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Cryptotourism: visiting the Mothman Museum in West Virginia
by Benjamin Radford

Pop Culture

Cryptotourism: visiting the Mothman Museum in West Virginia

Press clippings, witness reports, models, and more!

Mothman is the name bestowed upon one or more mysterious flying creatures first reported in the small West Virginia town of Point Pleasant starting in November 1966, and trailing off the following year. The animal was described variously (and ambiguously) as both humanoid and avian, often with red, glowing eyes and giant wings. The first reports occurred in a heavily wooded region known locally as the “TNT Area,” which was used during World War II for munitions production.

Cryptotourism: visiting the Mothman Museum in West Virginia

by Benjamin Radford

What would become Mothman was originally called simply the “Mason Bird Monster,” “Whatever It Was,” “Thing,” “Monster Moth,” Bird-Man,” and “Red-Eyed Demon.” The creature was allegedly named not after any eyewitness descriptions (of giant moths or anything else), but was instead based on the Batman villain Killer Moth, who appeared in the 1960s television show.

A few years ago I was asked by a television producer to investigate the idea that owls or other birds could be responsible for at least some of the Mothman sightings. Recognizing that light-reflecting eyes were likely often incorrectly mistaken for light-projecting eyes, I conducted several informal field experiments to demonstrate the difference: how might each appear as seen from a distance in a dark, wooded area? For more on this, see my article “Investigating Mothman’s Red Eyeshine” in the May/June 2020 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, and episode 111 of my podcast Squaring the Strange.

Visiting the museum

The Mothman story — full of folklore, UFO-related embellishments (mostly added by John Keel in his book The Mothman Prophesies), cryptotourism, curses, and more — is both fascinating and extensive. While there are plenty of ad hoc “Bigfoot museums,” and cryptozoologist Loren Coleman founded an all-purpose International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine, there are only a handful of museums dedicated to specific monsters. So I was eager to visit the Mothman Museum, and wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Point Pleasant is the natural place for the museum; it’s a small town known worldwide for its resident cryptid (and honestly, not much else). The facility is only a block or two away from the Ohio River and also literally just across the street from the famous Mothman statue.

Along with a handful of original artifacts, like handwritten eyewitness notes, there’s a plethora of material wholly unrelated to whatever the eyewitnesses actually saw (i.e. whatever animals were sighted). For example, there’s a model of the Silver Bridge — which is only connected to Mothman because Keel (and Barker before him) speculated it was.

Cryptotourism: visiting the Mothman Museum in West Virginia

by Benjamin Radford

There’s a photo of a jerry gas can of the type that would have been in the back of a car when its occupants saw something odd in the sky. There’s a small room dedicated to the Men in Black, a legend which itself was largely a product of the imagination of Keel’s friend Gray Barker, and is more closely associated with UFOs and alien conspiracy theories.

When investigating the Mothman mystery, it’s especially crucial to go back to the original accounts, because so much of the information about it is tangential legend-making. Mothman is among the most transparently manufactured cryptozoological creatures, and even its staunchest promoters often admit that the modern monster bears little resemblance to any historical sighting. As Coleman notes, “Any of us, with hindsight, can now clearly see that some of the reports were entirely mundane bird sightings… real birds were undoubtedly part of the mix… and may in fact be overblown and embellished accounts of giant owls.”

Even the least skeptical of amateur monster enthusiasts admit that at least some, if not many or most, of the original sightings were likely to be of avian origin. Witness after witness explicitly described what they’d seen as “like a bird,” with “gray feathers,” a “big bird,” and so on.

People promoting the Mothman story are understandably eager to gloss over that, since of course it diminishes the mystery. No one’s going to erect a statue of Mothman that looks like a large owl or a sandhill crane, when instead you can have a giant, heroic, silver, manlike monster.

No, just advertising an aviary as a Mothman Museum won’t do! You need to build up the mystery and make it worth the price of admission (a very reasonable $5 per adult, $2 for kids 12 and under). Jeff Wamsley, director of the Mothman Museum and of the annual Mothman Festival in Point Pleasant, is also author of several useful books on sale there.

The museum works on several levels, for a wide variety of audiences. For investigators it provides a chance to view rare, archival material related to the original sightings. Sure, most or all of it has been transcribed and appears in print, but it’s still interesting to see contemporaneous reports, often in the eyewitness’ hand.

Mothman statue

by Benjamin Radford

There’s also a display of original press clippings, though there’s very little in the way of interpretation. Most of the exhibits are professionally presented and factual, but clearly lean toward mystery-mongering. I’d have liked to see some exhibits that explored the likelihood that many or most Mothman reports were birds. The contemporaneous newspaper clippings clearly offer that explanation, so why not offer a display featuring taxidermied Mothman doppelgangers, so visitors can see for themselves how big they can appear?

An avian encounter

For the television show, I was allowed access to a restricted area where injured owls were completing rehabilitation, in preparation for being released back into the wild. These were large, rectangular wooden pens with T-bars at either end, where the owls could fly back and forth, regaining wing strength. There were three owls in the pen with me, and several times an owl swooped down toward me. The first time it happened I was startled and alarmed; I hadn’t seen nor heard it coming, until a seemingly large black form rushed by, perhaps a foot above my head. I had no time to react, and it was gone before I realized what happened — only then because I heard the owl land behind me. The entire flight was completely silent.

The owl could have easily flown around me, but instead it chose to swoop right past my head, apparently more out of curiosity than threat. It happened four or five more times over the course of about half an hour, and it got only slightly less startling each time.

Of course I knew what was happening, and the area was lit with camera lights for the television crew. Plus, of course, there were no trees, shrubs, or anything else in the way. Owls are incredibly agile flyers, able to navigate through impossibly small crevices with ease. If I’d been walking alone at night in dark woods, it would absolutely have been a strange and scary — and possibly unexplained — experience. It was definitely unnerving.

This could have easily been simulated in a darkened room at the museum, to give visitors a sense of what the original eyewitnesses might have experienced. You wouldn’t need Disneyland-level animatronics, just a dark room with an overhead cable or wire drawing a frightening model or stuffed owl suddenly swooping down toward visitors. It would be educational, informative, and relevant to Mothman.

Back to business

Nevertheless, there’s plenty for the casual monster enthusiast. You can get your photo taken with various versions of Mothman, and check out memorabilia from The Mothman Prophecies movie. The well-stocked gift shop has merchandise to buy, including hats, t-shirts, stickers, patches, and the usual stuff. The museum is, of course, not about Mothman per se, since it’s a creature never been proven to exist. Just as interestingly, from folkloric and sociological points of view, it’s about the Mothman phenomenon.

Cryptotourism: visiting the Mothman Museum in West Virginia

by Benjamin Radford

It’s the same with the International UFO Museum & Research Center in Roswell, New Mexico. Founded in 1991, there’s been no “research” coming out of it, but it serves as a focal point for displays and information (much of it literally incredible). If cryptotourism is your thing, it’s hard to beat a trip to the Mothman Museum. And since the TNT area is a short drive away, you can go exploring on your own!

Maybe I need to start organizing a chupacabra museum…

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture. 

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

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