The Wild, Wonderful, and Weird of West Virginia: Mothman and the Flatwoods Monster

Art by Liz Pavlovic

Art by Liz Pavlovic

Folklore is a big part of West Virginian and Appalachian culture, and cryptids play a significant role in this folklore. West Virginia alone has over a dozen cryptids allegedly spotted over the past several hundred years. In my previous article, I talked about the Ogua, the Vegetable Man (A.K.A. Veggieman), and the Grafton Monster, which are some lesser-known west Virginia cryptids. You can read about these fascinating cryptids here

This article will focus on West Virginia’s more infamous cryptids, Mothman and the Flatwoods Monster, who have both helped bring tourism to their respective small towns here in West Virginia.  

Mothman is West Virginia’s most popular cryptid and has gained notoriety in pop culture, with several books, articles, movies, and short films made about him. The cryptid even has cameos in popular video games and other media. Mothman is so famous that he has helped revive the economy of Point Pleasant with the amount of tourism he brings to the town.  

The first published report of Mothman was on November 16, 1966, in the Point Pleasant Register, with the headline “Couples See Man-Sized Bird…Creature… Something.” According to the article, the being was first sighted on November 12, 1966, when two young couples, Roger and Linda Scarberry and Steve and Mary Mallette, were out for a drive late at night. They saw the large grey creature with glowing eyes when the car’s headlights illuminated it. The couples were terrified and fled the scene when they were reportedly chased by it at speeds of “about 100 miles an hour.” The couples described the creature as being a flying man that is 10 feet tall, with large wings and eyes that glow red. The couples reported the incident it to the police, where the newspaper then picked the story up.   

There have been reports that the first actual sighting of Mothman was not in Point Pleasant, but instead in Elk River near Clendenin, West Virginia, over fifty miles away. On November 12, 1966, two gravediggers saw a black figure fly over their heads while digging a grave in a cemetery. They are credited with being the first people to see the infamous Mothman. 

Other newspaper articles at the time reported that this creature was commonly spotted in the TNT storing area near Point Pleasant, with some theorizing that maybe people were seeing large birds, like cranes or owls. Some also hypothesized that the being was an animal with genetic mutations from the chemicals associated with storing TNT. Nevertheless, according to legend, locals reported that mysterious men in black suits began visiting the town shortly after the sighting reports.  

The most infamous reporting of Mothman was on December 15th, 1967, the day that the Silver Bridge collapsed into the Ohio River. Locals said they saw Mothman on top of–or flying over–the Silver Bridge. Around 5 pm that day, witnesses say they heard a loud gunshot-like sound, then in less than 20 seconds, the entire 1460-foot suspension bridge folded like a deck of cards, taking 32 vehicles and 46 victims with it. This incident was one of the deadliest bridge disasters in modern history, and two bodies were never recovered.  

In 1975 John A. Keel wrote a book titled “The Mothman Prophecies,” adapted into a movie in 2002. This book links Mothman to the bridge collapse, which has led to conspiracy theories and alleged sightings of Mothman at other disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, and even the 9/11 terrorist attack. Some believe that Mothman is a sign of disaster, while others believe he is to blame for these catastrophes.

Regardless of his alleged involvement in these disasters, Mothman has done a lot of good for the local economy. Mothman brings lots of tourism to Point Pleasant, as a museum, several stores, and food items are themed after Mothman. Point Pleasant also hosts an annual Mothman festival, started in 2002, that brings upwards of 10,000 visitors to the city. People have traveled from different states and even countries to glimpse this famous cryptid. People love this cryptid so much that a statue was erected in his honor in 2003.  

West Virginia’s second most popular cryptid is the Flatwoods Monster, featured in several video games (including Fallout 76), the show Mountain Monsters, and on the cover of the album April Fools by The Scary Jokes alongside Mothman and other cryptids.  

It was dusk on the evening of Saturday, September 12th, 1952, and four young residents of the town of Flatwoods, Edward May, Freddie May, Neil Nunley, and Tommy Hyer, were playing on the lawn of the Flatwoods Elementary School. Suddenly, a bright light streaked across the sky overhead and seemed to smash into a hillside on G. Bailey Fisher’s farm. The four boys ran to see what crashed, stopping at Mays’s home to tell their mom, Kathleen May, what they saw. Kathleen called National Guardsman Eugene Lemon and gathered the family dog, Richie, to go with her and the boys to check out the crash site.  

They were met with a pulsing red light when they got to the crash site. Lemon shined his flashlight up the hill to get a better look, and the group saw a frightening sight. They were met with a ten-foot-tall creature with a head shaped like a spade, orange glowing eyes, hands curled with claws, and wearing what seemed to be a dark, metal dress. The creature seemed to begin levitating off the ground, and when the creature hissed, a strange sickening mist filled the air. The creature then quickly hovered towards them, and they fled in fear. The group immediately reported this to the authorities. 

A few of the group members went on to experience throat irritation, vomiting, and nausea, that continued for days following the encounter. Their symptoms were disregarded as side effects of hysteria, but these symptoms fit the telltale indicators of mustard gas exposure.  

Following this encounter, the town was visited by some “men in black” sent by the US government to go to the May household to speak to the witnesses. They allegedly took the dress Mrs. May wore that night because it had some oil on it and told her they would return it. They never did.  

On Sunday, September 13th, the day after the incident in Flatwoods, another strange sighting took place near Strange Creek, about twenty miles south of Flatwoods. Allegedly, George and Edith Snitowsky and their 18-month-old son were driving on route 4, a rural area between Clay and Braxton County, when their car abruptly died. Mr. Snitowsky attempted to restart the car but had no success. Of course, it was nighttime, the road was desolate, and the couple and their baby were stuck with no help in sight.   

The Snitowsky’s were trying to decide what to do when a horrible, sulfurous odor filled the air, and their baby began to cry. Then, a weird blinding light filled the darkness, and the couple saw a ten-foot-tall creature hovering in front of their car. Their description of the creature is similar to the one from the Fisher’s farm, except that the creature was not wearing a spade-shaped hood or metal dress. Instead, they reported that the creature had a reptilian head and was bony. The monster dragged its reptilian hand across the car’s hood before floating into the woods. Once the creature was out of sight, Mr. Snitowsky restarted the car, and they sped away. Mr. Snitowsky later gave his account of this encounter for Male Magazine in 1955.  

Just a few days before this infamous sighting on Fisher’s farm, there was another sighting of a creature similar in description to the Flatwoods Monster. It was reported by Mrs. Audra Harper, who claims to have seen the creature while walking through the woods near her home near the town of Heaters, about five miles north of Flatwoods. Harper and her friend were walking to a store nearby, and the road leading out of their property was torn up and rutted, so they took a shortcut through the forest instead of walking the road.  

About half a mile into their trip, they spotted a fire on one of the hills they were passing. They dismissed the fire and assumed that one of Harper’s neighbors was “fox chasing.” When Harper looked back, she was shocked, the fire had disappeared, and instead, there was a tall, dark silhouette of a man-shaped figure that stood where the fire was previously. Frightened, the two ran away, escaping between the rocks and boulders scattered around the hillside. They did not see the creature again.  

These stories of the Flatwoods Monster scared the people of Flatwoods in 1952 because of the state of the world at the time. The Cold War was the perfect time for conspiracy theories and mass panic to take root. There were constant discussions of atomic bombs and the threat of nuclear war, along with this being the time of the space race. This means reports of flying saucers and aliens were constantly discussed in media like LIFE magazine. 

During this time, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were awaiting execution for sending American nuclear weapons designs to the Soviets. Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin had just spent the previous two years instilling fears that communists had infiltrated the U.S. Department of State and every industry. Just three years before the Flatwoods Monster sightings, in 1949, the Soviet Union had successfully tested an atomic bomb, and the Air Force was scanning for bombers over our skies. By 1952, communists had killed thousands of American soldiers in Korea, including four young men from Braxton County, who had died just months before the monster was spotted. 

The Flatwoods Monster has not been seen since the original incidents in 1952, but it has greatly impacted the rural community with increased tourism. There is an ice cream shop called “The Spot,” where patrons can take photos with a painted iteration of the Flatwoods Monster. A few miles south of Flatwoods is The Monster Museum, dedicated to the eerie folktales about this cryptid. Five huge chairs were built and painted to look like the monster have been erected around the county, along with several murals dedicated to the monster. 

It is easy to look at these stories and disregard them as people being paranoid and silly, but when there is so much chaos and misinformation going on in the world, it is not that crazy for people to want to blame monsters for their issues. Thankfully, we have reached a point where we can appreciate these stories and have some joy from these scary times. I like to imagine Mothman and the Flatwoods Monster dating, living in the woods, and eating pepperoni rolls together.