Few forces of nature are as visually impressive, unpredictable, and awe inspiring as lightning. With its crackling, branching tendrils of pure, sizzling electricity, accompanied by ominous booming thunder, it is a breathtakingly beautiful phenomenon that has understandably long been a fixture in human myths, legends, and religions. Lightning is also a dangerous beauty, capable of reaching out over vast distances to lash out at trees, buildings, and yes people, to cause massive damage in the blink of an eye, earning the fear and respect of civilizations throughout history. Indeed lightning and the destructive power it wields have been a symbol of both might and danger in cultures throughout the world since time unremembered.
The thought of a person being subject to the wrath of a lightning strike is certainly terrifying, but surely the odds must be fairly slim, right? After all, talk of the odds of being hit by lightning has become synonymous with denoting something of an extremely low probability, giving birth to expressions such as “You have a better chance of being struck by lightning,” or “Lightning never strikes the same place twice” when discussing highly unlikely or impossible scenarios. Yet these are people in this world who seem to defy this common wisdom. These are those rare individuals who have been relentlessly struck on numerous occasions, sometimes under clear conditions, to the point that it almost seems as if they are being maliciously targeted by one of nature’s most frightening light displays, and have lived to tell the tale. Are they lucky since they have survived? Unlucky? Cursed? Or are they merely just always in the wrong place at the wrong time? Let’s look at some of these cases and you can perhaps decide.
Perhaps the most famous case of a so-called “human lightning rod” is that of Roy Cleveland Sullivan, who from 1936 worked as a park ranger in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, mostly tasked with fire patrol. Between the years of 1942 and 1977, Sullivan was struck a total of seven times by lightning, the most officially recorded for any single person and which has earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for most lightning strikes on a single human being. Remarkably, Sullivan survived these frightening ordeals more or less in one piece. Despite the already bizarre fact and incredible odds that a person could be unlucky enough to be struck by lightning even twice, let alone on seven separate occasions, there are also the unusual circumstances under which many of these strikes occurred.
In his second recorded lightning strike in 1969, Sullivan had been driving in his truck along a remote road in the national park when a bolt of lightning snaked down to hit him. This is quite odd, since typically the metal body of the vehicle serves to act as a "Faraday cage," meaning it conducts electricity through the metal frame, dissipates the electrical charge, directs the electricity into the ground, and thereby protects the occupants. In this case, the lightning bolt leapt down from the sky and actually ricocheted off of a tree to enter the open window of the truck to hit Sullivan. The aggressive strike seared off most of his hair, his eyebrows, burned his watch, and knocked him unconscious. Adding to the weirdness of the event, the truck, which had kept moving along even as Sullivan was slumped over unconscious, came to a stop in a ditch right as it neared a sheer cliff.
In later strikes, Sullivan became more and more convinced that he was actually being stalked by some supernatural force, and that lightning clouds were following him around to stalk him. In one such ominous incident on August 7, 1973, Sullivan was out on patrol in the park when he noticed that a storm cloud was gathering to darken the sky above. Having already been struck by lightning on several occasions by this point in time, the nervous and wary Sullivan got into his truck and made a speedy retreat. However, on this occasion he claimed that the dark cloud was actively pursuing him as he tried to outrun it. At some point he seemed to have lost the apparently willfully malicious storm cloud, but when he got out of his vehicle he was promptly struck by a lightning bolt, which knocked off one of his shoes and set his hair on fire. On yet another occasion on June 5, 1976, Sullivan once again claimed that he was hunted down by a storm cloud before being struck by another bolt as he ran away for cover. Another strike happened on a clear day as he worked in his garden, when a dark cloud suddenly seemed to congeal out of nowhere and sent a lightning bolt to bounce off of a transformer and hit him in the shoulder.
Sullivan became so paranoid and convinced that some mysterious force was out to get him and that lightning was actually seeking him out that he got into the habit of pulling his truck over to the side of the road to cower whenever a storm was anywhere in the vicinity, and he also started carrying with him a can of water at all times. He believed that nowhere was safe and that lightning would actually come through pipes to get him indoors or single him out if he were to stand within a group of people. He was apparently not the only one who thought that lightning was attracted to him, as friends and co-workers began to avidly avoid him, thinking that he would draw in lightning even in clear weather, and he began to be called nicknames such as “The Spark Ranger” or “The Human Lightning Rod.” This superstitious belief that Sullivan was a magnet for lightning was only exacerbated when his wife was struck by a bolt while they were out hanging laundry in their yard, although it spared him on this occasion.
Sullivan retired from the park service in 1976 and moved with his wife to a town eerily called Dooms, and his lingering fear of lightning prompted Sullivan to adorn his house with numerous sophisticated lightning rods, as well as copper conductive wire buried deep in the ground. Even then he seemed to be targeted by lightning, when he was struck while out fishing in 1977. In an interview with a local newspaper following the incident, Sullivan quipped “Some people are allergic to flowers, but I’m allergic to lightning.”
This potent dread that constantly plagued him, as well as the nicknames and avoidance by those around him, sank Sullivan into a deep depression over the years, and his final days were mostly spent obsessing on ways to keep from being struck by lightning again, terrified that he was doomed to be killed by it. However, in the end, it would not be lightning that would kill him. On September 28, 1983, Sullivan was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head, apparently self-inflicted. It is unclear what drove him to do such a thing. Perhaps it was his gnawing depression and chronic fear, or perhaps it was some need to cheat the lightning that had long plagued him out of its prize. We will likely never know for sure.
If being struck by lightning six times sounds impressive, how about ten? Although Sullivan has accrued the most official, confirmed strikes, there is someone out there who by all accounts outdoes even him. 64-year-old Melvin Roberts, of the U.S. state of South Carolina, has long been seemingly targeted by lightning. He originally started making the rounds in the news in 2011, at which time he had already been struck by lightning on six separate occasions, but this number has since grown, since he has been struck four additional times since then. Although Roberts, who suffers from wicked scars all over his body as testament to these assaults, and recurring health problems such as nerve damage, chronic pain, and memory loss from his encounters, it is not quite sure why lightning gravitates towards him. However, he certainly is quite sure what it feels like, describing the experience thus:
It's like grabbing an electrical cord. You don't feel the burns until it's over with. It cooks you from the inside out like being in a microwave. And you've got a hurting in your bones. When it hits you, it's like being hit by a freight train. It knocks you out, knocks you down. You can tell what's around, you just don't have any control over your body. It’s like a big syringe in the sky and when it hits you it puts all this different stuff in your body. It turns your insides completely around.
While not being hit quite as many times, another purported human lightning rod is University of Oklahoma physical plant worker Carl Mize, who has been struck six times. His first strike came in 1978, right after he had finished riding bulls at a rodeo. A storm had been coming in, bringing with it thunderclaps and black clouds that forced the rodeo to shut down. As Mize was just about to leave in his truck, he was hit by a lightning bolt, which licked down to hit him right as he reached for his vehicle, knocking him back about five feet. In this case, he amazingly got up and walked it off without any noticeable injury.
The next strike occurred in 1994, when he was using a crowbar to help a buddy move a child’s playhouse. In this case, lightning jolted down to bounce off of a nearby telephone pole and directly into his crowbar, dramatically traveling through him to erupt from his hands in the process. In 1996 he was hit again as he lied on his stomach repairing street light cables. The lightning in this case hit a tree, shot down into the cables, and then exploded from Mize’s chest, again leaving him remarkably unscathed save a large burn on his chest. Strike number three came when he was holding the chain of a swing outside as his family scrambled to shelter to avoid a brewing tornado in the distance. The lightning zapped down through the chain and into his body. The next hit came as he was outside repairing a ruptured water main during a storm and lightning managed to hit the water, snake through the water, and enter his body through a tiny hole in his shoe, sending him to the hospital for four days.
After each strike, Mize claims that he had heard a tremendous clap of thunder and saw the image of blue flames. When he was struck a further three times Mize attracted the attention of various news programs, TV shows, and even an offer from Johns Hopkins University to participate in a study of human lightning rods. In the meantime, his co-workers noticed his uncanny ability to draw in lightning and had the image of a lightning bolt emblazoned upon his hard hat. Some of those around him have perhaps understandably chosen not to be anywhere near him when a storm is brewing. Indeed one of the hits happened when storm was on its way and a co-worker named Mike Petross jokingly said that he wanted to get away from Mize, after which a bolt dutifully came down to strike the unfortunate victim. Petross would later say, “I was standing right next to him. I’ll never get that close to him again during that weather.”
Interestingly, the case of Carl Mize defies some fairly accepted rules of lightning behavior. Typically, lightning will seek out the tallest conductive point in the area, but on nearly every occasion Mize had not met that criteria, and in some cases, such as when he was lying on the ground repairing cables, he was most likely the lowest object in the area. A co-worker has further confirmed that Mize is not even really that tall of a guy to begin with, and cannot comprehend why lightning should go for him under any circumstances. Mize, who has managed to escape all of his brushes with lightning with relatively minor injuries, has said of his “curse,” “Some people say I’m unlucky, but I think I’m kind of lucky to be alive.”
These cases are notable for the sheer odds involved. The odds of being struck by lightning under normal circumstances in a given year are about 1 in 700,000, and the odds of being struck once over an 80-year period are about 1 in 10,000. The odds of being struck even once are fairly slim, but for one to be hit on numerous occasions they go up astronomically. For instance, the odds of being hit by lightning twice is around 1 in 9,000,000, so what of those struck many more times than this? It is these extremely slim odds that have caused some to speculate that there is something at work here that goes beyond the norm.
One theory is that there is some as yet unknown quality about a person’s physical make-up that serves to invite lightning to them. Another idea is that these people are indeed singled out somehow by shadowy forces we do not yet understand. Skeptics point out those who have been struck by lightning more than one time tend to be in occupations where they are outside more in areas that are especially prone to thunderstorms, and that these are statistical explanations, no matter how improbable, but the overwhelming odds involved with being hit six, seven, or ten times certainly cause one to think.
Perhaps even more mysterious than the number of times lightning can come down to strike a single person many times is the effects that it can have when all is said and done. Lighting strikes have surprisingly only around a 30% fatality rate, but for those who do survive the ordeal it can have numerous odd, little understood effects. Besides the obvious injuries of burns, nerve damage, paralysis, and internal damage, there are other effects of being hit by lightning that are more complicated, harder to pinpoint, and in some cases bizarre, mysterious, and poorly understood, including hallucinations, waking dreams, and hair turning white or falling out, all of which lack any real medical explanation and which show no concrete medical cause when analyzed. Indeed, many who suffer from symptoms of lightning strikes show little to no health problems even when they are thoroughly investigated.
One of the most common negative effects of a lightning strike is that of memory loss, seizures, chronic confusion, sleeplessness, depression, post-traumatic stress, amnesia, and notably profound changes in personality or potent mood swings. People can become very different from what they once were, displaying dramatic changes in behavior and acting in a decidedly uncharacteristic manner, and it is not totally understood why. One specialist, a Mary Ann Cooper, MD, director of the Lightning and Electrical Injury Research Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, thinks it is the electrical effect on the delicate chemistry of the brain, explaining:
Lightning affects the part of the brain that controls personality, emotion and organization. With lightning-strike victims, it's the same as if a computer has been fried by lightning, which also happens often. On the outside, the computer looks absolutely fine. Inside it's the same thing. All the boards and switches are intact, but it's scrambled. It can't function. That's the same with people. They look fine inside and out. All our best diagnostic tests say they're absolutely fine, but inside they're completely different. One patient put it best when she told me that it's as if the office manager of her brain walked off the job and isn't coming back.
Many outward symptoms of lightning strikes may hide themselves for years, as visible physical injury is sometimes absent. There is indeed a misunderstanding among both the normal populace and medical professionals alike that a lack of any outward signs of physical damage absolves the victim of any major problems, but in most cases some form of damage lurks under the surface to manifest itself in a variety of ways. Profound, gnawing changes in a person's basic character, with no obvious physical reasons, are one example.
Indeed, it is this change of personality and descent into depression that is said to have brought on the suicide of multiple lightning survivor Roy Sullivan. On the flip side of all of the negative effects of lightning strikes are all of the purported positive benefits as well. There have been those who have claimed to have been cured of blindness or deafness by lightning strikes, as well as tales of “hyper sexuality,” or an insatiable sex drive, and even cases of people purportedly becoming psychic after being hit by lightning. There is also the case of Harold Deal, who was hit by lightning in 1969 and has since been unable to feel the sensation of cold. Deal has claimed:
I've been outside when it's 14 degrees below zero, wearing nothing but shorts. Soaking in a tub of ice water gives me a relaxed, pleasant feeling.
What might lie behind these claims? No one really knows.There are also the mysterious tales brought back from lightning strike victims that hint at something even more bizarre. In June of 1989, a “storm chaser” by the name of Steve Melvin was hit by a bolt of lightning at the precise moment that he was taking a photo of the lightning of a storm, an incident which nearly disintegrated his tripod and camera but which left the film oddly fully intact. The developed photo would later show show the curious image of an ill-defined human outline prominently framed by flashes of lightning. Melvin would later say of the spooky photos thus:
I've heard all the guesses. Some say it was me having an out-of-body experience. Some say it was my grandmother coming down from heaven to push me out of the way of the lightning. Some say it was a glimpse of an entirely different dimension. I'll never know.
Oddly, even now the batteries of Melvin’s pagers tend to wear out every few days rather than the several months they are meant to last. Another lightning strike victim named Robert Davidson has a similar inexplicable phenomenon with his watch. Since he was struck by lightning over 15 years ago, no electric watch will function on his arm save the very one he was wearing when tragedy struck. These cases have confused experts and pointed to the profound mysteries and misunderstandings that surround lightning strike victims. Indeed, there are many who believe them to be still charged with electricity and ready to lash out with shocks, further adding to the level of mystery and misunderstanding that surround them.
Just as ancient peoples wove legends and myths around the phenomenon of lightning as a desperate way to try and come to an understanding of it, we too struggle to comprehend and speculate on what is going on in these cases of lightning relentlessly attacking a single person, as well as the mysterious effects this force of nature has on the human body. Why are they hit so many times and what impact does this have on them? Are these just people who are aberrations of statistics? Is there some physical property they possess that draws the lightning in? Are there truly natural forces conspiring against them? Or are these serial lightning strikes just an indication of certain sophisticated natural factors that have just happened to converge multiple times on a certain individual by sheer chance? Indeed, what happened to the minds and bodies of these unfortunate few? These repeat lightning victims bring with them a myriad of mysteries just as enigmatic as the flashing bolts of lightning were to the earliest civilizations that looked upon them and wondered what place they had in the world. These are mysteries that may forever hide within the dark storm clouds that bring them.