The creature widely know as ‘the mothman’ was reported multiple times in the vicinity of Point Pleasant, a city and county seat of Mason County, West Virginia, between November 1966 and December 1967. While more recent stories attribute a range of supernatural phenomenon to the mothman, during the period it was actually seen most reports were limited to simple sightings. Claims that the creature caused premonitions of disaster amongst residents and visits from both UFOs and mysterious ‘men in black’ appear to have been popularised only after the release of the popular John Keel book The Mothman Prophecies in 1975.
The first reported sighting of the creature came on November 12th 1966. Five gravediggers at a cemetery in the small town of Clendenin, east of Point Pleasant, reported seeing a strange, human-like figure flying above the trees nearby.
Three days later, two married couples driving close to a former munitions plant close to Point Pleasant at around midnight saw a ‘large, grey creature’ with glowing red eyes illuminated by their car headlights. Estimating that its wings measured ten feet across, the group described the ‘mothman’ following their car at high speed for some time before disappearing.
Sightings continued, including from two firemen that described a large bird with red eyes. One man contacted Mason County Sheriff George Johnson to report seeing a large creature with glowing, reflective eyes in a field, as well as to blame it for causing interference on his television and for the disappearance of his dog.
Despite the initial rush of reports, sightings gradually petered out. Anecdotal accounts emerged of the mothman attacking the roof of cars occupied by amorous teenagers, however little, if any, media records of such sightings exist. The frequently cited statistic that over 100 people reported seeing the creature also has little evidence to support it. However, a tragic event in December 1967 returned the mothman to newspapers.
On December 15th, a large suspension bridge over the Ohio River, known as the Silver Bridge, collapsed after a suspension chain failed. Failing during the height of rush hour traffic, 46 people lost their lives as cars were spilled into the Ohio River. Malfunctioning traffic lights had contributed to the large amount of traffic on the bridge.
The tragedy gave rise to the belief that the mothman was responsible for the collapse, or that witnesses that had previously had a close encounter with the creature had subsequently had premonitions of the accident. This version of events formed the basis of Keel’s 1975 book, as well as a 2002 film adaption, doing much to popularise the legend of the mothman.
While in West Virginia the mothman has largely been confined to folklore since the late 1960s, reports have emerged elsewhere. One Georgian newspaper suggested that a similar creature was spotted in Russia, foreshadowing the Moscow apartment bombings in 1999 that resulted in the deaths of 367 people.
A number of attempts to explain the mothman have been put forward by scientists and cryptozoology researchers. At the time of the initial sightings, Dr Robert Smith, a wildlife biologist at the University of West Virginia, suggested that the sightings were of a sandhill crane, a large bird generally unfamiliar with the area that matches many of the descriptions, including the grey wings and red eyes. Sheriff George Johnson opined that the creature was in fact a large heron, while some modern researchers believe witnesses had seen a large barred owl. At least one sighting was proven to be a hoax, after construction workers were found to have attached red lights to a helium balloon.
Some Point Pleasant residents believe that the mothman is the result of a local legend known as the ‘Curse of Chief Cornstalk’. A Shawnee chief, Hokoleskwa (stalk of corn in English) and his son were murdered by American militia at Fort Randolph (modern day Point Pleasant) in 1777. Many believe that the dying chief cursed the area, however no contemporary accounts exist to corroborate this.
Reports that the creature had returned to West Virginia emerged in 2005, after a man sent a photography taken on Route 2 near Point Pleasant to local news purportedly showing the mothman. While it generated significant media interest, the photo was eventually broadly dismissed as showing a owl or hawk carrying prey, most likely a snake.