The 1960s gave way to a variety of conspiracies. Theories swarmed when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated during a parade in Texas. Some even believe the moon landing to be fraudulent.
But on Nov. 16, 1966, a conspiracy started in a town about 40 miles south of Athens. The Point Pleasant Register reported a sighting of the now-popular legend of the Mothman. The creature was described as “having a wingspan of 10 feet and red eyes about 2 inches in diameter and 6 inches apart.” The report came four days after what is considered the first sighting.
Though the legend originated in a local newspaper, the publications that reported on it then did not perpetuate a legend. The media, as it has always operated, reported on what people were talking about at the time.
“When you have these rumors going around about something that is supernatural, a mystery if you will, people are talking about it whether the news is covering it or not,” Bill Reader, a professor of journalism at Ohio University, said. “The news has to acknowledge that people are talking about this thing even if it’s outlandish.”
The Mothman was suspected to be in the Point Pleasant area from Nov. 12, 1966, to Dec. 15, 1967. The latter date is that of the Silver Bridge collapse, which killed 46 people. Some residents reported seeing the Mothman before the bridge collapsed.
The Post reported on the Silver Bridge tragedy when it happened because a senior student died while riding across the bridge in a taxi. There was no report of the Mothman.
An article in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch dated Nov. 19, 1966, hypothesized the identity of the winged figure. A professor at West Virginia University claimed the description, down to the redness around the eyes, fit that of a sandhill crane.
Throughout the article, there are no claims that the Mothman is a real being. The words “thing,” “birdman” and “mothman” are enclosed by a set of quotation marks. The reporting sticks to the facts and doesn’t insinuate.
The same can be said of when publications report on another local legend — The Ridges and its purported hauntings.
“The local media doesn’t say ‘The Ridges is haunted,’” Reader said. “They say ‘a popular local myth is that The Ridges is haunted.’”
When thinking about the Mothman, Reader said it’s important to put the situation in context by looking at the era. It’s easy for people to look at conspiracies through a modern lens where we are bombarded with outrageous claims that can be proven false.
“In this day and age, a claim about the Mothman, people would just scoff at it,” Reader said. “People are now skewed to not believe anything, even if it’s real.”
Most of the conspiracy theories Emma Chubb, a junior studying biological sciences, reads are ones from decades ago, including the moon landing myth. Chubb hasn’t seen many modern day legends, and she thinks part of that is due to videos and other hard evidence that easily debunks myths. That doesn’t stop her from reading up on conspiracies, though.
“I always see retweets from conspiracy theory accounts and click on them,” Chubb said. “I just think it’s naturally intriguing for people.”
A previous version of this report incorrectly stated Professor Bill Reader’s position at Ohio University. The article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.