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The Mothman: Background

The Mothman: Background

On November 15, 1966, two young couples were out for a joyride along the backroads around Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Around midnight, they made it to the decommissioned munitions factory the locals called The TNT Area (now the McClintic Wildlife Management Area) where they encountered the creature we now know as Mothman.


Those two couples (Linda and Roger Scarberry, and Mary and Steve Mallette) weren't the first to see it. In fact there'd been enough sightings before that of the creature lurking in the woods by The TNT Area, that it had gained a local nickname — The Bird. But their story was so detailed and harrowing that it was reported on in the local newspapers the very next day, making it the very first published sighting of the Mothman.

According to the Scarberries' and Mallettes' accounts of the incident, when they arrived at The TNT Area, the first thing they saw of the creature was its eyes, glowing red in the headlights of their car. It didn't chase them, not yet. Instead they watched it turn and disappear around the corner of the building, which gave them a better view of the rest of the creature.

All four eye witnesses — and at least one of the earlier eye witnesses — described the creature as a humanoid with wings. According to the original police reports about the November 15th incident, the Mothman was grey in color, around 6-7 feet tall, with muscular legs. The wings on its back, also grey, when fully unfurled, had a wingspan of around 10 feet. The only color on the entire creature were the circular eyes, about 2 inches wide and 6 inches apart, which glowed "a fiery red" in the car's headlights. But despite seeing its legs and eyes clearly enough to give those detailed descriptions, Linda Scarberry and Mary Mallette both reported being unable to see any arms or even a head.

When the creature disappeared around the building — wobbling as if it were unsteady on its feet — Roger Mallette, who was driving the car, floored it, heading back towards town with his passengers yelling at him to hurry. They were not home free yet, though, because they saw the creature again, perched on a hill as if waiting for them as they turned a bend in the road. As they watched, the creature spread its wings and launched straight into the air. The terrified passengers amped up their shouting for Roger to get them out of there.

As they pulled out onto a straight stretch of road, Roger was able to really open it up, speeding down the road at around 100 miles per hour. But it wasn't fast enough. The creature kept pace with the car, the passengers reporting not only being able to see it and its shadow through the rear windshield and back passenger windows, they could hear its wings flapping as it kept up to speed, could hear them brushing and scratching against the roof of the car. They weren't able to shake it off until they reached the gates of a local farmer's home, theorizing that it was the bright lights that had scared it off.

They drove the rest of the way into town, stopping near the lights of a local business to process what had just happened and figure out what to do next. Linda insisted on calling the police, but Roger and Steve were worried that the police would just laugh at them and, against both Linda and Mary's protests, decided to drive back out to the road. They only got as far as the farm before they lost their nerve and decided to turn back. But, just as Roger was turning the car back towards town, something leapt out from behind an animal carcass beside the road, climbed over the back of their car, and disappeared into the field on the other side of the road. The couples didn't know for sure if it was the Mothman or something else entirely, but it scared them enough to convince Roger and Steve to finally go to the police.

After telling their story and insisting that they hadn't been drinking that night, a policeman and another local, Gary, who'd placed the call for them from a drive-in diner, decided to follow them back up the road to The TNT Area to look for the creature again. The couples saw it first, walking in a pasture as they crested a hill. It flew into the air directly towards them, but veered off and disappeared when it was hit by the headlights of Gary's car coming up over the hill. They drove up and down road for a bit, but didn't see it again and the whole caravan headed back towards town where they met up with Deputy Sheriff Millard Halstead.

The Deputy Sheriff drove back up to The TNT Area with the couples and Gary once more. The drive, this time, was uneventful, and once they'd parked, Halstead turned on the spotlight on his car to search the tree line. While Roger only reported seeing seeing some "dust or smoke" coming from the nearby coalyard, both Linda and Mary reported more. Strange shadows on the building, an odd noise like the squeaking of a mouse "only a lot stronger", and eventually the eyes. Linda and Mary both recalled telling Halstead that they could see the eyes and that he then turned his spotlight directly on them without even asking them to point them out, implying that he could see the eyes too.

They didn't say what happened after the Deputy Sheriff turned his light on the eyes, but after sitting out there for about 15-20 minutes with no other major incident, the group piled back into their respective cars, drove back into town, and went their separate ways. Too scared to be alone after the experience, the Mallettes stayed that night at the Scarberries' home, though none of them were able to fall asleep.

The next day, the couples were interviewed by the local paper, who sent a reporter to go back out to The TNT Area with them, where they saw the creature again. A few days later three of the four witnesses gave their official police report describing the creature and the incident in detail. They also went into some detail about the harassment and mocking they'd been experiencing in the days since the encounter. Accusations of excessive drinking were common; Linda and Mary both complained about not being able to go out in public without hearing people laughing at them; speculations about what they "really" saw out in the woods were plentiful and insistent that the couples simply couldn't have seen what they knew they'd seen; Linda even described a local minister making light of their experience.

But even as the Scarberries and Mallettes were being ostracized by many of their neighbors, the sightings continued. The two couples have, over the years, individually reported seeing Mothman again several times. Linda, in particular, has claimed that Mothman was an occasional visitor to the Scarberry home's roof. Of course after the newspaper article about their encounter was published, not only did previous reports start coming to light, more people made pilgrimages to The TNT Area either seeking out their own encounter or trying to prove one of the many debunking theories people have posed. With so many people visiting the site, it was inevitable that the reports of encounters with Mothman would only continue.

Since that Fall night in 1966, speculation about who, what, and why Mothman is have spread through both the believers and nonbelievers. The most common theories among the debunkers are that Mothman is simply a bird. Some speculate that it's an owl. The Huntington Herald-Dispatch reported a mere four days after the incident that West Virginia University professor, Dr. Robert L. Smith, was certain that Mothman was just a sandhill crane that had taken a detour during its normal migration (though he admitted that not all the details fit the crane, nor was he aware of any confirmed sightings in the area around that time, even though the occasional sandhill crane had been spotted in the area before).

On the other side of the speculation, some folks believe that Mothman is some kind of demon. Others believe it's simply a creature we previously didn't know existed. Still others have chosen to believe that Mothman is not only not an evil or malicious entity, but that it came to Point Pleasant, WV to help.

On December 15, 1967, Point Pleasant's Silver Bridge collapsed into the Ohio River under the weight of heavy rush hour traffic. It was, at the time, the worst bridge accident in American history, thrusting Point Pleasant into a national spotlight and triggering a rehaul in regulations for both the inspection of existing bridges, and the building of new ones.

The fact that the tragedy happened exactly thirteen months to the day after the Scarberry and Mallette sighting; the fact that, leading up to the collapse, many locals reported having nightmares about an upcoming disaster, some even specifically seeing people drowning in the Ohio River; the fact that reported sightings of Mothman suddenly dropped off immediately following the disaster, have led some to believe that the Mothman was simply there to try to warn the people of Point Pleasant about the upcoming tragedy.

This theory, popularized by the 2002 Richard Gere film, The Mothman Prophecies, was proposed originally by writer, journalist, and ufologist, John Keel in his book of the same name that loosely inspired the 2002 film.

It's hard to fully grasp Mothman's influence on the greater US culture. While it doesn't have the mainstream name recognition that Bigfoot or Nessie do, it's impossible to deny that it's become more well-known outside of its territory than almost any other regional cryptid. The 2002 film, largely met with a resounding "meh" by audiences and critics alike, may have been Mothman's most mainstream appearance besides also been name-dropped in the hugely popular '90s series, The X-Files. But where Mothman really finds popularity is in lesser known, more niche media with passionate fans — original comics, video games, prematurely canceled genre sitcoms, made-for-TV movies, and actual play TTRPG podcasts.

There's no mistaking that Mothman has become a symbol, icon, and darling of weirdos, queerdos, nerds, geeks, and freaks. The folks who know that there's more to life than just accepting the world as society presents it to you.

Tags: cryptids, mothman