The Urban Legend Of The Mothman, West Virginia's Famous Red-Eyed Omen
If there’s two things the state of West Virginia is known for, it’s an unfortunate dependence on the dying industry of coal mining, and the legend of the Mothman. If you’re unfamiliar with the creepy cryptid, the generally accepted description of the Mothman is a man-sized winged creature with a 10-foot wingspan. He’s also in possession of one of the top 10 features you can have if your aim is to be creepy and terrifying: huge, glowing red eyes.
The first sighting of the beast comes from November 1966, in Clendenin, West Virginia. The first people to spot him were a group of gravediggers, which seems like a great job to pick up if you want to be creeped out all the time. To be fair, the first sighting of a monster being in a graveyard is almost hacky. It’d be like spotting a unicorn beneath a majestic waterfall at the end of a rainbow. It even starts to beg the question, does the Mothman KNOW he’s creepy? What’s his level of intelligence? Perhaps it’s even a question of low self-esteem, the Mothman quietly mumbling to himself, “Oh, boy, a freak like me, the graveyard’s where I belong.”
But I digress. The gravediggers described a huge flying figure dashing from tree to tree. They further described its appearance as a “brown human being,” which sounds like something a nervous neoliberal mayoral candidate would say while campaigning in a black neighborhood. Though the description was minimal, the Mothman was born. Which is also a disgusting thing to imagine physically. Though maybe he was cute when he was a baby mothman? If you gave him a little lightbulb to hold like a toy? I think that would be nice.
Now, in what you could either ascribe to the Mothman deciding it was time to introduce himself to the local population more regularly, or a urban legend being established to take credit for all manner of weird stuff in the area, sightings began to occur somewhat frequently. Only days later, on November 16, 1966, in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, the mothman reared his unsettling head for a second time.
This sighting was reported to the Point Pleasant Register, and the article is available in archive. The following is the beginning of the report:
Two Point Pleasant couples said today they encountered a man-sized, bird-like creature in the TNT area about midnight last night. Sheriff's deputies and City Police went to the scene about 2 o'clock this morning but were unable to spot anything. But the two young men telling their story this morning were dead serious, and asserted they hadn't been drinking. Steve Mallette of 3305 Jackson Avenue and Roger Scarberry of 809 30th Street described the thing as being about six or seven feet tall, having a wing span of 10 feet and red eyes about two inches in diameter and six inches apart.
One interesting detail from the article is that one witness goes as far as to say that the creature was “like a man with wings” and “wasn’t like anything you’d see on TV or in a monster movie.” Which is fascinating, because by asserting that the creature wasn’t theatrically terrifying, almost makes it more creepy. If somebody tells me there’s a werewolf in an abandoned building, I’m rolling my eyes. If someone tells me there’s a huge, gross-looking wolf? I’m moving. However, he also said that it looked like “maybe what you would visualize as an angel,” which is like, the number one thing not to say if you’re trying to avoid a rubber room. Details aside, all 4 people agreed on the beast and its description.
Another detail that you may have noticed in the excerpt, one that only added to the Mothman’s legend, was the mention of the “TNT area”. This is a local nickname for an area littered with World War II bunkers that were used for munitions and TNT production. This portion of the legend is unquestionably true, and the idea of chemical leakage from these bunkers affecting local wildlife isn’t a stretch of the human imagination. The question is whether that sort of environmental effect would result in a monstrous bird-man or, just, you know, very sick fish.
One theory put forward is that of mischief, a costumed troublemaker attempting to mess with the population. However, the consistent reports of seeing the monster in flight would make that highly difficult, unless the area is in fact haunted by a prankster with the ability to fly. A lateral move at best.
The legend continued to grow over the years, but one thing that never received further clarity was the Mothman’s motives, or relationships with the population he was allegedly haunting. There are no reports of direct violence or aggression. The closest is a report from the same time-frame of November 1966, in which a man named Newell Partridge reported interference with his television set. At the same time, his dog Bandit began, in layman’s terms, freaking out. He shined a flashlight into the field and saw something with “eyes like red reflectors,” which Bandit promptly took off after. The dog, which, by the way, was a German Shepherd, not a little terrier that could just fall in a hole or something, was never seen again.
Perhaps the most unsettling sighting was the claimed sighting of the Mothman standing on the local Silver Bridge, which would collapse the next day, killing over 40. This served to add a new supernatural level of mystique to the Mothman, that of an omen, or for the especially suspicious, a saboteur. However, by all reports, the Silver Bridge was… not a great bridge. It was outdated, and built to low standards, in a time when cars were much lighter than they are today, and the collapse happened during a particularly intense bout of car traffic. But the idea of animals as “omens” is perhaps even more prevalent than that of actual monsters, and slotted into the legend with ease.
After a flurry of activity in the late 1960s, sightings of the Mothman all but dried up, with only very occasional reference. Without the frequency and consistency of the sightings of that time, it’s all the easier to file it away as a figment of the imagination. This confirmed all the more by the fact that many of the features the Mothman had taken on are common “scary” features in the human psyche, such as dark figures with red eyes. Some researchers note that this appearance is very common in the description of sleep paralysis demons, the sightings or hallucinations of which can stick in the subconscious and manifest later during times of fear.
The flying is also not a particularly unique detail in a location with plentiful wildlife, specifically occupied by populations of herons, which are, well… huge, man-sized birds. From this comes one of the most compelling scientific theories of the Mothman. Dr. Robert L. Smith postulates that the original Mothman, the one seen frequently and in detail in the 1960s, was in fact a sandhill crane.
Looking into the features of the sandhill crane, it’s easy to identify many of the aspects of the Mothman legend. The cranes stand around an average of up to 4.5 feet tall, with a wingspan of 7 feet. It’s easy to imagine that, in the dark, inflated by fear, someone could estimate that as 6 and 10, respectively. They’re brown, with white/gray undersides and dark legs, all colorations that line up with descriptions of the Mothman. And the piece de resistance? Sandhill cranes are known for the large, bright red markings around their eyes.
When you take all this into account, it seems very likely that the area was occupied by an unusually large sandhill crane, perhaps even one that did possess some level of mutation caused by chemical leaks. Even just a sickness, similar to the connections between mangy dogs and chupacabra sightings, could alter its appearance just enough to be unfamiliar to locals, and terrifying as a result. A footnote in the Mothman legacy that mentions occasional sightings in Russia even adds further credence, as sandhill cranes are native to both North America… and northern Siberia.
Even its reputation as an omen, or the reports of a sighting on the bridge before the collapse, seem less and less unusual when you consider the possibility of the Mothman being a large bird that just happens to naturally gather at rivers, like the Ohio River the Silver Bridge crossed. The lifespan of a sandhill crane is around 20 years, and one could assume even less if the bird was indeed mutated or sickened by chemical leakage, which would explain its fairly brief reign of terror. Which is to say, the Mothman was probably dead long before you were born.
Not to rain on anyone’s campfire stories, but it does seem most likely that the Mothman was just that: a huge, strange bird acting weird at night. Not that I’d particularly want to tangle with a mutated heron. But don’t tell that to the many attendees of Point Pleasant’s Mothman Festival, and if nothing else, at least we got an incredibly cool statue out of it. That said, if I ever need to drive through West Virginia in the dead of night, I think I’ll grab a hotel and tackle it in the morning.
Top Image: Wikimedia Commons
Sources Used: AllThatsInteresting, Mothman Wiki, Point Pleasant Register, WBOY12, University of Milwaukee