Separating the fact from fiction behind perhaps the creepiest folk legend in American history.
On November 12, 1966, in Clendenin, West Virginia, five gravediggers working in a cemetery noticed something that they described as a “brown human being” that flew over their heads, gliding from tree to tree. 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.
Just three days after that initial report, in nearby Point Pleasant, West Virginia, two couples noticed a white-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, likening it to a moth.
According to the witnesses, the Mothman was able to fly at speeds greater than 100 miles per hour, although he did make for a clumsy runner, all of which was witnessed after the creature allegedly chased their moving vehicle to the outskirts of town.
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, assuring the paper that, “If I had seen it while by myself I wouldn’t have said anything, but there were four of us who saw it.”
More and more sightings were reported in the Point Pleasant area over the next year. 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 strange 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 grips of the fearsome beast.
However, 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 bears reddish flesh around its eyes.
Additional 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 that the creature was spotted near. Nevertheless, national press ran with the story, spreading it across the country and causing somewhat of a sensation.
In 1975, author John Keel conflated supernatural events and other disasters with the Mothman sightings, as well as reported UFO activity, to create his book The Mothman Prophecies (which inspired the 2002 movie of the same name). Keel even went so far as to connect the creature to the collapse of the Silver Bridge on December 15, 1967, which resulted in the deaths of 46 people (despite the official reason for the structure’s demise: “failed” welding).
The idea that visitations from the Mothman predicted impending doom 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 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 humanity’s greatest fears, pulled from the depths of the collective unconscious.
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 every year for the past 16, with the next one scheduled to take place on September 16th and 17th, 2017.