Summertime is always too busy. It always feels like just when the weather gets nice, your time is suddenly spoken for. In the midst of all the usual summer street festivals and beach days, Chicago managed to also fit in the sudden appearance of the mysterious flying humanoid known as Mothman. Coincidentally—or not—on my personal calendar, I managed to pencil in getting dumped.
Explaining a breakup is always clumsy. The unexpected absence of your significant other makes you feel a grief similar to when someone dies—but only if the deceased could possibly be on the other side of town making out with someone better looking than you. The great inequity of the non-consensual end of a relationship is that one person gets time to start processing the bad news before the other is even clued in. So, in the midst of heartbreak and summer heat, I wanted some answers. And there would be no place more metaphorical to search for impossible meaning than hunting a Mothman.
I should probably be a superstitious person. I grew up in a house that was built in 1894. Every night, it creaked and shifted, finding terrifying new sounds to make. One day we even found a box of old love letters in the attic. And yet, nothing happened. In college, I moved into cheap off-campus housing that had been repurposed from a drug rehab clinic that had been further repurposed from an early 20th-century insane asylum. According to some old newspaper clippings we’d found, two former patients had committed suicide in the basement where we did our laundry. We’d go down there at night to see if we felt or saw anything supernatural. And yet, still nothing. So when Lon Strickland, a cryptozoologist who’s been studying flying humanoids and other supernatural phenomena for most of his life, told me that looking for Mothman wasn’t a good idea, I sided with my better judgement and pressed on. The way I always saw it was, if some monster was going to tear me in half, it would’ve done so somewhere between the antique house and the insane asylum.
For years, Chicago had been like any other city when it came to Mothman sightings. There were sporadic and vague reports, but nothing consistent. But between February and September of 2017, there were suddenly 36 sightings reported. Spotting the Mothman (why is it a Mothman? Can it not be a Mothperson? Are Mothpeople equal opportunists?) became so common, so quickly that an interactive map was created so that you could track the sightings as they were occurring. People were becoming convinced that Chicago was being warned of impending disaster by supernatural forces. (Briefly, I wonder if my own romantic crisis was something Mothman could’ve tried to warn me about. It’s never made quite clear just how big a disaster needs to be to get the attention of our supernatural friend, but maybe he sometimes deals with impending personal doom.)
The Mothman’s history started with a series of sightings in Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1966. Between November of that year and November of 1967, residents of Point Pleasant reported over 100 sightings of a red-eyed flying humanoid that came to be called “Mothman.” When the bridge that connected Point Pleasant to Ohio collapsed and killed 46 people in December of 1967, Mothman gained a reputation as a harbinger of doom on the horizon—just ask Richard Gere.
Not to suggest that a winged paranormal phenomenon had descended into town right at the time of my own personal turmoil, but the coincidences felt compelling. Was the Mothman, like me, flitting through the night, trying to make a connection with a random soul or two? (Mothmen, it appears, tend to interact with couples, if the stories are true.) Maybe there was a message here, and my summer of solitude offered me the perfect opportunity to investigate.
I delved into the sightings, reading every new detail I could find, and before I knew it, I found myself in the complicated world of paranormal forums. That demands a quick note: The one thing all of these websites share is a truly terrible layout. The online paranormal community’s credibility would benefit hugely from an introduction to a web designer. Design flaws aside, these sites had tirelessly recorded as much information about each sighting as they could. While there have been plenty of scattered sightings since 1967, there had never been a concentration so high in a localized area as there had been in Point Pleasant.
Until the Mothman came to Chicago.
The retellings went like such: faraway sightings of something big and dark flying through the Chicago skies. But one more recent report stuck out to me. A couple (seriously, are single people allowed to see flying monsters or is that just reserved for the happily paired?) was standing outside an apartment complex on Lakeshore Drive in the early evening when “a large winged being descended in front of them, no more than 25 feet away, hovered about five feet above the sidewalk, with its wings spread open, as it peered at the couple with large bright red eyes that slowly altered [sic] back and forth in intensity.”
But figuring out the story behind these sightings had become more than just a project for me; it’d become a part of my post-breakup process.
This sighting was the closest and most public of any that I’d read. I wanted to know more, and the Moth expert of Chicago is Lon Strickland. Lon’s website, Phantoms and Monsters, had become a hub of information about these sightings, and he had been in direct contact with most of the people that reported them. Lon tells me his credentials, having been researching the paranormal since he was young and encountered his first supernatural happenings on an old Civil War battlefield near his home. I was hoping he could connect me to someone that had seen Mothman firsthand, but quickly, it became clear that this wouldn’t be an option.
All of these sightings had come through witness submissions to Lon’s website, and as such their identities were hidden from the public. Lon describes them as mostly “normal people” who wouldn’t typically call in something as outlandish as a Mothman sighting. But he also described the witnesses he’d talked to as “gun shy” about the idea of speaking to me directly. Soon after my request for contact with witnesses, our correspondence dwindled. The few folks I could find by tracing back their forum usernames on other websites seemed like fairly obvious hoaxers. One man opened his claim with “I never believe in this stuff” but a little research showed that he’d submitted more than 10 other reports, mostly of UFOs, leading me to believe that he did, in fact, believe in this stuff. Maybe in a different situation, I would have taken this lack of firsthand sources as sign of a dead end. But figuring out the story behind these sightings had become more than just a project for me; it’d become a part of my post-breakup process. As time passed and my friends’ initial sympathies and constant invitations to hang out started to fade away, it became more necessary to bury myself in the task at hand. It was becoming progressively blurrier whose proof of existence I was more concerned about—myself, or the six-foot-tall moth creature.
Suddenly, I was driving out to McCook, a mostly industrial suburb of Chicago. I’d received an email from Lon about three new sightings within just as many days in that area and seemed like it’d be a good place to start. Lon said the sightings had come from a hiker and two truckers that had been passing through a nearby truck stop. I drove out and parked my car right near the bridge where Mothman had been seen by one of the truckers and posted up. Here I was, hoping to go red-eye to red-eye with the Mothman.
As an hour passed, being alone with my thoughts in a car proved to be more difficult than I’d imagined. I wondered how cops manage to do this stuff and cursed myself for not having brought snacks of any kind. I briefly open Tinder, believing myself capable of multitasking. I was Tindering, sure, but I was also on a hunt for the truth. Another hour passed and it was fully dark outside. Despite being what I’d consider Mothman prime time, I saw nothing but a very confused coyote wandering around. At that point, I became frustrated. I understand that going looking for a monster and expecting to actually find it in one night is a lot to ask, but frankly I considered myself more than deserving of a win. I looked at a map of the area and found a forest preserve that’s mentioned in one of the other nearby sightings. It was reasonably close, so I drove over there and found a place to park.
My iPhone, as my only source of light, wasn’t so much guiding the way as it was lighting everything like a deleted scene from The Blair Witch Project.
I’m typically a very cautious person, but at this point I was determined to see something, and so against the will of several signs in the area, I walked into the woods. Immediately, I was confronted with the idea that this may not have been a smart idea. My iPhone, as my only source of light, wasn’t so much guiding the way as it was lighting everything like a deleted scene from The Blair Witch Project. After walking for a bit, I was startled by the sudden appearance of two college-aged guys who, I assumed from various odor-based context clues, were in the woods to smoke pot. As unassuming as they were, I was put on edge by the sudden reminder that a large forest preserve at night doesn’t necessarily have to be empty. I was suddenly acutely aware of the fact that I had just chosen on a whim to walk into the woods at night to search for a large mythical beast without having told anyone where I was going, setting me up to be the perfect opening fodder for a horror movie about 5 much hotter people that go looking for me, only to meet their own grim fates. Shaken up and paranoid that my phone battery could die and leave me stranded, I started to walk back toward the entrance with a good amount of speed. It was pitch black, and all I could hear are the sound of cars in the distance and for a moment I think about how it’s actually pretty peaceful.
Then I heard a branch loudly crack over my head.
I whipped around and as I looked up, I saw a large shape bounce off of a branch and into the air. Finally, I had located a Mothman. For two seconds, I was living in the sublime reality where every conspiracy theory is real and there’s a paranormal explanation for every goddamned thing, be it bridge deaths or Mothmen or even the dissolution of a relationship.
Briefly, its wingspan was gigantic, spreading across my vision. It soared faster than I could track in the dark and it disappeared as quickly as it came. I dashed back to my car, trying to ask myself if I saw red eyes, or if I could tell how big it was, if it was six feet tall, if it had a message for me.
As I drive back towards the highway, and replay the scene in my head, a few details sharpen: A large being in a tree is not abnormal, and that often times those beings are called “birds.” Logic began to seep in, and with it, the quick dissolution of my Mothman encounter’s believability. In that tree was a bird, and there was nothing special about it. As my supernatural experience was slowly torn away from me, I felt a melancholy set in, knowing that my next stop was home and with it, the end of my great distraction.
It was early in the morning and the highway was dark and nearly empty until I get back to the city. I thought about how bad things happen, how being in the literal dark is a different type of scary than the figurative dark, and how relationships end. And I found myself missing the comfort of the thought that some red-eyed abomination saw it all coming. Monsters have always been a way of providing answers or context to a situation that has none. They gives us a dark corner at which we can point our blame. We need monsters because the only thing scarier than red eyes in the shadows is if there’s nothing at all.
A couple weeks passed and life returned to normal. The pain of my breakup started to fade and I resumed my daily routines, sans Mothman. I chalked my investigation up as a loss and laugh at myself a bit for getting my hopes up, even briefly. Lon had told me over the phone that Mothman wants people to see him and it had occurred to me that maybe he didn’t want people to look for him. Mothmen, like most good mysteries, like to be presented at a time where the answer isn’t really what you need. Mothman shows up only to make you ask more questions.
And so when I read about three new Mothman sightings taking place right within my neighborhood, I resist the temptation to grab my binoculars. Maybe he’s out there looking for me. Or maybe he’s just a lonely Mothman, flying through the night, looking for someone who will believe in him.