A Brocken spectre (German Brockengespenst), also called Brocken bow or mountain spectre, is the apparently enormous and magnified shadow of an observer, cast upon the upper surfaces of clouds opposite the sun. The phenomenon can appear on any misty mountainside or cloud bank, or even from an aeroplane, but the frequent fogs and low-altitude accessibility of the Brocken, a peak in the Harz Mountains in Germany, have created a local legend from which the phenomenon draws its name. The Brocken spectre was observed and described by Johann Silberschlag in 1780, and has since been recorded often in literature about the region. However it can be seen in any mountain region. (The dubious term glockenspectre has also been used to refer to the phenomenon; however, there appears to no reliable evidence of its accuracy.)
The “spectre” appears when the sun shines from behind the observer, who is looking down from a ridge or peak into mist or fog. The light projects their shadow forward through the mist, often in an odd triangular shape due to perspective. The apparent magnification of size of the shadow is an optical illusion that occurs when the observer judges his or her shadow on relatively nearby clouds to be at the same distance as faraway land objects seen through gaps in the clouds, or when there are no reference points at all by which to judge its size. The shadow also falls on water droplets of varying distances from the eye, confusing depth perception. The ghost can appear to move (sometimes quite suddenly) because of the movement of the cloud layer and variations in density within the cloud.
The head of the figure is often surrounded by the glowing halo-like rings of a glory, rings of coloured light that appear directly opposite the sun when sunlight is reflected by a cloud of uniformly-sized water droplets. The effect is caused by the refraction of visible light.
References in popular culture and the arts
A Song on David Tipper’s 2010 album Broken Soul Jamboree
Lewis Carroll’s Phantasmagoria includes a line about a Spectre who “…tried the Brocken business first/but caught a sort of chill/so came to England to be nursed/and here it took the form of thirst/which he complains of still.”
The Brocken spectre is a key trope in Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle (1996), in which a character, Nicholas Scoby, declares that his dream (he specifically calls it a “Dream and a half, really”) is to see his glory through a Brocken spectre (69).
In James Hogg’s novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) the Brocken spectre is used to suggest psychological horror.
Carl Jung in “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” wrote:
… I had a dream which both frightened and encouraged me. It was night in some unknown place, and I was making slow and painful headway against a mighty wind. Dense fog was flying along everywhere. I had my hands cupped around a tiny light which threatened to go out at any moment… Suddenly I had the feeling that something was coming up behind me. I looked back, and saw a gigantic black figure following me… When I awoke I realized at once that the figure was a “specter of the Brocken,” my own shadow on the swirling mists, brought into being by the little light I was carrying.
In Gravity’s Rainbow, Geli Tripping and Slothrop make “god-shadows” from a Harz precipice, as Walpurgisnacht wanes to dawn. Additionally, the French–Canadian quadruple agent Rémy Marathe muses episodically about the possibility of witnessing the fabled spectre on the mountains of Tucson in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest.
The explorer Eric Shipton saw a Brocken Spectre during his first ascent of Nelion on Mount Kenya with Percy Wyn-Harris and Gustav Sommerfelt in 1929. He wrote:
Then the towering buttresses of Batian and Nelion appeared; the rays of the setting sun broke through and, in the east, sharply defined, a great circle of rainbow colours framed our own silhouettes. It was the only perfect Brocken Spectre I have ever seen.
The progressive metal band Fates Warning makes numerous references to the Brocken Spectre in both their debut album title Night on Bröcken and in lyrics on a subsequent song called “The Sorceress” from the album Awaken the guardian that read “Through the Brocken Spectre rose a luring Angel.”