Haunting Time-Lapse Reveals How Much of the Night Sky We're Missing

These desert towns have been long abandoned, but unlike the rest of America, the sky remains the same. Gavin Heffernan and Harun Mehmedinović/SkyGlow Project

If ghosts live among us, you might imagine one reclining in this ragged chair, staring out the window of a long-abandoned town.

Ruined old chair in window
A tattered chair offers a haunting view from one of the ghost towns in 'Mojave Forsaken'. Gavin Heffernan and Harun Mehmedinović

Or in the broken bed, where coils and springs are exposed like rusted bones.

No, this isn’t a ghost story. Despite the haunting images and spectral soundtrack, 'Mojave Forsaken' is a time-lapse journey through ghost towns of the sprawling American desert.

And an ode to the night sky.

Produced by the SkyGlow Project, the film looks at former mining towns abandoned in the late 19th century — places like Bodie, Cerro Gordo and Rhyolite — and imagines what the sky must have looked like to the people who lived under it.

A night-time scene from Cerro Gordo, California
The ruins of Cerro Gordo, California. Gavin Heffernan and Harun Mehmedinović

Gavin Heffernan and Harun Mehmedinović, the team behind SkyGlow, are known for their mesmerizing mashups of astronomy and photography, documenting skies across North America besieged by light pollution.

"Harun and I photographed several abandoned mining towns, as they were integral in the initial westward expansion of North America’s population, and the eventual spread of light pollution west of the Mississippi," Heffernan tells Inverse. "Now, these abandoned graveyards serve as incredible night sky photography locations, due to the lack of lights and night interference. With both of our backgrounds in narrative storytelling, we were also drawn to the ‘haunted’ nature of these once booming towns."

Bodie State Historical Park
Called Bodie State Historical Park now, this town once flickered with few artificial lights. Gavin Heffernan and Harun Mehmedinović

The pair have also published a 192-page hardcover book to go along with their time-lapse video series, describing it in a press release as a "blend of images, stories, essays and anecdotal captions."

The idea behind the project is to trace the history of electrical lighting and its role in casting many cities under an "artificial day" — a looming threat to our ability to perceive the stars at night.

The filmmakers claim 80 percent of the world now lives under light-polluted skies.

Not to mention the impact our always-on lights have on ecosystems.

In that sense, filmmakers Heffernan and Mehmedinović join a chorus of environmentalists pointing out the impact our artificial days are having on wildlife.

Nocturnal birds, in particular, rely on the moon and stars to map their migrations.

"Wildlife species have evolved on this planet with biological rhythms," Travis Longcore of the Urban Wildlands Group told National Geographic back in 2003.

Since then, researchers have expanded the scope of the damage to include plants, the insects that pollinate them, and even trees.

Earlier this year, NASA put the problem into planetary perspective releasing a high-definition composite map of the Earth under darkness.

Called Black Marble, it revealed a world that seemed to rage against the night — with bright, defiant splashes spreading at an alarming across the Earth’s surface.

NASA image, called Black Marble, shows light pollution on Earth
's high-definition composite map revealed the alarming spread of artificial light across the planet. NASA

But 'Mojave Forsaken' takes the issue back down to Earth, in the most intimate, if chilling, sense. The film creaks like that old recliner chair back to a time when the stars and moon took center stage.

Night sky over Bodie State Historical Park
Bodie State Historical Park offers a window to the night skies of the past. Gavin Heffernan and Harun Mehmedinović

And somewhere in that stunning montage, it begs the question of the future: what does it profit us to see the ground beneath our feet — and yet, not a star in the sky?