Point Pleasant, West Virginia
West Virginia has played host to two famous monsters, both within a span of a dozen years. In 1955, a 12-foot-tall space creature landed in a flying saucer and terrified the town of Flatwoods. And in 1966-67, a monster nicknamed "Mothman" performed a similar frightfest on the citizens of Point Pleasant.
But today, the Flatwoods monster -- it never got a name -- is almost invisible on the vacation landscape. All that the town of Flatwoods offers are some monster replicas for sale ($25) in the gas station next to the Shoney's.
In contrast, Point Pleasant is keenly attuned to the needs of the modern monster tourist. It has a very cool Mothman statue. It has a Mothman museum. It sells lots of Mothman merchandise.
Why the difference? Mothman was made into a Hollywood movie in 2001 and thus is more than a monster -- he's a celebrity.
Mothman arrived in Point Pleasant in November 1966 in classic style, scaring couples in parked cars and eating farmers' dogs. He was described as seven feet tall with a barrel chest and a piercing shriek. His most memorable features were his ten-foot batlike wings and his huge, red, glowing eyes. And unlike the Flatwoods monster, Mothman didn't spook and run. He hung around for over a year, building an impressive roster of over 100 fear-struck locals who claimed to have encountered him. Fortean researcher John Keel heard the stories and came to Point Pleasant to see what was happening. He compiled what he found in a 1975 book, The Mothman Prophecies, which was later turned into that 2001 Richard Gere film.
Some people thought that Mothman was a mutant, spawned from local chemical and weapons dumps. Some thought that he was the "the curse of Chief Cornstalk," a Shawnee leader who had been treacherously murdered in Point Pleasant in 1777, and who had finally gotten around to exacting his revenge.
Things got ugly on December 15, 1967, when the Silver Bridge, which connected Point Pleasant to neighboring Kanauga, Ohio, suddenly collapsed into the Ohio River, killing 46 people trapped in rush-hour traffic. Some claimed that the catastrophe was triggered by a sonic boom from Mothman's wings. Others believed that Mothman had been sent to warn the people of Point Pleasant, although his message was obviously lost in translation. Whatever the connection may have been, Mothman disappeared after the bridge fell down. Maybe he simply felt that Point Pleasant had had enough.
Mothman remained an obscure bogeyman until 2001. Then the movie based on John Keel's book, The Mothman Prophecies, came out, and the town realized that this was its one chance to make something good out of its monster. On the day that the film opened, West Virginia's secretary of state announced that Point Pleasant's old KFC would be converted into a Mothman visitors' center, and that a 20-foot-tall Mothman sculpture would be commissioned.
Things didn't turn out quite that grand. In 2002, Point Pleasant held its first Mothman Festival. In 2003, Gunn Park was renamed Mothman Park, and a 12-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture of Mothman was unveiled. It is a unique civic monument, an over-the-top effigy that you'd expect see on the handle of a Barbarian collectibles knife, not on a downtown street in West Virginia. Its football-size red eyes were meant to be lit from behind at night, but sponsorship funding came up a little short.
In 2005 the Mothman Museum and Research Center opened across the street from the statue, run by monster booster Jeff Wamsley. It's a small place, only open on weekend afternoons, but it does display some of the props from the film, and it sells an assortment of Mothman souvenirs. Weekday visitors with an urge for Mothmanabilia can walk a block south to the Harris Steak House, which has its own assortment of t-shirts, books, DVDs, Christmas ornaments, Beany Babies (unofficial), comic books, and license plates for sale.
Even Chief Cornstalk has a memorial in Point Pleasant. A four-ton stone obelisk, marked simply "Cornstalk," stands in Point Pleasant Battlefield State Park down by the river. The Chief's surviving remains -- three teeth and a few bone fragments -- are sealed in the center of the obelisk, perhaps to ensure that his curse is safely locked away.
The only people who don't have much to feel happy about in Point Pleasant are the victims of the Silver Bridge collapse. They have a memorial, too, at the spot where the bridge once entered the town. But their names are inscribed on lowly bricks, and you have to step on them to read the bronze plaque that lists only the names of the town's politicians.