We’re here today to ruin Mothman

Politics is very complicated but if there’s one thing we can all agree on it’s apparently that we’d like the world to be run by cryptids. Bigfoot? Sure. Cthulhu? You betcha. Sasquatch? That’s kind of just Bigfoot under a different name but alright. A giant meteor? That’s not really a cryptid but we’re game for it. Cryptids – animals or pseudopeople that don’t exist, probably – hold a special place in our heart. And over the years one has emerged above all others: Mothman.

Who am Mothman

This am Mothman.

Mothman according to Dutch artist Tim Bertelink

Mothman first appears in American culture in the 1960s. The story goes that a group of workers in Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1966 saw a “brown human being” moving rapidly from tree to tree.

In took less than a week for four more people to come forward. Two couples claimed to have been chased by a creature with 10-foot wings and red eyes. There were several more sightings until 1967, when a bridge across the Ohio River collapsed, killing 46 people.

In 2016, an anonymous photographer told local news that he had captured an image of something in Point Pleasant. He told Charleston’s WCHS News that he did not know anything about the Mothman legend and that he did not doctor or edit the photographs.

This image, captured by an unknown photographer in 2016, is maybe Mothman

What’s interesting about this photo is how much it resembles the henchmen of The Monarch, the long-running antagonist of the Adult Swim series The Venture Bros. You could make the case that The Monarch, a supervillain themed on the not particularly frightening monarch butterfly, is derived from Mothman, a cryptid based on the not particularly frightening moth. But you could also make the case that both are based on this guy:

This is Killer Moth and he first appeared in Batman #63, published in February 1951. Prior to the gritty Batman that would emerge in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the comic was fairly lighthearted and many of Batman’s villains are pretty camp. Killer Moth basically models himself as the anti-Batman, complete with Moth-Mobile and Mothcave.

While not as well-known as other villains, Killer Moth appeared in a number of DC comics titles in the 1960s, including a major appearance in Justice League of America #35 in May 1965.

In Myths and Mysteries of Illinois: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained, Richard Moreno claims that a newspaper in the Midwest thought the descriptions of the then-unnamed West Virginia monster sounded a lot like Killer Moth. He dubbed it “Mothman.”

“It’s very hard to judge the size of something seen at night at an unknown distance, and if you misjudge how far away it is, you misjudge its height by the same proportion.” 

Prior to this, though, no one had ever described the creature as resembling a moth. The first sightings very explicitly described a human being or at least humanoid shape.

The Audubon Society says they’re pretty sure Mothman is an owl.

In 2010, skeptic Joe Nickell placed plywood Mothmen replicas on a dark road, using bike reflectors for the eyes. He then drove volunteers down the road and asked them to guess the sizes of the cutouts. None of them estimated the sizes right.

As Nickell explained to the Audubon Society – we’ll get to that in a second – in 2018, “It’s very hard to judge the size of something seen at night at an unknown distance, and if you misjudge how far away it is, you misjudge its height by the same proportion.”

What’s more, once the name “Mothman” had been assigned to the creature, it’s likely people who experienced similar sightings attributed details to the creature they saw that weren’t there. Humans tend to drastically overestimate how large things are if the thing is frightening to them, too.

Nickell suspected that a common Barred Owl was likely the culprit, noting that an owl is also the most likely explanation for a similar cryptid supposedly spotted in another part of West Virginia. An owl carrying a frog – they’re just friends, I’m sure the frog is still alive and not about to be eaten – would also explain the 2016 photo.

Cryptids fascinate us because we realize that the world is complicated and many things are beyond our understanding. What are NFTs? Why can’t anyone tell me what an NFT is with a straight face? Cryptids are comforting in their own strange way because they represent something beyond anyone’s understanding. It’s not just you that doesn’t know what lurks in the wilds of West Virginia. No one does. Maybe, even, you can understand the Mothman better than others. Maybe you can understand Mothman carnally, I don’t know what you’re into.