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The true origin of the Mothman legend
Image Comics

Comic Books

The true origin of the Mothman legend

Plus Indrid Cold!

Issue #15 of James Tynion IV’s The Department of Truth finally tells the tale of DoT director Lee Harvey Oswald and teenage ufologist Doc Hynes’ ill-fated attempt to materialize a tulpa, or Wild Fiction, in the small West Virginia town of Point Pleasant during the winter of 1966. For readers well-versed in the world of Forteana, this long-alluded to-story was obviously referencing one of the most celebrated subjects in the history of the paranormal: Mothman.

Of course, as Hynes would note, “It didn’t actually start with the Mothman … It started with these strange sightings of giant birds. But it evolved quickly.”

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On Nov. 16, 1966, the Point Pleasant Register reported that two teenage couples had been cruising around the McClintic Wildlife Management Area (popularly known as the “TNT Area”) close to midnight the previous evening, when they were frightened by a 7-foot-tall bird with dark plumage and red eyes. The teens sped away, but alleged that the bird pursued them to the edge of town, keeping pace with their car, even as it approached 100 mph.

The story caught the attention of the regional press and the bird was eventually dubbed Mothman, in reference to the popular Adam West Batman TV series. This nomenclature would have a profound impact on the public perception of the creature transforming it into an insectoid monster, as reflected in David Romero’s evocative art for this issue.

Mothman, Deptartment of Truth

Image Comics

Hynes briefly mentions the involvement of “notable ufologists … Gray Barker and John Keel” in the Mothman incident. There is little exaggeration in stating that Barker and Keel are two of the most important figures in the history of the paranormal, based solely on the sheer number of modern myths they helped create.

It was West Virginia native Barker’s They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers (1956) where the concept of the Men In Black first appeared – though it was Keel who came up with the name. Due to the monetary success of They Knew Too Much, Barker began investigating, writing, and publishing books about UFOs full-time, starting his own publishing imprint, Saucerian Books, which specialized in sensational UFO literature involving contactees.

After Barker’s death in 1984, several former ufologists – most notably James Moseley and John C. Sherwood – came forward claiming that Barker was a serial hoaxster who didn’t even believe in UFOs. In the 1995 documentary Whispers from Space, Barker’s sister claimed that her brother only got involved in ufology because of the money, allegations that were bolstered by independent investigation from New York University librarian Gabriel Mckee.

New York City-based Keel was likewise a prolific investigator and writer on UFOs and other paranormal topics, like cryptids. Keel had a deep interest in the occult and his first book, Jadoo (1957), dealt with oriental mysticism. He’d later reject the label of ufologist and refer to himself as a demonologist, having come to believe that UFOs were actually sinister supernatural entities he called “ultraterrestrials.”

Keel and Barker both traveled to Point Pleasant to investigate Mothman, and initially discussed co-authoring a book on the case. Barker wrote the initial draft in which he “deliberately stuck in fictional chapters,” describing events which never happened, as detailed in a letter to Sherwood. Keel objected to this approach and withdrew his involvement.

Barker went on without him and published The Silver Bridge (1970), in which he alleged that the December 15, 1967, collapse of the area Silver Bridge which killed 46 people was somehow connected to the Mothman sightings. In a letter to one of the original witnesses, Linda Scarberry, Keel referred to Barker’s book as being “filled with a lot of crap.”

Also in 1970, Keel published Strange Creatures from Time and Space, which contained many of the elements that would eventually make it into the sundry mish-mash of paranormal potpourri that is his The Mothman Prophecies (1975). In Strange Creatures, Keel documented 26 sightings of Mothman, nearly all of which occurred during November and December of 1966. Part of the modern Mothman myth is that the Point Pleasant “flap” occurred over a 13-month period leading up to the Silver Bridge disaster, but Keel’s own data shows it lasting for only two months at the end of ’66.

Keel initially concluded that the Mothman was likely the result of people seeing unusually large birds in the area and that “it is completely erroneous to blame the collapse of the rickety old Silver Bridge on flying saucers or ‘Men in Black.’” Unfortunately, by the time Keel published The Mothman Prophecies, his views had changed. The Mothman was now one of his sinister ultraterrestrials, as well as a portent of the impending doom of the bridge collapse.

Furthermore, despite Keel’s objections to Barker’s use of poetic license, Keel’s own distinction “between fact and fiction was a very fine one,” notes folklorist David Clarke in How UFOs Conquered the World (2015). This is best demonstrated by the case of Indrid Cold, a UFO entity who plays a supporting role in The Mothman Prophecies, and who Tynion introduces here as a Wild Fiction.

Traveling salesman-turned-contactee Woodrow “Woody” Derenberger first claimed to have encountered Indrid Cold on Interstate 7 between Marietta, Ohio, and Mineral Wells, West Virginia, on November 2, 1966. Keel and Barker both interviewed Derenberger, and Keel first wrote about Indrid Cold in Strange Creatures, where he linked him to the story of a similar entity seen by two boys on the New Jersey Turnpike the month before.

The true origin of the Mothman legend

Image Comics

Keel claimed that what connected these stories was that both the boys and Derenberger reported that the entities possessed huge Joker-like grins, but otherwise looked human – a description which artist Romero perpetuates in this issue. However, investigator Brian Dunning writes that there’s no corroborating evidence for Keel’s New Jersey story, and that Derenberger never claimed that Indrid Cold bore such an unusual smile, a fact substantiated by his daughter, who told documentarian Seth Breedlove that Cold – whoever he was – looked like a normal man.

While Tynion imagines Mothman and Indrid Cold as psychic creations of the Department of Truth, the reality is that both seem to have been largely the product of Barker and Keel’s own fevered imaginations.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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