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!"
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
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.
Anime and Manga
- Motel Six references this trope with the tagline they've been using in their radio ads since 1986: "We'll leave the light on for you."
- 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.
- 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.
Folklore and Mythology
- 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.
- Disney's Petes Dragon features Nora who operates a lighthouse, and constantly waits for her missing sailor lover who is presumed dead after he fails to return from a voyage. The scene even has a song "Candle on the Water" which does its job showing this trope was clearly intentional and not just her doing her job manning the lighthouse.
- Will-o'-the-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.
- The Greek myth of Hero and Leandre. Leandre would swim a channel every night, guided by the light Hero shone from her tower. When one night she couldn't make it, he drowned.
- Gesta Danorum: Looking for the way to Utgard-Loki, Thorkill and his crew are lost in a sea of eternal darkness, when they spot "a twinkle of a fire at no great distance". Thorkill goes after the fire and finds two freakishly ugly but helpful giants who eventually direct him to Utgard-Loki.
- 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.
- Ice Station Zebra. The submarine sends out a party to help the eponymous station, but on the way back they get lost in an Arctic snowstorm and can't make radio contact. They climb to higher ground, but everything is covered in low-lying cloud. Someone sees what he thinks is a light patch of cloud, and suggests the submarine is shining a searchlight directly upward as a beacon. As they're debating this, a flare shoots up from the same area.
- The Night Land and Awake In The Night Land are set in a world plunged in darkness, but they have the light from The Last Redoubt and the mysterious Good Powers who sometimes help the adventurers.
- 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.
- 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.
- In El Goonish Shive, Abraham thinks his fight with Nanase is over and yells defiance, until he spots a light coming toward him at speed and he is knocked down before he sees what it is, which is Nanase in her newly acquired angel form.
- In Gunnerkrigg Court, Antimony has fallen into a deep ravine and is lonely and lost, when she sees a light on the other side of the river. It turns out to be a ghost, who, upon meeting Annie, attacks her with a sword.
- In No Rest for the Wicked, November sees it when desperate in the storm, in The Lost Woods.