Starting on November 15, 1966, the people of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, an otherwise quiet town along the Ohio River, began seeing something strange in there community. That night was the first widely reported sighting of a creature known as the Mothman, described as “flying man with 10 foot wings” and “seven feet tall with large eyes” (“Monster Bird”). In the sighting that started the town’s belief in the creature, two young couples were out for a drive late at night when they saw the creature. Terrified, they left the scene and reportedly were chased by it at speeds of “about 100 miles an hour” (“Couples See”). From here, many in the town began to report sightings of the Mothman, as well as other extraordinary phenomena, such as UFOs and even the men in black (Posey 2017). The belief in the Mothman became important to these people, as they began to blame bad happenings from disappearing dogs (“Eight People”) all the way up to the collapse of the Silver Bridge in 1967 on the creature. However, like Bigfoot and other cryptids, belief in the Mothman defies any animal we have ever documented, and the presence of some other precognitive and psionic abilities brings the creature even further from the reality we know.
To start, Roger and Linda Scarberry and Steve and Mary Mallette had their encounter on November 15, 1966. They reported their sighting immediately and even said that they wouldn’t report it alone, “ but there were four of us who saw it” (“Couple See”). From here, all evidence for the existence in mothman remains anecdotal and circumstantial, such as weird footprints or clouds of dust, though these sightings remained widespread in the community until the supposed sightings at the collapse of the Silver Bridge on December 15, 1967. Arguments against the belief typically state that the creature was actually simply a large bird, such as an owl, heron or even a sandhill crane. The sandhill crane is a bird that “stands almost as high as a man and has a wingspan of more than seven feet,” and even has “large circles of bare reddish flesh around the crane’s eyes” (“Monster Bird”), possibly explaining both the creatures stature and the red eyes, although the crane was not typically seen in the area during the time period of the sightings. Additionally, both couples reported that the eyes only glowed red “only when their lights shined on it,” (“Couples See”) a fact that strongly suggests the red eyes were simply a result of the “red eye effect” that is so common to flash photography.
Once the belief began, many cognitive errors could have come into play to reinforce it. While investigating the sighting, Deputy Millard Halstead found a cloud of dust the “could have been caused by the bird,” as well as finding strange footprints (“Couples See”). These would be examples of post hoc reasonings since they attribute the observed phenomena to a wholly cause that they hadn’t even directly observed. Confirmation bias may be present in the sandhill crane theory as well. The crane is likely the most plausible cause, but many would dismiss it since it wasn’t native to the region. They cherrypick that detail to dismiss the theory, and since no other good explanation exists, this dismissal strengthens their own belief in the creature. Third, because the sighting was so memorable and widely reported, the availability heuristic would come into play. People would began to just associate any “strange” occurences to the creature because it was much easier for them to remember. Additionally, many signs of a pseudoscientific belief are present here, such as the retreat to the supernatural, the abundance of anecdotal evidence, and even the appeal to authority caused by police actively investigating the sightings.
Of course, the society of Point Pleasant would lend itself to a folktale like this. Even today, Point Pleasant only has a population of slightly over 4,000 people, according to the 2010 census. It was a small city, and such an event was huge for the community at the time. Everyone knew the Scarburrys and Mallettes, so they would be more likely to believe them, and when weird things happened to others, the Mothman became an easy scapegoat. Jan Harold Brunvand noted that recountings state at least 100 people saw the Mothman, with many unreported sightings occurring as well. Basically, the size of the community allowed for everyone to either have a story or know someone with one, further reinforcing the belief the town had. This social support for the belief was probably what really drove the Mothman stories to become so famous.
Regardless of the social aspect, the dismissal of plausible explanations, the presence of supernatural abilities and even the little mental mistakes that made believing easier, the Mothman remains important to West Virginia folklore.
“Couples See Man-Sized Bird…Creature…Something.” Point Pleasant Register, 16 Nov. 1966.
Cryptid. “Mothman Sightings and the Point Pleasant Silver Bridge Collapse.” Exemplore, Exemplore, 2 Nov. 2018, exemplore.com/paranormal/Mothman-Sightings-and-the-Silver-Bridge-Collapse.
“Eight People Say They Saw the Creature.” Williamson Daily News, 18 Nov. 1966.
“Monster Bird with Red Eyes May Be Crane.” Gettysburg Times, 1 Dec. 1966.
“Mothman.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Feb. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mothman.
“Mothman Museum.” Mothmanmuseum.com, www.mothmanmuseum.com/mothman-museum.html.
Posey, Aaron. “50 Years Later: Point Pleasant, Silver Bridge Collapse and the Mothman.” 1428 Elm, FanSided, 28 Dec. 2017, 1428elm.com/2017/12/28/point-pleasant-silver-bridge-collapse-and-the-mothman-50-years-later/.
“Scarberry and Mallette’s Mothman Sighting.” TheMothMan Wikia, themothman.wikia.com/wiki/Scarberry_and_Mallette’s_Mothman_Sighting.