The Will-o’-the-Wisp is “the tricksy twilight spirit who shows his deceptive torch or lantern on the dusky edges of the marsh” to lure the unwary into the mucky bog.
Will’s phantom light is not the hollowed-out turnip of Jack (O’ Lantern), but was said to be a wisp, a twist of straw used as a brief torch. The phenomenon is also know as the ignis fatuus, the fooling fire, and sometimes is suspected to be just a bit of marsh gas (which begs the questions of how it came to be set on fire, and why the tales often have the lights on the move, following nervous travelers for miles).
The luring light was typically bent on mischief. But, like many spooky encounters, it could be placated with a coin or pleasant word (or sent fleeing with the right counter-charm, usually a religious admonition). It’s simple: do the wrong thing and woe befalls you. Do the right thing and all is well.
The reported spottings, gleefully noted in the popular press, came equally from drunks stumbling home and observant vicars out late on their rounds.
In the first chapter of Dracula, a flickering will-o’the-wisp appears to help guide the strange, silent driver of the carriage that carries the poor protagonist, Jonathan Harker, on a wild ride deep into the inner reaches of the Transylvanian Carpathians to the foot of eerie ruined castle of the long-toothed Count:
Soon we were hemmed in with trees . . . and again great frowning rocks guarded us boldly on either side. Though we were in shelter, we could hear the rising wind, for it moaned and whistled through the rocks. . . . It grew colder and colder still, and fine, powdery snow began to fall. . . . The keen wind still carried the howling of the dogs, though this grew fainter as we went on our way. The baying of the wolves sounded nearer and nearer, as though they were closing round on us from every side. I grew dreadfully afraid, and the horses shared my fear. The driver, however, was not in the least disturbed; he kept turning his head to left and right, but I could not see anything through the darkness.
Suddenly, away on our left, I saw a faint flickering blue flame. The driver saw it at the same moment; he at once checked the horses, and, jumping to the ground, disappeared into the darkness. I did not know what to do . . . but while I wondered the driver suddenly appeared again, and without a word took his seat, and we resumed our journey.
I think I must have fallen asleep and kept dreaming of the incident, for it seemed to be repeated endlessly, and now looking back, it is like a sort of awful nightmare. Once the flame appeared so near the road, that even in the darkness around us I could watch the driver’s motions.
He went rapidly to where the blue flame arose—it must have been very faint, for it did not seem to illumine the place around it at all—and gathering a few stones, formed them into some device. Once there appeared a strange optical effect: when he stood between me and the flame he did not obstruct it, for I could see its ghostly flicker all the same. This startled me, but as the effect was only momentary. . . . Then for a time there were no blue flames, and we sped onwards through the gloom, with the howling of the wolves around us, as though they were following in a moving circle.
At last there came a time when the driver went further afield than he had yet gone, and during his absence, the horses began to tremble worse than ever and to snort and scream with fright. I could not see any cause for it, for the howling of the wolves had ceased altogether; but just then the moon, sailing through the black clouds, appeared behind the jagged crest of a beetling, pine-clad rock, and by its light I saw around us a ring of wolves, with white teeth and lolling red tongues, with long, sinewy limbs and shaggy hair. . . .
All at once the wolves began to howl as though the moonlight had had some peculiar effect on them. The horses jumped about and reared, and looked helplessly round with eyes that rolled in a way painful to see; but the living ring of terror encompassed them on every side. . . . I called to the coachman to come, for it seemed to me that our only chance was to try to break out through the ring and to aid his approach. I shouted and beat the side of the calèche [carriage], hoping by the noise to scare the wolves from that side, so as to give him a chance of reaching the trap.
How he came there, I know not, but I heard his voice raised in a tone of imperious command, and looking towards the sound, saw him stand in the roadway. As he swept his long arms, as though brushing aside some impalpable obstacle, the wolves fell back and back further still. Just then a heavy cloud passed across the face of the moon, so that we were again in darkness.
When I could see again the driver was climbing into the calèche, and the wolves had disappeared. . . . The time seemed interminable as we swept on our way, now in almost complete darkness, for the rolling clouds obscured the moon. We kept on ascending. . . . Suddenly, I became conscious of the fact that the driver was in the act of pulling up the horses in the courtyard of a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky.
Proving once again that it pays to check the Yelp reviews before booking a room. And the Will-‘o-the-Wisp is sort of an early version of the errant GPS mapping program that tells you to take a right turn into the swamp.