The legend of the Mothman

By: Jeanette Rueb

Every country has its folk tales. From protective spirits to malevolent tricksters, the myths of North American folklore are plentiful and diverse. Ancient beasts from native legend have mixed with new monsters, giving rise to myriad creatures unique to their respective regions. One of these cryptids is the elusive Mothman of West Virginia.

The terror of Point Pleasant

In November of 1966, five men digging a grave in a cemetery near Clendenin, West Virginia were startled by the appearance of a large, brown-winged man in the trees who hopped from branch to branch. Just a few days after, two couples from Point Pleasant claimed to have spotted a large man with a ten-foot wingspan as they were driving by an old munitions bunker. The massive gray creature was reported to have glowing red eyes that shone in the car’s headlights.

After the excitement of these initial sightings made their way into the public’s focus, sightings began to crop up all over West Virginia. Witnesses claimed that this “Mothman” could fly at speeds around 100 miles per hour, but that he was extremely uncoordinated on foot. Legends grew to surround the beast, saying that it had an affinity for landing on the roofs of teenagers’ parked cars or that it was a member of an alien species.

One eyewitness even went so far as to outline a series of events he supposed were attributed to the Mothman’s appearance. Newell Partridge of Salem, West Virginia claimed that his television set began making odd buzzing noises shortly before he noticed the presence of an imposing shadowy figure outside his window. When he grabbed a flashlight and shone it in the direction of the silhouette, he was met with two flaming red eyes that glowed “like bicycle reflectors.” Following the strange encounter, he found that his dog had disappeared.

Diagnosing the mass hysteria

The Mothman craze eventually gained traction outside of West Virginia as national newspapers began reporting on the phenomenon. Sightings of the beast started popping up as far away as Chicago. The pervasiveness of the myth also caught the attention of psychologists and zoologists who took it upon themselves to attempt to diagnose the Mothman craze. Along with the qualified professionals, pseudoscience enthusiasts and cryptozoologists also offered up their explanations for the Mothman sightings as everything from aliens to supernatural manifestations.

Logical explanations for the appearance of Mothman mostly tend to favor the theory of the wayward crane. Sandhill cranes are migratory birds that annually travel from northern Canada to the southern United States, where they spend the winter. These brownish gray birds can grow to be around five feet tall with wingspans exceeding their height. Their migratory route takes them along the Appalachian Mountains, skirting just west of West Virginia, but it would be possible for some of the birds to stray from their usual route and appear in places they wouldn’t typically be found, such as northwestern West Virginia, where Point Pleasant is located. In addition to matching the height, color, and location criteria, sandhill cranes have fleshy crimson patches around their eyes, which could easily be mistaken for the glowing red eyes of the Mothman. Other suggestions attempting to uncover the origin of the beast have included owls and unusually large herons.

Psychologists studying the phenomenon noted the similarities between various descriptions of Mothman and the types of creatures often described by people with sleep paralysis. Similarly, paranormal reports citing the sightings of Mothman were based on selective samples, meaning the data was drawn from groups of people who willingly came forward to admit what they’d seen. Psychologists pointed out that people willing to seek out paranormal news sources were more likely to believe in stories like Mothman’s and were, therefore, more likely to “witness” one of these anomalies.