After a year off for the Covid-19 pandemic, the Mothman Festival is hopefully back on again.
The festival, which centers around the legendary Mothman, will take place in late September (as long as Covid-19 stays at bay) in a place where the creature was most prominently spotted – Point Pleasant, West Virginia.
The creature’s rise from frightening flying monster to tourism draw includes everything from Point Pleasant’s Silver Bridge disaster to a Richard Gere movie. For years, it was a local legend that people told to each other, but it wasn’t something known throughout the country. But town leaders decided in 2002 that they needed a festival to celebrate their mythical visitor.
“Couples See Man-Size Bird… Creature… Something”
But how did it all start? Sightings of the Mothman began in rural West Virginia in the late 1960s.
Chris Rizer, executive director for Main Street Point Pleasant and president of the Mason County Historical Society, said the first reported sighting of Mothman may have actually taken place in Clendenin, West Virginia, about 70 miles southeast of Point Pleasant. According to legend, two grave diggers were out digging a grave when they saw what they described as a large winged man flying overhead.
But the legend really took off on November 15, 1966. Two couples out driving near a World War II munitions plant just outside of Point Pleasant, reported to police that they had seen something they couldn’t explain.
The creature, they said, was a large grey flying man with 10-foot wings. The couples reported that whatever it was followed them while they were driving home (at speeds of up to 100 miles an hour) and that its eyes glowed red when the car’s headlights hit them.
A story the next day in the Point Pleasant Register titled “Couples See Man-Size Bird… Creature… Something” kicked off a string of similar sightings over the next year.
According to the Register, the men swore they hadn’t been drinking. Police officers investigated and found nothing.
Over the years, more than 100 people said they saw the creature who became known as Mothman – apparently named after Killer Moth, a villain in the popular Batman TV show.
Some believe that Mothman is an Indian omen, sent to warn the city of impending doom coming as the result of an ages old curse put on Point Pleasant by Shawnee War Chief Cornstalk in the 1700s.
On December 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant collapsed. Loaded with rush-hour traffic, a single eyebar gave out, sending cars into the icy waters of the Ohio River below. The collapse resulted in 46 deaths.
“There were sightings even after the Silver Bridge disaster,” said Jeffrey Wamsley, founder of the Mothman Festival and Mothman Museum in Point Pleasant. “The movie and other books always push the story ending when the bridge fell but there are documented sightings well into the 70’s and 80’s.”
The Festival Takes Off
The first Mothman Festival was held in 2001. Since then, Wamsley says, the event has grown to about 12,000 to 15,000 people in attendance. The event begins with a kick-off event the Friday night before (in 2019, it featured two movies – Terror in the Skies and Momo: The Missouri Monster), then officially runs from Saturday to Sunday. The festival features vendors, cosplay, music, food, guest speakers, hay rides and tours of the area where Mothman was originally seen.
“Obviously tourism has grown and the Mothman story has drawn people from all over the world to visit the museum and statue, but it has also introduced people to Point Pleasant’s rich river and Native American history,” Wamsley says. “So it’s a win-win situation…not every small town has its own Mothman to attract the visitors that come here year round.”
In 2002, The Mothman Prophecies, starring Richard Gere and based on John Keel’s book of the same title came out. From there, interest in the creature skyrocketed.
The success of the festival gave rise to the Mothman statue in the middle of town, and later the Mothman Museum. The draw of the legend has transformed the town of 4,000 – now home to museums, art galleries, antique stores, a hotel and plenty of other attractions – into a premiere tourist destination, Main Street’s Rizer said.
“As my predecessor here at Main Street, Charles Humprheys, always said: ‘Mothman is what gets them off the highway,’” Rizer said. “Then we have to keep them here with everything else.”
And it seems to be working. Rizer estimated that between 50,000 and 75,000 people come to Point Pleasant each year in search of Mothman. Even last year, with the Mothman Festival cancelled, visitors hoping to get a glimpse of the creature came to town.
“Last year was fantastic because we didn’t have the festival, but everyone who was planning on coming to the festival just came whenever they could come,” he said. “So I mean, you just spread those 15,000 people out over a whole year, and, you know, you might get an extra three or four people a day… Last year was a good year for Point Pleasant.”
Sightings of the creature continue every two years or so, Rizer said.
In 2016, news reports from WCHA/WVAH said that a man who had recently moved to the area captured photographs of what appeared to be Mothman. While the man declined an on-camera interview, the photos he took appear to show a large winged creature with human-looking legs flying through the sky.
Neither proven, nor debunked, whether or not it was Mothman is still in question. And that’s the way people like it to be, Rizer said.
“It’s one of those things where the main attraction is the mystery,” Rizer said. “I don’t think anyone really wants to know whether it’s real or a hoax, just that it’s, you know, sort of a possibility.”
Editor’s Note: The festival scheduled for September was ultimately canceled due to a surge in Covid-19 cases and concern over the more contagious Delta variant of the virus.