Greetings again, folks!
Jordan here one last time to talk with you about our Appalachian folklore! Throughout the month of October, we’ve touched on verbal lore through songs and scary stories, material lore as responses to COVID-19 and structural racism and customary practices enacted when honoring the dead or celebrating holidays.
In our final week together, I want to talk with you about belief lore, or what we — the folk — believe. We see belief lore at work when we share urban legends, follow superstitions (just in case!) or debate the existence of supernatural creatures. This week, I want to specifically talk about legends and legendary beings, of which there are many in Appalachia.
For folklorists, legends are narratives or stories that are told as true — or potentially true — and take place in our real world. In their telling, legends deal with possibility and belief (whether believed in or not), and often that belief is debated. The contrary opinions and ambiguity surrounding whether something is true or not cements the legend’s status as a type of belief lore.
What legends we choose to share can reveal the anxieties, fears, desires, fantasies, hopes and imaginings of our groups, and we can all interpret and analyze their meanings or symbolism in different ways. Legends can represent a cultural moment in time and place, and as with most things we fear, or don’t understand, or can’t neatly categorize, we are especially curious about legendary beings and what they might be. Like folklore in general though, legends are of our own making and can show us how we understand the world and respond to what we’re experiencing.
Because we’re in the height of spooky season and because we’re nearing the 54th anniversary of the first sighting, I want to focus here on one of West Virginia’s most special and prominent legends: the Mothman.
The Mothman is a mysterious legendary being often described as both bird- and human-like with wings and glowing red eyes. Between November 1966 and December 1967, Mothman was sighted near cemeteries, by the old TNT munitions plant and other locations in and around Point Pleasant, West Virginia. When Point Pleasant’s Silver Bridge collapsed in December 1967 and killed 46 people, many folks believed the Mothman either caused the collapse or was a warning or premonition of it. Some people believed (and still believe) the Mothman to be a real creature, possibly an alien or demon, but many others argued the sightings were just large herons, cranes or owls. Whatever people saw, the ongoing debates and storytelling about Mothman’s existence make him a legend.
But what does Mothman mean to us, and what do his sightings suggest about what’s happening around us?
During the first sightings in the 1960s, the United States was undergoing a series of social movements and cultural shifts. The Cold War, the Space Race, the Vietnam War, the anti-war movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the feminist movement and all their subsequent tensions at home and abroad forced Americans, Appalachians and West Virginians to confront our feelings and curiosities about other cultures, planets and points-of-view.
I believe (and maybe you disagree!) we can link Mothman, a mysterious and unknown creature, to these very uncertainties, tensions and feelings people were experiencing then about what the future — if there was even going to be one — might look like. More recent Mothman sightings in Russia, Chicago and West Virginia from the late 1990s to the present might still reflect our uncertainties and anxieties about the future as we grapple with climate change, war, economic decline and failing infrastructure (like the Silver Bridge or the levee bursts during Hurricane Katrina).
You might recall from previous newsletters that folklore is both traditional and dynamic, and Mothman’s continued significance alongside his evolving sightings, stories and representations remind us that the folk continuously shape and reshape our traditions as we respond to the past, react to the present and create the future. Once largely a symbol of doom or fear, the Mothman of today also seems to be transitioning into a figure to celebrate and humanize.
Those curious or enthusiastic about the legend can now attend the Mothman Festival or visit the Mothman Museum in Point Pleasant. At both, you can also find artistic renderings of the Mothman by Appalachian artists like Liz Pavlovic. With slogans like “Lurkin’ for the weekend” and representations of the legend hanging out with fellow cryptids, carving a pumpkin or just surfing the web, Pavlovic’s Mothman is a fun and funny fellow who’s more like us humans than some scary and unknown other we should fear.
As we continue to face uncertainties about the state of our region, our nation and our planet, I invite you to think of this more humanized version of the Mothman legend. Often, we are quick to blame our problems on others. But what if we instead choose to see our similarities and find a way to address our shared problems together despite whatever differences exist among us?
I think Mothman can warn us about the problems we face, remind us of ongoing issues we should tackle and invite us to think about the unknown or the different, not as something to fear, but as something to seek to understand. That willingness to understand might assist us in creating a future world that’s better for us all.
Our legends and our folklore, as they travel through time and space — as they travel through us — evolve, transform and express our values and lives, and they continue to help us make sense of the world and our experiences in it. There is power in folklore, and there is power in us. May we continue sharing it with others as we shape and are shaped by our ever-changing traditions and our ever-changing world.
Thank you all for spending the month of October with me and reflecting on a bit of our Appalachian folklore together. I hope your futures are safe, healthy and bright, and I hope to meet you again soon!