Stupid Question ™
Jan. 24, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: What’s the legend of Mothman? What did he have to do with a fatal bridge collapse?
A: If ads for the film “The Mothman Prophecies” are to be believed, Mothman’s main trait is guessing what product placement is in Richard Gere’s hand.
The “real” Mothman was a monster supposedly sighted in West Virginia and southern Ohio over a few months in 1966 and 1967. Gray or brown in color, it stood upright on stubby legs and flew on 10-foot wings that didn’t flap. It had no head or face, just two large, red eyes glaring from its shoulders. It squeaked loudly.
Visions of flying humanoids are fairly common throughout history; indeed, publicity over a Sept. 1, 1966 “sighting” in Mississippi may have inspired Mothman. But properly speaking, “Mothman” refers specifically to this 1960s West Virginia creature.
Mothman hysteria began on Nov. 15, 1966, when two couples saw the monster near the North Power Plant of the abandoned West Virginia Ordnance Works in the small town of Point Pleasant. They claimed it flew after their car at speeds over 100 mph.
They called the police, the police held a press conference, regional media went crazy over the story, and, naturally, a flood of Mothman sightings ensued (including several suddenly-remembered ones dating back to 1961). The media, possibly including the Athens (Ohio) Messenger, named it Mothman. The name was reportedly taken from a Batman comic book villain—probably Killer Moth, who reappeared in a January 1967 issue.
The sightings were generally similar and unremarkable, and petered out completely within a year. A university professor suggested a large bird might be behind the sightings—thus kicking off a mini-spate of giant bird sightings.
Mothman was exaggerated into legend by John Keel, a paranormal researcher who spent months investigating the sightings. Keel believed Mothman was just one of many supernatural events in the area, all of which were actually the work of demonic forces attacking us from another dimension.
He rapidly amassed a wealth of local tales about UFOs, poltergeists, pet kidnappings, a giant dog, Men in Black and an “Abominable Swamp Slob”—all somehow linked, he said, with Mothman. He also claimed that Mothman witnesses got the gift of making predictions, which were distinguished by not actually coming true.
On Dec. 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge linking Point Pleasant with Ohio collapsed, killing 46 people. Its structural failure is not a mystery, but took a while to investigate. In the interim, two folklore explanations popped up: a sonic boom, and an old Indian curse. Mothman was already forgotten.
But not by Keel, who linked the collapse with the Mothman demons in his 1975 book “The Mothman Prophecies,” on which the movie is based. More recently he has written that it’s “completely erroneous” to blame the disaster on Mothman, while simultaneously suggesting there’s an “intangible relationship.”
Much more than the original reports, his book has shaped and transmitted the Mothman legend, which is increasingly becoming a tourist industry in Point Pleasant.