The weather was turning cold in mid-November 1966 when stories of a strange creature began to scatter like autumn leaves across West Virginia. Men digging a grave near Clendenin claimed to see “a brown human being” gliding through the trees above. The following night, two couples in a wood near Point Pleasant reported being chased by a "large flying man with ten-foot wings."
The next morning the Point Pleasant Register published a story: "Couples see Man-Sized Bird... Creature... Something." By Thanksgiving, reports of missing pets and TV interference were being attributed to the winged visitor. More eye-witnesses came forth. Someone dubbed the creature "Mothman." Folks who lived near the river began locking their doors at night.
Tales of the winged horror circulated for more than a year, but, then, a real horror occurred. On Dec. 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge at Point Pleasant collapsed, dropping 47 motorists into the murky Ohio River. Some say sightings of the Mothman ended then. Folklorists speculate that more important matters were being discussed. Others believe the creature had been tied to the collapse — as a cause or portent — and that it had disappeared after the tragedy.
Enter writers Gray Barker and John Keel. Barker in 1970 popularized the legend through a series of books. He also tied reports of the creature to the collapse of the bridge and introduced the world to the concept of "Men in Black," stealthy agents employed to cover-up human encounters with aliens.
Keel in 1975 published "The Mothman Prophecies," and also connected events to a curse reputedly uttered by Shawnee Chief Cornstalk, who was murdered at Point Pleasant during a peace mission in 1777. (Cornstalk led the charge against Andrew Lewis's colonial militia in the Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774.)
Keel's book became the seed of the 2002 film "The Mothman Prophesies," which popularized the tale on a scale not been seen before. The film has drawn thousands of visitors annually to the community, though Jeff Wamsley, co-founder of its Mothman Festival and Mothman Museum, says chroniclers have confused the tales. Reports of encounters with the Mothman didn't end with the collapse, he says, and many aspects of the tale are still left to be told.
"Most journalists don't understand that there were multiple witnesses — more than 100 in the first few years," Wamsley said. "And things went on for months after [the bridge collapse]. The movie pushed that aspect, and we [also] have newspaper clippings from '68 and '69, even into the '70s.
"They think only four teenagers encountered this thing. And they read more into the story. Also there is always some confusion as to it being a cryptid, UFO-related, or something of Biblical proportions."
Making sense of such a series of events must take real effort, I proposed one day during a recent visit to the museum. I am fascinated by the tale and happy to consider the events at length, turning and twisting the matter like a Rubic's Cube.
I asked Jeff what sorts of questions museum visitors commonly ask about the creature. "What did Mothman look like? Did it ever harm anyone? Has anyone seen it recently?"
He said unusual questions regard whether it could teleport to other dimensions and whether it originated in toxic waste stored in the TNT area. (The TNT area, an abandon munitions works in which the creature was first encountered, is now part of the McClintic Wildlife Management Area, a popular attraction for the inquisitive.)
As I watch visitors wander in and out of the museum at 400 Main Street, carrying books, tee-shirts, and other Mothman memorabilia, I reflect on how well-suited such a legend is to this, the western entrance to the state. Here where the Kanawha River descends out of the hills to join the Ohio, a strange but wholesome energy runs through the land. The land seems to accept the tragedies that came before.
If Jeff is right, visitors will continue to make a habit of visiting Point Pleasant and strolling its Main Street southward to the point, so seemingly removed from monsters and battles and murders and mass death.
"The Mothman legend continues to grow and attract visitors from all corners of the globe, and I do not see any slowdown at all," he says. "Interest grows with each tv show, movie or televised project. I think this is only the beginning."
The Mothman Museum is open from noon until 5 p.m. daily, though it is closed on Easter, Christmas, New Year's, and Thanksgiving days. Admission is $3 for guests 11 years old and older and $1 for guests 10 and younger. Visitors should call ahead in winter in case of inclement weather.