Are There “Jack-O’-Lanterns” on the Marsh?

In a few days the annual observance of Halloween will be upon us. On that night throughout the Tantramar region, strangely costumed children, and occasionally adults, will trick or treat from house to house. In anticipation, many will decorate their homes in seasonal themes. Prominently featured will be hollowed out pumpkins that become Jack-o’-lanterns. All this is to be expected every October 31st. But then, on such a night, there is always the unforeseen.

As you may have guessed, it is another and very different type of Jack-o’-lantern that is the subject of this Flashback. I refer to a spooky spectacle that is often spotted on the Tantramar and surrounding marshes on dark October nights. It, too, is called the ‘Jack-o’-lantern’ or sometimes Will-o’-the-wisp. According to the Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary both of these unusual names may be traced as far back as 1673.

In order for everyone to be prepared for October 31, 1999 let’s review what people say they see bobbing across the marshes. It can appear as a single circular light that skips over the dykelands. More often, it is a series of lights that form weird patterns as they move along. Only on rare occasions are the mysterious lights ever motionless. Folklorist Diane Tye has made a special study of Jack-o’-lanterns or Will-o’-the-wisps in Newfoundland, where these ghostly lights are common.

She notes: that the lights move, usually towards the viewer, increasing in size as the individual watches. Most disappear as quickly as they appear. Rarely do these supernatural lights touch the individual and, only if the person demonstrates aggressive action towards the lights — lunging, swearing, or throwing water… In general the lights are regarded as ghostly and are identified as a variety of wandering spirit.

One local sighting dating from the 1970s described it as a series of round balls of light circling around. On this occasion, the spectacle was watched by several people, until the lights disappeared as abruptly as they appeared.

The RCMP were immediately informed and the sighting reported to the air traffic control tower in Moncton. They had no record of unusual lights reported by aircraft that night. In any event, the witnesses were confident that the strange lights were too close to the ground to be any type of aircraft. But what were they?

Sightings of such circular balls of fire on the marsh are not limited to the twentieth century. Accounts have been found in newspapers and other sources indicating that these dancing lights have been around for a very long time. Some folklorists speculate that they may predate European settlement on the Tantramar. There is also evidence that the balls of fire mentioned in Mi’kmaq legends may be related to these occurences.

The lights are deeply rooted in international folklore, and were known to Jacob Grimm (1785–1863) of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. One of their German names is Irrlicht, while to the French they are the feu follet. In late mediaeval times the apparition was known as Ignis Fatuus or sometimes the Friar’s Lanthern.

Not surprisingly, these strange dancing lights have given rise to at least one local folk tale. It dates from the Acadian colonial period and concerns two star-crossed lovers, Jean-Paul and Marie from the village of Beaubassin. The year was 1755 and the expulsion of the Acadians had just begun. Word spread that all Acadian males were to be immediately deported.

One evening, New England militia broke into the house of Marie’s parents where Jean-Paul was hiding. By pre-arrangement, Marie held their attention, while Jean-Paul made his escape through a back door. Following departure of the soldiers, she was certain that he was safe and would be able to find refuge among friendly Mi’kmaq somewhere in the upland forest.

When several days passed and there was no word from Jean-Paul, Marie decided to go in search of her lover. If nothing else, perhaps she too, might escape deportation. No word was ever heard of her again. By the time of the general expulsion of all inhabitants from Beaubassin and surrounding villages, it was learned that Jean-Paul did not escape. He was among the first to be deported.

Thus it is, that some who live on or near the Tantramar and surrounding marshes, believe that the bobbing lights seen on dark autumn nights are from Marie’s lantern, as she criss-crosses the dykelands, forever searching for the lost Jean-Paul.

Folk legends aside, there have been several attempts to provide a scientific explanation for the mysterious lights. In recent years many people have become convinced that the strange lights are simply UFOs and, as such, are certain indication that planet earth is being periodically visited by extra-terrestrial beings.

Perhaps the most convincing explanation is that the balls of fire are caused by the spontaneous combustion of gases from decaying marsh grass and vegetable matter. The result is a flame-like phosphorescence that flits over marshy ground, and may possibly be responsible for what is seen dancing on the Tantramar and nearby marshes.

A final word of caution. If you are lucky — or unlucky enough to witness a jack-o’-lantern, phosphorescent or otherwise, on the marshes during the night of October 31, 1999, be very careful. Under no circumstances should you lunge, swear, or throw water on the mysterious object. Be consoled by the fact that it will soon disappear.