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A Light in the Distance

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♫ Deep in the storm / There's a place that's soft and still
Where the road waits to be taken / If you only will ♫
"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 Hitodama Light and Will-o'-the-Wisp from folklore. In some stories, the light in the distance may be a trap.

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

Can easily overlap with Faux Symbolism. See also Survivalist Stash for a similar place of hope and danger.


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  • 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."

    Anime and Manga 
  • In an episode of Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), 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 the final episode of Mobile Suit Gundam, after Zeon has been defeated, Amuro is drifting through space in his battered Core Fighter when he notices the light of an emergency lantern the White Base crew is using to signal him, prompting the famous last line of the show (aside from narration):
    Amuro: Sorry, Lalah, but I still have a place to go home to...and nothing could make me happier.

    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.
  • Idées Noires: A man is stumbling through a snow-covered forest when he sees lights in the distance. His last thought is that he won't freeze to death, just before he runs into the pack of wolves whose eyes he mistook for lights.

    Films — Animated 
  • 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.
  • 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.)
  • In Brave, Will-o'-the-Wisps lead the Princess to find a witch's house, starting the main plot.
  • Disney's Pete's Dragon (1977) 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.
  • In Balto, after a long trip, through all the dangers of the frozen territory, carrying the medicine that the sick children of the town need, Balto is able to see the location of the town because of artificially made northern lights, made by his love interest Jenna.
  • Subverted in the sequel Atlantis: Milo's Return, Milo and his friends are trying to find answers to the curse of the Kraken that plagues a seaside town. However, on their way back to town, they get lost in a thick fog, but are able to see mysterious lights, which they believe lead to the town. However, following these lights lead them nowhere but off a cliff, and the source of the light is never explained.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The 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.
  • Threepio seeing the Jawa sandcrawler in the distance in the original Star Wars movie.
  • The final worlds of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
    Savannah: 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.

    Folklore and Mythology 
  • Will-o'-the-Wisps 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. Later in the book, as Harry is getting swamped by Dementors he sees a light that turns out to be a Patronus cast by his future self.
  • 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 by Jules Verne, 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.
  • Redwall: Toads are able to fashion crystal lanterns in which they trap fireflies, then wander the swamps to lure travelers to their doom. Doomwyte features a variation on the same trick done by applying a phosporescent substance on a black bird's wing, which backfires as it gives the intended victim something to aim at.

    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.
  • The Day of the Triffids. After most of the world goes blind, the protagonist sees a blinking signal light one night, so marks its position on the window. The next day he goes to the building indicated by the mark and finds a small group of other sighted survivors. Unfortunately they're at loggerheads with another faction who have different ideas about how to respond to the catastrophe, and our hero isn't out of the woods yet.

  • Eagles' "Hotel California":
    Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light...
  • Metallica's "No Leaf Clover".
    Then it comes to be that the soothing light at the end of your tunnel
    Was just a freight train comin' your way
  • "Long As I Can See the Light" by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
  • Trace Adkins' "Every Light in the House." When the singer's girlfriend leaves him, he tells her that he'll make their house this trope so she can find her way back. He goes on to say that if he ever finally admits to himself the relationship is truly over, he'll turn them off one-by-one.
    Every light in the house is on
    The backyard's bright as the crack of dawn
    The front walk looks like runway lights
    It's kinda like noon in the dead of night
    Every light in the house is on
    Just in case you ever do get tired of being gone
    Every light in the house is on

    Newspaper Comics 
  • In Crock, Commandant Crock orders a flare sent up as a beacon to the Lost Patrol, who have been wandering the desert for the past couple of decades.
    Lost Patrol Officer: A flare from the fort! Do you know what this means?!!!
    Legionnaire: The fort's sinking?

    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.
  • Warhammer 40,000 naturally has a Grimdark take on this: The only FTL Travel humans have is to go into the Warp, a hellish dimension whose currents can be read by the psychic Navigators and used to push a starship much faster than possible in realspace. But to avoid being lost, Navigators need a point of reference, provided by the Astronomican, the massive psychic beacon visible across most of the galaxy that is the God-Emperor, to which a thousand weak psykers are sacrificed every day to keep the beacon burning and avoid the complete collapse of human civilization.
    • There's also a theory the Astronomican inadvertently attracted the attention of an extragalactic Horde of Alien Locusts that was passing through the empty voids of the Universe: the Tyranids. Were it not for the light they might have ignored mankind's galaxy.

    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.
  • Used to dastardly effect in SOMA. In the lowest levels of PATHOS-II, conveniently located in the abyssal plane of the Atlantic, you're told to follow the lights that have been set up to guide you to Tau and Alpha base. After emerging from a series of tunnels, you find a light shining in the distance. Turns out, it's from an aggressive, mutated angler fish.
  • A long-dead character in Subnautica, Paul Torgal, claims to have seen a light in the distance upon swimming deeper after his underwater base was attacked by a sea monster. Based on the creatures found nearby, one can reasonably assume that a Crabsquid did him in, after catching the scent of his blood.
  • When The Darkness Comes: The "Follow The Light" segment involves the player being trapped in a black void and having to keep walking forward toward the distant, winding light. While trying to balance on a tiny beam they can't see.
  • The inside of Dark Bramble in Outer Wilds has a thick fog, with the only way to navigate is to follow distant lights. Each light is either a portal or an anglerfish that will try to eat you.

  • 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 Enchanted Forest.
  • Stand Still, Stay Silent: At some point, Lalli gets forcibly ejected from his dreamscape safe area and "lands" somewhere very far away from it. Emil's safe area ends up playing that role to him.
  • Unsounded: When Sette falls into the khert through a shadow she's in darkness, but as she creeps along she's able to see a light and heads towards it. Entering the lighted area is not a giant improvement as she's still lost in the khert and ends up chased by Ilganyag and bitten by Murkoph, but Duane's soul rescues her from Murkoph and she escapes the khert using Duane's tether to his body.

    Real Life