By Ryan Clark
POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. – I was certain that if we made it out alive, my wife would divorce me.
Come on, I said to her weeks before. It’ll be fun. It’s a festival.
I pictured food and music and people dressed in weird costumes. And, for the most part, I was right. All of those things were there.
I did not, however, picture my wife and I crammed into the back of a rickety tour van, unsure of whether the axels would stay connected to the wheels, being driven into the wilderness of West Virginia at sunset.
“Welcome to the Mothman festival,” I told her. I smiled. She did not.
“I’m really wondering if this was a good idea,” she responded.
A stranger – one of the dozen or so crammed into the van with us – caught our eye. He had his wife and two children with him, and he did not look completely confident we would reach our destination.
Full disclosure: I knew a little bit about what we getting into. After all, there was a waiver – and I signed it.
“(I) acknowledge, agree and represent that I am qualified, in good health and in proper physical condition to participate in such activity,” the form read. “I further agree and warrant that if at any time I believe conditions to be unsafe, I will immediately discontinue further participation in the activity.”
It later went on to say that if I was hurt in any way I could not sue the organizers of the tour – or, I’m guessing – the driver of our tour van. My wife, Manda, also signed the form, but she only did so at the moment just before we got in.
I don’t think she read it.
So there we were, in the back of the van, holding on to the armrests and wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into.
Leading the tour, perched in the passenger seat of the van, was our official guide, who could not have looked more like Garth from “Wayne’s World” if he tried. Dressed in a black Mothman T-shirt, ratty jeans and sneakers, he looked like he should be saying “Schwiing!”
As we bumped along the dirt road, the tour took us north, out into the wilderness of West Virginia’s old TNT government site – an area complete with abandoned weapons silos.
Sounds safe, right?
But that is not what our tour guide was concerned with. (After all, we’d signed the waiver). Instead, he asked us the question of the hour: What did we think the Mothman was?
“Was it a bird?” he asked. “Was it a monster? An alien? Or, was it something else, something like an interdimensional being?”
My wife and I looked at each other and shrugged. This was not our first rodeo. We’d watched enough In Search Of … and Unsolved Mysteries shows to recognize some bullshit when we heard it. I personally had become a pseudo-expert on these topics. I grew up about eight feet away from Louisville, Ky.’s famed Waverly Hills Sanatorium. I’d driven out to Roswell, New Mexico, for the annual International UFO Festival. I’d served in a local ghosthunting group and had just recently completed an investigation at Bobby Mackey’s honkytonk bar, supposedly the “Gateway to Hell,” located in northern Kentucky.
Still – I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious. What was the Mothman, anyway?
In a nutshell: Back in 1966, there was some weird stuff going on in Point Pleasant, W.Va. Sightings of UFOs, Men in Black and a 10-foot-tall red-eyed winged creature that became known as the Mothman preoccupied the residents of this Appalachian town for more than a year. It all, apparently, led up to a tragedy just before Christmas that made international headlines – the collapse of the Silver Bridge, which resulted in 46 deaths.
Sightings of these entities seemed to dwindle after the tragedy, a fact that was reported in a 1975 bestselling book by paranormal author John Keel. (The Mothman Prophecies – it was made into a movie in 2002).
After the movie premiered, apparently everyone thought enough time had passed from the tragedy, and the town of Point Pleasant decided to celebrate the mysterious winged creature with a festival, complete with (yes, of course) food, music and strangely dressed people. Held on the third Saturday in September, you can find more info on the festival here – http://mothmanfestival.com/about/ .
Point Pleasant is only about three hours from where I live in northern Kentucky. When I heard an advertisement about it on a favorite paranormal podcast, I knew I had to go. And when I asked my wife, she decided (after a bit of convincing) that she’d go along for the ride, too.
If only she knew what she was getting herself into.
So … back to the Mothman. I had never read Keel’s book, but I had seen the movie and conducted some research of my own. I am of the mindset that I would love to believe in the paranormal, and there are certain things I think are probably true. Too many people have had too many experiences for me to rule out things like UFO sightings and ghost activity as being purely fiction, or figments of imagination.
Cryptozoology, on the other hand, is another matter for me. I need some evidence. I need to see these things for myself. If there is a giant, red-eyed bird out there terrorizing people, there is a part of me that wants to see it … or at least see a picture of it.
For me, I always thought the best explanation for Mothman would be a barn owl, or other owls with similar features and wingspans. It’s not a revolutionary idea – journalist and investigator Joe Nickell wrote something about this in 2002 for the Skeptical Inquirer (http://www.csicop.org/sb/show/mothman_revisitedinvestigating_on_site/) – and it made the most sense of all I’d read.
“I, personally, think the Mothman is an interdimensional being,” our tour guide Garth told us. “It’s why it sometimes disappears right in front of witnesses.”
Or maybe those witnesses were all drunk on moonshine, I thought. And maybe they mistook some huge bird (which, by the way, can look pretty creepy at night) for an interdimensional monster.
THUMP! The tour van hit another bump on the wilderness trail and we jostled about inside like so many jumping beans.
“Well,” I told my wife, “at least the rest of the festival was fun.”
And she agreed. No matter your belief in what the Mothman was, the festival is a kick-ass time.
The Rat People, the T-Shirt People, and more
Food – yes there was food. And music – there was that, too, and we’ll get to it later. But let’s talk first about the people dressed strangely. It turns out we knew exactly what to expect – or at least I did.
After arriving in town in the pre-lunchtime hours (officials will tell you the festival normally runs from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.) I had conducted just the most minimal amount of research on where to go or what to do. I’m much more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of traveler, and sometimes it drives my wife crazy. But more often than not, things tend to work out, and this trip falls into that category.
When you enter town on festival day, you’ll notice you can park anywhere – for free. It’s wonderful. Even when the local banks close for the weekend, you can still utilize their parking. This is exactly what we did and it wasn’t an issue the rest of the day.
We immediately found our way to Main Street, which is where everything is centered. There are dozens of vendors selling books, hats, T-shirts, jewelry, posters, New Age gear, costumes, movies, artwork, toys and more for all your Mothman needs.
And yes, there were some interesting folks out there. Some of the patrons looked just like my wife and me – normal. Others? Well, they looked … abnormal.
Here’s a rundown of the people we saw:
– “That person is wearing a rat,” my wife said. And when I turned to look, I noticed she was correct. Only after a few minutes did I see that the large man with the large tattoos, beard, and white rat on his shoulder was apparently there with his wife – who was dressed similarly, and also had a black rat perched on her shoulder.
To be fair, the rats were very well-behaved and looked very clean. But I didn’t really get to see them up close.
– The Man in Black. The dude was dressed head-to-toe like Tommy Lee Jones and just walked around town, never talking to anyone. I’d like to say that I’m old enough and that this wasn’t creepy, but I’d be lying. It was creepy.
– The Ghostbusters. Several folks who seemed to be with a local paranormal group dressed up as Ghostbusters, and even brought out a big Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, which the kids (and me) loved. Super cool.
– Folks dressed in several different, but fun, costumes, ready to pose for pictures: Yes, there was a Mothman, as well as a Bigfoot and several other creepy ghouls.
– The T-shirt people. This was the event to break out your paranormal tees, and these folks sure did it. We saw T-shirts from every paranormal group, from every state imaginable. My wife saw one dude sporting a shirt from Salem, Mass., and she decided right then that our next trip should be to tour the site of the witch trials. I agreed.
There were so many Mothman shirts around I could not keep count. But some of the best didn’t have anything to do with the supernatural. I liked this one: A man wore it, and it had two ghosts strategically placed on the front. At the top it said, “Nice boos.”
I also had to appreciate the very, very overweight gal who sported this simple phrase, written across the front of her shirt: “I am very hard to kidnap.” I just had to laugh.
The one thing everyone has to do while in Point Pleasant is take a photo with the giant Mothman statue in the middle of the town square.
It’s big. It’s silver. It’s got red eyes and it’s definitely scary. Below it, a plaque describes why the beast is popular, and people line up to take pictures with it.
In all honesty, I probably could have left right then and been happy.
Sex in the Afterlife?
After browsing the vendors we decided to find some lunch before taking in a presentation at the downtown theatre. Then we were scheduled for a late afternoon tour of the TNT site (tip: make these reservations on the website in advance. And of course, sign the waiver).
We walked the length of Main Street, passing up some of the mainstays for other festival-goers, like the Harris Steak House, a diner that was featured in the Mothman movie. I went in to take some pictures, but Manda nixed us actually eating there. She has some standards about where we eat and diners are not high on the list. We trudged on.
Near the end of the street fair we found the Iron Gate Grille, a perfect place to eat – unless you want to get your food on the same day you order it.
Seriously, the place was so busy, I thought we were going to have to wait a long time for a table. That was not the case. The place inside is really cool, decorated like an old hotel, with memorabilia everywhere and old pictures on the walls. There is also outside seating, which I guess is where the overflow went.
We were lucky to sit down at a two-person table. I noticed there were several large televisions, with football on each, and a large bar. Of course, you could purchase Mothman T-shirts, too.
When we sat down I wasn’t terribly hungry, but the minutes started ticking by. I got up to use the bathroom and discovered that the urinal must have been created for a Mothman – it was at least two feet too high for me.
That was really awkward.
So … after at least an hour of waiting, we finally got our lunch. And I have to say, after the long, long wait – it was really great. I got the Philly steak sandwich, and it was really good. I mean, really good.
But I digress. After we ate, Manda and I then went to sit in on one of the more interesting speakers I’d ever heard on one of my favorite paranormal podcasts – Rosemary Ellen Guiley, author of more than 49 books on the paranormal, the occult and spirituality.
We walked a few blocks down to the local theater, where they post all the schedules for the day. The lectures are free, and the names are big. Put it this way: If you listen to Jim Harold, you’ll know some of these folks.
We walked in, where a few hundred people were sitting in the un-airconditioned theater already listening to Rosemary. You could tell she was a professional; she was comfortable and calm with the microphone, telling stories and interacting with the crowd.
Here’s what we learned from the presentation, which dealt with the Civil War and the afterlife:
- We may not be able to have sex in the afterlife, but we will be able to have sensations similar to sex. My reaction: “Yippee!”
- No matter how soft Rosemary talks, or how quiet the theater is, there will always be someone whose phone rings – loudly. And there will always be someone who answers it. And that person will not leave to talk, but will talk there – in the theater. While everyone is trying to listen. If I were Rosemary, I would have zapped that person with a psychic ray.
- Manda and I decided we had to be good, because if we weren’t, Rosemary would read our minds and know it.
- Toward the end of the presentation we listened to Battle Hymn of the Republic, which was a nice tribute to the fallen soldiers.
- Then, a chilling thought occurred to me: What if, in that moment, we were all dead? What if the musical tribute was really a tribute to all of the people in the crowd? Somehow, across the looking glass, all those Civil War soldiers were still alive – and they were looking at us?
Okay, I’m done. Too creepy.
Swamp Jeuce and Sarsaparilla
Heading back down the street, we took in the sights.
We came up to the Mothman Museum, and went in. (Good tip: If you purchase tickets for the TNT tours, you get in to the museum for free, which I think cost about $4 apiece. This is what we did). I’ve been to several of these kinds of museums across the country, and some are better than others.
This one was fantastic. It was fascinating to see the story of the Mothman and the Silver Bridge come alive in books, pictures, letters, and other pop culture. It was because of us walking through the museum that I bought Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies (which, incidentally, I read, and was surprised to find really didn’t concern the Mothman so much as it did UFOs, Men in Black and other spooky stuff. Good read, but not what I expected).
We exited, took a right, and headed down to the amphitheater down by the river. There, food trucks filled the air with the sweet smells of Elephant Ears and smoked sausage. And that’s where the bands were playing.
I grabbed a genuine Sarsaparilla from a beverage stand, Manda got a root beer float, and we walked down to take in the backroads sounds of Swamp Jeuce – three dudes who looked rough, but played well.
“Any requests?” the lead singer asked the crowd, which was maybe 30 people, spread out over an area the size of a football field.
The lead singer sighed, audibly.
“Anybody else?” he asked.
Other than me laughing, everyone was quiet.
With the sun waning, we walked back across the street and got ready for our van tour.
We handed over our signed waivers and got in.
“Get ready everyone!” Garth shouted from up front.
Party on, I thought.
Out of this World
Here’s what we learned from our van tour:
- Yes, the tour guides will make you get out of the van, walk into the one of the abandoned missile silos, and look around. The silos are beyond creepy and great for photos. At one point, as you get out of the van, you will find yourself wondering: Why am I getting out of the van? Yet everyone does so, with no questions, like we’re lambs going to slaughter. Instead, we walk through a field to one of the silos, which is now overgrown with brush and trees. Inside, it is completely dark, and some creative teens have taken the liberty to graffiti the walls with scary scenes.
It was all pretty spooky, and very much worthy of picture-taking.
- Yes, the tour guides will educate you on what supposedly happened back in 1966, but they will also tell you what they think, what they believe, and they will probably describe how it is still so comforting to live in their mother’s basements after all these years.
- That last part was mean. I take it back.
- Your travelling out into the wilderness will start to convince you of how someone could’ve seen something strange out there. In fact, you tell yourself, if anyone was ever going to see anything strange, it would probably be here, in out-of-the-way West Virginia.
- You will, at one point, look out and see a random old man peering inside the van at you. Do not worry. This is not a Scooby-Doo episode. He’s just out looking around like everyone else (some folks choose to go out on their own, without the tour). Still, some of the folks can make you a bit uneasy. What if, by chance, they’re really interdimensional beings?
- At a church near the edge of town, you will see a statue of Jesus that looks exactly – and I mean exactly – like the Mothman statue downtown. Turns out, the same sculptor made both.
Now I wish I’d taken a selfie in front of the Jesus statue, too.
So we bumped around inside that van for an hour or so, the sun setting on the West Virginia horizon.
“What do you think?” Garth asked us. “What do you think the Mothman is?”
I knew by that point it didn’t really matter. Manda and I had had a great time. In all honesty, the festival was a blast. Everything we thought we’d see was – well, it was exactly that way. And we loved it.
The people were genuine and welcoming, if not a bit eccentric – but who isn’t? And the opportunity to walk around a place where some seriously strange stuff happened a long time ago was thrilling.
But Garth’s question kept echoing through my mind. I thought about it then, when we were in the van. I thought about it when we came back into town, when we shopped a while at the vendors, and when we got into the car and made the three-hour trek back home.
I thought about it when I read Keel’s book, about how it was true, a lot of people reported seeing a winged creature in 1966. But what fascinated me more were the tales that residents – and Keel himself – told of the mysterious men who descended upon the town in black suits and Cadillacs. They claimed to be Air Force officials – even though they were not. Even the Air Force would have to send out an inner-office memo addressing the figures who were pretending to be with their military branch.
That was definitely odd. What did these people want? Why were they trying to convince witnesses not to talk? Were they with another government agency? Were they human at all?
This seemed even more fascinating than the Mothman sightings. I wonder: Suppose the Mothman sightings were nothing more than what Joe Nickell said: A case of mistaken identity (as in, the people were seeing a huge, red-eyed owl) followed by a wave of mass hysteria. It’s possible.
But what were those Men in Black doing? Was something hidden in that TNT site, or maybe something in the silos, that the government did not want anyone to know about? A weapon? A serious case of toxic waste? Maybe they sent some Men in Black to scare folks away from the site, away from something else really dangerous. Maybe …
I am not convinced that a Mothman exists. The festival did not change my mind on that. But there are a couple of things I know for certain:
- The Mothman festival is a blast, and should be attended. It’s a great mix of spooky and fun.
- Without a doubt, something very weird occurred in that town almost 50 years ago.
It’s something that may have been, quite possibly, out of this world.
Ryan Clark is an author, lecturer, and marketing writer based in northern Kentucky, and he is thankful to still be married to his wife, Manda. Together they have one daughter, Carrington, and two cats. You can follow him and his stories at ForRyanOutLoud.com.