Mysterious creatures are lurking deep in the heart of the Ohio Valley. At least, so say generations of people who have passed down folktales of the unknown.
The region is rife with stories, festivals and museums dedicated to “cryptids,” that is, animals or entities that some believe exist, but haven’t been accepted by mainstream science.
Some say the Ohio Valley is a hotbed for shadowy creatures, citing the hills, twisting roads and deep caves filled with darkness and possibilities.
Jack Byers, of Dayton, Ohio, believes that the isolation of the communities in Appalachia may be responsible for the noted sightings.
“I think it’s the small communities, something happens and the small communities just rally around it,” Byers said.
Growing up, cryptids and monster movies were a bonding point between Byers and his grandfather. That interest led him to celebrate his 18th birthday in September at a festival celebrating one of the most famous cryptids of the region: the Mothman.
A crescent moon hung in the ink-stained sky in October 1966, barely lighting the road to the abandoned munitions plant in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Faye DeWitt Leport and her siblings were driving past the plant on their way home from a movie. She remembers a sudden thud, as a creature with glowing red eyes dropped onto the hood of their car.
“We were scared of course. Yelling, everybody, don’t move, don’t move,” Leport said. “Everybody shut up. And the other two were bawling and crying back there, the younger ones. We were just telling them to be quiet, don’t do anything to make the thing kick out the glass and come through there.”
Leport describes the creature as having glowing red eyes and down feathers all over its body. She said it crouched down and stared at them through the window for around five minutes before taking flight.
“It just jumped and opened up the prettiest, biggest wings and then just flew and we could see the moon, it was like a crescent moon and we could see it, just as it flew off,” Leport said.
Leport’s brother went back to the area the next day and she claims that the area was cordoned off by the military and police. The family never saw the Mothman again.
But the Mothman continued to be seen by others in the area over the next year, and local news began to take notice. Reporter Mary Hyre wrote what may be the first printed record of the creature for the Athens Messenger in Athens, Ohio. “Winged, Red-Eyed ‘Thing’ Chases Point Couples Across Countryside” ran on the front page on Nov. 16, 1966.
The Mothman is often associated with the 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant that killed 46 people. The 1975 novel, “The Mothman Prophecies” by John Keel linked the two and the story was later turned into a popular 2002 film of the same name, starring Richard Gere.
Theories of what the Mothman vary. Some believe it is an alien, others a government experiment as it was seen around a military munitions plant. Wildlife biologist Robert L. Smith at West Virginia University told reporters at the time he believed it was a large sandhill crane, a bird nearly as tall as a grown human with a seven-foot wingspan and red circles around its eyes.
The Mothman’s true nature doesn’t matter much to Leport, who describes herself as a Christan. She just knows seeing the Mothman affirmed her belief that we are not alone in the universe.
“I knew there is something out there besides us. What, I don’t know, I don’t care to speculate, I say God’s got everything in his hands and he created everything. What’s to say he ain’t got other life things on other planets. They’re all his, he created them,” Leport said.
Goblins, Brownies, and Little People
It’s 5 o’clock somewhere, but in Letcher County, Kentucky, it’s still about 4:30. Nonetheless, Doug Adams is doing what he often does – nursing an afternoon beer at the local bar and telling tales.
Adams is, he says proudly, one of the longest-tenured teachers in Letcher County. He teaches art at Letcher County Central High School and is a big lover of folklore, just like his father was.
He spoke at length about the strange things — shapes in the woods, mysterious balls of light — he’s seen over his time growing up in eastern Kentucky. But one of the strangest were the little people.
“There was little brownies,” said Adams. “Little bitty people that lived in those cliffs around the area here.”
It’s said the little people live in the ridges, deep in the limestone caves of Pine Mountain. Some call them “goblins” — so did a group of documentarians who once attempted to summon them in Hellier, Kentucky. But Adams always called them “brownies”, like his father did.
“Oh, my dad, he was big into those kinds of things,” said Adams. “He would tell us, now, you just got to be quiet. You can’t be noisy, they’ll disappear. He never said before they went but they would disappear. Go probably back into the rocks or what have you.”
Adams said like many cryptid legends, the brownies, goblins, or little people are likely rooted in the folklore of the land’s indigenous Cherokee people, who called them the Yunwi Tsunsdi. The term also is also likely connected to Scottish folklore.
All around Letcher County, since the rivers and creeks rose in July, there have been rumors that the creatures were seen by the roadways. Here in Hemphill, there in Whitesburg, displaced, like so many, by high water coming into their homes. Some people swear by it. Doug thinks that’s a little rich, though.
“They may have had one or two too many,” he laughed.
It was around dusk in September of 1952 in Flatwoods, West Virginia, a town smack in the middle of the state, yet with a somberness to the understated roads and shallow mountains that can make one feel completely alone.
The May brothers and their friend were playing on the elementary school lawn when they said they saw a bright object dash across the sky and land on a local farmer’s property. The brothers ran home to their mom, who rounded up a group of neighbors to go to the farm and figure out what it was the boys had seen.
According to May, what they encountered was a creature that had “small, claw-like hands” stretched in front of it, folds on its body, and “a head that resembled the ace of spades”. It was ten or 12 feet tall depending on who you ask. There was a pungent mist in the air. Some of them got nauseous. The creature then made a hissing sound and “glided toward the group”, so the story goes, causing one of its members to drop the flashlight. They ran away in terror.
And so the legend of the Flatwoods Monster was born.
Investigators concluded that the creature was most likely the meteor that had been spotted in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia that very night. They concluded that the nausea the group experienced was a result of “hysteria,” but symptoms including throat irritation and vomiting are also characteristic of exposure to mustard gas.
Storyteller Jason Burns, who specializes in paranormal stories in West Virginia, notes that this was the age of the space race and flying saucer rumors. Some have written off the incident as an illusion fueled by such times.
The town of Flatwoods, for its part, isn’t buying it. It has monster-shaped chairs across the city, a Flatwoods Monster Festival, and a museum dedicated to the fiend.
West Virginia is replete with stories of mythical creatures, perhaps more than any other state in the country. Maybe it’s because we’re the only state in the region that is completely within Appalachia, or maybe it’s the way the fog sits heavy in the vertex of the Ohio Valley, just waiting for something strange to emerge.
Bigfoot, Sasquatch or Woodbooger
Locals say a large ape-like creature known as Bigfoot may be hiding in the vast forested region known as Hocking Hills in southeast Ohio. Though there have been sightings in all 50 states, Ohio ranks fourth in the country, making it a top destination for Bigfoot hunters and cryptozoologists.
To celebrate the region’s connection to the elusive bipedal, the inaugural Hocking Hills Bigfoot Festival was held in Logan, Ohio, in August. The gathering attracted an estimated 11,500 people and included a “Squatch walk” and owling contest, during which participants tried their best to walk and sound like the creature.
atie Schwendeman, of Marysville, Ohio claims that while Mothman is her favorite cryptid, she “respects Bigfoot.” She likens the belief in cryptids and the supernatural to religion.
“I’m too small of a part of this world to be like, ‘That doesn’t exist.’ If he’s around here he’s doing a really good job of hiding, and he probably doesn’t want to be found because, you know, the government would take him out,” Schwendeman said.
Some say another hairy, shadowy figure called The Woodbooger has been glimpsed on game cameras in southwestern Virginia. The town of Norton held an annual Woodbooger Festival before the COVID-19 pandemic, and a massive Woodbooger statue overlooks the nearby mountain of High Knob. There’s even a local restaurant called the Woodbooger Grill. Owner Jose Rafael Madrigal came to the area from the state of Michoacán in Mexico when he was sixteen years old.
“We heard about it, but we know it as a pie grande, which is Bigfoot,” said Madrigal. “But I never thought I would be, like, having a restaurant with the actual name like ‘Woodbooger’. You know? That’s pretty cool.”
The Bigfoot also goes by other names – throughout North America, Sasquatch is often used. The word Sasquatch is believed to come from the First Nations Salish language word Sasq’ets, meaning “wildman” or “hairy man.”
Madrigal doesn’t know if any of it is real, but he’s seen a few suspicious hunting camera shots from friends. And the forests around Norton are deep.
“What I do think is there has to be something in the woods, you know, deep in the woods that nobody’s ever seen,” Madrigal said.
Little Green Men
Glenda Sutton, of Princeton, Kentucky, first heard about Little Green Men as a child from her father, Elmer “Lucky” Sutton after a reporter knocked on their door to ask him about an encounter. Elmer was in his early 20’s when he and his family reported that alien creatures attacked the family farm near Kelly in Christian County, Kentucky.
The creatures were around 3 feet tall and a blue or silver color, according to Glenda. Elmer told her that they hovered rather than walked.
When the creatures attacked the farm house, the family opened fire to defend the house. Elmer told her the shots sounded like they were hitting a tin can and that the creatures immediately bounced back up after being hit.
“My dad was not scared of nothing, I never seen that man afraid of anything,” Glenda said. “But when you get him to talk about something like that, that night, he would turn pale as a ghost and you could see fear on that man’s face. So something happened to him that night.”
The family ran to the police when they realized the creatures weren’t dying.
“The police thought they were crazy,” Glenda said.
The police and military responded to the farm to investigate and nothing was found beyond gunshots.
The encounter was so frightening for the family, that Glenda’s grandmother sold the 27-acre family farm two weeks later and moved away.
Elmer and his family received ridicule for their claims according to Glenda, but she still believes.
“Look at the sky at night and watch things. You’d be amazed,” Glenda said.
In central Appalachia and the Ohio Valley, there are a few that haven’t quite made the ranks of Mothman yet, but are well-known and frightening nonetheless.
Children are often frightened by their parents with stories of the Tailypo, also known as the Tailybones. The Tailypo is said to be the size of a dog, with red or yellow eyes. It creeps around the mountains at night. In the most famous story about the creature, a hunter shoots off its tail during a midnight encounter, only for the Tailypo to appear in the man’s house in the middle of the night, demanding the return of its tail (the encounter doesn’t end well for the hunter).
If you’re a troublemaker, you might get called a “wampus cat,” after the half-cat, half woman who’s said to roam the mountains. Possibly rooted in a settler interpretation of an indigenous legend, the Wampus Cat was once a human woman who saw a magical ritual she wasn’t supposed to see, and was cut off from human society as a result. These days, the stories say, she wanders the Appalachian mountains, occasionally stealing cattle, and causing other problems for rural farmers. The word “catawampus”, or “cattywampus,” is sometimes used to describe mysterious, chaotic, troublesome events that the speaker can’t explain — something that’s just off, that went wrong.
There’s also the Loveland Frog Men in Loveland, Ohio. They have been sighted several times since the 1950s, often near bodies of water like marshes and creeks. They are said to be three or four feet tall, with leathery skin and frog-like faces. In some versions of the tale the Frog Men stand around conversing with each other while waving a wand over their heads.
And in Breckenridge County, Kentucky, locals have spotted Sheepsquatch. One couple who saw the creature described it as “a crossover between mutton and man.”
Whether you believe in cryptids or not, it’s undeniable that many in the Ohio Valley have seen something in the hills, hollers and deep forests of the region. So the next time you are walking in the woods at night, think about what is out there in the dark.
Is it a deer, a raccoon…or is it something else?
Alexa Beyer, Justin Hicks, Katie Myers and Liam Niemeyer contributed to this report.