Separating the fact from fiction behind the Mothman, perhaps the creepiest folk legend in American history.
On November 12, 1966, in Clendenin, West Virginia, a gravedigger working in a cemetery spotted something strange.
He glanced up from his work when something huge soared over his head, a massive figure that was moving rapidly across the cemetery from tree to tree. He would later describe the figure as a “brown human being.”
This was the first reported sighting of what would come to be known as the Mothman, an elusive creature that, although now widely celebrated by the town it once terrorized, remains as mysterious as it was on the night that a few frightened witnesses first laid eyes on it.
The Legend Of The Mothman Of Point Pleasant Is Born
Just three days after the gravedigger’s initial report, in nearby Point Pleasant, West Virginia, two couples noticed a gray-winged creature about six or seven feet tall standing in front of the car they were all seated in.
Eyewitnesses Roger Scarberry and Steve Mallett told the local paper, The Point Pleasant Register, that the beast had bright red eyes about six inches apart, a wingspan of ten feet, and that it seemed to want to avoid the bright headlights of the car.
According to the witnesses, the creature was able to fly at incredible speeds — perhaps as much as 100 miles per hour, one of the men told reporters — although all agreed it did make for a clumsy runner on the ground.
They knew because the creature allegedly chased their moving vehicle to the outskirts of town in the air, then scuttled into a nearby field and disappeared.
Knowing how absurd this must have sounded to a local paper in a small, Appalachian community in the 1960s, Scarberry insisted that the apparition couldn’t have been a figment of his imagination.
He assured the paper, “If I had seen it while by myself, I wouldn’t have said anything, but there were four of us who saw it.”
The papers, at this point, were skeptically calling it a bird and a mysterious creature — though they did print Mallette’s description: “It was like a man with wings.”
But more and more sightings were reported in the Point Pleasant area over the next year as the legend of the Mothman took shape.
The Gettysburg Times reported eight additional sightings in the short span of three days following the first claims, including two volunteer firefighters who supposedly saw what they described as “a very large bird with large red eyes.”
One sighting, reported by Salem, West Virginia, resident Newell Partridge, told of strange patterns that appeared on his television screen one evening, followed by a mysterious sound just outside of his home.
Shining a flashlight toward the direction of the noise, Partridge supposedly witnessed two red eyes resembling bicycle reflectors looking back at him.
This anecdote remains a popular one in the Mothman mythos, especially because it resulted in the disappearance of Partridge’s dog, supposedly to the clutches of the fearsome beast.
A Simple Explanation For The Mothman Myth?
Dr. Robert L. Smith, associate professor of wildlife biology at West Virginia University, dismissed the notion that a flying monster was staking out the town, instead attributing the sightings to a sandhill crane, which stands almost as tall as the average adult man and has bright red flesh around its eyes.
The explanation was compelling, especially given the number of early reports that had described the creature as “bird-like.”
Some even hypothesized that the crane was perhaps deformed, especially if it made its home in the “TNT area” — what locals call a series of nearby bunkers that were used for manufacturing munitions during WWII. It has been suggested the bunkers have leaked toxic materials into the neighboring wildlife preserve.
Another Point Pleasant legend states that the creation of the Mothman was nothing more than the work of one very committed prankster who went so far as to hide in the abandoned World War II munitions plant where many of the sightings occurred.
The theory goes that when the national press ran with the Mothman story, spreading it across the country, panic set in. Locals became convinced they were seeing the Mothman in birds and other large animals — even long after the prankster had given up.
The Mothman also bears a striking resemblance to several demon archetypes found among those who have experienced sleep paralysis, perhaps suggesting that the visions are nothing more than the embodiment of typical human fears, pulled from the depths of the unconscious and grafted onto real-life bird or animal sightings when people panic.
Then there are the paranormal explanations, a morass of complicated theories that weave together aliens, UFOs, and precognition. They paint the Mothman as either a harbinger of doom or, more sinisterly, its cause — a legend that has its roots in the tragedy that befell the Point Pleasant community shortly after the Mothman arrived.
The Silver Bridge Collapse
On December 15, 1967, just over a year after the first mothman sighting, traffic was especially bad. The Silver Bridge, built in 1928 to connect Point Pleasant, West Virginia, to Gallipolis, Ohio, was packed with cars from end to end.
It had been built in a time when cars were lighter; the Model T weighed just 1,500 pounds — a modest sum when compared to the 1967 average for a car: 4,000 pounds.
Its engineers hadn’t been particularly imaginative when it came to the future, and nor had they been especially cautious: the bridge’s design featured very little redundancy, meaning that if one part failed, there was almost nothing in place to prevent other parts from failing as well.
And on that cold December day, that was exactly what happened.
Without warning, a single eyebar near the top of the bridge on the Ohio side cracked. The chain snapped, and the bridge, its careful equilibrium disturbed, fell to pieces, plunging cars and pedestrians into the icy water of the Ohio river below.
Forty-six died, drowned or crushed in the wreckage.
It was the second terrible and bizarre thing to put the small community of Point Pleasant on the map in a year, and some connected the two.
In 1975, author John Keel conflated the Mothman sightings and the bridge disaster, as well as reported UFO activity, to create his book The Mothman Prophecies. His story took hold, and the town became an icon among conspiracy theorists, UFOlogists, and fans of the paranormal.
Where Is The Mothman Today?
Point Pleasant’s fame as the home of the Mothman legend hasn’t waned in recent years.
In 2002, a movie based on Keel’s book rekindled interest in the Mothman.
In the Mothman Prophecies film, Richard Gere plays a reporter whose wife seems to have witnessed the Mothman shortly before her death. He finds himself inexplicably in Point Pleasant several years later with no idea how he got there — and he’s not the only one in the area having trouble explaining himself.
Several locals are experiencing premonitions of distant disasters, and there’s talk of visitations from a mysterious figure called the Mothman.
The film, a supernatural horror and mystery, offers no conclusions, communicating instead an eerie feeling of disjointedness that was both panned and praised by critics.
Most notably, the film popularized the image of the Mothman as a harbinger of doom.
The idea that visitations from the Mothman predicted disaster led some believers to make ties to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, the Mexican swine flu outbreak of 2009, and the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, among others.
The Mothman can still be seen in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, today, in the form of a historical museum, open seven days a week, and also as a 12-foot-tall chrome-polished statue, complete with massive steel wings and ruby-red eyes.
A festival commemorating the Mothman’s visits has taken place annually for years — a fun celebration that attracts locals and tourists alike.
If you’re passing through West Virginia this September, consider swinging by the festivities to remember one of America’s strangest and most intriguing local legends.