Investigating Mothman’s Red Eyeshine

Benjamin Radford

Q:

In researching reports of Mothman, I’ve found many references to the beast having glowing red eyes. Is that real?  —O. Elfenkamper

A:

Mothman is the name bestowed upon one or more mysterious flying creatures first reported in the small West Virginia town of Point Pleasant starting with several prominent sightings in November 1966 and trailing off the following year. The animal was described variously (and ambiguously) as humanoid and avian, often with red glowing eyes and giant wings. The first reports occurred in a heavily wooded area known locally as the “TNT area,” used during World War II for munitions production.

Figure 1. A collection of Mothman decals purchased at the Mothman Museum. Photo by the author.

The Mothman story—full of folklore, UFO-related embellishments (mostly by writer John Keel), crypto-tourism, curses, and more—is both fascinating and extensive. Here I focus on one of the monster’s signature characteristics: its glowing red eyes. Joe Nickell, for example, has written several articles on the topic and based his identification of Mothman as a type of owl in part on this eyeshine observation, as it is characteristic of owls (see Nickell 2002, for example). Illustrations and depictions of Mothman (see Figures 1 and 2) typically feature the red eyes prominently, including those in Mothman: Behind the Red Eyes, by researcher and Mothman museum founder Jeff Wamsley. Nickell and others are of course correct that at least some, if not many or most, of the original sightings were likely of birds such as owls and cranes, with witness after witness explicitly describing what they’d seen as “like a bird,” with “gray feathers,” a “big bird,” and so on.

However, a closer look at most of the accounts reveals that eyeshine is not in fact characteristic of Mothman sightings. In Wamsley’s 2005 book, he includes firsthand eyewitness descriptions from nearly a dozen people who claim to have seen the creature or had some personal connection to it. Of those, only one person mentions glowing red eyes—a woman named Shirley Hensley, who admits that she herself didn’t see the eyes but reported that her father had described them as “like bike reflectors.”

Figure 2. The author at the Mothman statue in downtown Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Photo by the author.

Several of the original eyewitnesses are claimed to have seen glowing red eyes, but that’s not quite true. Linda Scarberry (who saw Mothman on November 15, 1966) specifically stated that the eyes did not glow red until a light was shined on them (more on that presently). In his book Mothman and Other Curious Encounters, Loren Coleman quotes Marcella Bennett (who saw the creature the following night) as saying, “It rose up slowly from the ground. A big, gray thing. Bigger than a man, with terrible, glowing, red eyes” (Coleman 2002, 42). However, in a published interview with Wamsley, Bennett specifically contradicts Coleman’s account: “I did not see any red eyes. I have never said that I had seen red eyes. I don’t know if I was too frightened to even notice any type of red eyes at that time” (Wamsley 2005, 73). Either Bennett changed her story, or Coleman (or, less likely, Wamsley) got the important detail wrong—but in any event it’s one of many examples of unnoticed (or unreconciled) contradictions in early Mothman accounts.

It’s not surprising that most reports would not mention red eyeshine, because it is a function of reflection, not projection. In other words, the circumstances under which a person (such as Linda Scarberry) would report seeing eyeshine are only those in which a light (likely an artificial one such as a flashlight or vehicle headlights) is coming from (or from behind) the eyewitness and being reflected back at a specific angle. If the animal somehow projected lights from its eyes—that is, exhibited some unknown form of ocular bioluminescence—then presumably they would be routinely sighted in the dark woods like something in a Scooby Doo cartoon. Hunters could presumably hunt in complete darkness, taking aim at the glowing (i.e., light-emitting) eyes around them.

Glowing Eyes of Legend

Many creatures—typically supernatural and often demonic—have been associated with glowing eyes in folklore. Examples include the chupacabra, black dogs, the Dover Demon, the Goatman, the rougarou, and others. In the case of other beasties, such as Bigfoot, glowing eyes are not characteristic but still occasionally reported. Red is the most common color, perhaps because it represents blood and danger; a creature with bright green glowing eyes might evoke more laughter than fear. That being said, the Nightwalkers in Game of Thrones, for example, are depicted as having cool blue glowing eyes; regardless of color, it’s an effective tactic for demonstrating unnatural menace.

Eyeshine is a function of the tapetum lucidum, a layer of tissue directly behind the retina of some animals that reflects light back through the retina. It helps the animals see better in low light. It’s common in many animals, including dogs and cats, and varies in color and reflectiveness. Human eyes lack tapeta, but a form of eyeshine is often noticed as “red eye” in flash photography, with light reflecting off a tissue layer called the fundus.

Figure 3. Field experiment contrasting a light projecting source (left) from a light reflecting source (right) as seen in a dark wooded area, consistent with many Mothman sightings. Photo by the author.

I was recently asked by a television producer to investigate the theory that owls or other birds could be responsible for at least some of the Mothman sightings. Recognizing that light-reflecting eyes were likely often incorrectly mistaken for light-projecting eyes, I conducted several informal field experiments to demonstrate the difference. How might each appear as seen from a distance in a dark wooded area?

Eyeshine Experiments

To examine this question, I visited the area where Mothman was first sighted: just off Fairgrounds Road near the TNT area in Point Pleasant, just before midnight. The setting was suitably eerie, between the tall woods and the moonless night, miles from the nearest town. It was cold and clammy with a brisk wind and the moisture of the forest wicking away heat. Though it was mostly silent, occasionally I heard sounds in the darkness surrounding me, possibly deer, hogs, skunks, or the like (roadkill served as a grim if imprecise indicator of local fauna). Nothing charged at me or frightened me, but the conditions were clearly set for a scary experience if I’d happened to encounter an animal—pretty much any animal but especially one coming unexpectedly through the darkness from above, as many Mothman reports describe.

Figure 4. Field experiment depicting how two owl “eyes” might look if seen reflecting a light source in a dark wooded area, consistent with many Mothman sightings. Photo by the author.

I purchased a set of four identical red bike reflectors and mounted them on a flat black foamcore platform, modifying two of them to emit light via a small low-powered LED. I took a series of photographs (as best I could in the extremely low light necessary to approximate the conditions under which the “eyes” might be seen) of both sets of emitting and reflecting lights, as well as side-by-side comparison. In Figure 3, for example, the glow on the left is being projected, while the much fainter light on the right is being reflected. I also made a few short videos demonstrating how light plays as it suddenly moves across reflective surfaces—as animal eyes might appear glimpsed in moving headlights or flashlights, for example (see Figure 4).

Owl Eyeshine

To get more insights into owl eyeshine and the behavior of large avians, I visited the Carolina Raptor Center in North Carolina. Experiments were conducted with different types of owls to gauge each species’s relative eyeshine reflection. The marginally cooperative owls were coaxed to face me as I shined a light on them. The owl’s scowl is arresting—as it’s intended to be. The large, round, piercing eyes are unnerving and challenging. Many owls are apex predators and (unless injured, very young, or sick) have few if any natural predators. Most animals they encounter in the wild are weaker and make a good meal. Unless cornered, they’re generally not afraid of many animals. I got several photos of prominent eyeshine in a natural setting (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. The glowing, judging eyes of a horned owl at the Carolina Raptor Center in Huntersville, North Carolina, reveals eyeshine reported by some Mothman eyewitnesses. Photo by the author.

I was allowed access to a restricted area where injured owls were completing rehabilitation in preparation for being released back into the wild. The area consisted of large rectangular wooden pens with T-bars at either end where the owls could fly back and forth, regaining wing strength. There were three owls in the pen with me, and several times an owl swooped down toward me. The first time it happened I was startled and alarmed; I had not seen or heard it coming, and then a seemingly large black form rushed toward me, coming within perhaps a foot of my head (see Figure 6). I had no time to react; it was gone before I realized what had happened. The entire flight was completely silent.

It could have easily flown around me but chose to swoop right past my head, seemingly more out of curiosity than threat. It happened four or five more times over the course of about half an hour, and it got only slightly less startling each time. Of course, I knew what was happening, and the area was lit with camera lights for the television crew. Plus, of course, there were no trees, shrubs, or anything else in the way. Owls are incredibly agile flyers, and videos can be found online depicting the animals flying through impossibly small crevices with ease. Had I been walking alone at night in dark woods, it would absolutely have been a strange and scary—possibly unexplained—experience. Having personally experienced the dive-bombing, I can tell you it was an unnerving experience.

Figure 6. The author being dive-bombed by a large, dark flying figure—in this case an owl—inside a rehabilitation pen at the Carolina Raptor Center in Huntersville, North Carolina. Photo by the author.

Owls may or may not account for most Mothman sightings, but clearly they’re responsible for many of them. A closer look at the reports reveals not only that glowing eyes are uncommon in Mothman accounts (as expected) but also that the descriptions typically match reflecting, not projecting, eyeshine. Sensational stories aside, glowing red eyes—evocative and creepy as they are—are merely folklore.

References

Coleman, Loren. 2002. Mothman and Other Curious Encounters. New York: Paraview Press.

Nickell, Joe. 2002. Mothman revisited: Investigating on site. Skeptical Briefs 12(4) (December).

Wamsley, Jeff. 2005. Mothman: Behind the Red Eyes. Point Pleasant, West Virginia: Mothman Press.

Benjamin Radford

Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits (2018).


Q: In researching reports of Mothman, I’ve found many references to the beast having glowing red eyes. Is that real?  —O. Elfenkamper A: Mothman is the name bestowed upon one or more mysterious flying creatures first reported in the small West Virginia town of Point Pleasant starting with several prominent sightings in November 1966 and …

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