Imagine walking alone in a desolate area on a mountain path in a dense fog. You see something moving out of the corner of your eye … something big, dark and somewhat sinister. It looks almost like a giant … and it is walking towards you. You have enough control of your faculties to take out your cell phone and record the apparition … because you know no one back home is going to believe your tale. As you stare at the thing, it begins to glow as if walking in an aura or a halo. You hope that if it gets you, someone will find your phone and warn the world of this mountain monster. Miraculously, the shadowing giant disappears and you make safely back down to your car. You rush home to show your scary video to your friends. That is when the mysterious bubble is burst as one of them tell you, “Oh, that’s just a Brocken Spectre. Everybody sees them.” Why didn’t someone warn you? Even worse, why didn’t they tell you that you were just encountering a famous optical illusion made by the fog, the mountain and your own shadow?
“My first Brocken Spectre. Creepy to see it out the corner of my eye and think it was someone else moving.”
Chris Randall (@ultrapeakschris) posted his video on Twitter and got a similar reaction to the ones from his friends – he saw a Brocken Spectre. However, he also got a lot of comments from people who have also seen one or two or more. According to The Daily Mail, Randall is an ultramarathoner and a climbing enthusiast who was pursuing the second hobby last weekend on Red Pike near Wasdale in the Lake District, Cumbria. Red Pike is a fell or peak, about 826 meters or 2,709 feet high, in the Lake District National Park in North West England. Red Pike is a popular climb but Randall was apparently alone on this particular hike.
“It freaked me out too to start !! Out of nowhere this shadowy figure coming towards me out of the cloud 😬”
“Just my shadow cast onto the cloud with a rainbow around it 😁 I can see why they named it a ‘spectre’”
A number of commenters related to Randall’s freak-out at the sight of the shadowy figure on the Red Pike, and he admits that, even though he now knows what it was, it looked nothing like him or his normal shadow. That is the same thing Johann Silberschlag thought back in 1780. The German natural scientist was the first to write about a phenomenon he observed on the Brocken, a peak in the Harz Mountains where generations of locals spoke of a mysterious shadowy person they would encounter on the peak during foggy or cloudy times. The shadowy humanoid was often described as a triangular giant with a halo or rainbow around its head. That gave Silberschlag a clue that this was possibly a phenomenon or optical illusion similar to a rainbow and linked to the fog or clouds surrounding the mountain when it was generally seen.
And art thou nothing? Such thou art, as when
The woodman winding westward up the glen
At wintry dawn, where o'er the sheep-track's maze
The viewless snow-mist weaves a glist'ning haze,
Sees full before him, gliding without tread,
An image with a glory round its head;
The enamoured rustic worships its fair hues,
Nor knows he makes the shadow he pursues!
(from "Constancy to an Ideal Object" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
While poets like the early Romanticist Samuel Taylor Coleridge romanticized the Brocken spectre, Silberschlag explained the elements needed to ‘conjure’ one up: a mountain, peak or ridge over a valley; a cloud, mist or fog at a level around and lower than the observer; the sun being behind the observer. The sun casts the shadow of the observer onto the fog. The gigantic size often reported is a magnification caused by the person judging the size against faraway objects seen opaquely through the mist with no discernable reference points. The triangular shape many see is also due to perspective. The shadow hits water droplets that are of varying distances from the observer, causing mistakes in depth perception. Finally, the spectre appears to move because the clouds are moving and, in many cases, the person is moving as they cast the shadow.
It all adds up to a ‘spectre’ which takes its name from the Brocken peak but has counterparts around the world. In California, the "Dark Watchers," reported since the 1700s in the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Big Sur of California by people seeing them on the horizon or being startled when they appear behind them, are Brocken spectres. In Scotland, the famous Am Fear Liath Mòr or "Big Grey Man" seen on the peak of Ben Macdui and described by some as being over 30 feet tall is also a Brocken spectre. In China, the phenomenon called Buddha's light in the cloud-shrouded Huangshan Mountains and Mount Emei have been recorded as far back as 63 CE – the rainbow ‘halo’ often seen around the spectre made observers think it was an enlightened being or divinity linked to Buddha. In the Tatras mountains of Eastern Europe, the brocken spectre is believed to be a sign of danger or imminent death – not surprising since it is seen on treacherous mountain paths, peaks or precipices. Because of these many variations and legends, the Brocken spectre appears often in popular culture – from Lewis Carroll's "Phantasmagoria" to Leo Frankowski's sci-fi novel “The Radiant Warrior” to the songs of the progressive metal band Fates Warning.
Despite knowing what it is, many people like Chris Randall continue to be spooked by Brocken spectres. The Daily Mirror reported on another hiker seeing one in the Lake District in December 2021. Since so many hikers annually take on the challenge of climbing the High Peaks of the Lake District, the Brocken spectre will continue to be seen in England.
In these modern, technologically advanced times, it’s nice to see that we can still be fooled by – and scared by – nature.