Just across the Ohio River lurks a mystery that has gripped the town of Point Pleasant and its neighbors on both sides of their watery boundary. Nearly 50 years ago on November 12, 1966, five men digging a grave in rural West Virginia claimed they saw a large man-like flying creature that descended from the trees, and flew over their heads into the night. This was credited as the first sighting of the Mothman. The Mothman’s original streak of terror in 1966-67 launched the small town of Point Pleasant into the national spotlight as people from around the country flooded the town to learn more about the Mothman Prophecies.
Dark wings in the sky
Since its original reign of terror, the Mothman has become more than an Appalachian folk tale, expanding to regions beyond. Mothman sightings have been reported across the country. For the last 15 years, Mothman believers have gathered to celebrate the tale at the annual Mothman Festival, visiting the peculiar statue and maybe visiting the place he called home.
The Mothman, named in homage to the Batman TV show at the time, is more than just local folklore for the town and its neighbors. It now represents an important part of the culture. In Point Pleasant alone there is the Mothman Museum and Research Center, the Mothman Festival and even a statue of the creature that sits near the center of town. Many have tried to explain the strange events as hysteria mixed with sightings of the sandhill crane, a large bird native to Canada that migrates south during the cold season. While it isn’t the first reported monster to be stalking the hills and streams, it’s the only creature in the area to warrant its own film and several pieces of literature authored.
Most of the original sightings were no more sinister than people being scared by something they couldn’t easily explain, that is until the creature was seen at Silver Bridge. At five o’clock on December 15, 1967, congested with traffic the bridge collapsed into the Ohio River, killing forty-six people. Two of the victims remains would never be found, their names added to those buried in Gallipolis, Ohio. In photos taken before and after the collapse, something can be seen clinging to the structure of the bridge near the top. According to local legends this lump on the bridge was the Mothman.
The legend is formed
John Keel, a writer was one of the key figures in popularizing this tale in his book The Mothman Prophecies, which documents his personal attempt to locate the elusive creature, and offer an explanation for the Silver Bridge’s sudden collapse. Keel, an avid UFO hunter and follower of other mysterious events claimed the Mothman and the UFO’s spotted in the area were connected in some way. However, in 1971 the cause of the bridge’s failure was determined to be structural and led to a host of renovations of the bridges spanning the Ohio River. Keel was the most prolific of writers to study the Mothman, but died in 2009 after his book had been brought to silver screen in the 2001 Mothman Prophecies film that starred Richard Gere.
In Athens, Ohio a reporter for the Athens Messenger, Mary Hyre, had several strange incidents relating to the Mothman. Hyre is credited with being one of the first reporters to cover the Mothman story, and would later join with John Keel to investigate the strange reports coming out of this small town. In January of 1967, Hyre was working late in her office when a short man, with odd eyes covered by thick glasses and a black mop of hair in the fashion of a bowlcut asked Hyre and her circulation manger for directions to Welsh, West Virginia. The man became increasingly more awkward as their conversation progressed, leaving mid-conversation after stealing a pen and laughing manically as he exited the building. Hyre swears she saw the same man in Athens, jumping into a black van that had appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Later on she would also hear rumors that men in black were going to witnesses to get them to stop spreading the Mothman tale.
Hyre, still a reporter in Athens, was approached again by a stranger asking not about the Bridge or the disaster itself, but about the reported UFO sighting that happened shortly before the bridge collapse. This man reportedly visited several witnesses concerning the UFO sightings, claiming to be from Cambridge, Ohio. However, some witnesses claim this man didn’t know the location of Columbus, despite the two areas being relatively close in proximity.
The lair of the beast
Supposedly the Mothman makes his lair in the depths of the McClintic Wildlife Management Area, known to the locals as the “TNT area” due to the decommissioned West Virginia Ordnance Works that covers a large area of McClintic and surrounding Mason county. Throughout the woods, hills and streams that cover this expanse of nearly three and a half thousand-acre preserve, some of the old factory and its explosive product still remain. After World War II, the ammunition factory was decommissioned and parceled off to help other ventures in the county such as a wildlife preserve at McClintic and the county’s airport. Then in November of 1966 the remains of the factory would become host to something strange.
On the West Virginian side of the river, three days after the incident with the gravediggers, two couples were driving near the TNT factory late at night, where they encountered the creature. The couples supposedly saw two red orbs coming from the open factory and a pair of wings on a figure of nearly seven feet tall. Frightened, the couples drove off into the night to avoid the creature. The creature took flight, following the cars as they speeding down the highway. The creature was spotted three other times that evening alone in the same area.
Most of the old factory is gone, demolished or abandoned. What’s left is slowly being reclaimed as the forest buries the bunkers, some still filled with arms, beneath the trees. Some of these bunkers have been ransacked by the government, park officials or whomever was in charge of disposing these munitions, leaving the perfect lair for the prophetic creature of doom. A chilling thought considering one of these bunkers exploded in 2010; whether the Mothman is behind the detonation remains unknown.
These original accounts of a large flying creature swooping out of the night to terrify may seem harmless and unworthy of the attention the tale garnered from the media. The Mothman was seen around Southeast Ohio and Southwest West Virginia for the better part of a year after the incidents on November 15 made headlines in the local papers, most of which were seemingly nothing more than nonsensical hysteria.
Much of the area that the Mothman inhabited has been lost to government efforts to demolish the “TNT Area.” A new bridge has even been erected, further distancing the area from what it originally was when the Mothman was making headlines. The arms that once were made here, have slowly been taking a toll on the environment as they degrade like many of the locations the creature supposedly inhabited have since being torn down, or lost to time. However, the vast expanse of bunkers, most of which are not privately owned and can be explored, remain. Many are emptied, sealed or treacherously secluded by swamps or other unfriendly terrain.
From monster to mascot
Jeff Wamsley, a Mothman investigator, hesitates to call himself an expert, despite his two books and hours of research into the subject. His most recent book Mothman: Behind the Red Eyes gives a glimpse into the less famous creature encounters from around the area. Decribing how these stories went untold for the better part of fifty years, Wamsley says in his book, “What people need to realize is that the individuals who sat down with me, and described in great detail what they experienced, are not the type of folks who beat their chests,” Wamsley says. Furthermore, when speaking of the legacy the Mothman will have on the town going into the future, Wamsley sees it as an opportunity to bring more people into his part of Appalachia.
With the help of the Mothman Prophecies film hitting theaters, and a newly constructed steel statue unveiled in 2003 to entice tourists. A native of Point Pleasant, Wamsley used to be involved with record stores before opening the museum to Point Pleasant’s near the statue in 2005. Inside a variety of Mothman memorabilia and archived information lies in wait for willing to learn more about the creature’s tale.
Even as an investigator, he couldn’t truly say if the Mothman still lives. “Everyone is entitled to an opinion,” he says. As a member of the Mothman Museum, he gets to hear nearly every one and is responsible for answering questions that still remain. Most are based off the events depicted in the Hollywood movie, but he answers them all the same. Regarding the more negative visitors Wamsley says, “You get the skeptics. Whether or not they believe it, they still come.” He’s certain this experience will continue for years to come, as he believes we have only seen the tip of the iceberg in the Mothman tale. “I revert back to my ‘iceberg theory’ that suggests that only a small portion of this story has been told and that more key eyewitness accounts will hopefully see the light of day,” Wamsley says.
As to the Mothman’s link to various disasters, not much else has been said other than that the creature is no more than a machination in the minds of those who believe in it. Despite the lack of evidence either way, many in the town of Point Pleasant and beyond cling to the belief that the Mothman lives.