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The Fish Light

by Brian Dunning, Mar 10 2011

Today I thought I’d share a creepy experience I had as a kid. I’ve always figured it was some type of hypnogogic hallucination, since I know for sure that I had at least one such experience at about the same age. I’ve always privately referred to this experience as the “Fish Light”.

It has to do with a spot of light in the shape of the outline of a fish, so let me start by sparing you all the trouble of quipping that it must have been a Jesus Fish. Very droll and clever. Full marks for the spared effort.

I must have been about 11 years old. We lived in a small ranch house in Costa Mesa, California. I got up one warm summer night, when the house was dark and everyone was asleep, to visit the little boy’s room. There was plenty of moonlight and my eyes were well adjusted, so vision was not a problem. It seemed that it would have been more scary to turn the bathroom light on, thus creating a too-bright room and a too-dark abyss into which I must soon descend, so I left it off, and was secure in the generally dim house with enough filtered light to deny hiding places to monsters.

In the bathroom, I noticed a spot of bright light on the bathroom counter, in the shape of a fish, perhaps five inches long. It seemed curiously improbable, so I investigated. I fussed with the window blind until I was satisfied that it was not light from outside. I placed my hand under the light so I could follow it to its source, but the fish light would either spill off my hand or fade out as I tried to lift my hand from the counter. After some minutes of fidgeting, I gave up, intrigued but not to the point of distraction.

A week or so later, when the fish light was a faded memory, I got up late at night again for a drink. The bathroom was next door to my bedroom, so that was not much of a trek, but all the way to the kitchen was quite the brave journey. I had to pass many monster hiding places on that heart-pounding commando creep, but arrived safe at last.

There, in the center of the linoleum floor, was my old adversary, the fish light. This time I didn’t plan to retreat without a victory. I circled it, waving my arms, until I verified (to my 11-year-old satisfaction) that it wasn’t coming from anywhere. I got down on my knees and tried to put my hand under it — and here was the real surprise. My hand covered it, obscuring it, as if it was shining up from the floor itself. I could lift a corner of my hand, and saw that it was brightly lit underneath. I lay a magazine on top of it, smothering it, and went back to bed.

Unfortunately, no memory survives of whether the magazine was found in the morning where I left it, because that would be a helpful clue to whether the experience was hypnogogic or just a dream. What are your suggestions?

37 Responses to “The Fish Light”

  1. Aya says:

    Something on you (clothes or body) was creating this.
    Watch, glasses, buttons etc.
    If you had a ring it would explain it perfectly.

  2. tmac57 says:

    Based on the facts and general scenario that you painted,it seems most likely that this was a vivid dream. Also,how often have you recalled this story over the years? It has been shown that memories of past events tend to change unconsciously the more that they are recalled.Details can be added or subtracted,until the memory bares only a superficial resemblance to what actually happened.

    • John Ellis says:

      I agree that they were both dreams. Light traveled WITH hand first time, and blocked by hand second time, and fish glow stickers (which are available) would not do the former, just the latter. I sometime open my eyes in my sleep, and any lights in the room (LED clock, edge of curtain) may be incorporated into a dream. Many years later I still recall the terror of being chased by “11:11″ (sideways) red glowing robots, as well as dreamt trips to the bathroom when falling back asleep waiting for my sister to exit the bathroom before school.

  3. QuestionAuthority says:

    Interesting story. I think Aya has a good hypothesis. From your story, it certainly sounds to me as if you were wide awake, so I think hypnagogia is probably ruled out.

    When I was young (around 5 years old or so), I used to “see” odd blurs at the edge of my vision as if something was moving. When I looked in that direction, there was nothing there. Since a few years later it was discovered that I was (and am) seriously nearsighted and astigmatic, I think it was just an artifact of that deficiency in my vision.

    I’m interested in what others think of this story. :-D

  4. LML says:

    it could also have been one of those light retaining stickers of some kind, you know the ones that light up after lights go out, it could’ve looked very bright because there was no other light source,
    i recall they sell them as stamps/stickers and normal paint, the liquid/sticker/stamp could have then be put on the ground and on the bathroom by someone
    hope this helps

  5. Trimegistus says:

    My guess is that the first time it was a real spot of light — one you couldn’t trace to its source because that’s sometimes pretty tricky if it’s an odd angle.

    The second time sounds more like a dream, taking off from the odd incident not long before.

  6. Max says:

    Were the kitchen and bathroom dark despite the bright fish light? Even a small light should light up a dark room.

    The lesson is to leave physical evidence in situations like this so you know it’s not a dream.

  7. LovleAnjel says:

    It sounds like a glow-in-the-dark sticker (or bookmark, ect) was left on the counter one night. Perhaps it got brushed aside (or put pack in a book)and later got dropped into the floor. That would explain it emanating light but not lighting up the room. Also, if it was very dark a dim GID picture would look bright.

    • LovleAnjel says:

      It doesn’t take much light to recharge GID stuff…if someone got up to use the bathroom before Brian it would have been glowing for awhile afterwards.

      I have a pillowcase with GID skeletons on it, and when I wake up in the night sometimes they’ll still be glowing and startle me.

  8. quentin says:

    Some phosphorescent glue, applied with fish shaped stamp.

  9. Roberta says:

    Glow-in-the-dark stuff can be wild. I remember being back home in university, and having to sleep on the couch in my parent’s basement. When I turned the light out, the room was pitch black except for the glow-in-the-dark skull model my brother had built and set on the TV set.

  10. Trimegistus says:

    Another important question: Brian, did you have any older siblings living in the house at the time?

    • Max says:

      I think if a brother wanted to prank Brian, he’d put the fish in the bathroom or bedroom, not the kitchen floor.

  11. Robo Sapien says:

    It was the Darwin fish.

  12. Aya says:

    If the bathroom incident was on Thursday and the kitchen incident was on Friday then it is quite clear….

    A gefilte fish

    For reference see Frank Gehry and the carp.

  13. MadScientist says:

    I can’t believe you all missed the obvious: Brian was abducted by aliens! The glowing fish light was the probe.

  14. QuestionAuthority says:

    Probed by a gefilte fish? ;-)

  15. Scott says:

    There is only one group that could have possibly been responsible for this: The Illuminati!

  16. Jeffery2010 says:

    Do you have siblings? First thought – a glow in the dark stamp applied to the dust jacket of a school book. This book was set down on the bathroom counter and perhaps dropped on the kitchen floor (or set down on the floor next to the chair they were sitting in. Transferred. This would explain the kitchen experience better as you said you could put your hand under it in the bathroom. I would just have to wonder about the reliability of your memory (i.e. perhaps you dreamt later about putting your hand under it).

  17. karaktur says:

    When I was a child
    I caught a fleeting glimpse
    Out of the corner of my eye
    I turned to look but it was gone
    I cannot put my finger on it now
    The child is grown
    The dream is gone
    I have become comfortably numb

    Pink Floyd

  18. gdave says:

    As tmac57 points out, memories can be altered, even created out of whole cloth, by telling and retelling a story. As Stephen Ceci and others demonstrated, young children could be made to falsely remember having a finger stuck in a mousetrap. Speculating about a decades-old childhood memory of an event with no independent witnesses or physical evidence is idle. It could have been a glow-in-the-dark sticker. It could have been a hypnogogic hallucination. It could have been a vivid dream. It could have been a genuinely supernatural event. It could have been something else entirely. It could even be that it never happened at all – Mr. Dunning may have told and retold a tall tale so often since childhood that it has become a (false) memory of an actual event.

    Skeptics too often fall into this kind of armchair speculation. It’s sometimes useful to speculate about possible mundane alternative explanations for events like this, if only to point out to someone who leaps to a supernatural explanation that alternatives exist. But, in many cases, such as this one, there’s no shame in saying, “That’s weird. I don’t know what’s going on. There’s just not enough evidence to come to any sort of conclusion.”

  19. tmac57 says:

    gdave-To be fair,Brian was actively soliciting speculations…

    Unfortunately, no memory survives of whether the magazine was found in the morning where I left it, because that would be a helpful clue to whether the experience was hypnogogic or just a dream. What are your suggestions?

    • gdave says:

      tmac57: That’s true, and in this case, Brian clearly was inviting a bit of intellectual play, not searching for a clearly definitive explanation (at least, I don’t think he was). There’s nothing wrong with that. I was just trying to make two points:

      1) As you pointed out, human memory is fallible and unreliable. When evaluating a serious claim of the supernatural, a good first step is making sure the event actually happened as described, and relying on an individual’s memory of the event is dicey at best. Armchair skeptics too often skip this step.

      2) Perhaps more importantly, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” In my (anecdotal) experience, skeptics can be just as intolerant of ambiguity as believers, and too often leap on an available mundane explanation as somehow disproving a claim of the paranormal (for example, taking the uncorroborated word of a hoaxer as compelling evidence for a hoax). Sometimes, there’s just not enough evidence to reach a conclusion. Sometimes, we just have to say, “I don’t know.” If we can convince a believer, not that an alternative mundane explanation is the best one, but simply that we don’t know, and they don’t know either, that’s often the best we can, or should, reasonably expect.

      Again, I realize that Brian was only inviting a bit of harmless speculative play, and my responses are perhaps a bit strident, but I’ve too often seen similar comment threads on entirely serious claims of the supernatural, where many commenters seemed to take the mere existence of possible (and occasionally not very plausible) mundane explanations as a compelling debunking of the claim. It’s quite rare that I’ve seen a skeptic willingly to simply say, “I don’t know.”

      • tmac57 says:

        gdave-I want to believe you,but I just don’t know.(gdave…gdave…hmmm,is that Australian?Cause it sounds Australian)

      • gdave says:

        Well played, sir, well played.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        This is not out of character for Brian, he makes fun little mystery story posts intended to challenge our critical thinking. There was a real good one about UFO lights a few months back.

  20. Nyar says:

    It could be a tumor.

  21. Brian, did you try looking into the cornfield? Someone suggested that to me recently. ;)

  22. Paperleaf says:

    Do you recall if you had visited the beach on the same days as you saw the “fish light?” Could it have been bioluminescent algae that you carried home from the beach, unseen in the light of day but noticeable in the evening darkness. A foot print in the kitchen, or hand print on the counter could have a fish-like appearance. Just a quick guess.

  23. Dale Headley says:

    Back in 1959, I and a friend were driving late at night across the Nevada desert. The sky was cloudless and moonless – it was pitch black. Then a formation of lights appeared at about two o’clock in the sky outside the far corner of the curved windshield of my Cadillac. – lights we could both see clearly. We began speculating on what they might be. Judging by their apparent altitude we calculated they must be moving at hypersonic speeds – in perfect formation – one behind the other. Being the science nerd I am, I kept saying that it couldn’t be aircraft. My friend decided that it had to be flying saucers -no other possible explanation. But I wouldn’t accept that. I started moving my hand to different positions around the steering wheel, to no effect – at first. Then, all of a sudden, the lights disappeared. I moved my hand and they reappeared. Every time I placed my hand in this specific position, the lights appeared, and when I removed it they came to life again, seeming to move along at several thousand miles an hour. So I started looking around and I spotted – far out into the desert, on the opposite side (my side) of the car from the lights, a string of small lights that looked to be a mile or so away – probably street lights or fence lights in some kind of commercial facility. What had happened was that the curved glass on the passenger side was picking up a reflection of the lights in the desert. So, when we looked through the glass and saw the lights, with nothing else visible to provide a perspective, they appeared to our brains to be emanating from high in the sky. I’ve always considered this experience to be instructive: what you THINK you see is often not what IS. Some people (like my friend) instinctively jump to the supernatural conclusion; they possess a mindset that predisposes them to accept the least likely explanation for some unexplained phenomenon. Others, like myself, search diligently for the natural explanation.

  24. Chris says:

    Not having the time or patience to read all of the guesses, did anyone come up with “fluorescent linoleum”?

  25. tmac57 says:

    I think it was an anecdote lite.

  26. skepto-troll says:

    Do you have any acceptable evidence for this? Has anyone else repeated it? There is no scientific evidence for the appearance of luminous fish to small boys. Or that hands have corners (what species are you?).

    Oh, wait, did you Google “luminous fish”? There are references, but they are fictional or purely anecdotal, too.

    Possibly one of the monsters was using it a lure; you escaped just in time. Others did not live to tell the tale, hence the paucity of reports.

    Or it was a divine manifestation, a sign from God that He was protecting you from the monsters. For now.

    Or a premonition that you might devote your spare time to investigating things that look superficially rather dubious, but are in fact just things you don’t understand very well.

    Apart from dreams, or your parents testing you out on hallucinogens, I might suggest a visual disturbance caused by a painless migraine (or a minor stroke). Could be brought on by chocolate.

    But the most likely explanation is that it was a comatic aberration, a badly-formed focus on an oblique plane, caused by moonlight shining through one of the crystal balls your elders kept on the window sill.
    This would produce a shape rather like an alpha. You could demonstrate a similar effect by focusing a light-bulb through a lens (crystal, bottle, etc.) onto paper held with its perpendicular at an angle to the cardinal ray.
    Your hand, or a relatively thick magazine, placed over it would interrupt the light before it could focus, making it seem to vanish.

    But don’t worry, the monsters won’t come for you just yet. Not until the terrifying end at the full moon.