castle

My last stop was Targoviste, the capital built by the senior Vlad Dracul and later used by his son. The ruins of the palace can be visited and the Chindi Tower, the watchtower from which Vlad “the Impaler” Dracula watched his victims suffering in the courtyard below, is still intact.

The Chindi Tower in the Dracul family’s capital of Targoviste

Bram Stoker took a lot of liberties in his novel, but that’s what writers do, and by doing so he created a vampire that has become the model against which all other vampire books and movies are compared.

In my Shapeshifters: A Cultural History, I discuss the differences between Stoker’s Count Dracula and the traditional vampires of folklore. I hope you’ll read it.





February 2, 2017


As night falls, a desperate figure cowers in the forest, terrified and yet, excited as he ponders what is about to unfold. The moon rises full and round over the forest and he is caught in its ghostly luminescence.

That is when the change happens.

Painfully, his bones stretch and grind as they shift into new positions. On all fours, his clothes shred and his new, sleek, muscular body emerges. He watches in amazement as the nails on his hands and feet elongate into razor-sharp claws. Thick fur sprouts from his new paws. His face, his entire body is now covered in fur. Casting his large yellow eyes up to the moon, saliva dripping from fanged teeth, he throws back his head and howls, a long, pitiful cry echoing through the forest.

The werewolf is born.

The werewolf, a person who transforms into a wolf at each full moon, is a common example of a shapeshifter, a person that can change from a human form to that of an animal, either through its own agency or that of an outside source. Another shapeshifter stereotype is the vampire changing into a bat—think Count Dracula of the silver screen.

Shapeshifters are not new. Since ancient times, people from cultures all around the world have speculated on the possibilities of human beings transforming themselves into animals, or mythological creatures, then returning to their human natures. Prehistoric cave drawings discovered in Ariege, France depict creatures that are half animal/half human, evidence of an ancient belief in shapeshifters.  Primitive man knew that his life and the lives of the animals in his environment were inevitably bound together. He could hunt these animals for food, but they could just as easily hunt him for the same reason, especially when his animal adversaries often held the advantages of cunning, speed, and strength.

But what if he could meet the animals on their own terms? What if he could develop the cunning of a fox, the speed of a cheetah, the strength of a lion? Surely, then, he would stand a much better chance of being the eater, rather than the eaten. It is entirely possible that this ancient yearning of man to become animal, at least temporarily, gave rise to the belief in shapeshifters.

In Native American, and other indigenous cultures, it is common for hunters to don ritual costumes that mimic the appearance of certain animals, especially those animals hunted for sustenance, and to imitate their movements in dance rituals. But these dances are not simple mimicry; rather, the dancers believe they take on the animal’s persona, that in fact, they become the animal and by doing so, gain inside information relative to the animal’s location and migration, thereby ensuring a successful hunt. The Plains Indians even went so far as to wear the horns and shaggy hide of a bison to get close enough to the herd to make a kill. The maneuver was camouflage, but could there have been more meaning attached to wearing the disguise? Did the hunter become another bison?

There is something primal about shapeshifters, something that goes beyond simply wishing for the strength and cunning of animal prey. Humans are, of course, animals themselves but animals with a highly developed sense of morality and social mores that are set in place for the good order of the society. We react with indignation and anger when the rules we have set in place are violated by criminals, whether the violations be the petty theft of cigarettes from the corner store, or the wholesale slaughter of entire populations for racial, ethnic, or religious reasons. We react that way because we know that we have a primal animal nature within us that must be controlled. But there is also the temptation to throw off the rules that keep our unsavory behaviors in check and to embrace our animal natures, free of conscience, free of morality. Robert Louis Stevenson illustrated the struggle to keep that animal nature subdued in his memorable The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which Dr. Jekyll develops a potion that transforms him into the sociopathic Mr. Hyde and allows him to indulge his urges in a variety of vices, including murder. But poor Dr. Jekyll is unable to control his metamorphosis into Mr. Hyde who becomes more and more dominant and, in desperation, Jekyll kills himself.

Seen in this light, shapeshifting is a way of shaking off the constraints of society and the bonds of morality, granting license for one to experience the wild, unfettered life of an animal. Stories abound from antiquity of people transforming into animals for exactly those reasons. Consider Zeus, who in ancient Greek mythology was known as the king of the gods, or father of the gods, a more fitting appellation since he sired many of the gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon. As randy as Zeus may have been, he often needed help to seduce—or rape—the women and men with whom he had sex. Disguising his divinity through shapeshifting worked wonders for him; among his many shapeshifting conquests he seduced Europa in the form of a white bull; his sister, Hera, in the guise of a cuckoo-bird; Leda as a swan; Danae in the form of a golden shower; Antiope in the guise of a satyr; Eurymedusa in the form of an ant; Kallisto in the disguise of the maiden Artemis; and Alkmene, to whom Zeus appeared in the form of her own husband. Another notable example of this form of shapeshifting trickery is also found in Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century Le Morte d’Arthur, in which Arthur, future king of England is conceived. Through the sorcery of Merlin, Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, is transformed for one night into the Duke of Tintagel to have intercourse with the duchess Igraine.

Zeus, in the form of a bull, carries off Europa.

As evidenced in these stories, the shapeshifter archetype is not restricted to transformations of people into animals. Frequently, shapeshifting involves gender transformation. According to Jungian analysis, the anima is the female element in the male pysche, containing all the positive and negative traits of femininity; the anima is repressed in males, revealing itself in dreams. Conversely, the animus is the male element in the female unconscious, consisting of all positive and negative masculine traits. Ideally, the anima and animus are in balance, with each of us having masculine and feminine traits. Society, however, has arbitrarily decided which traits should be considered male and which female and so, a female with certain strong masculine traits learns to repress them, as does a male with strong feminine traits, although this may be changing in societies that recognize the broad range of human sexual orientation.

In her blog, Shanna’s Journal, fantasy author Shanna Swendson writes, “As a result, these repressed qualities have to come out in dreams, fantasies or projection — where the traits get mapped onto fantasy figures either in the form of crushes on real people or on fictional or mythological characters that represent the traits.”

Gender-shifting shapeshifters are those mythological and fantasy creatures that embody the repressed gender traits coming into reality. They are not a new phenomenon but have been around at least since the earliest recorded historical times. In Greek mythology, Tiresias is instantly changed into a woman when he finds two copulating snakes in the forest and pokes them with a stick. Tiresias lives as a woman for many years until she once again finds two snakes in copulation, prods them with the stick, and is transformed back into a man. Similar tales of gender-shifting can be found in Celtic and Norse legends, as well as in legends from other parts of the world.

Gender-shifting shapeshifters are popular in today’s culture, appearing in movies, books, including graphic novels, and computer games. Their popularity may be a reflection of society’s burgeoning awareness and acceptance of the wide variations in human sexual orientation. In some ways, they help to make these variations more commonplace and by doing so, make them more acceptable to mainstream society.

But there is more to the attraction of the shapeshifter figure than wishing to “run wild,” or change genders, although these two explanations are important. The shapeshifter represents the struggle to find one’s identity, to find where one fits in society. Each of us fulfill many roles in our lives; we are members of a family; members of a particular society; citizens of a city, a state, a nation; followers of a certain religious belief or political philosophy. We act out our roles based on age, gender, and ethnicity. We are sometimes defined by our economic and educational levels, or by the work we do. In a world that has gotten “smaller” because of our access to the Internet and advances in media technology, resulting in instant worldwide news, we may find it necessary to shift some of our roles to fit new circumstances, new knowledge. We become confused as we find our various roles in conflict with the larger society or even internally in conflict with each other as we try to sort out which roles are applicable at certain times, or which may need to be modified. We become, in a sense, internal shapeshifters. Shapeshifters in popular culture mirror that confusion and the struggle to seek clarification of our identities.

The shapeshifter figure resonates in several cultural themes, especially adolescence, sexuality, gender, race, addiction, disability, and spirituality.

On a simple level, shapeshifters represent the fantasy of being able to turn one’s self into something more attractive, more powerful; this may account for the prevalence of shapeshifters in books and movies aimed toward an adolescent and teen audience. The Harry Potter books, Twilight (the books and the television series), and The Hunger Games all feature shapeshifters that have great appeal to a younger audience.

In his Foreward to Kimberley McMahon-Coleman and Roslyn Weaver’s Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture, Gerry Turcotte, president and vice chancellor at St. Mary’s University in Alberta, Canada writes, ‘Where vampires may once have been emblematic of a despised other—the creature we feared becoming—in more contemporary stories the “monster” has become the “end goal,” that which we want to be.’

While shapeshifters may be attractive in various ways they are also considered untrustworthy. Literally, they are two-faced and not to be trusted. As Zeus in his many guises demonstrates, a shapeshifter’s words and actions may not represent its true nature.

Another shapeshifter motif is that the shapeshifter represents punishment or discipline. Fairytales and folklore are full of examples of people who are transformed into animals or inanimate objects as punishment for some transgression they committed. The transformation is obviously not voluntary but is accomplished through a curse or magic worked by a god or goddess, a witch, shaman, sorcerer, or anyone with magical or supernatural abilities. These types of shapeshifters are different from voluntary shapeshifters in that they have no control over their transformations and must rely on the agency of another person to change them back to their rightful forms.

A classic example of this type of shapeshifter is the popular story of the frog-prince who is restored to his regal humanity through the kiss of a maiden princess, although in the original Grimm brothers’ version of the story, the spell was broken when the princess threw the frog against a wall in disgust. Then there is the biblical story of Lot’s wife who is turned into a pillar of salt for looking back—despite God’s warning not to do so—as she and Lot flee the destruction of Sodom. In Welsh mythology, Gilfaethwy, with the help of his brother Gwydion, rapes Goewn, a young virgin from the court of Math ap Mathonwy, king of Gwynedd.  When a furious Math learns of their act, he uses his magic to transform Gilfaethwy into a hind and Gwydion into a stag; the brother/animals mate and produce an offspring which is delivered to Math. The next year Math transforms Gilfaethwy into a boar and Gwydion into a sow. They mate and produce a son which again is delivered to King Math. Then, the king transforms the brothers into wolves and a year later changes them back into men, ending their three-year enchantment as animals.

The princess kisses the frog

As some of these shapeshifter stories illustrate, the transformation of humans into animals, other humans, or inanimate objects may be involuntary on the part of the person being transformed. Purists might argue that the true shapeshifter has voluntary control over his transformations and can shift back and forth between his human nature and his transformed nature, each transformed state being temporary rather than permanent. But to truly embrace all possible forms of shapeshifting, emphasis should not be placed solely upon how the transformation occurs as much as it should be placed on the fact that a transformation occurs at all. Expanding the shapeshifter definition in that manner allows for the inclusion of characters from mythology, folk and fairy tales, and literature who are permanently transformed into something other than human. It would also include non-human characters—such as Transformers vehicles that shift into robots—whose transformations may or may not be permanent.

An interesting example of such a non-human shapeshifter is H. P. Lovecraft’s shoggoth. In his At the Mountains of Madness, the writer describes the creature:

It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter.

To further expand the shapeshifter definition, it is possible to include not only shape shifters that undergo external transformations, such as werewolves, but also shapeshifters that undergo an internal transformation; the transformation is hidden in that the shapeshifter appears physically unchanged. The indigenous hunters who believe they have taken on the persona of their prey; the voodoo practitioners who believe their bodies have been taken over by spirits, the loa; and people who believe they have been possessed by demons are all examples of internal shapeshifters.

Whether classified as internal or external, shapeshifters have not been relegated to some mythological closet but are very much with us today. They can be found in popular movies, television programs, books, graphic novels, computer games, and toys. Horror and fantasy fan conventions, such as Dragon.con, Yukicon, and FanimeCon, draw thousands of attendees, many of whom dress up in the costumes of their favorite characters and, at least for a few hours, become that character; this phenomenon has given rise to an entire international subculture called cosplay, a mashup of the words ‘costume’ and ‘play.’ Gender-shifting in character costumes is a common theme among cosplay enthusiasts.

But as terrifying as encountering a blue-painted, fanged cosplayer at a convention may be, it is far more terrifying to encounter a real shapeshifter. And there are real shapeshifters, or at least, there are people who believe they are real. How else to explain the 2011 report from a South African town of a man shifting into a pig and then into a bat, or the 2016 reports of an eight-foot werewolf in Hull, England? How do we explain the Diné (Navajo) fear of skinwalkers, medicine men or witches who transform into animals to do harm? What about the almost 2 million people around the world who believe that many of the world’s leaders are actually reptilian aliens who shapeshift into human likenesses? This theory may go a long way toward explaining the 2016 US presidential election.

Real or imagined, the shapeshifter character is a powerful one that captures our imaginations and symbolizes so many of our inner longings and desires, as well as our unfulfilled aspirations. It originated in the darkest caves of our primordial ancestors and, true to its nature, has shaped itself to fit the times. No less diminished by time, the shapeshifter remains a potent force in our psyches and our culture and is worthy of further study.

That is what my new book, Shapeshifters: A Cultural History, will attempt to do.



I am delighted to have this guest post about the mysterious Marfa Lights from my friend, C.M. Mayo!

cmmayo-ROUNDC.M. Mayo is at work on a book about Far West Texas, apropos of which she is hosting the “Marfa Mondays” podcast series. Listen in to those podcasts anytime at Her latest books are Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual, which won the 2015 National Indie Excellence Award for History and The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, which was named a Library Journal Best Book of 2009.

We have Seen the Lights: The Marfa Lights Phenomenon
By C.M. Mayo

This is an excerpt from the transcript of the 7th podcast in my projected 24 podcast series, “Marfa Mondays,” which is apropos of my book in-progress, World Waiting for a Dream: A Turn in Far West Texas.

If you haven’t heard of Marfa, let me fill you in on the basics. Named after a maid in a Dostoyevsky novel, it’s a speck of a town in the middle of the sweep of Far West Texas, part of an area the Spanish called the tierra despoblada, and later, somewhat frighteningly, the Apachería. Even today with the railroad and the highway, and the recently internationally famous art scene, not a lot of people live in Marfa. But it seems almost everyone who does has seen and has a shiver-worthy story about the Marfa Lights.

When I first visited Marfa in the late 1990s, I made an arrow for the Marfa Lights viewing area, a pullout on the highway between Marfa and the neighboring town of Alpine. About 9 miles out of Marfa, it was just a parking area with, as I recall, a couple of sun-bleached picnic tables. There was an RV parked to one the side and standing on top of one of the picnic tables, a burly man in shorts and a T-shirt, his knees bent like a quarterback about to grab the football. There was no one else there. It was still light out, though the sky had paled and beyond the expanse of Mitchell Flat, the mountains to the south, the Chinatis, loomed a dusky purple. I don’t recall that man turning to look at me, but he must have heard my car pull up behind him, for as I opened the door, he pointed toward the mountains and began to shout:

As I set my shoe on the dirt, I saw that it was surrounded by a scattering of something silvery: quarters. I have found many a penny on the sidewalk, and few dimes over the years, but this was several dollars worth of quarters. I gathered them up.

“OH MY GOD!” The man was bellowing. “OH MY GOD!!!”

I would have thought him barking mad except that, I too saw the lights and they were unlike anything I had ever seen. I climbed up on the other picnic table for a better view. There were a couple dozen little lights dancing on the flats and up in the foothills. They must have been miles away— maybe around the town of Shafter? Shafter is on the way to Presidio, the main town on the US-Mexico border in these parts.

They looked like car lights, but they were not just white and red, but green, blue, yellow— nor they did they move like car lights. Up they bounced! No helicopter I ever saw moved that fast, that straight, that high. Whimsically, the little lights shot left, then right, sliding horizontally, apparently along the ground, as if on greased rails. They blinked on, then off. Then on— irregularly, not like any mechanical signal. A yellow one went left; red up, blue blinked. Green stretched to divide like a piece taffy, in two. And just when I thought um, maybe those are car lights? Whoom, one would shoot up straight into the air, turn a different color, and blink off.

My sister had remained in the car, arms resolutely crossed. When I got back in, she harumphed. “Those are car lights.”

As we pulled out, that man had stopped shouting, but he was still standing on top of the picnic table, transfixed.

After dinner in Alpine, my sister and I drove back to Marfa in an ink-black night. We passed a few cars, a truck. Then what I thought was a motorcycle came toward us. A white, round light— a headlight, right? There was something odd about it, though, and then behind, in a line, came several others. A motorcycle convoy? At this hour? The parade of white lights swept by us and, I swear, I felt our car levitate.

Then it was dark again and all I could see were our car’s own headlamps casting forward onto the highway. That was when I realized what was so odd about those… motorcycles. Those lights had not cast light forward onto the pavement as a vehicle’s headlamp does. They were uniformly glowing orbs. A line of orbs moving along the pavement at what must have been at least 60 miles per hour.

“Did you see that?” I said to my sister.

“What,” she said.

“Those weird lights that just passed us.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

We ate the next night in Fort Davis. When I parked the car on the main street, I opened the door, and there, shining in the gutter, was another splash of quarters, several dollar’s worth. And on the way to Marfa that night, out in the middle of the desert, heading off at a right angle from the highway, I saw what I took to be the tailights of a truck. But suddenly those two red lights, whoom, flew apart and— I don’t know what, I just kept driving.

My sister didn’t see that, either.

Does this all sound like a tall tale? I’m telling you exactly what I remember experiencing; but whatever you think of that, I can assure you that if you go to Marfa and ask politely, you will find that eyewitness accounts of the Marfa Lights very much like my own and many, indeed, far stranger, abound.
As a souvenir of that visit back in the late 90s, I bought a little stapled-spine book by Judith M. Brueske, PhD, The Marfa Lights: Being a Collection of First-Hand Accounts by People Who Have Seen the Lights Close-Up or in Unusual Circumstances and Related Material, second revised edition, published in 1988 by Ocotillo Enterprises. It turns out that the lights have been regularly witnessed and reported since the 19th century, mostly in the Marfa area, but throughout the desert, on the other side of the Rio Grande, south into Mexico and even as far northwest as New Mexico— though the ones I heard about there, in the mountains outside Alamogordo, from two different eye-witnesses, were red pinpricks that would float up close to one’s face and seemed to possess intelligence.

One of my favorite books about this region— I mean the greater Big Bend region of Far West Texas— is Pat Little Dog’s Border Healing Woman, about Jewel Babb. About the strange, haunting and yet oftentimes delightful story of a ranch wife who became a solitary goat herder and renowned healer, Border Healing Woman was recognized with the coveted Southwest Book Award when it was first published by the University of Texas Press in 1981. And oh, yes, Jewel Babb tells many stories about the lights. Just one of them, from page 100 of that book, I quote:

“One morning, I walked out with my goats. I was still close to the house when I looked up, and there was a bright object about as big as a football, lavender, yellow, orange, red, and green, bright as could be. And it was falling to the ground. It wasn’t falling straight down, but rather it was slanted and falling fast. When it did hit the ground, there was, it seemed, just a puff.”

In the summer of 2011, I visited Marfa again, this time with my husband. Near twilight, supposedly the prime viewing time, we drove out to the Marfa Lights View Park, now a substantial and nicely painted southwest-style building with restrooms and a deck furnished with a row of telescopes aimed out over Mitchell Flat. We read the plaque, which was set into a plinth of stones:


The Marfa Mystery Lights are visible on many clear nights between Marfa and Paisano Pass as one looks towards the Chinati Mountains. The lights may appear in various colors as they move about, split apart, melt together, disappear and reappear.

Robert Reed Ellison, a young cowboy, reported sighting the lights in 1883, he spotted them while tending a herd of cattle and wondered if they were Apache Indian campfires.

Apache Indians believed these eerie lights to be the stars dropping to the earth.

Many viewers have theories ranging from scientific to science fiction as they describe their ideas of aliens in UFO’s, ranch house lights, St. Elmo’s fire, or headlights from vehicles on US 67, the Presidio highway. Some beieve the lights are an electrostatic discharge, swamp gases, moonlight shining on veins of mica, of ghosts of the Conquistadors searching for gold.

As explanation as to why the lights cannot be located is an unusual phenomenon similar to a miracle, where atmospheric conditions produced by the interaction of cold and warm layers of air bend light so that it can be seen from afar, but not up close.

The mystery of these lights still remains unsolved.”

The air was warm enough to go without a sweater, but comfortable and the landscape, so vast and otherwordly, the way the sky blanched to lemon and to the southeast, the jagged profile of Cathedral mountain turned luscious shades of chocolate and lavender. To the south, the massive bulk of the Chinatis darkened to a plum-like purple. A few stars began to wink. We waited. I told my husband the eerie coincidence of finding those quarters, two days in a row, both times right by my foot when I opened the car door, and about that man on the table shouting, OH MY GOD.
More people arrived. A family tumbled out of their RV; a couple from a sedan; and from a battered truck, a woman who commenced to set up an expensive-looking video camera. We meandered up and down the deck. We peeked at the horizon through one of telescopes. We meandered some more. We looked again through another telescope. We made small talk. The woman with the camera said she’d captured some lights on film just last week. She said she had a relative who’d lived out there in a lonely ranch house and he’d seen blue lights, but he closed the curtains— didn’t want to see, didn’t want to know.

The air coolled. The mountains sharpened into near-black silhouhettes. In more than an hour, we had seen no lights other than the stars and one that was constant: a ranch light. My husband, he wanted to go to town and get dinner, so that was what we did.

I could see the scene at Thanksgiving: he and my sister rolling their eyes.

In the Marfa Book Company I found a copy of Hunting Marfa Lights by James Bunnel, which was published in 2009.
Two things about this book caught my attention: First, that the author, who grew up in Marfa, is an engineer with quite a resume. Among many other things, he was a member of the launch team for all manned Apollo launches from 1968 to 1973 and he retired from BAE Systems as Director of Mission Planning Systems for Air Force Programs. Second, Bunnel went after with the Marfa Lights with a rigorous methodology, superb equipment, and relentless determination.
He found that many of the lights could be explained, variously, by car lights, night mirages, light curtains, and what he called “chemical electromagnetic phenomena” which are, to quote him, “truly mysterious.”

When I began my travels for this book project, back in the winter of this year, 2012, I asked many local people if they’d seen the lights. Charlie Angell, owner of Angell Expeditions, who has been my guide through some of the wilder areas of the Big Bend, told me:

“Years ago I was watching the lights with my sister and as we left we saw one down a dirt road near the viewing area. I drove down the road towards it and it hovered away from us, staying just above the road. It would stop when we stopped and then travel away from us if we drove towards it. It seemed to me to be like a rainbow, always there but you can’t get to it. I pursued it for a mile or so and my sister got so panicked she insisted I stop chasing it, so that was it.”

Charlie gave me a tour of Fort Leaton, outside of Presidio on the Rio Grande— for those of you without a map, that’s about an hour southwest of Marfa— and we were just about to leave the parking lot when the ranger there volunteered his story:

One time, very early in the morning, when he was driving a school bus from Marfa to Presidio, he saw in the rear view mirror that a big orb had appeared on the highway. It followed the bus, and then it came closer… And then it moved inside the bus.

“And the children?” I asked.

“They were all asleep.”

I said, “wow.” And I sure did wish I’d had the presence of mind to record that.

When I visited Chinati Hot Springs, a ways up the Rio Grande from Presidio, I did have my recorder handy and here’s what one of the caretakers, Diana Burbach, told me:

“I saw them in Mexico. Horseback riding, coming back from that little village over there, we were on that road at night-time, and whew, yeah! I thought it was car lights coming at us. So I told the kids to hurry and scoot over. The guide told me, no wait, watch. The closer we got, they disappeared, and then coming up behind us, there they were!”

In the Marfa and Presidio County Museum, I asked Marfa native Berta Sánchez, had she seen the lights?

“I’ve seen them only in white. But there are other people, especially the people that come from, I would say, from Presidio or Ojinaga, that they have to go to Odessa for a doctor’s appointment—they come very early to get there at that time, and they go to Alpine— and they have seen them in red and green and yellow. But they don’t harm anything. They say it’s very scary because you see them, they come on like rolling, and they come close to your car or truck, whatever you’re driving, but nothing happens! It disappears! I don’t know what in the world it is. I sure don’t.”

I asked, “Where did you see them?”

“Over there.”

“On the highway?”

“Yes, coming from the mountain. And we would see them jumping up and down, for people to enjoy seeing them.”

And also in Marfa, when I was interviewing Paul Graybeal, owner of Moonlight Gemstones, for last month’s podcast, I asked him what lights had he seen?

“I’ve seen them fairly regular. Usually it’s coming back at night from Alpine. You can see them any time you get over the passes, where you’re high enough to see the radio tower. If they’re not every active you might not recognize them, you know, if you’ve one or two lights thery’re just setting out there, not moving. I’ve seen them when there are like 15 of them. I’ve seen them when they’re like extremely bright, you know, motion, you know. One will get bright and disappear, and then two will pop up. There’s a range of behavior they’re common to but they’re not always active.”

“Have you seen them up close?”

“One time we drove down Nopal Road, it’s a county road until you get to a gate, about two miles before the turn-off there’s a little sign with the ranches. But it is a county road so legally you can drive down it to the gate. That was the brightest. And what was the most amazing thing to me was, it seemed like it was like a streetlight up there but it did not illuminate the ground, it did not cause shadows. That is the strangest thing about them. Another time I was driving back, it wasn’t way off there, it looked like it was real close, like you know, a block or two off the fence. But it was elongated, blue, it hovered like burning gas. And there again, it did not give off shadows. It was not a circle, it was stretched out, you know, like it was a gas.”

Recently, in November 2011, some members of the Laredo Paranormal Research Society came out and aimed lasers at the lights. The lights shrank and moved away. They got that on film, which you can watch on YouTube— google: “Marfa Lights Experiment, Laredo Paranormal Research Society.”

So what do I think the Marfa Lights are? At this point in time… an invitation to wonder.