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What Is the Mothman and Why Are We So Obsessed?

What makes for a good modern American myth? Something where a quick Google search can’t dissuage its origins. Something that permeates the minds of the people inflicted and the communities that branch off of them. A thing that lingers and re-manifests, jostling memories of the first time it crept from the depths of nowhere and made itself known.

Perhaps the most widely known and talked about modern myth is that of the Mothman, a creature first documented in the late 1960s. Since then, the Mothman has been spotted countless times in the United States. Some say it’s a harbinger of cataclysmic events. Others say it’s an alien life form with connections to UFOs and Men in Black. Many thing it has a more practical explanation, is a hoax, or is the product of mass hysteria.

Whatever the case, the Mothman continues to pop up—in real life and pop culture—and is one of the more intriguing examples of modern American folklore. Here’s where the creature originated, its connection to a devastating small-town tragedy, and a possible explanation for why we can’t stop talking about him.

Mothman from folklore documentaryPBS

Where did the myth of the Mothman begin?

The first Mothman sightings occurred near the small town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1966. On November 12 of that year, five men in the nearby town of Clendenin were digging a grave when they reported seeing a man-like shadowy figure fly over their heads from a nearby tree. Three days later on November 15, two young couples—Roger and Linda Scarberry and Steve and Mary Mallette—told police they were chased in their car by a black figure with a 10-foot wingspan and glowing red eyes. This also happened near Point Pleasant, and by a former World War II munitions site called “TNT Area.”

More and more reported sightings rolled in over the course of the next year. The first mention of him in a newspaper came in the Point Pleasant Register on November 16, 1966, with the headline: “Couples See Man-Sized Bird… Creature… Something.” Later an anonymous Ohio newspaper copy editor dubbed him “Moth Man,” likely to sound similar to Batman.

Many locals believed the Mothman lived in a vacant nuclear power plant on the outskirts of town, in an area once home to a top-secret government facility where nuclear weapons were tested. Was the Mothman some product of government tampering? A winged manifestation borne from weapons testing? Imaginations ran wild and created a legend.

Mothman Prophecies Book CovPexels Stock Art / Saturday Review Press

The Silver Bridge incident.

The sightings came to a halt in 1967, after a terrible tragedy occurred in Point Pleasant. The Silver Bridge—which carried U.S. Route 35 over the Ohio River and connected Point Pleasant to Gallipolis, Ohio—collapsed on December 15 under the weight of heavy rush hour traffic, due to the upcoming Christmas holiday. The accident killed 46 people; two of the bodies were never found.

Though the tragedy was later attributed to a faulty eyebar suspension chain and poor maintenance of the bridge, that didn’t stop the conspiracy theories. Writer John Keel, who had an interest in extraterrestrial life and other paranormal activity, wrote a book titled The Mothman Prophecies linking the bridge collapse with the Mothman sightings. Indeed, despite a few lingering reports in the days after the bridge fell, the Mothman sightings almost completely ceased after December 15.

Keel believed this was no coincidence. In his book, he surmised the Mothman sightings the Point Pleasant locals had were premonitions about the bridge collapse. Keel also linked the monster to UFOs and Men in Black. He was certainly fanciful with his “findings” but without him, the legacy of the Mothman might have stayed a tiny local legend. Instead,  his book—published in 1975–brought renewed attention to the creature and sparked a surge in interest. The book became a 2002 movie starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney, fully bringing the story of the Mothman into the mainstream.

Fake Mothman photoshopWikimedia Commons

Further sightings.

The Mothman Prophecies brought a lot of attention to Point Pleasant. Tourism skyrocketed after the film’s release. The Annual Mothman Festival started up in 2002 and is said to draw about 10-to-12,000 guests per year. A 12-foot metallic statute of the creature—rendered by sculptor Bob Roach—was installed in the city in 2003 and is a popular attraction. In 2005, the town opened the Mothman Museum and Research Center. It would appear—like Roswell, New Mexico, site of an alleged UFO crashing—that the residents of Point Pleasant found a way to embrace their menace. And profit off of it.

But sightings didn’t only happen in West Virginia. In fact, alleged sightings of the Mothman have occurred all over the world. Some conspiracy theorists believe he was at Chernobyl before that disaster;  or when the planes struck the World Trade Center buildings on 9/11. From 2011 to its peak in 2017, at least 55 people reported seeing the Mothman in Chicago. In 2020 a petition was created to replace confederate army statues with the Mothman.

The myth of the Mothman continues to grow, solidifying into legend. But does the Mothman actually exist, and if not, what’s the reason behind our fixation with this peculiar, shadowy creature?

Owl sand hill craneWikiCommons

Possible explanations.

There are a number of possible explanations for the original Point Pleasant sightings. Those early reports frequently called the Mothman “bird-like,” with a focus on its red eyes. Some local scientists believed it to be nothing but a large heron. Dr. Robert L. Smith of West Virginia University had a more specific theory. He believed locals had seen a large Sandhill crane, a large bird with a 10-foot wingspan and red markings around its eye. The bird isn’t native to West Virginia, but some occasionally make their way into the state. In PBS’s mystery web series Storied, the host discovered that 28 Sandhill cranes were spotted in West Virginia from January 2017 to August 2019. Not a ton; enough to make it very possible that’s what the good folks in Point Pleasant saw all those years ago.

Others took that theory even further, speculating toxins from the nearby TNT area has mutated a Sandhill crane. This would account for its possible glowing appearance and large size.

Another bird with glowing red eye that could be the culprit? Owls. The night birds can have larger-than-expected wingspans for being so tiny and their eyes glow red when caught in the light. It’s possible a large owl spooked a few residents one night and a legend was borne around it.

An image of sketches of the Mothman from The Mothman Prophecies film.Screen Gems

Is the the Mothman real or the result of mass hysteria?

The real culprit here is likely a little case of mass hysteria. That phenomena occurs when a cohesive group experiences a disturbance in the nervous system that causes an unconscious response. There are plenty of cases of even more bizarre mass hysteria recorded throughout history, but it’s often attributed to the growth of urban legends and folklore. Someone experiences an inexplicable event, and other people play into it. It’s a normal psychological reaction.

So yes, it’s possible that a big bird scared some people in West Virginia in the 1960s; and the whole freaked out town “created” the Mothman to explain what they couldn’t. But why are we still so obsessed with this thing? For the exact same reason. Because it’s a simple explanation for the shadowy figure we think we see in the periphery. Because we, as a people, love a good mystery and will away reasonable explanations in favor of fun hypothesizing. It’s why folklore continues in every tradition and culture. Because it’s entertaining.

Or maybe that’s what the Mothman wants us to think.

Featured Image: Screen Gems