“The spook light which is sometimes known as the Joplin spook light because that’s the biggest town closest to it but it’s actually in the town of Hornet, Missouri which is, as far as I know, has no population. So it’s just a little ways outside of Joplin Missouri and for decades- probably going back to the turn of the century, this legend has been around this area that on certain nights if go out on this specific roads that’s very dark and abandoned and park your car and are quiet, that you will see a light floating at the end of the road. There’s all sorts of legends about what it is, the most famous one is that it is tied to American Indians somehow, that either during the Trail of Tears or something terrible upheaval, a Native American couple was separated and this is one of the lovers out with a lantern in the nighttime looking for their lost love, but there’s other legends too. In reality there have been scientific studies of it, and some people say it’s some sort of swamp gas, some have said it’s the way this road is positioned relative to a highway a few miles away creates some optical illusion with headlights from the road but it has not been definitely said what this thing is.”
My informant is originally from Joplin, Missouri and currently resides in Kansas City, Missouri. She’s lived all across the United States but lives here currently with her husband and three kids. Her mother lived in the Ozarks in southern Missouri for most of her life and so the entire family has ties to that specific area. Historically, Joplin is not a big town and is known for very little outside of Missouri.
This piece was brought to my attention through research into legends from Missouri which I used to approach my informant. She has told me about this phenomenon several times but this specific conversation occurred in the living room of her house in Kansas City when I asked her about using the spook light for the folklore archive.
At face value, the spook lights are seemingly very similar to similar pieces of folklore like the will o’ wisps or other light-based phenomenon. What I feel differentiates the spook lights from other similar folklore though is their use in unifying the town of Joplin and the influence of Native American superstition. The town of Joplin is in the south of Missouri, near the start of the Ozark Mountain range. This area is rife with folklore that comes out of isolated communities who are restricted through natural landscapes like lakes or mountains. Joplin is on the fringe of this culture, which makes it so it mixes Ozark culture with the broader culture of Missouri. By having a local legend, the town is unified in a collective legend. Furthermore, the spook lights are restricted to a single specific road and at certain times, making seeing them even more of a marker of your place in the community. This can also be seen in how the spook light is popular amongst teens who, according to my informant, visit the spook light as a right of passage. The other component to the spook light is how it reflects concerns about the treatment of Native Americans. The legend is that the light is the ghost of a Native couple who have been separated by not only death but also circumstances. By making their local legend a reflection of the poor treatment of Natives, the town recognizes the injustice and seeks to remember it.
For an in-depth look into the history of the legend, see: https://www.joplinmo.org/575/The-Spook-Light