The Marketing of Mothman

Move over, Bigfoot. See ya, Sasquatch. America's new No. 1 monster this year is destined to be Mothman.

The flying, blood-eyed, 7-foot-tall monster that once terrorized Point Pleasant, W.Va., chasing cars and mutilating animals, is making a comeback. He's out to fill Bigfoot's big shoes — especially at the cash register.

The Mothman Prophecies, starring Richard Gere, opens in theaters Jan. 25, and that might be the best thing in the paranormal tourism business since the Loch Ness Monster backstroked to Scotland.

Get ready for Mothman Beanie Babies, T-shirts and Christmas ornaments. One West Virginia man has already sold Sony Pictures on a Mothman Internet game.

'He's Our Monster'

"He's our monster, so we want to make money off him," says Hilda Austin, executive director of the Point Pleasant Chamber of Commerce. "We don't want anyone stealing our thunder."

People used to run from ghosts. But these days, people run to ghosts. Monsters are good for business, and if your hotel is haunted, all the better.

Only a few years ago, The Blair Witch Project had folks flocking to Burkittsville, Md., where the hit horror film is set. Local officials complained that thrill-seekers were snatching up road signs and vandalizing tombstones.

The obsession reached such heights that the mayor offered this exasperated message on her voice mail: "This is the town office, Burkittsville, Maryland. … If this is in regards to The Blair Witch Project, it is fiction."

But Burkittsville, a tiny hamlet of 200 people, wised up to the fast-buck mentality. Previously unemployed locals quickly found a place in a burgeoning tourist business, selling "witch-chaser" bags filled with smooth stones, garlic cloves and lavender sprigs.

Now, Point Pleasant, an Appalachian town of 6,000 near the Ohio border, is looking for an unlikely hero in the form of a huge, hideous moth. That's pretty amazing, considering the legend.

Between 1966 and 1967, dozens of people came forward to claim they'd seen a giant man-bird with red, hypnotic eyes.

The first reports were from two young couples. Almost immediately, others came forward. Authorities found it harder to slough off each new monster sighting, and a media sensation was born.

Batman Inspires Mothman

The Batman TV show inspired a local newspaper copy editor to dub the creature "Mothman." Had this come a few years later, the creature may have been called "Big Bird," although a flying Bigfoot spotted on Washington state's Mount Rainier has been dubbed "Batsquatch" (not Batboy).

Writer John A. Keel later speculated that the sightings might even point to an alien visitation. His book, upon which the movie is based, documents a rash of UFO reports, alleged poltergeist activities, Men-in-Black harassments, unexplained animal slaughterings, and other strange activity.

"There were so many unusual occurrences in a short, 13-month burst," says Loren Coleman, author of Mothman and Other Curious Encounters (Paraview Press). "What's amazing is, if you speak to the people today, their lives have changed. Some changed jobs. Some moved. Some got divorced.

"Whatever happened to these people, they were terrified."

The last time people saw Mothman was when Point Pleasant's Silver Bridge collapsed on Dec. 15, 1967, killing 46 people. Some even say the strange creature sounded a rodent-like squeal to warn of the disaster.

Even today, Mothman isn't a joke in Point Pleasant.

But we all must come to terms with the past. And now, the monster is fodder for local souvenirs.

"Let's face it, if we don't do it, someone else will," says Austin. "We're the home of Mothman, and we're proud."

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.