The Legend of ‘The Mothman’: A Giant Humanoid Owl Haunting West Virginia
The new documentary “The Mothman Legacy” investigates the myth of a giant man-bird which is believed to have stalked the Point Pleasant, West Virginia, area for decades.
America loves its tales of boogeymen and little green E.T.s, of creatures lurking in the dark and UFOs hovering overhead, their inhuman appearances unsettling and their motivations murky. Writer/director Seth Breedlove has dedicated his career to such stories in documentaries about mysterious goliaths that roam the land (The Minerva Monster), stalk the woods (On the Trail of Bigfoot), and traverse the nighttime skies (Terror in the Skies). He’s an independent filmmaker obsessed with the Earthbound beasts and extraterrestrial visitors that comprise our modern folklore, and perhaps none of those figures has fascinated him as much as the Mothman, the winged fiend first made famous by John Keel’s 1975 book The Mothman Prophecies and, later, by its 2002 film adaptation starring Richard Gere.
The sequel to Breedlove’s 2017 The Mothman of Point Pleasant, The Mothman Legacy (on VOD Oct. 20) is yet another non-fiction inquiry into the mythical Mothman, a humanoid-owl figure that was initially spotted in November 1966 just outside Point Pleasant, West Virginia, near the toxic “TNT area” where an old munitions plant once sat. In that sighting, as in those that followed, the Mothman was described as a 7-foot-tall feathered man-bird with large expansive wings, skinny arms and legs, and knees that bent backwards in insectoid fashion. Most notably, it had burning red eyes, which director Breedlove fixates on in his film’s many CGI-enhanced dramatic recreations, sketches, paintings, and other spooky sequences, all of which imagine the Mothman in malevolent horror-movie fashion.
The Mothman Legacy opens with one such scene, depicting a young girl heading out to a forested stream to paint with watercolors, only to be frightened when the Mothman—here envisioned as a wispy spoke-like apparition—materializes on the opposite bank, sending her fleeing back home in fright. Corny manipulation is the name of Breedlove’s game, which is clear from the narration that accompanies this introductory passage, as Lyle Blackburn intones, “Fear is a funny thing. Where it begins and where it ends is never a certainty. Fear can form seemingly out of nowhere and then disappear just as quickly. And we might never really know why.”
True as that might be, the ensuing proceedings are woefully short on terror; instead, they’re rife with anecdotes and eyewitness accounts that amount to little more than imaginative speculation, and a hokey history lesson that suggests there’s almost nothing credible about this West Virginia legend.
Serving as a tour guide through this haunted saga is Jeff Wamsley, the author of Mothman: The Facts Behind the Legend and Mothman: Behind the Red Eyes, and the founder and curator of Point Pleasant’s Mothman Museum, a local repository of Mothman lore. Along with his daughter Ashley, Wamsley discusses the origins of the creature, and in particular, its alleged connection to the December 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge connecting Point Pleasant with Gallipolis, Ohio. That tragedy took the lives of 46 people, and given that it came shortly after the Mothman’s (supposed) maiden appearances in the region, it was soon blamed on the shadowy bird-man. Keel’s tome also implied that the two were linked, casting the Mothman as a harbinger of doom, appearing in Point Pleasant to warn the citizenry of impending tragedy. When The Mothman Prophecies debuted in theaters, that notion was central to the script, since—as its screenwriter Richard Hatem admits in Breedlove’s doc—it gave the cinematic material its “propulsion.”
Some have claimed that the Mothman was even present before the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown and 9/11, and in arguably the most convincing moment of The Mothman Legacy, Hatem confesses that he’s pretty sure he made those stories up. Of course, it’s hard not to think that everything about the Mothman is pure fiction. Not only is there no concrete proof that the Mothman is real—there isn’t even a coherent explanation for what it is, where it came from, or why it might have chosen Point Pleasant, West Virginia, as its home. Alternately defined as an alien, an interdimensional traveler visiting via a TNT-area portal, a natural inhabitant of our world who’s only visible at certain times, and the spawn of cult-like rituals—a theory that gained precedence during the Satanic panic of the 1980s—the Mothman proves an amorphous, and thus thoroughly fuzzy, specter.
Breedlove isn’t deterred by a lack of verifiable data, soldiering onward to relay a variety of highly dubious firsthand reports of Mothman encounters, as well as secondhand narratives of historical run-ins by now-deceased locals. “An absence of evidence doesn’t necessarily indicate an evidence of absence,” intones narrator Blackburn, and well, that just about sums up the logic guiding The Mothman Legacy. Like so many direct-to-VOD efforts—and likeminded TV specials concerning spooky phenomena—it’s a lot of hot air masquerading as a serious investigation, full of ominous proclamations, untrustworthy talking heads, and subpar creature-feature interludes (sometimes bolstered by animation) that are more cheesy than chilling.
That Mothman sightings ran their course and went dormant during the 1980s, only to then pick up in the wake of 2002’s The Mothman Prophecies, won’t surprise anyone, nor will the fact that those new-millennium glimpses of the beast are as vague and unconvincing as their predecessors. Worse, though, is that the Mothman simply isn’t very scary; everyone agrees that it’s either a helpful (if unsettling) portent of bad things to come, or a lost and lonely outsider. As a result, it’s no wonder that Gere’s Hollywood-style take on the Mothman lore didn’t connect with audiences, and the spook now remains largely a local attraction rather than a national legend.
If Breedlove’s documentary does tap into something genuine, it’s the way in which folklore is passed down through generations, especially in rural American locales rich with cross-cultural roots—as was the case in Point Pleasant, which has a heritage of Native American tribes and Celtic settlers. In that regard, the Mothman is rightly presented as an extension of an age-old tradition, as is this film, which continues to disseminate—and develop—a variation on a tale that’s been told for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, however, The Mothman Legacy’s inquiry into the nature of storytelling is ultimately as flimsy as its general case for the existence of its quasi-malevolent subject.