Hessdalen, a valley in the Norwegian countryside, isn’t in the pristine north or by the magnificent fjords in the west. It’s, in fact, an unremarkable place of scrubby, low-lying hills; a former mining center that has slipped into depression and depopulation. It is unremarkable — except for the strange and unexplained lights.
They appear in the sky, moving slowly, separating and reforming, winking in and out. At other times they shoot down the valley and disappear, or simply switch on for a moment and vanish. I know what you’re thinking — but there’s video footage.
Word of the phenomena didn’t leave this tight-knit, insular community for quite a while. But in December 1981, the lights shone brighter, outsiders took notice, and the press descended.
The town attracted both legit scientists and spectators from across Europe. “Most people are [just] enthusiasts,” Norwegian photographer Ivar Kvaal tells TIME, “but I have also met the oddball fanatic. It’s divided. Most of the villagers are sane and honest.”
Kvaal says that “some of the villagers have hopes of making some money from UFO tourism. They tried to run a small gift shop, but it had to close. Now you can get souvenirs at the local pub, when it’s open.” Mostly, what the town has gotten is ridicule, which made it especially hard for Kvaal to gain people’s trust.
Theories for these occurrences abound: the light comes from ionized gases in the atmosphere, or ball lightning, or decaying radon. The earth itself is acting like a giant battery — which some say could be tapped for clean energy. And, of course, others believe these are aliens.
Kvaal isn’t interested in any of these theories. He’s never seen the lights himself. “I’m interested in how the lights have affected the community and the people,” he says.
This is instead, as Mark Durant writes of the work, “a meditation on the human desire to experience the otherworldly.”
Through a mixture of documentary photos, archival material, still lifes and portraits of believers, Kvaal creates a quiet but suggestive series about, in Durant’s words, “one of those forlorn frontiers where the mysterious and the desperate coincide to produce a new culture of wonder and paranoia.”
One of those frontiers where belief precedes evidence, and where the truth is always just around the corner.
Ivar Kvaal is a photographer based in Oslo.
Myles Little is an associate photo editor at TIME.