Legends take on new life in the hands of area artists
BY OLIVIA MURRAY
The population of Point Pleasant was terrified in 1966. Residents witnessed odd light patterns in the night sky. Some citizens said they received visits from “men in black,” individuals who have long been associated with UFO’s and extraterrestrial sightings. Then, in November of 1966, things somehow got worse.
Five men were digging a grave near Clendenin on the night of Nov. 12, 1966. The group reported that they had seen a “man-like figure” flying near the overhead tree line.
On Nov. 15, 1966, two couples — Roger and Linda Scarberry and Steve and Mary Mallette — reported to Point Pleasant police that they saw a “large flying man with 10-foot wings” and “eyes that glowed red” following their car while they were out for a nighttime drive near the World War II munitions plant in Point Pleasant.
While police attempted to investigate this sighting, more and more reports began to roll in from witnesses claiming to have seen the large, winged, red-eyed creature that became known as “Mothman.”
While experts, including West Virginia University’s wildlife biologist Robert L. Smith, tried to calm the rapidly spreading hysteria by insisting that the reported creature was no more than a sandhill crane, the residents of Point Pleasant were insistent what they had seen was something beyond reasonable explanation.
The sightings continued until Dec. 5, 1967. No more Mothman sightings were reported in Point Pleasant after the Silver Bridge’s collapse, which resulted in 46 deaths.
As a result of the correlation between the cessation of the Mothman sightings and the collapse of the bridge, many West Virginians began to speculate that the creature was a bad omen that had caused the bridge the collapse. Others suggested that perhaps Mothman had come to warn them about the impending disaster. Skeptics implied that the Mothman sightings were created as a way to bring tourists and commerce into Point Pleasant.
If the latter is true, the townspeople of Point Pleasant succeeded in doing just that. The town is now a national tourist attraction, featuring a life-sized statue of Mothman in the middle of town and the country’s one and only Mothman Museum. Additionally, the first annual Mothman Festival was held in Point Pleasant in 2002.
Mothman has been the subject of several films and documentaries, the most notable being the 2002 horror film “The Mothman Prophecies” starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney. Episodes of ghost-hunting television shows have focused on Mothman as well, including “Buzzfeed Unsolved: Supernatural.”
Earlier this year, an online petition surfaced to replace Confederate statues in West Virginia with statues of Mothman. The intrigue and interest surrounding Mothman has not faded in the decades since the last confirmed sighting; instead, these factors have grown, and Mothman remains a significant feature of West Virginia folklore and culture.
Before Mothman’s appearance, though, another legend perforated West Virginia’s history and circulated the rumor mill.
In 1952, 14 years before the first reported Mothman sighting, a group of teenage boys and their mother were terrorized by “a 10-foot monster with a blood-red body and a green face that seemed to glow.” This story carried so far that some of the witnesses to the event managed to end up speaking with CBS in New York City.
This was the first and only credible sighting of what is now referred to as the Flatwoods Monster.
As with Mothman, hysteria developed, although details regarding this cryptid were too inconsistent for the following reports to be taken seriously.
As with Mothman, there were believers and skeptics. Nevertheless, Flatwoods received a significant amount of attention afterward, and opened up a museum dedicated to the Flatwoods Monster just as Point Pleasant had done with Mothman.
Recently, the cryptid (meaning a creature or entity that has been claimed to exist but never proven to exist) phenomena has been gaining a significant amount of attention. This can largely be attributed to shows like “Buzzfeed Unsolved,” which target a younger audience and pique their interest in the facts and the flaws behind the reported cryptid sightings.
Stephanie Swaim, who owns Hoot and Owl in Morgantown, and Jillian Kelly, owner of Retro-tique in Morgantown, both sell a fair amount of cryptid artwork and merchandise in their shops — particularly merchandise related to the Mothman.
“I have always enjoyed believing in things, even if just for fun,” said Kelly. “I like having an ‘anything is possible’ attitude, and I’ve been really interested in aliens, ghosts, cryptids … since I was around 5.”
Kelly said she took note of the hype surrounding Mothman a couple of years ago due to the popularity of local artist Liz Pavlovic’s artwork.
“It just seemed to grow since then,” said Kelly. “With other local artists like Captain Catfeesh singing about cryptids and other local artists creating things, I think it all just took off — especially around West Virginia.”
The tales of Mothman and the Flatwoods Monster have certainly had an influence on West Virginia’s history, culture and reputation. Kelly believes that these stories have had a positive impact.
“It’s nice to have something fun and positive representing our state instead of all the negative things we often hear about West Virginia,” said Kelly. “I love it. I’m sure things will get burnt out in popularity like usual, but hopefully cryptids don’t become the next zombies — I think we’re all over the zombie craze at this point.”
As for Swaim’s personal beliefs regarding the argued existence of these creatures, she isn’t sure where she stands. However, she still believes that these legends have positively impacted West Virginia.
“I think that in recent years, the cryptid scene has exploded thanks to two factors — Fall Out 76 and our West Virginia artists proudly creating works of art to represent our state,” said Swaim, “…it’s bringing awareness to our state in a more positive and light-hearted nature.”
Both Swaim and Kelly are agree Pavlovic’s cryptid art pieces are bestsellers in their shops.
“She creates stickers, pins, and patches based on her illustrations,” said Swaim. “We carry her art prints but the stickers sell the best. It’s just a little Mothman you can add to your laptop or water bottle that everyone is after.”
“I’ve never carried anything in my shop that sold out like her stuff,” said Kelly.
Pavlovic said she is openminded to the notion of creatures like Mothman existing.
“… Whether they’re from other dimensions or something else, who knows, but I find reading and listening to folks’ accounts of encounters very interesting,” she said.
The local artist is also of the opinion that cryptid folklore has had a positive impact on the state.
“…They’re part of our folklore and a lot of them are very unique to [West Virginia]. It’s great to see places like Sutton, Flatwoods and Grafton embracing their local cryptid even more recently and enticing people from outside [West Virginia] to visit.”
Colby White, a songwriter and member of the West Virginia-based band Captain Catfeesh, has been interested in cryptozoology since he was a child, when he would listen to his father talk about Bigfoot and other unexplained phenomena.
Much of Captain Catfeesh’s music makes mention of West Virginia’s cryptids. Their music can be found at captaincatfeesh.bandcamp.com or through the group’s Facebook profile.
White believes the cryptid phenomenon blew up because it provides people with a sort of freedom.
“Its strangeness gave people something weird and inclusive to be a part of,” he said. “The creatures are also public domain, so no one owns their rights. We’re free to make music, art, and literature about these subjects, and we do.”
“The impact on West Virginia’s heritage has been nothing but positive in my opinion. The stories have slid into pop culture and are now woven even further into the fabric of our brains.”
White pointed out that the festivals, museums, documentaries, and merchandising in West Virginia have all been affected by cryptid culture.
“The attention brings economic opportunity and interest to the state, with Mothman and Flatwoods the star attractions,” White continued. “A common motif in Appalachian culture is a sense of pride, and we sure are proud of our monsters.”