Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Mothman -- Part I

I first read about Mothman in a thin little kids' paperback called America's Very Own Monsters by Daniel Cohen. This was sometime in the mid-80s. I must have ordered it from one of those Troll recreational reading book catalogs teachers would give us to order out of during elementary school. We would pick out what we wanted and have mom fill out the order form and give us the money. A few weeks later, when the big box arrived and was plopped on the teacher's desk, Christmas would come early.

Like all of the horror-related miscellania of my early years, I had a love-hate relationship with that book. During the day I reveled in the cool spookiness of all of these "true stories" of monsters and creatures of the shadows: the Demon Cat, Champie, Goatman. But at night I regretted every word of it. The stories floated into and out of my mind as I lay there in the dark. These were America's very own monsters. They were right here. Under my bed, maybe? In the closet? Why did I read that stuff?

One of those monsters stuck in my head more than any other, its story seemingly tailor-made to haunt a kid alone by himself in the bed at night: Mothman. The terrifying image of the monster's red eyes peering through a window made me very cognizant of closing blinds during those days. And the eerie illustration that accompanied that story -- an interior view of the silhouette of a human-like something standing outside a window, big eyes gleaming -- has stuck in my head to this very day.

Mothman's home, I learned, was Point Pleasant, West Virginia. I knew were West Virginia was. It was close to Kentucky. But the fact that it was in another state helped me feel better; the distance insulated. It could keep its monster.

As time went by, my interest in Mothman grew. One day at the Corbin Library I came across a white hardcover book. The Mothman Prophecies, read the spine. I pulled it down, not quite believing my eyes. The illustration on the front confirmed my excitement: a muscular and winged humanoid emerging from behind a tree, the distant silhouettes of two unsuspecting people in the distance. That book soon took up near-permanent residence at my house. Although all of its talk of UFOs and Men in Black was a bit surreal and disjointed for me at that age (in spite of the title, Mothman appears only occasionally, often tangentially), I read and re-read the Mothman chapter over and over until its characters and locations became second nature to me.

Around the same time, I was at my cousin's house reading through a horror anthology comic he had (the style and subject matter remind me of the Creepy horror comics of the 60s and 70s, although I still haven't been able to figure out exactly what it was I was reading) when I came across a story about the murder of an indian chief by settlers in the 18th century. His name was Chief Cornstalk. Two things I remember about that story: one of them was the final illustration. This book always had them as a single-pane drawing, so you had the heightened tension of having to turn the page to see it. There it jumped out at you as effectively as any movie stinger. In this drawing, Cornstalk has just been shot by the settlers. He is sprawled grotesquely on the ground, nearly prostrate and half-supporting his mortally wounded body with his right arm. His left arm points up toward the reader, the twisted index finger aimed straight into your eye. His face is contorted hideously. Above his head, his words in heavily stylized, dripping horror-scrawl proclaim a curse on the land, the people, and their descendants. A horrible, horrible image. The second thing I remember? The place where this happened was Point Pleasant.

Even at 9 years old I could put those two together. Was Mothman a manifestation of Chief Cornstalk's curse? One day while reading The Mothman Prophecies I came across an account of a sighting near the "Chief Cornstalk Hunting Grounds." At this point I was convinced. I considered writing to the book's author, John Keel, and asking him if he had ever thought about such a connection.

Years went by and I stopped reading about the Mothman. I knew the story. I graduated from UK in 1998. A couple of weeks later, my old friend and roommate Jeremy and I decided to celebrate by taking a road trip up to Niagara Falls, crossing over through Canada and back down through Detroit. It would be new territory for us both. As I was planning out our route on DeLorme's Map 'n Go software (this was back when you had to pay for something to do what Google Maps now does a better job of for free), I noticed that the path it suggested took us up through central and northeastern Ohio. What's else is up there to see? I thought. Then it hit me. Point Pleasant.

That trip was to be a bit of a geek pilgraimage for me. Not only would we be making a double-Dead stop: Monroeville, Pennsylvania's Monroeville Mall (filming location of the original epic horror classic, 1978's Dawn of the Dead) along with a search through rural Pennsylvania for the cemetery from Night of the Living Dead (both the 1968 original and the 1990 remake, or either), we would also be stopping in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, epicenter of the events that kept me up many a night over a decade earlier.

It was cool to finally be in Point Pleasant, that place that was thankfully and so assuredly far away from me when I was a kid. The town itself was modest, sleepy, and a bit run-down. It reminded me of Corbin. There was no outward evidence of the strange events that occurred there thirty years ago. I wondered how many of the people walking down the street had seen Mothman. I wondered how many of them even knew who he was. Jeremy and walked around Tu-Endie-We State Park (site of the Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774, arguably the first battle of the Revolutionary War) and snapped pictures of the park and the Ohio River nearby. I admit that I felt a chill standing next to Chief Cornstalk's grave monument, his ghostly finger pointing up at me through the ages. We had seen all we knew to see. My first (and for all I knew, only) trip to Point Pleasant was over after about 20 minutes. We continued on our way north to search for cemeteries.

I started pharmacy school, the third and final phase of my formal education, that fall. Once again Mothman, and now the streets of Point Pleasant, faded from my consciousness. Years passed.

My fourth year of pharmacy school was a point where I could start to enjoy recreational reading again. One of the books I read then was John Keel's The Mothman Prophecies. This time cover to cover, as an adult. It was still fantastic and still weird. But a sense of skepticism, reinforced by years of education in the sciences, now tempered my reaction to the Mothman stories. It wasn't so much a feeling of creeped-out unease like the accounts used to give me (although it was still present, as I could still easily recall what my 9-year-old self had felt) but more a feeling of "it's really a leap in logic to say that", "is there any evidence for that that isn't just one witness' subjective account?", or at best, simply a willing suspension of disbelief to try to recapture some of that old chill. In 2002 I went to see The Mothman Prophecies as one of the last movies I ever saw at the old theater at the Trademart. I wasn't too impressed. It shared the weak points of the book: too much surreal psycho-horror, not enough Mothman.

My second trip to Point Pleasant happened much more suddenly. One day during one of my down the rabbit hole browsing sessions on wikipedia I had the idea to check up on my old buddy Mothman. It must have been there that I first read about the Mothman Festival. As luck would have it, this was less than a month before it was to be held. I did a bit more research. I counted up my off days. I checked the driving distance to Point Pleasant. About a week before, I checked the weather. The stars were aligned. All systems go.



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