Published February 2017
A few years ago, a paranormal investigator acquaintance who knew I was a geologist asked me what I thought about leylines related to paranormal phenomena. I wasn’t familiar with this association or the history of leylines then. After consulting several references and poking around the Web, I am now! Take a trip with me traveling down some spooky paths to make sense of leylines.
I finally got around to watching the new Ghostbusters movie (with the all-female team). There they were: leylines at the crux of all the paranormal trouble in town! It is indeed past time to deal with these pesky leylines (or ley lines, leys)- a larger-than-life, distorted, misrepresented concept that manifested like the Stay-Puft marshmallow man in paranormal circles.
“What do those look like to you?”Ghostbusters (2016)
“It’s a hidden network of energy lines that run across the earth; it’s a current of supernatural energy.”
“Supposedly if you look at sacred sites and weird events all over the world and connect them with lines, where they intersect, it’s an unusually powerful spot.”
“He’s using the devices to charge the leylines. He’s creating a vortex.”
Leylines as first proposed had NOTHING to do with energy or ghostly activity. How did we get to this?
As usually occurs with people and ideas, mix real bits with some imagination, blend it all into a confusing mess, then jazz it up Hollywood style, and you have the very convoluted answer. How about a walk down the fairy path? Or maybe it’s a UFO runway…
Watkins’ Old Straight Track lead to leylines
There are several books written on leylines but the term was coined in books by amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins – Early British Trackways (1922) and The Old Straight Track (1925). Watkins observed that places of pre-historic and historic significance were aligned across long distances in the British countryside. Ancient henges, barrows, cursuses, building sites, monuments, tors, ponds, holy wells, etc., could be mapped as points along a straight line regardless of the terrain. He wasn’t the first to notice the connection to other sites that some thought were akin to “beacon hills” (think Lord of the Rings call for aid) where you could see the next journey point from your current point, but he was the first to say that they were ubiquitous. Astronomical alignments had also previously been noted.
Watkins encouraged people to take a map and a camera and do their own exploration for “leys”. It became a hobby for some in the 1930s when there was a strong national sentiment for the romance, lore, and legend of British ancient heritage.
Watkins’s idea was purely utilitarian. The Old Straight Track is tedious reading – wordy, dry, and full of speculation (and suspected leylines). But his hypothesis was rejected by academia and his work was discredited and ignored. Connecting four points to make a line was not difficult in a country where there were thousands of prehistoric and historic monuments. The width of the lines varied to allow inclusion of other points alongside. And, there certainly were straight segments of some significance used as travel ways or for ceremonial processions (such as funeral paths or “corpse ways”), perhaps later to become Roman roads.
At some point, “leys” shifted from being a guide to where special places were located to being forces of nature that dictated where these special places would be located and why that made them special, even magical. Watkins’s ideas were adopted by more imaginative types.
Earth Energy via leylines
Straight lines already had some supernatural significance. For example, the paths where bodies were carried from the town to a burial site were called “corpse roads” and associated with routes of the spirits, which became spirit paths that you were encouraged to avoid. Spirits were said to have a preference for straight lines. Or the paths were said to be used by fairies so you surely had better steer clear of those!
Ceremonial paths, visible from the air and ground, are obvious in many cultures. In 1958, French author Aimé Michel in Flying Saucers and the Straight-Line Mystery said that UFO sightings in France had occurred along invisible lines across great distances that formed a grid. He called this idea orthoteny and suspected the lines might be associated with the terrain.
Leylines and orthotenic lines were joined in concept by John Michell. Michell wrote The View Over Atlantis which heralded the “earth mysteries” idea in 1969. Kate Shrewsday writes:
Enter John Mitchell (sic), Eton-educated member of the hippy hierarchy, author of The View Over Atlantis and so many other books which re-ignited our passion for the old places. It was Mitchell who resurrected Watkins’ lines and used them to mystify a landscape which had become mundane.
His premises were so engrossing, so seductive, that a whole counter-culture grew green and vigorous around it.
Leylines were also seen as “arteries” of the earth, “veins” of energy flow, and equivalent to chi (qi) pathways said to be utilized in acupuncture of the human body. Standing stones, for example, marked the leys like sign posts but were also acting like acupuncture needles for the earth (I wish I was kidding with that) to channel astronomical energy into the leys. Also borrowed from Asian culture was the idea that monuments were placed in balance and harmony along the leylines as a sort of geographical feng shui. Conductive minerals like iron, gold, and silver were said to be associated with leylines. (Hmm, a testable claim.)
It was a small jump to connect genuine scientific concepts of magnetic anomalies and telluric current to sciencey-sounding “earth energy lines”. The notion of telluric currents was co-opted by dowsers, but that is a completely different discussion I’m not prepared to have in this post. Some suggested that the power in leylines drew from the telluric current and that such power could be manipulated or used for societal advantages (what Michell called “spiritual engineering”). Watkins did not think leylines could be found with dowsing rods, but this creative subversion of his ideas occurred rather smoothly. Author and dowser Guy Underwood pushed the dowsing craze associated with leylines in the 1970s in the midst of the New Age wave of magical earth ideas. Underwood also espoused the idea of lines related to water-bearing zones or “blind springs“. I’ll return to this concept shortly.
So, in the 1970s, leylines were seen as channels of mystical “energy”. We can measure energy, yet no one was successful in measuring this particular energy scientifically. Ley proponents said the energy was too subtle or that research on the lines should be funded because of the potential to humankind. Locations associated with leylines became more magical as New Age popularity increased – places like Glastonbury (St. Michael’s ley and many others; see map above) and Stonehenge. Giants were said to be buried in the barrows as they were associated with incredible leyline power. This power was said to even cause the stones to come alive and move. (Another testable claim where evidence was never provided.)
When the leylines cross
Crossed lines have always been associated with magic. Crossroads are particularly notable as supernatural areas. Where leylines supposedly crossed, a strong “power spot” was created. These nodes could produce an energy “vortex”. Vortexes (vortices) are handy devices to explain an area as particularly prone to strange phenomena. No evidence for such energy vortexes exists, either.
Leylines as plot devices or explanations in fantasy fiction media began in the 1960s with authors like Thomas Pynchon and continued with concepts of conspiracy ideas of secret knowledge about sacred geometry of the earth. And, of course, we have leylines and the vortex as key plot devices in the new Ghostbusters, which brings us to the paranormal community connection – the intersection where supernatural ideas and vague scientific concepts crash and merge.
I liked this opening for an article about leylines in Fortean Times of June 2007:
Ever since Alfred Watkins announced his discovery of a network of ancient alignments crisscrossing the British countryside, the history of leys has been less of an old straight track and more of a long and winding road, one that has taken detours into everything from ufology to dowsing.
Poor Watkins! He was only trying to put some sort of order system into mapping remarkable places and things really spiraled out of control. This happens quite often as concepts sort of related to factual or scientific ideas lose their original meaning and clarity, or the terms get conflated. The above quote is the intro to a piece by Paul Devereux, a leading authority on leylines from the 1970s to the present. I found a 2003 interview with Devereux by paranormal personality Jeff Belanger on the Ghost Village site signaling that the American paranormal community was keying in on the concept of leylines around that time. Devereux’s opinion is that leys are not what Watkins thought or what the New Agers believed but something else related to sacred paths and possibly the supernatural.
Amateur paranormal research ramped up big time in the 2000s with the popularity of DIY spirit-seeking TV shows. But even before that, there were paranormalists who connected various geological features to reports of hauntings and poltergeists. A popular concept was taken from the Tectonic Strain idea of Dr. Michael Persinger who suggested that geological circumstances in fault zones might be responsible for anomalous luminous phenomena (also known as ghost lights) or related to earthquake lights. He thought these might be misconstrued as UFOs. (Ghost lights and Tectonic strain theory are future topics to explore here.) Leylines as sources of some undefined kind of energy were picked up as potential explanations for the manifestation of psychic energy that ghost researchers assumed was real. Genuine magnetic anomalies were turned into magical areas and connected to paranormal reports. Often, the researchers never actually checked for historic leylines or geological anomalies, they just assumed they were there because it was a very sciencey conclusion to make that sounded plausible (and the public accepted it). Use of dowsing rods to find this psychic energy is also common for paranormalists.
Ley nodes were commonly attributed to areas of “high strangeness” – a higher than normal occurrence of weird things like anomalous lights, poltergeist activity, bizarre creature encounters, and UFO sightings.
That paranormal investigator who asked me about leylines years ago was certainly hearing it from the buzz in his community. Again, we see the short jump to connect spooky feelings and unusual occurrences to the idea that there is a mysterious energy in the earth affecting humans on the surface. Their house, the moon phase, and solar activity were presumed to be amplifying the effect. Here is an example from Supernatural magazine of what paranormalists can believe about leylines (unedited):
Well most of the Earths leys are positive but when two of these leys cross or intersect a vortex of negative energy is then created. It is like a powerful magnet attracting all kinds of lower vibrational spirit, energy or entity and even sometimes people. These entities can then draw off the energy, feed on it and use it to manifest. Bodmin Jail (Cornwall) is a place where two such energy lines cross and therefore they form lower energy vortexes and this, in turn, will also affect the way people behave in such places. They will be prone or influenced to lower vibrational thoughts, paranoia, anger, ego and fear etc………it can be a source of food to an entity to recharge their essence.
Leylines appear to be an (at least moderately) accepted speculative explanation for ghosts and hauntings. Because of the emphasis on other geological aspects (like minerals, fault lines, and water-bearing zones), I wondered if some paranormal investigators could be mistaking energy lines with lineaments. Geologic lineaments are any linear feature that contrasts with the surrounding ground identified via maps (stereoviews being most helpful) and are associated mostly with carbonate terrain and groundwater well productivity. It was not unreasonable to think that natural lineaments might be features obvious enough to have been noticed by prehistoric societies who might have constructed wells into these fracture zones with great success. True lineaments are usually areas of structural weakness (not “power”) that have weathered more than surrounding rocks. Drilling into a fracture trace can result in a kick-ass well yield. I was not able to find any examples of leylines that really were geologic lineaments, though it’s hard to imagine some enthusiastic person hasn’t done so a few times.
Paranormalists have misunderstood and mixed up ideas of mineral veins, fault lines, contacts between rock formations, and fracture zones. They have widely attributed a nebulous idea of “energy” and “flow” to seismic, structural, mineralogical, and hydrogeologic characteristics to reach a conclusion that leylines are real and are associated with hauntings and the other weird events people experience.
In no way does this foray into leyline history come close to sharing all the information, creative notions, and opinions about them. Anyone interested can get lost for years in all the literature (some first decent choices are in the references). But, most of the current popular perceptions about leylines are based on presumption and are suitable only for entertainment.
Leylines have become a very messy melange of ideas about energy, electromagnetic fields, geologic fault lines, telluric current, voltage, and frequency conjured by paranormalists. It’s a concept that sounds just sciencey enough for non-scientists to think it might have some merit. But it doesn’t.
Leylines have not been objectively shown to have any measurable energy differential. Studies have not conclusively shown that independent reports of odd phenomena are concentrated along discrete lines. Dowsing for leylines (or for anything else) has also never been reliably demonstrated. No tests, as far as I know, have shown that leylines can even be independently mapped by two different people. Even Watkins’ lines were never fully substantiated as a theory, though many proponents insist they were. It’s very easy to draw lines to connect a few things; the thickness of the line can determine if you include features or not. And, after a substantive distance, a line drawn on a map will no longer correlate to the earth’s surface due to the curvature.
Evolution of Ley Lines 1. Long, straight alignments [Watkins] ... connecting sacred spaces 2. "Energy" paths of spiritual significance ...that ancients could detect and so deliberately built on the lines ...adopted by paranormalists 3. Energy could be used or manipulated ...negative or positive, earth and sky powers could combine ...New Age mysticism, magic, geomancy 4. This earth energy is vital to our survival; we must rediscover the old ways that were lost. ...wisdom of the ancients, Gaia
In examining leylines we’ve seen them associated throughout the past few decades with an array of occult and paranormal ideas. Their ambiguous reality and flexible definition allow for seamless application from one strange phenomenon to another. The modern mystical concept of leylines that conduct earth energies, which can be harnessed for supernatural chaos, is fiction derived from subjective observations and perhaps even genuine earth processes. Going back to Alfred Watkins, even his old straight tracks may just be us pattern-seeking — connecting points because it feels satisfying — as people want to find connections and so will see them when they simply aren’t there. This has happened with leylines. Layers of lore and imagination have made leylines a useful trope to connect to spooky things.
A. Watkins (1925) The Old Straight Track. [Available in reprint from many publishers.]
D. Sullivan (2004) Ley Lines: The Greatest Landscape Mystery. Amazon Kindle edition.
T. Williamson and L. Bellamy (1983) Ley Lines in Question. Littlehampton Book Services Ltd.
J. Michell (1983) The New View Over Atlantis. Harper & Row.