Monster Hunt: Legend of the Mothman

In 1966, a group of gravediggers in West Virginia reported seeing a flying humanoid figure with glowing red eyes. A year later, a nearby bridge collapsed, killing 46 people. Coincidence? Probably, but who knows.

One half of the Mothman.     Photo: Suede Chen via Shutterstock

Just off Main Street in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, there is a 12-foot-tall stainless steel statue that looks like a chrome mosquito, but with bat wings and human legs and an incredibly chiseled abdomen. The spot it stands in used to be called Gunn Park, but the name was changed to honor the statue and the figure it represents. Now they call it Mothman Park.

The statue was supposed to be even weirder. The original plan—developed by the town in 2001, after the release of the movie version of the John Keel book The Mothman Prophecies brought national attention to what was once strictly a local legend— called for the statue of the hometown monster-hero to be a towering 20 feet tall. The Mothman’s bulbous red eyes were supposed to light up at night, but funding ran short and the statue’s football-sized eyes were left dull and glassy.

Accross the street is the Mothman Museum and Gift Shop, which sells copies of The Mothman Prophecies on DVD, as well as touristy schlock like Mothman t-shirts and keychains. I so love the idea that a person can keep a whole store in business based solely on the idea that nearly 50 years ago, a couple of residents in Point Pleasant thought they might have seen a flying man with giant wings and eyes that glowed red in the dark.

It helps the Mothman’s case that it was first seen by a group rather than the standard lone eccentric. The first sighting dates back to November 12, 1966, when five men, who were digging a grave in a cemetery at the time, said they saw a “brown human being” fly right over their heads from a grove of trees.

Four days later, a second, more memorable sighting was reported in the Point Pleasant Register. Two young couples—Roger and Linda Scarberry and Steve and Mary Mallette—were driving together in Roger Scarberry’s car from the "TNT area," a decommissioned explosives factory from World War II, when they spotted a six- or seven-foot-tall, white creature with red eyes and large wings standing near the road. It followed them as they drove out, but it seemed afraid of the car’s headlights. They later told the Register that the thing, whatever it was, appeared to fly at speeds of about “100 miles per hour.”

One of the young men narrowed down potential suspects for the creature thusly: “It was a bird ... or something. It definitely wasn't a flying saucer." So we know that much.

Unsurprisingly, a number of people living in Point Pleasant at the time of the sightings did not accept the Mothman theory on its silvery, red-eyed face. The county sheriff is said to have dismissed the creature as a type of heron he called a “shitepoke,” and an article printed in the Gettysburg Times that winter quotes a Dr. Robert L. Smith, then-associate professor of wildlife biology at West Virginia University, as saying the creature was most likely a sandhill crane—a bird not typically found in the area, but one whose size (around six feet), wingspan (over seven feet), and circles of reddish flesh around the eyes approximate some of the physical descriptions of the would-be Mothman.

Whatever it was, it didn’t stick around for very long. A number of sightings echoing the first few were reported over the next several months, but they came to a sudden and dramatic stop when, on December 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge—connecting Point Pleasant with Kanauga, Ohio, across the Ohio River—collapsed during rush hour, killing 46 people. The chronological proximity of the Mothman’s appearance in town to the Silver Bridge tragedy led some to believe the two were connected. One exceptionally creative theory held that the collapse was caused by “a sonic boom from the Mothman’s wings,” but the predominant belief held that the creature’s arrival had been an omen, sent to warn the people of Point Pleasant—in what seems, at best, a very confusing and indirect manner—about poor infrastructure.

It’s nice to think that he was nice, that if something that looks like that town center statue ever came for us, it could be because he wanted to help. It makes you as fond of the guy as you are frightened of him. It's like the Mothman pizza that you can get in Point Pleasant—red and green pepper eyes, mushroom wings, pepperoni body. It’s probably cute and funny to take pictures of, but you’ll also eat it extra-quickly, just in case.

Like any good legend, Mothman continues to make guest appearances out of town. In 2006, a handful of people in LaCrosse, Wisconsin reported sighting a similar creature, which they dubbed the Man-Bat. The creature—long, with a large wingspan and yellow eyes—reportedly flew over the car of a man and his son, both of whom became sick to their stomachs afterward.

Granted, that strange side effect was never reported with the original, so maybe it isn’t the same guy. But once you’ve accepted one giant winged, man-like creature with glowing eyes, is it so implausible to think there might be more hidden around the country, emerging only to swoop over people's cars at night?

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