November 2nd, 1966. It is a commute driven a thousand times before. Woody Derenberger, a Mineral Wells resident and local salesman, heads southbound on I-77 from Marietta after a long day of work. It is roughly 7:30 pm. Evening comes early with the autumn winds and that night’s darkness is no exception. Headlights ablaze, his panel truck journeys onward toward the Staunton Avenue exit. Other cars, their lights shining through the murky dark, pass. One such vehicle passes with yet another behind it following closely at a distance of maybe 25 feet. This vehicle veers in front of the truck and slows, forcing Woody to slow as well. Woody first notices through his headlights that the vehicle has no wheels, but rather appears to be hovering over a foot off of the ground. He then notices the vehicle’s peculiar shape and length. It is roughly 30 feet long and is shaped like a stovetop pipe. A door opens, and out into the headlights walks a man, well-dressed and smiling. Woody describes him as looking very tan, with slicked-back hair and wearing a button-down shirt and trousers which, despite having a metallic sheen, more or less match the fashion of the day. The man proceeds to ask Woody a series of questions, some about the area, some more personal. Midway through the conversation, Woody realizes that the man is not speaking but is rather pressing the conversation telepathically. Realizing Woody’s apprehension, the man tells him to not be afraid. When asked about his name and origin, the man speaks plainly.
“I am called ‘Cold’.”
Mr. Derenberger will make local news the next day. Fifty-two years later, many will try to make sense his story and the interwoven thread of terror that would grip the Ohio Valley for the next year.
November 10, 1966. One week has passed since the Derenberger story aired on WTAP News in Parkersburg. The days are growing colder and shorter still. In a cemetery outside of Clendenin, WV, five men are at work, laboring one of the great, ancient professions. Gravediggers, by their very nature, are not the type to be easily spooked or prone to fantasy, but on that November day, these men would note something birdlike, brown and disturbingly human flying amidst the treeline, passing over and away. Five days later, a small riverside town nearly 100 miles away would descend into chaos and conspiracy in the shadow of events that echo to this day.
November 15, 1966. Salem, WV resident Merle Partridge (referenced as “Newell” Partridge in some sources) is watching television at home. It is a little after 10pm on a Tuesday. Merle’s television emits an awful hum, growing louder and louder until the screen blackens. Bandit, his full-blooded German Shepherd, is restless. The dog grows more and more agitated, pacing Merle’s front porch, focused on the far end of the property. Merle, concerned by Bandit’s erratic behavior, grabs his shotgun and walks out onto the porch. He scans the property. It is quiet, the Appalachian night bathing in a kind of darkness one only experiences in lonely places. There is nothing, despite Bandit’s growls. Nothing. A pair of lights apparate, red and circular against the shadow. They circle over and over. Bandit charges, disappearing. Barking and barking, Bandit runs deep into the fields until he is no longer barking. The silence sets in again. Merle cannot pursue for he is frozen by extreme fear like that of prey in the eyes of its predator. Despite being armed, Merle Partridge cannot bring himself to leave the porch. He never again sees his beloved Bandit.
“…about six or seven feet tall, having a wingspan of 10 feet and red eyes about two inches in diameter and six inches apart.”
That same night, 90 miles away in Point Pleasant, WV, two local couples, Mr. and Mrs. Scallete and Mr. and Mrs. Scarberry, are driving through the McClintic Wildlife Management Area (known locally as the “TNT Area”). Twenty years prior this backcountry produced and stored ammunition. The abandoned munitions plant sits decaying in the hollow, the wilderness creeping in. It will be demolished many years later. It is near 11:30 pm, one hour after Merle Partridge faced down an unseen terror. According to the 1966 newspaper report by Mary Hyre, local correspondent for The Athens Messenger and somebody who will become wedded to Mothman lore, the couples describe witnessing a creature “..about six or seven feet tall, having a wingspan of 10 feet and red eyes about two inches in diameter and six inches apart.” The couples flee back to Point Pleasant, speeding down backroads. The creature keeps up with them, matching speeds up to 100 miles per hour. On the way back into town, Roger Scarberry notices the corpse of a large dog along the side of the road. Once in town, the youths rush to the sheriff’s office, reporting the incident to Deputy Millard Halstead. Other reports from across the area soon start flooding in. The sheriff’s investigation turns up no evidence of any creature. The body of the dog seen earlier in the evening is nowhere to be found.
Once Ms. Hyre publishes her brief story about that evening’s strange occurrence, a localized Pandora’s Box of extraterrestrial and paranormal activity opens. Between November of 1966 and December of 1967, over 100 reports regarding sightings of the creature and of UFO phenomena floods police stations and news outlets across the area. More witnesses see the creature, specifically, its red and reflective eyes, in and around the TNT area. Orange and red lights are observed in the skies. Many witnesses who come in contact with the creature report red and swelling eyes, diagnosed by local doctors as actinic conjunctivitis – a kind of eye inflammation caused by long exposure to ultraviolet light.
The story explodes, reaching notoriety across the region and across the country, drawing the curiosity of many, including paranormal writer John Keel. Keel, whose research into UFOs had gained him some notoriety prior to the events in Point Pleasant, would become central to the lore, with his 1975 account, The Mothman Prophecies, becoming a national bestseller and primary inspiration for the 2002 movie of the same name.
Sightings continue over the course of the next year. By now reports of UFOs and monsters are evolving, with accounts of demonic entities, poltergeist activity, and strange men in black suits entering the mix. Ms. Hyre and John Keel both report in The Mothman Prophecies encounters with these “Men in Black” (and yes, to be clear, the Men in Black phenomenon is what inspired the movie franchise of the same name). These men are described by Keel and Hyre as tall, unnaturally pale, and devoid of hair with unnatural speech patterns and awkward social graces. Furthermore, their dress is described as unusual for 1960s West Virginia. Hyre describes these men as dressed in black suits and matching hats, looking more at home in a 1950s jazz hall (or perhaps a mid-90s ska punk concert). These odd visitors would follow Keel, if one believes his book, throughout The Mothman sightings and into the years after, attempting to dissuade him from pursuing his reporting on UFOs and related events.
A year passes. The Christmas season is in full swing as 1967 draws to a close. The residents of Point Pleasant are going on about their lives with the last year’s weirdness fading into the past like a fever dream. John Keel, however, finds no rest. Like a swimmer caught in a rip current, John is consumed by The Mothman. In his book, Keel describes mental torment at the hands of an omniscient entity that watches him, taunting him with vague messages and prophecies. The entity gives a cryptic warning: A disaster is coming. And it is coming soon. Keel describes his frantic attempt to decode the message. He believes something will happen at one of the local plants, perhaps a spill or an industrial accident. The coming disaster does not meet John Keel’s fear, it eclipses it.
December 15, 1967. It is rush hour. Commuters are traveling on the Silver Bridge that traverses the Ohio River between the towns of Point Pleasant, WV and Gallipolis, OH. It is a cold night. Deep in the workings of the bridge, a single eye-bar with a mechanical defect nearly impossible to detect begins to crack. This failure sets off a reaction, creating a domino effect until the bridge, compromised by its failing mechanics and the weight of the traffic above, falls into the river. 46 perish in the black water. Only 44 bodies are recovered. It is, at the time, the worst tragedy of its kind in America. As the region mourns and grapples with making sense of what has happened, whispers of conspiracy abound. Keel writes of locals witnessing strange men under the bridge in the days leading to the collapse. Others report having seen a large flying creature prior to the tragedy. These reports are unsubstantiated and anecdotal, much like the dozens of stories that came before. Officially, the tragedy is declared a result of faulty engineering and improper maintenance.
Paranormal activity dissipates rapidly in the months following the collapse. All eventually becomes quiet. The witnesses go about their lives with the memories of the experience fresh in their heads. John Keel makes a career as a writer, churning out several books on ufology and pseudoscience. Decades pass and a memorial bridge is constructed, but Point Pleasant is never the same.
It should be noted that some view Point Pleasant as a town which was never meant for normalcy. Perhaps the sleepy West Virginia town is itself the stuff of legend. Let us look into this a bit more deeply.
(Author’s note: The Battle of Point Pleasant is a story itself deserving of a full article and analysis, not simply as a footnote in an article about UFOs and cryptozoology. Expect a more methodically researched and better-written piece on the subject at some point.)
Point Pleasant was the battleground for the bloodiest encounter of Lord Dunmore’s War, a British expedition into Shawnee and Mingo territory during the autumn of 1774, approximately four months before the first shots of the American Revolution. John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore was royal governor of Virginia up until the colonial rejection of British rule. In the years leading to The American Revolution, Great Britain acquired territory from France during The Seven Years’ War, specifically its North American theater, known to history as The French and Indian War. After the acquisition of lands in what is now West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, British settlers came against Native Americans who had populated the region for centuries prior. In 1768, the British signed The Treaty of Fort Stanwix with the Iroquois Confederacy, which ceded Native American lands south of the Ohio River to the settlers. The Shawnee and Mingo tribes who inhabited this territory, however, were not signatories to the treaty and opposed the deal. In October of 1774, a Virginian expeditionary force made their way through the newly acquired territory. Their objective was to meet with another expeditionary force moving west from Pennsylvania and cull any resistance put up by the indigenous population. While camped at the confluence of the Ohio and Kanawha rivers in what is modern day Point Pleasant, the Virginians were met by a force of Shawnee and Mingo warriors led by Hokolesqua, or as he is known in most history books, ‘Chief Cornstalk’. The battle was violent and intense, deteriorating into hand-to-hand combat at times. The Virginians eventually win the day, forcing back Hokolesqua’s force. The Shawnee and Mingo would eventually make peace with the invaders, Hokolesqua himself becoming something of a diplomat between the two cultures.
Three years later, in the autumn of 1777, Hokolesqua makes a diplomatic visit to Fort Randolph in Point Pleasant where he is captured and held hostage at the volition of Commander Matthew Arbuckle. One month later, after reports reach Fort Randolph indicating that a white settler had been killed by a Shawnee, Hokolesqua is murdered by soldiers at the fort along with his son and two other Shawnee captives. Legends since have stated that Hokolesqua placed a curse upon the land with his dying breath, which some attribute to The Mothman sightings and subsequent collapse of Silver Bridge; however, no reliable proof of such a curse or utterance exists and it is assumed that the legend of Cornstalk’s Curse is nothing more than embellishment predicated upon the racial stereotype of the “Indian Curse” prevalent in the American horror tradition (E.g. Stephen King’s Pet Semetary and countless traditional ghost stories).
Regardless of facts, and believe me when I say that facts are hard to pin down in this case, The Mothman and the events surrounding its appearance have made their impact. A bestselling novel, several documentaries, and a Hollywood movie later, the Winged One has grown from a lurking terror to a loveable mascot, and Point Pleasant has embraced that history. Whether you visit Mothman Museum located downtown and its gift shop complete with every accessory a Mothman enthusiast could want (You’ve gotta try the Mothman Rootbeer, it’s fantastic), check out the annual Mothman Festival held in September or just get your selfie taken with the big guy himself at the one-of-a-kind Mothman Statue adjacent to the museum, it’s clear that when it comes to paranormal must-sees, Point Pleasant more than earns its spot.
It is tough to say what, if anything, happened in Point Pleasant between 1966 and 1967 outside of the Silver Bridge collapse. John Keel is a polarizing figure, both celebrated as a ufology trailblazer and castigated as a snake oil salesmen capitalizing on tragedy to sell a book. If you go to Point Pleasant, go for the history and for the people as it is truly one of the Ohio River’s crowned jewels. But if you find yourself out a desolate Appalachian road late on an autumn night…
Keep your eyes on the road and not to the skies,
Lest you catch the gaze of the thing with red eyes...