The untold truth of Mothman

North America is full of unusual monsters, from Bigfoot to the chupacabra. But none are quite so eerie and disturbing as the Mothman. A humanoid creature with red eyes and giant wings, this bizarre being first showed up in November 1966, haunting locals in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Since then, Mothman has been tied to UFOs, Men in Black, and a terrible tragedy that occurred in 1967.

But what was Mothman really? And what happened to the citizens of Point Pleasant after this winged monster first showed up? Well, it's a tale that involves freaky dreams, fanciful books, and feathery beasts, so if you want to know the story behind this creepy cryptid, keep one eye on the sky as we look at the untold truth of Mothman.

The sightings begin

According to the West Virginia Department of Commerce, Mothman was first seen on November 12, 1966. Five men were digging a grave near the town of Clendenin, West Virginia when they spotted a strange creature in a nearby tree. The gravediggers described the otherworldly entity as "a brown human being" with wings, and the witnesses claimed that after taking off from its perch, the monster flew above their heads.

But while that's generally regarded as the first "official" Mothman encounter, some folklorists claim that sightings go back for decades. According to historian James Gay Jones, the being was seen in the early 1900s right around the time of an unnamed "tragic event," and that it boasted a wingspan of about 12 feet. Mothman then allegedly appeared throughout West Virginia during World War I, and as Jones writes, its "dark reddish feathers which glistened in the sunlight cast fear in all who saw it."

The creature then supposedly popped up several times after World War II. In one incident described by podcast host Aaron Mahnke, two motorists were driving down a highway in 1961 when a gray creature covered in either feathers or fur stepped into the road before flying away. And just days before the gravediggers saw the humanoid thing-with-wings in 1966, a group of National Guardsmen allegedly spotted a brown creature hovering from tree to tree near Point Pleasant, the town that would soon come to know the Mothman only too well.

The incident at the TNT plant

Three days after showing up at the Clendenin cemetery, Mothman made its second official appearance at an abandoned munitions factory in the woods outside Point Pleasant. Known as "the TNT area" or "the TNT plant," this facility closed down after World War II. By 1966, it served as a lovers' lane. That explains why two married couples — Roger and Linda Scarberry and Steve and Mary Mallette — were driving around the plant late at night on November 15.

Unfortunately, their evening was spoiled when the foursome saw a bizarre being lurking in the darkness. When the beams from their car headlights hit the mysterious creature, its eyes began glowing red, but at first, the eerie entity didn't pay the couples any attention. Still, the lovebirds were understandably freaked out, so they took off as quickly as possible…and that's when the beast started following them.

Driving away from the scene, the couples spotted the creature yet again, describing the monster as standing between six and seven feet tall. Scarier still, the being had wings sprouting out of its back. The creature began flying after the car, and a terrified Roger Scarberry claims that even though he was going 100 mph, Mothman kept up without breaking a sweat. Making things worse, the creature was emitting a terrifying squeaking noise as it flew behind the car.

It wasn't until the couples reached Point Pleasant that the monster disappeared. However, they weren't going to just go home and forget the whole thing. Instead, they went to the police, and when the cops decided to investigate, they supposedly saw something large flying through the air. Soon enough, a local newspaper called the Point Pleasant Register caught wind of the story and published the account under the headline "Couples See Man-Sized Bird…Creature…Something."

Sightings, dreams, and Batman

Soon after the November 15 incident, several people stepped forward, claiming they'd also encountered the creature. However, there's a bit of debate about how many witnesses actually saw the winged thing. Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman believes around 100 people bumped into the Mothman over the course of 13 months, while skeptic Brian Dunning thinks those numbers are a tad high. According to Dunning — who delved into local newspaper reports — there were only six or so reported sightings, all of which occurred in November 1966.

Some of the witnesses saw the creature standing on the side of the road, while others spotted the beast standing outside their homes. On November 16, Raymond and Cathy Wamsley, along with their friend Marcella Bennett, saw the monster next to their parked car. "It rose up slowly from the ground," explained Bennett. "A big, gray thing. Bigger than a man, with terrible, glowing, red eyes." 

Needless to say, all these accounts were a reporter's dream come true. Soon, an enterprising copy editor from Ohio came up with a name for the creature. Inspired by the Adam West Batman TV show, the copy editor dubbed the entity "Mothman."

Without a doubt, there was something strange going on in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. While some of the facts are debatable, it really does seem there was an unidentified creature lurking about. However, some believe Mothman was more than just a mysterious animal. Some believe Mothman was a  supernatural being that somehow inspired vivid nightmares of death and destruction. According to the podcast Lore, people in Point Pleasant began experiencing creepy dreams in the months after Mothman's 1966 appearance. Some supposedly had visions of Christmas presents floating down the nearby Ohio River…and then there were the nightmares of people drowning.

The Silver Bridge collapse

The appearance of Mothman in November 1966 (and perhaps in the following months, depending on whose account you believe) was indeed terrifying. But it paled in comparison to what happened on December 15, 1967.

Point Pleasant was separated from the city of Kanauga, Ohio, by the Ohio River. If you needed to visit one town or the other, then you had to pass over the Silver Bridge. Built in 1928, this eye-bar bridge was covered in aluminum paint, providing it with its colorful nickname. The structure stood for about 40 years, but on that fateful December day, the bridge collapsed into the Ohio River, taking 31 vehicles with it.

In total, 46 lives were lost, and the tragedy sparked all sorts of bizarre theories about what happened. It was eventually determined the bridge fell due to a faulty eye-bar, but some suspected a sonic boom was responsible. Others, meanwhile, pointed to an old-timey curse from a vengeful Indian chief. However, of all the alternative theories out there, the most popular involves the Mothman.

Many cryptozoologists and paranormal experts believe the winged beast was either responsible for the collapse or that it was trying to warn of the impending disaster. And those who believe in the Mothman connection often point to the terrifying dreams of people drowning and Christmas presents in the river as proof of the creature's involvement. After all, the Silver Bridge fell just a few weeks before December 25, right as people were doing their Christmas shopping…

The paranormal angle

So what exactly was the Mothman? Was it some undiscovered animal? Or was it something more supernatural? Admittedly, a being that looks like a man, stands seven feet tall, and has wings on its back sounds pretty freaky, which is why many believers point to the paranormal when discussing Mothman's origins. In fact, many claim that when the Mothman showed up in Point Pleasant, all sorts of scary things started happening around town.

"There were mutilated dogs, UFO sightings, and other things going on," claimed cryptozoologist Loren Coleman. And he isn't the only one who thinks otherworldly entities were at play. Reporter John Keel (more on him in a bit) actually investigated the Mothman sightings and wrote about incidents that sound like they were ripped straight from The X-Files. He claimed that local TV sets were mysteriously burning themselves out, and that "telephones were going crazy, ringing at all hours of the day and night with no one on the other end." He also said that some West Virginians were getting calls from people speaking unusual languages. And of course, there were all the Men in Black.

Supposedly, in the days after the Silver Bridge collapse, unusual figures in black Cadillacs were seen driving around town. Many nearby inhabitants who'd seen odd stuff going on around Point Pleasant — including a Ohio reporter named Mary Hyre — supposedly said they were harassed by these mysterious agents. And in addition to unusual lights in the sky and shady government figures, Keel also writes there were poltergeists at work. For example, he wrote about one family that had spotted Mothman, and which was subsequently harassed by an unseen presence: a spirit that invaded their home, moved objects around, smelled of cigar smoke, and once appeared as a dark shadow.

Of course, not everyone buys into the paranormal angle, especially when it comes to the alleged UFO sightings. Investigator Joe Nickell says that while some people did spot lights in the sky, many of these were planes. In fact, several sightings were the fault of a prankster who intentionally flew his private plane back and forth, as low as possible, to freak out his Point Pleasant neighbors.

The men behind the myth

Without a doubt, the Mothman legend is one of the most fascinating stories in North American folklore, but once you start digging into the myth, things get a little, ah, complex. Yes, people saw a mysterious creature shuffling around in the darkness. But as for the creepy nightmares, government agents, and connection to the Silver Bridge, well, all that supernatural stuff comes from two men…neither of whom are exactly Walter Cronkite when it comes to reporting.

The first person to delve into the Mothman story was UFO author Gray Barker (pictured above), the man who popularized the concept of Men in Black with his book They Knew Too Much about Flying Saucers. Barker discussed the Point Pleasant cryptid in his 1970 work The Silver Bridge, which connected Mothman to the 1967 tragedy that claimed 46 lives. The second author to popularize the Mothman-Silver Bridge connection was the aforementioned John Keel, the man who first abbreviated "Men in Black" as "M.I.B." Keel actually visited West Virginia where he interviewed witnesses, reported seeing strange lights himself, and allegedly received phone calls from otherworldly beings. He then covered the story in his book, The Mothman Prophecies, which was turned into a 2002 movie starring Richard Gere.

Unfortunately for Mothman fans, Gray Barker has something of a spotty track record when it comes to the truth. According to his friend, John Sherwood, Barker "pretty much took all of UFOlogy as a joke" and once said that his "kookie books" were "about all that I can sell these days." It's also been alleged that Barker took part in several hoaxes, such as creating fake UFO footage with a saucer dangling from a fishing pole and posing as a government official to convince a man he'd been abducted by aliens.

Sherwood also claimed that Barker hoaxed author John Keel. Remember how Keel claimed that he'd received multiple calls from mysterious entities? Well, it's very likely that Barker made those calls himself, feeding Keel false info as the author was working on The Mothman Prophecies. And as for Keel himself, skeptic Robert Schaffer once described him as a "trickster" who did not take "his own writings very seriously" and wrote "entertaining stories that paid the bills." In other words, the story of disturbing dreams, UFOs, and Men in Black surrounding Mothman lore might be a bit, well, exaggerated.

The bird theory

So if Mothman wasn't some sort of alien or a being from an alternate dimension, then what did all those people see in November 1966? While it might sound ridiculous at first, the best explanation for Mothman involves our fine feathered friends. That's right. Chances are good that Mothman was just some sort of bird.

The avian idea got started as soon as the Mothman appeared, with the local sheriff claiming the creature was a kind of heron known as a shitepoke. Later, a professor from West Virginia University theorized the monster was possibly a sandhill crane that wandered away from its usual stomping grounds. These creatures can get up to five-feet tall and have a wingspan of around seven feet, which might've easily spooked Point Pleasant residents who weren't used to seeing such a big bird.

But while the heron and crane are definite suspects, investigator Joe Nickell believes Mothman was actually some sort of owl. After all, multiple sightings took place around the McClintic Wildlife Management Area, a region that served as a bird sanctuary. And perhaps most importantly, when you shine a light into an owl's eyes, they will glow red, just like the Mothman's. (One of the earliest witnesses, Linda Scarberry, said Mothman's eyes didn't illuminate until they were hit by car headlights.)

So perhaps the Mothman witnesses saw some glowing pupils, and in their state of fear, overestimated the creature's size. And once word of the alleged sightings spread, more and more people began to panic, freaking out whenever they saw an owl's eyes shining in the dark. After all, what's more likely? That Point Pleasant was visited by a man with wings, or that worried townsfolk simply got spooked by the local wildlife?

The legacy of Mothman

Whether or not you believe in the Mothman, you can't deny the impact this creature has had on Point Pleasant. In the early 2000s, the town erected a 12-foot-tall statue of the monster, complete with insect face and red eyes. According to OutsideOnline, the thing was originally supposed to be 20-feet-tall and have eyes that lit up in the dark, but that didn't pan out due to budgetary reasons. Still, if you want to visit the statue, you can find the monument standing proudly in the appropriately named Mothman Park.

In addition to the statue, Point Pleasant hosts a yearly Mothman Festival, and if you decide to check it out, be sure to swing by the Mothman Museum, where you can see all sorts of paraphernalia related to both the actual case and the Richard Gere movie. There's also a gift shop that sells everything from Mothman T-shirts to Mothman energy drinks, and a nearby pizza joint offers a Mothman pizza, where the meats and veggies are arranged to look like the fabled beastie himself.

And as you might assume, all this Mothman merchandise has really helped Point Pleasant's economy. Talking with the Toronto Star, a local businesswoman explained that Mothman has "helped the town. People come because of Mothman, and they stay at the hotel, they go to the restaurants." So maybe this red-eyed monster isn't always the bearer of bad news. Instead, perhaps Mothman is actually a cash cow.

Flying creatures across the US

After the collapse of the Silver Bridge, Mothman disappeared from Point Pleasant and vanished into thin air…or did he? There are actually several reports of this "winged weirdie" showing up throughout history, perhaps serving as an omen of disasters to come. For example, some claim the creature appeared in Galveston, Texas, around the time of the devastating 1900 hurricane, and others believe Mothman made his way to Chernobyl shortly before the nuclear meltdown of 1986.

But Loren Coleman isn't buying these stories. According to the cryptozoologist, these tales were first mentioned in the 2002 movie The Mothman Prophecies, and only afterward did they start making their way around the internet. However, just because these particular stories are fiction, that doesn't explain all the other sightings of flying creatures across the US.

Take the Houston Batman, for instance. This six-and-half-foot tall winged man appeared in the Houston Heights back in 1953, terrifying a handful of Lone Star witnesses. Then in November 2001, a Connecticut man walking his dog  supposedly saw a bird "the size of an ultra light airplane" flapping about a community center. In 2006, folks in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, spotted a yellow-eyed "Man-Bat" with a penchant for buzzing automobiles, and crazier still, a "bat-like humanoid" with a wingspan of eight to ten feet has been popping up near Chicago, having appeared as recently as May 2017.

Does the Mothman have cousins across the country? Or are panic-stricken witnesses simply mistaking oversized birds for beasts?

The return of Mothman

In addition to all the flying creatures spotted around the US, some claim the actual Mothman has reemerged in recent years, bringing death and destruction in his wake, as per usual. On August 1, 2007, the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, fell into the Mississippi River, injuring over 140 people and claiming 13 lives. Soon, a caller on Coast to Coast AM — not to mention a host of online monster hunters — began claiming the bat-winged humanoid was back in action, flittering around Minneapolis shortly before the disaster.

As you might expect, there isn't a lot of evidence supporting this particular theory. However, that's not to say there isn't any proof out there of Mothman's existence. On November 20, 2016, an anonymous man who'd recently moved to Point Pleasant took photos of a shadowy, man-sized creature flying through the West Virginia sky. Even though the photos were "coincidentally" released a little over 50 years to the day that Mothman first appeared, the unidentified witness claimed the photos were genuine — that he'd never even heard of Mothman before — and as to pictures' validity, well, Snopes list them as "unproven" but not as "false."

So did the Mothman migrate back to his old hometown? Is something bad in store for the residents of Point Pleasant? Or are we simply dealing with a good, old-fashioned hoax? Either way, the folks of Point Pleasant should probably keep on watching the skies, just in case.