The gravediggers were the first to see the strange being. It rose from the tree like a giant bird taking flight, but as it soared overhead, it began to look more like an angel, a man with wings. But it was dark and brown, more grotesque than radiant, more like a demon than an angel. The news spread.
He was seen again three nights later, when two young couples saw his red glowing eyes in the trees by the side of the road late at night. They drove faster but the strange dark man chased them, and they gave their story to the police. The news spread.
It was November of 1966 in the vicinity of Point Pleasant in the low country of West Virginia, and over the next ten days, the demon was seen at least four more times, either as a tall dark man prowling outside houses with his red eyes or flying overhead on leathery wings. By then the news had spread to the papers, and a reporter, probably Mary Hyre, writing for the newspaper The Messenger, inspired by the popular TV character Batman, consolidated all of these various reports into a single perpetrator that she dubbed the Mothman. But over time, as such things normally go, interest waned, the strange visitor stopped appearing, life resumed and the curiosity of the Mothman gradually fell out of memory.
In December of 1967, a little more than a year after the Mothman made headlines, the 40-year-old Silver Bridge connecting Point Pleasant with Gallipolis, OH across the Ohio River, collapsed under the weight of rush hour traffic. 46 people died. In such small towns, virtually everyone knew a few of the victims, and foolishness like the Mothman was quickly forgotten.
So why, more than 40 years later, do we still remember the Mothman? Why are there movies and books? Why is he considered a harbinger of disasters? He didn't hurt anybody or leave any evidence; there were only a few reports and they were unreliable at best. Yet the Mothman occupies a fairly high place among modern urban legends. We believe that when he appears, bridges collapse and people die, even though there was no such reference in any of the contemporary reports.
What do you do when you hear such a story? You really have very little to go on other than the popular legend. How much of it really happened? How do we know any of it really happened? Are you forced to accept it uncritically because you don't have these answers, or should you summarily dismiss the whole thing?
Well, as we see with so many of these stories that we examine on Skeptoid, folk legends don't get very interesting until we introduce the element of an imaginative author with a book upon which fortune smiles. And so it happened with the Mothman. The author was John Keel, and the book was The Mothman Prophecies, published in 1975, nine years after the Mothman sightings. But although Keel was fortunate to have had his book turned into a movie, it wasn't the original. Much of the material was shared with Gray Barker's 1970 book The Silver Bridge, which was the first time a connection was drawn between the Mothman and the bridge collapse. Both authors came from the UFO genre, and both made suggestions the Mothman may have been an alien. Why an alien would choose the Mothman's behavior as the best way to make first contact with a new civilization is not convincingly argued in either book. Both authors peppered the skies of Point Pleasant with UFO appearances during the Mothman sightings, however I did not find any such accounts at all searching available local newspaper archives for that period.
Although popular accounts on the Internet state that the Mothman made as many as 100 appearances during the year leading up to the Silver Bridge collapse, this appears to be a modern fabrication. In the newspaper archives, I was only able to locate the half dozen or so reports in November 1966. That doesn't mean more didn't happen; it only means I couldn't find any evidence that anyone at the time reported that they did.
And those half dozen were not very well corroborated. The first episode, with the gravediggers, was in the town of Clendenin, 50 miles from Point Pleasant. Another was in Charleston, 45 miles from Point Pleasant. A couple of the reports are merely a dark-clothed man peering in through a window. Some of the reports have the Mothman flying on batwings, some of them have him merely standing around with reflective, animal-like eyes.
The Mothman's second sighting, by the four kids in the car, is the best known. They lived in the tiny town of Point Pleasant, WV, and drove late at night to the local "lovers' lane" called the TNT plant, a deserted explosives manufacturing and storage facility seven miles outside of Point Pleasant in the woods. While driving they passed a pair of red eyes by the roadside. They panicked and tried to get away, but the red eyes followed them, at speeds they reported of 100 mph. They reported to the local police, who said they knew the kids to be trustworthy witnesses, that the eyes belonged to a man up to seven feet tall, with wings folded on his back.
The West Virginia Ordnance Works is kind of off by itself in the woods. It's not the kind of place you might happen to be driving by. There's nothing there except a grid of dirt roads in various states of being reclaimed by the forest. There are only a few scattered houses around, the nearest about a quarter of a mile away. Virtually nothing remains of the TNT plant and the area is now the McClintic State Wildlife Management Area, and has been since 1945 when the plant was decommissioned, decontaminated, and ceded over. There's actually more going on there now than there was in 1966, as it became a Superfund site in 1983 and they've been doing some cleanup since 2000. In 1966, it was basically just empty woods in the middle of nowhere. If people saw the Mothman there, they didn't just happen to glance outside. They had to make a deliberate trip to get out there. When a group of twenty-somethings who live in East Jesus drive out into the woods late at night, it's probably not stretching things too far to guess that alcohol may have been involved.
Investigator Joe Nickell has concluded that if the kids did see red eyes, they were probably those of one of the local barn owls. Combined with the lateness of the hour, the kids' state of mind, the speed of the car, and the recent news of the flying demon in Clendenin, Nickell is satisfied that the story has a plausible natural explanation. And, of course, the story is anecdotal only, and has its own credibility issues for whether anything took place at all, owl or not. Certainly 100 mph is highly suspect, judging by a glance at the roads on Google Earth.
Was this alleged nighttime chase truly an unambiguous prophecy of destruction to come?
Trying to connect the Mothman's appearance with the Silver Bridge collapse seems like a bit of a shoehorn job to me. They happened many miles and a full year apart. If you were a Mothman and wanted to foretell a bridge collapse, wouldn't you choose to appear closer to the bridge, or at least sooner before it happened? It's not even great fiction for Barker and Keel to have conceived. I'm sure lots of things happened in Point Pleasant during that intervening year, a lot closer to the bridge, and any of those events would make a more compelling candidate for an omen.
The Mothman made the news more recently when the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi in Minneapolis, MN collapsed in 2007, killing 13 people. It wasn't until after the bridge collapse that people on Internet forums, and in particular a caller to the Coast to Coast AM radio show, reported that the Mothman had been seen in Minneapolis prior to the collapse. Such reports are highly suspect, since there are no published reports of this at all, and people were simply regurgitating the Silver Bridge incident and The Mothman Prophecies movie. Any connections you may have heard between the Mothman and this later bridge collapse are pure ex post facto fantasies.
Barker and Keel had both come to Point Pleasant to write UFO books. While they were watching the skies for UFOs and writing imaginative tales about Men In Black and government conspiracies and mysterious phone calls and strange warnings, stories told by thrillseeking kids and ladies who hadn't closed their curtains all the way stole the headlines. And later, a real disaster — that cost real lives and plummeted everyone in town into mourning — brought the newspapers back down to Earth. Barker and Keel had little choice but to include these events in their books. A frequent criticism of the movie The Mothman Prophecies, in which the filmmakers tried to condense Keel's book into something like a tellable story, is that there is no apparent connection between practically any of the events in the film. And that's perhaps the best way to conclude a skeptical examination into the story of the Mothman: A few vague reports, probably not connected; none of which had anything to do with the Silver Bridge's structural collapse more than a year later.