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A Light in the Distance
"Mom would always put a light in the upstairs window, so no matter how dark it was, we could find our way home."
"What's that? A transport! I'm saved!"
C-3PO, Star Wars: A New Hope

So, you've got characters who are either lost, or are caught in some sort of storm. All seems hopeless...

...But, what's this? There's a light in the distance. Our heroes may have found shelter from that dreadful storm or, at least, a place to rest before resuming the journey. Yes, it seems that one of the ways to show the audience that characters have a glimmer of hope in an otherwise gloomy situation is to have something light the way, literally.

This is caused at least partly by the fact that, celestial bodies aside, light-producing objects are rare in nature—particularly those producing steady light, visible over a distance. So any light visible at night, or in a storm, is a sign of humans (or, in Speculative Fiction, any intelligent beings) and civilization.

Of course, the source of this light frequently turns out to be bad, and possibly worse than whatever our heroes were seeking shelter from. This particular wrinkle dates back at least to Ghost Lights and will-o'-the-wisps from folklore.

Lighthouses are common sources of such lights. So are fires and burning buildings. Ambulance lights/sirens are also used occasionally.

Can easily overlap with What Do You Mean, It's Not Symbolic?. See also Survivalist Stash for a similar place of hope and danger.

Examples:

Anime and Manga
  • In an episode of the 2003 anime version of Fullmetal Alchemist, Edward remarks that their mother would light a lantern to help guide her sons home after dark. This idea is repeated at the end of the episode when Winry shines a lantern off of the balcony of her house, symbolizing that the boys do indeed have a home there.
  • The arrival of the Catbus in My Neighbor Totoro. It looks like ordinary headlights at first, until they start hopping and weaving.
  • In Spirited Away, a hopping lantern appears to lead Chihiro and her friends along the path to Zeniba's house.

Comic Books
  • In a related symbolic gesture, during the Sinestro Corps War the citizens of Coast City shined green-colored lights out their windows in support of the Green Lanterns - in spite of the fact that Hal Jordan had just told everyone to evacuate.

Film
  • Rocky Horror Picture Show: "There's a light, over at the Frankenstein Place."
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As Sir Galahad is struggling through a forest at night, he sees a castle in the distance with a light—which looks like the Holy Grail—overhead. On YouTube at about 3:35.
  • In Barbie & The Diamond Castle, the heroines are lost in a forest and out of food and water. Just then, Liana notices smoke coming from just beyond the trees, leading them to an isolated mansion.
  • The very beginning of The Iron Giant: A fisherman and his boat are caught in a horrible storm, and he's searching for the lighthouse to find his way out. He thinks he's found it upon seeing a light in the distance, but that assumption quickly fades away when the light turns and reveals itself to be two lights—like eyes. Then the boat crashes into the title character.
  • Threepio seeing the Jawa sandcrawler in the distance in the original Star Wars movie.
  • Subverted Trope in Finding Nemo: "It's so... pretty!" (To clarify—these are fish, much deeper in the ocean than they really ought to be, and the light in the darkness is an angler fish. Sometimes light really isn't good.)
  • "And we lights the city ... not just for him, but for all of 'em that're still out there. 'Cause we knows ... there'll come a night, when they sees the distant light ... and they'll be comin' home." (Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, final words.)
  • In Brave, Will'o'the Wisps lead the Princess to find a witch's house, starting the main plot.

Folklore
  • Will-o'-wisps and Ghost Lights are lights seen over bogs and marshes. Folklore attributes them to mischievous spirits or fairies attempting to lead travelers astray.
  • Common English folktale of the traveller caught in a storm who sees a light - struggles there - finds a very oldfashioned inn - stays the night - wakes at dawn on the grass outside a barrow - no sign of the inn.

Literature
  • In The Hobbit, Bilbo and the dwarves get lost upon leaving the path in Mirkwood. Every time they see the lights of the elves, they head towards them; usually the lights disperse before the heroes can reach them. (This was probably intended as a Shout-Out to the will-o-the-wisp folklore.) When they eventually reach one of the lights, the elves capture and imprison them (which is still better than being lost in Mirkwood).
    • Similarly, in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Frodo, Sam and Gollum see will-o-the-wisps in the Dead Marshes, and it is stated that they might be caused by the lingering spirits of the dead.
      • It's implied however that these are not real spirits of the dead, but evil spirits summoned by Sauron to guard this border of his realm, luring travellers to their doom. The undead in The Lord of the Rings generally seem to have nothing to do with the actual people who died, with the exception of the ghosts of Dunharg.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Upon first entering Narnia, Lucy sees a light in the distance, which she finds to be a gas lamp post. In the middle of a forest. It is at this lamppost that Lucy meets Mr. Tumnus. Its presence is explained in The Magician's Nephew.
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban introduces a hinkypunk, a creature that uses the light in the distance gimmick to lead travelers into its clutches.
  • In the second Bahzell novel the titular hero and his companions are stuck out in a huge storm not far from shelter, but it's so bad that they have no idea where to go. However Wencit of Rum arrives to save them, and Bahzell, cynical Deadpan Snarker that he is cracks wise about the timely arrival.
  • At one point in The Mysterious Island, the castaways have built a small ship and some of them sail to another island some two hundred miles away. On the way back, a squall blows them off course, but then they see a powerful light (visible at twenty miles) on the shore of their island that guides them home. They're rather disconcerted to learn, later, that their friends on the island didn't make that light. At least, not any friends they knew....
  • Not a light, but close, in Mann's The Magic Mountain, the protagonist Hans Castorp has gotten lost skiing during a storm. He spots a distant house off in the snow, heads to it hoping to find people and warmth, only to discover it's just an old storage shed he'd noticed earlier that morning.

Live-Action TV
  • Referenced in the second season opening credits of Babylon 5:
    "A shining beacon in space... all alone in the night."
  • In the season one finale of LOST, Sawyer, Jin, Michael, and his son Walt have successfully escaped the island on a raft. Night falls, and they receive a signal on the radar emitter Sayid salvaged for them. They send up a flare, and are rewarded with the sudden beam of a fishing boat's floodlight. Things start to go downhill when the captain of the boat tells Michael, "The thing is, we're going to have to take the boy."
  • In Merlin, when Arthur was lost in a dark cave, trying to find a flower that would cure Merlin, Merlin sent a light to help him on his way.

Music

Tabletop Games
  • Traveller adventure 3 Twilight's Peak. While traveling on the world of Fulacin, the adventurers can find an octagonal structure with a light in the window. If they encounter it at night, the light will lead them to the building.

Video Games
  • Bright streetlights mark sanctuaries in Alan Wake where you can hide from the nastybad monsterface guys and usually pick up batteries for your torch.
  • Right at the start of Resident Evil the S.T.A.R.S patrol get attacked by zombie dogs and quickly overrun. The only thing they can think of is run towards a lit up mansion. Of course their problems are only just beginning.
  • The swamp level in ZanZarah: The Hidden Portal is an incomprehensible labyrinth of small islands sitting in mud, and the whole thing is covered with thick fog. However, there are always small lights in the distance and when one disappears, another always appears if you don't move much. To reach your quest objective, you must follow all of them.

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