Of Monsters and Mothmen
What cryptid legends have to teach us about history, belief, and ourselves
I developed an obsession with the Loch Ness monster when I was around eight years old. This was in no small part thanks to a website called Nessie on the Net, which boasted a twenty-four-hour webcam broadcast of the loch itself. (If you’re an internet nostalgist, click here to see what it used to look like!) The livestream is still going today, and I love optimism that propels it — the hope that you might run the footage in the background while cooking or working and just happen to catch Nessie peeking up out of a window on your computer screen.
Part of the enduring appeal of cryptid legends is the idea that there are still a few mysteries left for us in an era when we’ve solved so many. Now that we’re wielding innovation on the level of the internet, modern sonar technology, and wildly powerful cameras, what still evades our methods of proof?
God, some might say. Others, monsters.
But these days I’m less concerned with the Scully and Mulder of it all than the question of what draws us to these stories. It’s fascinating to track the different shapes the same creature might take across cultures and how these legends are passed down through the act of storytelling. In the end, monsters are just another way of trying to make sense in a world that often doesn’t make sense. Humans can’t help searching for explanations behind trauma, tragedy, and the strange things we only ever seem to catch in the corner of the eye.
My librarians are very supportive of my rabbit holes, and this was no exception. When the last copy of a particular Loch Ness book appeared to have vanished from the shelves, they dug it up for me elsewhere. I was delighted. Returning to an old obsession brings me back to the little girl I was, click-clicking away with the mouse and paging through books to learn a bit more about the world. Years later, the Loch Ness Monster feels something like an old friend.
I started working my way through the filmography of a production company called Small Town Monsters, who make regionally focused documentaries about cryptids. Interestingly, these films are as much oral histories as they are creature specials. Cryptids are inevitably shaped by the people who share their stories — what is the teller afraid of? What do they believe in?
The STM team focuses primarily on the stories of people living in small towns, putting their voices front and center. “The folktales tell us who we are,” says author Susan Sheppard, one of The Mothman Legacy’s interviewees. I like that framework a lot. Locals are given the chance to be heard, and the docs don’t have an overriding intent to convince the viewer one way or the other. I like that too. I automatically resist whenever I feel a push toward a particular viewpoint, even if it’s something I agree with. But Small Town Monsters leaves it up to you to decide what to believe.
The opening of The Mothman Legacy discusses the power of storytelling. Cryptids live through stories, which have been used over centuries to instill fear, share history, spread morals. We also use stories to process grief, which is one of the major markers of the Mothman legend. The 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge claimed the lives of forty-six people and forever marked the West Virginia town of Point Pleasant, about a year after their first Mothman sighting occurred.
Mothman is said to be a winged humanoid with glowing red eyes in the vein of the Grim Reaper or an angel of death. There’s a lot of discourse about whether Mothman is merely a warning of imminent danger or the cause of tragedy itself. Origin theories include a Native American chief’s curse dating back to the Revolutionary War and leaking chemicals from an old munitions plant causing wildlife mutation. Sightings might be explained by kites, cranes, or owls carrying prey.
But honestly? Every now and then, something happens that’s just plain weird.
I’d been intrigued by the Mothman legend ever since watching 2002 film The Mothman Prophecies during a Richard Gere phase. (Give it a look if you’re a fan of Donnie Darko or The Butterfly Effect.) Still reeling from his wife’s death, journalist John Klein throws himself into an investigation of the strange phenomena occurring in the town of Point Pleasant. With all its eerie static and spooky phone calls, The Mothman Prophecies is a showcase for my favorite strain of horror: a slow build of dread that concludes with some questions still unanswered.
In a satisfying collision of my interests, the Small Town Monsters team actually interviewed the screenwriter for the film. In The Mothman Legacy, Richard Hatem shares the thinking that guided his work:
I have a general theory of the paranormal, which is if it does exist, if there is an exterior force at work, that it might be presenting itself as almost just as a source of inchoate energy. Almost like snow on a TV. And as people experience it, whatever that energy is that they’re interacting with interacts with their mind, and as human beings we try to unscramble the signal. It’s like a Rorschach test. Here’s this thing, but what do you see? Some people will see Mothman, other people will maybe see a dead relative, other people will see aliens. It’s just sort of your mind flipping through things, trying to attach to something.
The film was based on a nonfiction book of the same name written by John Keel, a journalist whose life became tangled up with the people of Point Pleasant when he began researching the Mothman legend. Says Hatem:
What was happening in Point Pleasant felt extremely personal. And what was interesting to me was the sort of interactive nature of his experience with the phenomenon. The more he studied it and the more he tried to really nail it down and be totally objective, the more the phenomenon seemed to want to bring him onstage, as it were, and make his experience less objective and more subjective. And that’s exactly what happened.
It’s really that simple: If you give your attention to something, if you really start to care about it, you’ll be changed by it. The film adaptation of The Mothman Prophecies reflects the complexity of this connection. Gere’s character goes to Point Pleasant a broken man awash in grief over the loss of his wife. His time in the town doesn’t magically heal him, but his investigation gives him purpose and the people he meets along the way show him a path forward.
Over the years, Mothman’s legacy has cultivated a robust tourist economy in the town of Point Pleasant; the annual Mothman Festival saw 15,000 attendees just this year. Mothman has spawned a GigaPet, a subreddit, and more than a few games, films, and books (including another great library find: Robert Lynn Wood’s beautiful poetry collection, Mothman Apologia, which won the 2021 Yale Younger Poets Prize). It’s kind of amazing to think that some unexplained sightings back in the sixties created a whole community.
In The Enigma of Loch Ness, Henry H. Bauer writes, “This book is predicated on the belief that useful knowledge will come from an examination of the controversy, whether or not a Loch Ness monster exists.” The way I see it, these conversations become less about whether a monster’s existence can be conclusively proven and everything to do with what you take away from the details. Hatem’s right — it’s a Rorschach. We all work with the same facts, but how we process them is so innately personal. What you have experienced affects your interpretation of what you see.
I’ve found that the art I connect with most is not prescriptive. Rather than being told what to believe, I’m offered a new lens through which to see the world. Cryptid stories in particular can offer new perspectives on uncertainty, loss, and grief. They’re often inextricable from the social, political, and economic history of a region. Sharing these legends can encourage critical thinking and — above all — foster curiosity. We start to look closer at the shadows in the woods, offer another glance to the water’s depths. And every now and then, our understanding of the world fundamentally shifts.
What did we see? What might explain it? What would happen if, for just a moment, we let ourselves believe?
Very excited for subscriberas she embarks on a new chapter in her horror journey following last month’s issue (in the afternoons with the lights on, of course!). I’ve also since come across this WikiHow page that offers tips for watching horror if you’re a scaredy cat (and, as always, provides amazing illustrations).
Happy one year of Microfascination, and a big ol’ thank you to every single one of you who’s come along for the ride. I’ll see y’all again in December for the final(!) issue of 2023!