West Virginia is very much the state it’s told to be in the media; a relatively small, poor, and rural state with some of the most sadly crushing poverty in the United States. It’s also quite beautiful! Its people are friendly, social, and kind! Capturing the tale end of the Appalachian Mountains, the geography gives the passing traveler rolling hills and scenic vistas to take in across their drive. The path I took also guided me for nearly 40 miles alongside the banks of the great Ohio River, giving me a splendid look at the valleys carved into the rock by one of the continent’s most powerful waterways.
The small town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia at a glance blends well into the scenery, at least at face value to those who just drive through it and don’t stop to take in the sights. Less than 5,000 people are tucked into a narrow row of old buildings and trailer homes alongside the river. Most of the buildings are nearing a century old and the development has been limited. It is the kind of rural town where people live their entire lives. Nobody comes and nobody leaves.
Its only major places of interest are the West Virginia State Barn Museum, the Tu-Endie-Wei Battlefield, and a major coal-fired power plant that powers much of the eastern seaboard.
But the day I arrived, the city was bursting at the seams with international travelers, to the point where side streets a mile outside of town were completely filled with parked cars. An estimated 17,000 to 31,600 people, largely from out of state, had poured into this tiny downtown area of just ten square blocks to the point that the city was nearly overflowing with tourists.
And they were there for one reason: the annual Mothman Festival!
Point Pleasant, West Virginia is only on the map because of a specific set of events that transpired over thirteen months between 1966 and 1967. The town was absolutely devasted by the collapse of the Silver Bridge, a large suspension bridge that was one of the only local means to cross the Ohio River and which took the lives of 47 locals when rush hour cars crashed into the river, becoming one of the worst bridge accidents in American history.
The tragedy was only the tail end of a very strange set of events that had transpired over the course of a year. The events started when a car filled with teenagers up to no good running around a remote part of town, once home to an abandoned US Army Storage area for dangerous chemical manufacturing. Suddenly the group spotted a human-sized bipedal moth with glowing red eyes standing on the road. The creature then chased them back into town and kept up with the car as it drove over 100mph down the country road. For nearly a year, witnesses in the same area claimed to be harassed by the same creature.
As this was happening, West Virginia suddenly became a hotbed for paranormal activity. Just a few years prior, the Flatwoods Monster had harassed a town just two hours away, but now Point Pleasant was being berated by UFO sightings and threatening Men in Black appearances that many witnesses swear by to this day. The sightings mostly went away after the bridge collapse though, which has created the rumor that Mothman was some kind of supernatural being trying to warn the town about the bridge collapse.
No physical evidence or photographic evidence exists to prove the existence of the Mothman, besides eyewitness testimonies given to the police. Curiously though, some of the original eyewitnesses have abdicated the spotlight. Many are still alive and still live in Point Pleasant. To my knowledge though, most of them didn’t attend the festival. They live very quiet lives, attending local church services, and quietly standing by their eyewitness statements while avoiding the cameras.
These events have given the small town of Point Pleasant its lurid reputation as the home of one of America’s creepiest supernatural hotspots—the official home of Mothman. The events are mostly remembered now because of the way they became popularized in pop culture. Journalist John Keel wrote the New York Times bestselling book The Mothman Prophecies, which was adapted into the 2002 Richard Gere movie of the same name.
Neither the book nor movie are particularly good, being largely new age sentiment about the nature of alternate dimensions and psychic nonsense that relies on wild eyewitness claims to push forward huge ideas that have nothing to do with scientific reality. Both stories though cemented the idea of the Mothman into the public conscious, causing him to appear as a major figure in pop culture. Most recently, Mothman and the Flatwoods Monster appear as minor bosses in the 2018 video game Fallout 76.
And that is definitely part of what has driven the annual Mothman Festival into a minor interstate event. 2022 was the first year since the end of the COVID pandemic that the festival was set to be held. It was canceled for two consecutive years due to the pandemic and this year appeared to be somewhat scaled back. Shuttle services had been canceled for one. That doesn’t seem to have stopped the crowds.
The crowds were massive. EVERYTHING had a line. The ATM had a half-hour line. The local museum had an hour line. The statue of Mothman had a half-hour line. Scheduled tours of the army facility had sold out a month prior and hotels sold out as early as February.
The event itself was a mix of street fare, comic convention, and a UFO conference, with dozens of booths dedicated to art prints, self-published authors, Z-list celebrity appearances, and armies of horny goth chicks with Legend of Zelda tattoos and fat nerds who have come to spend their hard-earned barista dollars on knick-knacks.
There was something mildly lurid about the entire pageantry surrounding the event. The festival itself was fun! All of the sellers were good-natured and happy to be there and it was clear that the locals at least enjoy the influx of tourist dollars the event provides.
Even so, The Mothman Festival is a massive event in honor of a real-life human tragedy where nearly fifty people died. People seem to have a habit of turning tragedies and lurid tales into money-making opportunities, much as how Salem, Massachusetts has made the infamous “Witch Trials” into a nationally renowned cottage industry.
Looking around the town though, it quickly became apparent that the festival appears to have curiously super-seceded an even more lurid event in the history of Point Pleasant. The town had been discovered by George Washington in 1770 and played home to a major conflict between the frontiersmen and the local Native Americans.
In October 1774, Point Pleasant hosted what it claims to be the first military engagement of the American Revolution. 1,100 militia engaged Native American Chief Cornstalk and the Shawnee tribe; which was seeking an alliance with the English. The battle thus prevented an alliance that could’ve swayed the course of the war. Cornstalk died on his way to peace negotiations and supposedly cursed the land upon his death, leading many to assume Mothman was a manifestation of a Native American curse.
“We can say Point Pleasant was built on a graveyard,” said one tour guide. “People were just buried wherever they could or they’d be put down the river.”
Evidence for these events is much less prevalent than Mothman minutia in local tourist information. There was a mural and a historical marker commemorating the battle but the rest of the town had focused on making Mothman into the town’s unofficial mascot, dedicating a statue to him in the middle of town and giving its museum and festival the central focus of the town’s tourism.
I left the Mothman Festival full satisfied with my experience. The energy and creativity of the festival were intoxifying and getting to indulge my morbid fascination with the macabre and supernatural was a lot of fun! It was an exhausting weekend and I returned home thoroughly in need of a long night’s sleep. I’m happy for Point Pleasant insofar as they enjoy playing host to the spectacle of such a strange and goofy historical footnote, but I obviously sympathize for any locals who don’t enjoy the hassle of tens of thousands of young tourists who want to celebrate a tragedy by eating funnel cakes and partying.
I can totally see why Point Pleasant would lean into it though. In our modern age of white guilt and the 1619 Project, it’s a wonder the small city is more interested in peddling Mothman plushies in honor of the Silver Bridge disaster, a human disaster that young people are actually happy to swell too and spend money on celebrating!