Let There Be Lights
Senior editor Michael Hall on seeing (and not seeing) the mysterious Marfa lights.
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texasmonthly.com: When did you first hear about the Marfa lights?
Michael Hall: I had heard about them before I actually went seeking them out—if you live in Texas long enough, you’ll hear about the Marfa lights—but I wasn’t really interested in them until I went to the area in 1996 with a bunch of friends for Thanksgiving on a ranch.
texasmonthly.com: What drew you to the topic for this story?
MH: I like mysteries, and I love that part of the state. Every time I’d go out there, I’d stop at the viewing center and watch these weird little lights and think about how they’re so magical. I’ve wanted to write about them for a while, and when this UT-Dallas study came out saying the lights were from cars, I jumped at the chance.
texasmonthly.com: How long have you been working on this story?
MH: I worked on it for about six weeks. It took longer than I thought it would, just because I kept finding more people to interview. Everyone out there, it seems, has a Marfa lights story.
texasmonthly.com: How many times have you been to see the Marfa lights?
MH: Probably ten.
texasmonthly.com: Which viewpoint do you subscribe to: that there is a natural explanation for the lights or that we’ll never know exactly what they are?
MH: They aren’t mutually exclusive—I think they are a natural phenomenon and that someone will probably eventually figure it out. But maybe someone won’t. I kind of hope they don’t.
texasmonthly.com: How difficult was it to sort through all the lore surrounding the Marfa lights to come up with a readable story?
MH: It wasn’t that hard, though I did get tired of reading the same damn newspaper or magazine article that repeated the same damn stories about the lights. The most helpful research came from people who live in the area.
texasmonthly.com: Were people forthcoming with their own Marfa lights experience?
MH: Yes, almost everyone out there has a story, and most are pretty happy to tell it. I had read about reluctant witnesses, but I didn’t come across any.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think draws people to mysteries like the Marfa lights?
MH: So many things these days have been figured out by doctors, scientists, and cable news announcers. I think people want there to be some things that still are unknown. So they flock to faraway places like West Texas and tumble out of their cars.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think of Marfa’s capitalization on the lights? Has the town essentially turned an elusive mystery into a tourist trap?
MH: The city fathers and mothers obviously know the lights they point tourists toward are car lights, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s not so horrible. If you go to enough small towns, you appreciate the struggles they go through just to survive. Something like the Marfa lights is kind of, I don’t know, sweet. And Marfa is certainly not a tourist trap by any means. Because of all the outsiders coming in and buying up homes and starting businesses, the town is doing really well now. It doesn’t need twinkling lights descending from U.S. 67.
texasmonthly.com: Did your attitude toward the lights change over the course of reporting this story? If so, how?
MH: Yes, I went back and forth between thinking everyone who has a lights story has too much time on his hands, to thinking that something really is out there. After my first night there, when I clearly saw how the “Marfa lights” I’d always seen were, in fact, lights from cars on U.S. 67, I was kind of bummed out. But then I spent a couple of days in Marfa talking to locals and then a couple of weeks talking to other locals and believers—credible people too, like retired Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson and retired aerospace engineer James Bunnell—and I realized that they can’t all be lying, that something is out there. It’s probably duck farts, but something is out there.