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The Mothman Mystery

The Mothman of West Virginia is a mysterious creature that shares the spotlight with similar cryptids such as the Chupacabra, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness monster.

But, something that is very different about the legend of the Mothman is that it is said that sightings of the bizarre creature are usually omens of a tragic event or natural disaster to come, the most famous of which was the collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant which killed over 40 people.

The first sighting of the cryptid creature that would become known as “The Mothman” occurred in the late 1960s. It was November 12, 1966, in Clendenin, West Virginia, when a group of gravediggers working in a cemetery spotted something strange.

They glanced up from their macabre work as something huge soared over their heads. It was a massive figure that was moving rapidly from tree to tree. The gravediggers would later describe this figure as looking like a “large brown human being,” but with wings and red glowing eyes!

A few days later, there was another sighting. This time 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 that they were all sitting 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 10 feet, and the apparent urge to avoid the bright headlights of the car.

According to the witnesses, this creature was able to fly at incredible speeds — perhaps as fast as 100 miles per hour. All of them agreed that the beast was a clumsy runner on the ground. They knew this only because it allegedly chased their vehicle to the outskirts of town in the air, then scuttled into a nearby field and disappeared.

At first, reporters were skeptical. In the papers, they dubbed the creature “The Mothman,” but said it must have been a misidentified bird or a large bat, or some such mysterious creature. However, they did print Mallett’s description and that of the gravediggers describing it as “…like a man with wings.”

As the months went by, more and more sightings were reported in the Point Pleasant area, and over the course and into the next year, the legend of the Mothman began to take shape. 

All the reports mentioned the “red glowing eyes” shining back at them. One report even suggested that the beast had taken a family dog.

What Could the Mothman Be?

Explanations of what The Mothman could be range from a demon to extraterrestrial, to an ancient Native American shapeshifter. But skeptics have some more conventional possibilities.  

Some say it could be an unknown species of large bird or bat. Others say they know exactly what it is these people have been seeing.

Dr. Robert L. Smith, an associate professor of wildlife biology at West Virginia University, dismissed the notion that a flying monster was staking about the area. Instead, he attributed the sightings to a sandhill crane, which stands almost as tall as a  man and has bright red flesh around its eyes.

This explanation was compelling, especially given the number of early reports that had described the creature as “bird-like.”

Some people hypothesized that this crane was deformed, especially if it resided in the “TNT area” — a name that locals gave to a series of nearby bunkers that were once used for manufacturing munitions during World War II. It has been suggested that these bunkers have leaked toxic materials into the neighboring wildlife preserve, possibly affecting nearby animals causing gross mutations that could account for the Mothman.

Still, others say it is all a complete hoax created by a very committed prankster who went so far as to hide in the abandoned World War II munitions plant, where some of the sightings occurred. This theory posits that when the national press ran with the Mothman story, people who lived in Point Pleasant began to panic. Locals became convinced they were seeing the Mothman in birds and other large animals — even long after the prankster had given up on the joke.

But, none of these “rational” explanations can account for the seeming link between the Mothman as either a harbinger of doom or, more sinisterly, its cause — a legend that has its roots in the tragedy that befell Point Pleasant shortly after the first Mothman sightings in that cold November graveyard. 

The Collapse of the Silver Bridge 

On December 15, 1967, just over a year after the first Mothman sighting, traffic was bad on the Silver Bridge. Originally built in 1928 to connect Point Pleasant, West Virginia, to Gallipolis, Ohio, the bridge was packed with cars.

On that cold December day, 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 people died, either by drowning or being crushed by the wreckage.

Following the Mothman sightings, the bridge collapse was the second terrible and bizarre thing to put Point Pleasant on the map in a year’s time. So it didn’t take long for residents to connect the two.

In 1975, author John Keel solidified the connection between the Mothman sightings and the bridge disaster in his book The Mothman Prophecies. He also incorporated UFO activity. His story took hold, and the town soon became as iconic among conspiracy theorists, ufologists, and fans of the paranormal as Area 51 or the Amityville Horror house.

Much as the town of Roswell, New Mexico does for aliens, Point Pleasant, WV, now embraces the legacy of the Mothman. The township’s fame as the home of the Mothman legend hasn’t waned even well into the 21st Century. 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 clue how he got there — and he’s not the only one having trouble explaining himself.

In the film, several locals tell Gere’s character that they have experienced premonitions of distant disasters always preceded by 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.

This belief tied sightings of the Mothman to the Chornobyl disaster of 1986, the Mexican swine flu outbreak of 2009, and the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. 

As for sightings of the actual Mothman, they’ve mostly declined since the late 1960s. But every so often, a sighting emerges. In 2016, a man who’d just moved to Point Pleasant spotted a mysterious creature jumping from tree to tree. He claimed to local reporters that he was unaware of the local legend of the Mothman — until he allegedly spotted the beast himself.

Whether these sightings are real or not, the Mothman can still be seen in Point Pleasant today in the form of a historical museum and also in the form of a 12-foot-tall chrome-polished statue, complete with massive steel wings and ruby-red eyes.

Furthermore, a festival commemorating the Mothman’s visits has taken place annually for years — a fun celebration that attracts locals and tourists alike. Every September, the festivities celebrate one of America’s strangest local legends that still has people scratching their heads to this day.