By Joseph Laycock
When my partner and I crossed the border into West Virginia, the first thing I noticed were the billboards and radio attack ads. Both parties, it seemed, supported coal and hated the EPA. An ad for Senator Joe Manchin (D) boasted that he had previously sued the EPA and would do so again if re-elected. From the highway we could spot several sites of mountain-top removal, which marred the otherwise beautiful scenery.
This was not my first visit to Point Pleasant, but much had changed since I attended the fourth annual Mothman Festival in 2005. At that time the festival was smaller but there was great excitement over the new source of tourism. This year, I saw many improvements that had been made possible by the Mothman industry, including a series of murals along the town’s floodwall depicting the history of the community in colonial times.
But the great recession had also taken its toll. On Main Street more than half of the businesses were shuttered. Only two doors down from the mighty statue of Mothman was the unemployment office. At its peak, Point Pleasant had been home to 7000 people. Now there were only 4000. I learned that the venue for this year’s Mothman forum––a beautiful old theater––was now abandoned. Days before the festival it had been necessary to pump out a foot of water that had collected under the stage.
We checked into the Lowe Hotel––a historic hotel built in 1901 when river traffic brought more visitors to Point Pleasant. It is a sprawling structure with high ceilings, antique furniture, and long Kubric-esque hallways. Not surprisingly, it is believed to be haunted. The Finley family purchased the hotel in 1990. The Finleys explained that rumors of a haunted hotel were once bad for business. But television shows about the paranormal have become so popular that ghosts now bring needed tourists. (The Finley family also expressed their objection to the local tourism tax that affected their customers). During a tour of the hotel, our guide expressed that she liked the visitors who came to the Mothman festival adding, “It’s not that they believe or don’t believe anything, but . . . they’re open minded people, which we like.” Mothman enthusiasts were, in a sense, part of a moral community.
Friday was spent exploring the town, the Mothman museum, and watching some of the Ms. Mothman Pageant. At night, we grabbed a beer at the Iron Gate restaurant where we chatted up a local as well as a food vendor who had set up his stand for the festival. The local explained that he lived in Point Pleasant and had never seen Mothman.
“Do you know a Canadian goose has a wingspan of four feet?, he asked. “Four feet just to keep a twenty-pound bird in the air. Do you have any idea what kind of a wingspan you would need to lift a man weighing 185 pounds?” Unbeknownst to the local, this same objection was raised by John Keel in The Mothman Prophecies. Keel concluded that Mothman could not be a flesh-and-blood creature, but a kind of emanation created by intelligences beyond our understanding.
The food vendor responded, “I don’t know about that, but my dad and my grandfather were stuck in traffic the day that bridge fell. If they’d left a little earlier, they’d have died. Bridges do not just fall for no reason.”
The local responded, “You want a real monster? Give me the Flatwoods monster over in Braxton County.”
This caused the bartender to interject, “The Flatwoods monster is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of!”
Flatwoods is about two-hours from Point Pleasant. In 1952, there were sightings of a ten-foot tall creature resembling a reptilian humanoid. Flatwoods has its own annual festival to celebrate its local monster.
The local continued his belligerence, “The Flatwoods Monster could kick Mothman’s ass!”
There was an uncomfortable silence. Sensing that he had made a faux pas, he added, “Anyway, fuck Richard Gere.”
This disarmed the situation. Everyone raised their glasses and declared, “Fuck Richard Gere!”
On Saturday we attended a lecture on the monsters of West Virginia by Rosemary Ellen Guiley. Guiley is a celebrity in the world of paranormal research. The talk helped to promote her new book Monsters of West Virginia. Mothman and the Flatwoods Monster are not the only creatures known to haunt the area. There have also been sightings of dogmen, unknown great cats, and even enormous flying creatures resembling manta rays. There is something called Sheepsquatch, a horned wooly beast known to attack witnesses.
Guiley emphasized that we should not be quick to dismiss such stories or to mock witnesses. She then proposed a theory of why so many fantastic beings are reported in West Virginia: They are visiting our world from other dimensions. After being sighted, they retreat to their native world leaving no evidence of their visitation. Guiley also speculated that sightings might be linked to geographic features such as moving water, subterranean caverns, and deposits of certain minerals such as quartz crystal or coal. These features may weaken the barriers between worlds allowing for visitors from alien realms. West Virginia, she explained, is one big portal!
I found this idea rather disturbing. In theory, there was nothing preventing a dimensional rift from forming in my hotel bathroom, allowing an alien Sheepquatch to attack me in the shower. If one assumes that the witnesses are not lying or actually seeing mundane wildlife, then Guiley’s theory is not a bad one. It is similar to that of Keel, who believed creatures like Mothman and Bigfoot emanated from something called “the superspectrum” and took physical forms that reflected the fears and desires of human beings.
That night we took a bus tour of the town. Josh King of the Mothman Museum showed us the hospital where witnesses were treated for shock. No drugs or alcohol were found in their system. We drove out to the McClintic Wildlife Preserve, where Mothman was frequently sighted. The area is locally known as “the TNT area.” During World War II, this was the site of the West Virginia Ordinance Works, which employed 3500 people to create enormous quantities of explosives. The explosives were stored in camouflaged bunkers called igloos. After the war, the plant was shut down and the area was declared a wildlife preserve. Some of the igloos are so overgrown that their locations are not generally known. In 2010, an igloo filled with unstable gunpowder exploded, causing the ATF to shut down the area.
King advised us not to drink the water. Chemicals from buried munitions have contaminated the area. In 1983, the TNT area was declared a Superfund site. But staying out of the TNT area is not enough to protect from pollution. The area has an abnormally high rate of cancer, largely due to coal plants located along the Ohio River. At night, there are red lights on top of the smoke stacks that resemble Mothman’s glowing eyes.
A few miles north of Point Pleasant on the other side of the river is the town of Cheshire, Ohio, which lies in the shadow of the AEP Power Plant. Pollution from the plant caused clouds of sulfuric chemicals to rain down on the populace, causing burns to the skin and lips. When the plant was ordered to use less sulfurous coal and tighten its standards, they instead opted to remove the populace by buying out the entire town for $20 million. King explained that there were still a few holdouts who refused to sell and opted to stay in their abandoned, chemical-blighted town. Someone on the tour bus asked, “Who is cleaning up the TNT area? Is it the state or the Feds?” King answered, “The state helps, but mostly it’s the EPA.” The same EPA, I thought, that state politicians have vilified at every turn.
Driving away from Point Pleasant, I continued to think about Mothman and meaning. Mothman is more than just a mascot for Point Pleasant. It is a reflection of the people and their history. Scott Poole has suggested that monsters often point to darker aspects of our history. The Mothman mythos connects many elements of the community’s past that are generally not discussed with tourists: The murder of chief Cornstalk, the collapse of the Silver Bridge, and the pollution lurking just underneath the surface of the local wildlife preserve. Mothman lore also functions as a kind of art form that, as Clifford Geertz notes, can serve to capture the themes of everyday life and more powerfully articulate their meaning. Mothman even serves as a metaphor for the coal and power industries that dominate West Virginia. Like the smoke stacks and devastated mountaintops, Mothman is a portent of death and future disaster. But it is also a source of livelihood and closely connected to the identity of the people.
This function is what is at stake when festival organizers refute claims that witnesses were on drugs or that Mothman was actually a large owl or sandhill crane. To dismiss Mothman is to deride the everyday experience of a community. In 2010, the Syfy channel produced a film entitled “Mothman” in which Mothman murders people in Point Pleasant. King explained that the festival organizers were contacted by the Syfy channel days before the festival began. They wanted to do a screening of their film and distribute flashy promotional materials. The Mothman Festival turned them down. While frightening, the Mothman was never accused of hurting anyone and a B-grade horror movie dishonored the legend. More importantly, by exploiting Mothman, the Syfy channel was also attempting to exploit the community. As a Mothman enthusiast I felt a sense of vicarious pride that the organizers said “no” to the Syfy channel.
But Mothman is more than just an expression of local history and folkways. For paranormal investigators like Guiley and Keel, Mothman is potentially the key to a new paradigm of how our universe works. It is this speculation that has drawn the attention of religion scholars such as Darryl Caterine and Jeffrey Kripal. The people of Point Pleasant tell stories about their history, but paranormal researchers tell stories about those stories. Somewhere in this process the Mothman mythos becomes sacralized. Kripal defines the paranormal as, “the sacred in transit from the religious and scientific registers into a parascientific or ‘science mysticism’ register.” Kripal’s theory of the sacred here is a phenomenological one in the tradition of Otto and Eliade, in which the chief criterion of the sacred is its otherness. While this approach to religious studies has fallen out of vogue, it applies neatly to Mothman theories. The more thought that is put into what Mothman and his friends actually are, the more frightening and awesome they become. Wherever these entities come from, they are “the wholly other,” totally alien to our own space and time. Of course, anything can become a manifestation of the other and the sacred, not just monsters. Eliade wrote that, “The cosmos in its entirely can become a heirophany.” This would seem to apply to Guiley’s suggestion that West Virginia is one big portal.
In fact, paranormal research and the phenomenology of religion are intellectual cousins. Eliade and Keel each sought a unified and “scientific” explanation of humanity’s encounter with the otherworldly. “The sacred” and “the superspectrum” are equally vague terms used to describe an alternate reality that occasionally invades our own. It is possible that when religion scholars study the paranormal, we are actually fascinated by our own quest for meaning reflected in the work of UFO buffs and monster hunters. With this in mind, religion scholars must remember that they are not passive observers when they visit Point Pleasant. The creature has become not only a reflection of the community that discovered it, but the various theorists and seekers who are attracted to it. Mothman has stepped through the portal of West Virginia to haunt the whole world.