Mothman: The Supernatural Phenomenon of West Virginia

Along with UFOs, Bigfoot, and werewolves, the Mothman just seems like pure imagination. 

According to residents of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, he was a six to seven-foot tall humanoid with giant, angel-like wings that spanned ten feet in length. Perhaps most disturbing of all, he had two glowing red eyes that seemed to burn in the darkness. 

Sounds pretty fantastical, right? Well, tell that to the hundreds of people who claim they witnessed the creature’s presence in 1966 and 1967. 

Were all of these people – who described the same creature – falling prey to fear and imagination? Whether or not you believe that a Mothman was real, the history of this strange phenomenon is fascinating.

Artist interpretation of the Mothman, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

The Mothman Haunts Point Pleasant

It was the night of November 15th, 1966 when two young couples first spotted the strange creature that would later come to be known as the Mothman. 

On the outskirts of the small town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, there was an old game preserve that the military repurposed as a dumping ground for ammunition. It was a piece of land dotted with squat, white bunkers that teenagers liked to use as a place to hook up away from the prying eyes of parents or neighbors. 

It was here that Roger and Linda Scarberry and Steve and Mary Mallette were cruising around when they first glimpsed the hulking, shadowy figure.

It happened just as they were crossing the old generator plant. At that moment, a dark object entered their field of vision, causing them to look up. What they saw was a creature with blood-red eyes standing off to the side of the road. Not seeming to take any interest in the lovers, it shuffled over to the door of the old generator plant and disappeared. 

The frightened teens didn’t stick around to investigate where it was headed or what it may have been doing there. Roger floored the gas and his ‘57 Chevy went shooting out of the old dump, down the dirt roads that would eventually lead them to the main highway and back into town. 

As the girls screamed in the backseat and Roger clutched the wheel with a death grip, they spotted the horrifying creature yet again – this time standing on a hill. Lit up by the moonlight, they now saw that it was no mere man. It had a pair of leathery wings that made it look “like an angel.”

But there was little else that was angelic about the creature. As others would describe in hundreds of future encounters, it had no arms and appeared to be headless. 

Its wings, when stretched out in flight spanned ten feet, and its fiery, red eyes cut straight through the darkness. To the teens’ horror this clumsy demon, which, a moment before seemed to take no notice of them, suddenly shot straight up into the air above them. 

It followed them even as they sped down the highway at a hundred miles an hour, casting an eerie shadow over the car. It was not until they reached the town limits that the monster finally turned around and left them alone.

It would soon return.

Artist interpretation of the Mothman, 2016

The Mothman Returns

When the teenagers related their harrowing experiences to the sheriff, he saw how frightened they were. He decided to take them seriously despite the dubiousness of what they were telling him.

He went out to the dump with a couple of other men and although they didn’t see the Mothman, they did see “shadows circling” the old power plant. When they returned the next day with the four teens, they got another scare when they kicked open a door and spotted something fly up into the boiler.

The sheriff and his deputies may have taken the story seriously, but the rest of the town did not. The teens immediately became the laughing stock of Point Pleasant, mocked in the street and in print. But that would soon change.

Starting the day after the first sighting, Point Pleasant became the epicenter of what could be called an epidemic of Mothman sightings that swept over the region. By the end of the year, residents would even be forming armed mobs to seek out and kill the Mothman.

The reports are too numerous to recount them all. On the same night that the four teens reported their sighting, an eerily similar encounter took place just 90 miles away in Salem, West Virginia.

As Newell Partridge was watching TV around 10:30 PM, the television suddenly started to flicker and then lost power. Confused, Partridge went outside with a flashlight to investigate and was met with those same burning, red eyes.

His dog, a German Shepard, was already howling. When it saw the creature, it took off into the night. Several minutes later, Partridge heard his dog squeal. He never saw it again.

The following night, November 16th, it was the Wamsleys who were driving through the military dump with a woman named Marcella Bennett. They were on their way to visit Ralph Thomas, who, as head of military operations in Point Pleasant, lived among the storage bunkers.

Just after parking the car, they made out the silhouette of a figure standing just behind one of the cars. As Ms. Bennett described, “It rose slowly from the ground. A big, gray thing. Bigger than a man, with terrible, glowing, red eyes.”

After getting over their initial shock of fear, they scrambled back into the car, sped away, and called up the sheriff’s office.

During the next several weeks and months, the creature was sighted in trees or as a shadow flying overhead. It was even encountered inside people’s homes.

The reports flooded the sheriff’s office day after day until they suddenly stopped sometime in December 1967. Nobody knows exactly why the sightings ended at that time. But it was curious timing.

You see, the sightings ended just after the collapse of the Silver Bridge, a disaster that killed over 40 people. For many people in Point Pleasant, it was not hard to connect the failed bridge back to the strange, red-eyed creature – the Mothman.

The Collapse of Silver Bridge

Just a few weeks before the Silver Bridge collapsed during five-o-clock rush hour traffic, a woman told a reporter investigating the Mothman about a strange dream she had. 

As she recounted, “There were lots of people drowning in the river, and Christmas packages were floating everywhere in the water… it’s like something awful is going to happen.”

Tragically, that dream proved to be eerily accurate. 

At 5:04 on December 15th, drivers on the Silver Bridge outside of Point Pleasant heard the screech of metal and then all of a sudden, the entire platform collapsed. Cars full of commuters plunged into the water below. 

Being just two weeks before Christmas, many of the cars were loaded with presents; several kids were among the 46 who drowned. 

The culprit, it turned out, was an eyebar pin that gave way. But that didn’t stop some Mothman believers from drawing their own conclusions. 

John Keel, a man from New York, spent months investigating the Mothman sightings. He published a book about everything he had seen and heard while in Point Pleasant. 

His book was titled, “The Mothman Prophecies.” Among other claims, it linked the bridge collapse not to faulty engineering or natural wear-and-tear, but to the appearance of the Mothman and the various sightings that had followed. 

He thought that each sighting was an omen pointing to the eventual calamity that befell the town on December 15th.

The Legacy of the Mothman

The sightings of the Mothman may have ended after the collapse of Silver Bridge, but the legacy of the mysterious creature has persisted in movies and print. 

In 2002, John Keel, the reporter who investigated the sightings, was made into the protagonist of a film about his time in the town. With Richard Gere starring as John Keel, the movie follows a man who finds himself in Point Pleasant and then becomes increasingly obsessed with the Mothman sightings. 

In the movie, his wife was killed in a car accident just after seeing the Mothman , and this fictional John Keel – much like the real one – becomes convinced that the Mothman is a harbinger of doom.

But it’s not just the silver screen where the Mothman continues to live on. 

One Point Pleasant resident opened the Mothman Museum in 2006, which attracts visitors from all over the country. He’s also started a Mothman festival, which draws crowds of upwards of 15,000 people. For a town whose population hovers around 5,000, that’s a pretty big surge. 

There’s even a giant silver statue of the Mothman; a 12-foot tall reminder of the town’s bizarre episode that stands in the heart of downtown. Now, instead of haunting the town, the Mothman has become a big moneymaker and is helping to educate outsiders about a little-known aspect of West Virginia history.

The Cryptid Craze

Is it a surprise that the Mothman legend turned into such a draw for tourists? Probably not. After all, people have been seeing strange creatures for millennia.

Historical evidence shows that as far back as 15,000 BC, Egyptians collected exotic animals such as giraffes, parrots, and Okapi from Central Africa. These never-before-seen creatures baffled Queen Hatshepsut and her people and they gave them names like the long-necked dragon (giraffe) and African unicorns (Okapi).

And if you’ve read about early sailing voyages, you know that there were numerous sightings of mermaids, sea serpents, and the Kraken throughout the centuries of maritime exploration.

These creatures have been puzzled over for as long as sightings have been reported. Many of them have explanations.

The Kraken, for example, is thought to be a giant squid. Reaching lengths of over 50 feet, it certainly lives up to the title of monster. Mermaids may be nothing more than curious manatees who approach ships out at sea. For a sailor who has been staring out at nothing but a blue expanse for who knows how long, the sleek, nearly human form of a manatee could be confused for a maiden.

But some creatures have never been adequately explained, and that fuels passionate speculation. In the 19th century, the field of cryptozoology emerged because scientists wanted to investigate these mysteries using the tools of science.

Other investigators were simply regular people who heard stories or believed they saw one of these creatures themselves. Think UFOs, Sasquatch, or the Yeti. All of these creatures have spawned enormous followings and generated countless theories concerning their true nature and whether or not they exist.

Where does the Mothman fit into this long and rich history? Is the Mothman an undiscovered creature? Or was it all just a hoax played by bored teenagers?

One cryptozoologist, Mark Hine, suggests that the Mothman could be a new species of giant owl. That owl would have to be giant, indeed. A great horned owl, which does exist, grows to be no more than three feet tall – nowhere near large enough to be confused with the supposedly 6 to 7-foot tall Mothman.

But who knows? In the mountains and woods of the southeastern United States maybe there are still undiscovered creatures lurking about.

Just like the ancient Egyptians who were perplexed by the strange-looking giraffes, maybe we just have trouble wrapping our minds around new animals. For anyone who’s been following the Mothman, that may or may not be good news.

After all, what is more fascinating? The hushed stories of a giant Mothman, or a very real giant owl? Sometimes, myths are far more exciting than reality.

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