Ah, the Mothman. I’ve heard of the Mothman, hell, there was even a movie recently. I did extensive research for this article, reading everything Wikipedia has to offer. (OK, I actually read a number of sites, but they all contained the same information.) And fortunately, it’s safe to say that unlike most topics I cover, this one is going to be fairly easy to fit into a blog post. Here then is the Mothman story:
Late at night November 15, 1966. Roger and Linda Scarberry, and Steve and Mary Mallette, were travelling by car Near Point Pleasant in West Virginia. As they drove past an abandoned TNT factory, they noticed two red lights in the shadows near the factory gate. They stopped to investigate, and to their shock discovered that the red lights were the eyes of a very tall “man like” creature with large wings folded on its back. They jumped back in their car, terrified, and sped back toward the highway. The creature followed them at speeds up to 100 miles per hour. When they got to town they alerted the local police, who knowing the veracity of the two couples, went out to look. Nothing was found.
And that, basically, is that. The first problem with this case is the time line. Apparently there was a sighting of a flying man-like object a few days earlier by some gravediggers. I’m kind of assuming this must have at least made the local news in some fashion before the Scarberry/Mallette sighting, or how else would investigators have heard about it? Could our two couples have heard about it and been primed to see something strange? In any event, it’s definite that the TNT factory sighting got a fair amount of news coverage and is considered the primary sighting. Yes, there were other sightings afterwards. Yes, some people even claimed to have made sightings the same night … after they had read about them in the papers! Let me be very clear here, once the word of the first sighting had been publicized, subsequent reported sightings are garbage. People are very suggestible, memories are very malleable … and some people like to make up stories to get attention. Yes Virginia, people lie. With an understanding of human psychology, subsequent sightings simply have to be dismissed unless they are corroborated by multiple witnesses and have physical data to boot. Some guy claiming his dog is missing or dead is not physical proof, it’s just a missing or dead dog. Sigh.
So now that we’ve weeded out all the suspect sightings, what do we have left? Two couples saw something late at night, and it scared the bejesus out of them. Um, while their story is fascinating, it lacks evidence. I don’t think it’s a hoax, but when tired people see something unusual late at night, it’s not too hard for me to imagine how they might have reinforced each other’s tendency to freak out. I’m not saying they didn’t see anything, who knows what they saw. They may have even seen an alien or an angel or a demon or an interdimensional probe, who’s to say? I’m saying that whatever they saw, what followed was a classic media induced mass hysteria flap, the likes of which has happened time and time again. Followed by the classic “crackpots/opportunists making the best of it” flap to sell books and get on Oprah. Yes, not only are there people who will make up paranormal sightings to get attention, there are people who make their living hyping the paranormal with no concern for factual accuracy.
I should also point out that this was a bit of an anxious period as well. The Tonkin Gulf incident had happened a year before and Vietnam was heating up. The Civil Rights era was getting into gear, the Space Race and the Cold War were in full swing. And “Batman” had just exploded into popular consciousness, in fact the name “Mothman” was indeed a villainous opponent of Batman. Coincidence? Well, maybe. Sadly as I’ve studied more psychology and sociology, the more it becomes painfully evident that a lot of paranormal sightings are so steeped in contemporary cultural trappings that it is really hard to take them seriously. Sure, one can say that people had witnessed strange events and their minds had morphed them into familiar categories, but even if so this doesn’t leave us with much to go on.
The other thing that’s dismaying is how dreadfully common such sightings are. We have the Mothman. We have Springheel Jack. We have the Jersey Devil. We have the Monkey Man. We have Chupacabra. We have the Matoon Gasser. And yes, we have Bigfoot. And it goes on and on. All of these have the exact same life cycle. Someone excitedly reports some sort of strange encounter, it gets a lot of news coverage … and all sorts of other people see the same or a similar thing. Which kind of leads to two possibilities in my mind. The first is that the world is filled with a number of extremely strange and unknown creatures, that are regularly seen, but never ever leave any empirical evidence. The second is that if newspapers breathlessly report on some strange event, other sightings by the suggestible and/or the dishonest are sure to follow. The first possibility requires a lot of fudging to make realistic. The second accounts for pretty much everything and is entirely consistent with human psychology. It’s also consistent with the fact that newspapers are about selling papers, not reporting the truth.
And sadly and consistently, this tendency plays out nicely in tomorrow’s case, the once baffling Devil’s Footprints in 1855 England. However, before I fade for the day, there is one point that needs to be made. A very important point: No matter how many of these sorts of sightings turn out to be confabulation, hoax, mistaken identity or what have you, that does not mean that all sightings like this can be so explained. The map is not the territory. While people who are too credulous about things like the Mothman are annoying and lacking in basic logic, the people who dismiss all such sightings out of hand are being equally illogical. And frankly, I find them far more annoying than the true believers.
My final take on the initial Mothman sighting: Undetermined, there simply isn’t enough information to reach any sort of conclusion. On to the next case!
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. Credit and copyright, I think: Keel, John A. The Complete Guide To Mysterious Beings (New York: Doubleday, 1994). pp 245-274. Some have suggested that the Mothman sightings were actually of a Sandhill Crane, a bird not normally seen in the region but certainly possible. I dunno, even scared frightened people I think would be able to tell they were seeing a big bird, even if they were unfamiliar with that particular type of bird.)