In November 1966, a motorist and three passengers on a late night drive outside Point Pleasant, W. Va., saw what appeared to be a six-foot-tall monstrous humanoid with fiery eyes. Other than its flaming peepers, the creature lacked discernible head and neck features. The frightened foursome hightailed it in the other direction, at which point the beast pursued them with use of silent, stationary wings.
Over the next year, similar sightings were reported in the area, with speculation that the alarming apparition was an alien, omen, demon, cryptid, or multi-dimensional spirit. Skeptic leader Joe Nickell, who specializes in examining ghost and cryptozoology claims, thinks the Mothman had shredding talons and a head whose swiveling could rival Linda Blair’s. He also thinks it comes out at night to feast and howl. That’s because he strongly suspects the creature to be an owl. Of note, during the spate of original sightings, a rancher fired at what he thought was the Mothman and it turned out to be just what Nickell has guessed, specifically a snowy owl.
As to why this solitary, nocturnal bird of prey morphed into a man-sized otherworldly terror, that speaks to characteristics of both owls and humans. “Because of the owls’ size, their shining eyes, their nocturnal habits, and noiseless flight, they’re really noted for fooling people,” Nickell explained.
Nickell never accuses Mothman eyewitnesses of making up the stories up or even intentionally exaggerating them. But he believes expectation, faulty memories, and even worse lighting create a mix that makes monstrous visions and interpretations more likely. When deciphering such reports, Nickell said he “takes people’s description, allows for some error, and matches it to an animal in the real world.”
In the same article, audobon.com quoted ornithology expert Ryan Barbour, who said owls prefer old, abandoned buildings; they regularly yelp, hoot, and hiss; and they can take on a creepy appearance. All this could be disconcerting for someone who’s already spooked.
There are other reasons to think an owl was behind the sightings. The Mothman’s shape as originally reported greatly resembled the bird, with a head and body that blended together, along with large, intense eyes. Nickell suspects this look was caused by eyeshine, which is a feature in nocturnal animals. Barred owls are an especially pronounced example of this because of the many blood vessels that encircle their eyes.
While the bird of prey explication suffices for the sounds, silent flight, and piercing eyes, what accounts for the Mothman being four times the size of the average owl? A 2010 episode of the schlockfest MonsterQuest may have provided the answer. On the program, Nickell drove subjects down a dark road lined with plywood Mothman cutouts with bike reflectors for eyes, and all reported that the object was larger than it actually was.
Nickell explained, “It’s very hard to judge the size of something seen at night at an unknown distance, and if you misjudge how far away it is, you misjudge its height by the same proportion.” Also, intense fear and disturbing memories can cause the object grow in size over time in the person’s mind.
It’s also telling the there are no diurnal Mothman encounters. Just like UFOs land in the Nevada desert as opposed to Times Square, very few retold cryptozoological run-ins take place during the day. That doesn’t make for near as compelling a campfire tale or sleepover story.
Moreover, exaggeration and revision became prevalent in subsequent retellings of Mothman confrontations as such tales became folklore. Like the Mothman, folk tales take on various forms that reflect the interest, motivation, and mindset of the narrator. That’s why the creature has been described as a demon, alien, beastly bird of prey, or hideously overgrown insect escaped from a Kafka novella. It can have horns, claws, or bulging eyes, depending on the storyteller. But while just such a statue of the beast stands in Point Pleasant, it bears little resemble to the creature reported by the original 1966 eyewitnesses.