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Is the Mothman Real or Fiction?

Since 1966, it has haunted the area around Point Pleasant, but what is the Mothman?

image of gray moth on stone
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  • Photo Credit: Rúben Marques / Unsplash

On November 15, 1966, two couples near the town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia told police that they had been pursued by a black figure with glowing eyes. This is widely regarded as the first account of the infamous Mothman. Since then, the figure has expanded far beyond its West Virginia origins, making its way into modern cryptid lore and starring in books and even movies before exploding in popularity in the internet age, where Mothman has found itself at the center of countless viral memes.

But what is the Mothman? Is it an alien? A hoax? Or an example of modern folklore? Let’s dig a little deeper, and see if we can find the truth…

Mothman Appears in Point Pleasant

Most accounts of the Mothman begin with the story of Roger and Linda Scarberry and Steve and Mary Mallette. On that chilly November evening, the two couples were “joyriding” in a Black 1957 Chevy near what is now the Clinton F. McClintic Wildlife Management Area, a hangout spot known colloquially as the “TNT area” due to the fact that it was a former munitions plant during World War II.

They saw what Linda Scarberry described as a “slender, muscular man” with wings and glowing red eyes. According to their later accounts, the Mothman (as it eventually came to be called) didn’t run but “wobbled as though it couldn’t keep its balance.” It could fly, though, and as the young couples took off in their car, it took to the air and followed them. They said that it kept up with them even when they topped 100 miles per hour, and they could hear its wings brushing against the roof of the car. “It squeaked like a big mouse,” Mary Mallette recalled.

The Mothman reportedly followed the two couples as far as the edge of town before it veered off. However, that wasn’t the end… and it may not even have been the beginning. Though the Scarberry and Mallette sighting is what catapulted the Mothman to fame, earlier encounters have subsequently been discovered, including the story of five men from the nearby town of Clendenin who reported a similar sighting a few days earlier, on November 12.

Mothman in the Media

The first mention of Mothman in a newspaper came just a day after the Scarberry and Mallette sighting—though it hadn’t yet obtained its iconic moniker. The November 16 issue of the Point Pleasant Register featured the headline, “Couples See Man-Sized Bird… Creature… Something.”

It was not until some time later that an Ohio newspaper came up with the name that would stick, likely borrowed from Batman, whose TV show was popular at the time. Nonetheless, Mothman the creature was dubbed and Mothman it would remain. While the initial stories were picked up by papers throughout the country and numerous additional sightings followed the Scarberry and Mallette report, it was not until 1975 when the legend exploded onto the national stage with the publication of John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies.

In the book, Keel linked sightings of the Mothman with the 1967 collapse of the Point Pleasant Bridge – more often called the Silver Bridge—during rush hour traffic, a disaster which cost the lives of some 46 people. Ostensibly a nonfiction book detailing Keel’s own investigations into the Mothman, the bridge collapse, and other phenomena, a fictionalized version of the book was made into the 2002 movie of the same name starring Richard Gere.

Following the 2002 film, the Mothman’s popularity continued to grow online—along with numerous other cryptids—leading to the figure’s appearance in countless internet memes. That same year, Point Pleasant held its first annual Mothman Festival, which takes place on the third weekend in September. Conceived as a way to help attract visitors to Point Pleasant and celebrate the town’s heritage, the Mothman Festival was commemorated in 2003 by the addition of a 12-foot metallic statue by sculptor Bob Roach, and by the opening of the Mothman Museum and Research Center in 2005.

What is the Mothman?

“It wasn’t like anything you’d see on TV or in a monster movie,” Steve Mallette said, attempting to describe what he and the others had seen that November night. “It was a bird… or something. It definitely wasn’t a flying saucer.”

They didn’t know what it was, and no one else does either, yet hundreds of people have reported spotting the Mothman since. Some claim that it is somehow related to UFOs, or that the Mothman itself is a visiting alien. Some believe that it is an escaped government project or a rare natural creature heretofore unknown to science. Others, however, suggest an even more prosaic explanation.

One of the most popular naturalistic hypotheses is that witnesses were instead seeing a sandhill crane which had strayed beyond its normal migration pattern. Sandhill cranes are large birds, standing upwards of four feet in height with a wingspan of around six feet. Adult sandhill cranes also have distinctive reddish markings around their eyes, which could potentially account for the “glowing eyes” reported in some Mothman encounters.

Other skeptics propose alternative theories, ranging from hoaxes—in one case, construction workers were reported to have tied flashlights to a helium-filled balloon—to sightings of barred owls, which can also grow quite large and whose reflective eyes can produce a “red-eye effect” when light is shined directly on them.

Fact or fiction, however, one thing is for sure—the Mothman is beloved, and not just by the residents of Point Pleasant. In recent years, Mothman fever has spread throughout the internet, helped along by a growing interest in similar cryptids overall, and today you can get all sorts of products emblazoned with the Mothman’s glowing-eyed visage, from t-shirts to plush toys and enamel pins to action figures.

While we may never know the truth behind the legend, the legend itself lives on. “I wish we had never seen it,” Linda Scarberry said after her 1966 encounter with the creature. “I wish someone else had seen it.” Since then, countless additional people have claimed to have spotted similar things and there’s no denying that countless more wish they had.

Featured image: Rúben Marques / Unsplash