November 27, 1966, was a Sunday. That morning, as Connie Jo Carpenter passed the chilly links of the Mason County Golf Course in New Haven, West Virginia, she saw something strange. It hulked over the road, vaguely man-shaped, but by her later account "at least seven feet tall and very broad." It was pale gray, lacking a recognizable head, with two gaping red eyes set square and lidless in its torso.
Her car slowed. Two wide wings spread from its back. It rose into the air ("like a helicopter," she'd later say) and with an aura of hypnotic menace, swooped barely over her windshield and out of sight.
It was gone. Terrified, she floored it down the road.
It was not the first time the thing that would come to be known as the "Mothman" had been seen. In the nearby town of Point Pleasant, a group of four people walking an isolated lover's lane had seen a "man with wings... with muscular legs... and fiery red eyes." It had followed their car, as they drove frightened back through the dark woods at speeds (they claimed) of up to 100 miles an hour, leaving them only when they reached a lit section of the highway. The light deterred it, it seemed. Perhaps because it would have allowed a clear look.
Despite the literally incredible nature of the stories, reports snowballed over that winter. They came from more couples on midnight strolls, whole families terrorized on dark roads, wild-eyed recluses in the West Virginia woods. Newspaper articles sensationalized the encounters. "Couple Sees Man-sized Bird … Creature … Something." "Mysterious 'Mothman' Said Still at Large." Over 100 stories of sightings accumulated, and with them, all manner of oddities blamed on its influence.
In a fever of paranormal obsession, locals blamed it for UFO sightings, menacing "men in black" terrorizing townspeople from strange, hopelessly antique cars, cryptic voices, and in an ultimate (and very real) tragedy, the deaths of 46 people killed when a bridge over the Ohio river collapsed.
The sightings stopped after that, but the story kept building. In 1975, fringe journalist John Keel published The Mothman Prophecies, a much-fictionalized account of his investigation into the Point Pleasant strangeness. For all its bald sensationalism and leaps of logic, his exaggerated version of the West Virginia happenings captured imaginations nationwide. A film (starring Richard Gere) in 2002 solidified the story's place in modern American folklore. The Mothman, for good or ill, had moved into the neighborhood.
Something from "outside"
I do not believe that any real monster was out in those woods. Though (to twist Shakespeare) there are likely more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy, I think the tale of the Mothman is that of a Great Snowy Owl in unfamiliar territory, and of low lighting, a mass freak-out, and the whipping up of second-rate "fact-finders" working to sell a spooky story to gullible people.
But with that said, consider the story. Whatever thing (real or imagined) did flap through the West Virginia woods 40-odd years ago, the hold it took on the imagination of 20th century America is impressive. An entire community of people, as rational (or irrational) as you or I, were gripped with the idea that something else was in their woods. Something from "outside." Something monstrous. Gripped by this mania in the same year that Gemini 8 carried Neil Armstrong and David Scott into space. The same year that Russia landed a scientific probe on the planet Venus. Gripped by it in a "modern" world, of telephones, and supersonic flight, and bright clean Science, a world beginning to sparkle and smell of bleach. Gripped it with a hold that's persisted for decades.