Everyone wants a good story to tell, and the residents of southern Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, and the rest of Appalachia are especially adept, or perhaps prone, to spinning tall tales that are ripe for the listenin'. In addition to the ominous red-eyed Mothman, one can hear stories about hairy wildmen, mysterious caverns, conspiracies, and hauntings in the hill country of America's "wild east." What is it about the local area that makes it fertile ground for such stories of “high strangeness?” Does the Ohio Valley contain a portal to another dimension? Or could it be that the local psyche is fueled by a combination of an honestly_bred tradition of storytelling with the disenfranchisement that comes from living on the edge of the mass culture?
Ask any Athens resident about local lore and you’re bound to hear about The Ridges with its requisite horrors and hauntings and of the local cemeteries which can be linked by drawing a pentagram on a map. Ask your friends from Gallipolis and Point Pleasant about the ghost of old Chief Cornstalk and his curse. Go to the World Wide Web and discover that Ohio is one of the top states for bigfoot sightings – not far behind the Pacific Northwest—and read the wild tales about the sightings near Nelsonville, Zaleski, and Portsmouth. Bigfoot in Ohio? Sure There are actually multiple organizations for self-professed bigfoot researchers based in Ohio, and the city of Newcomerstown is home to one of the few annual conferences in the world dedicated to the study of Sasquatch. Pick up any book on mystic places and I’ll bet you that Adams County’s Serpent Mound is in there. For that matter ask your grandparents about the hoop snakes that bite their tails and chase you by rolling like a wheel, or the milk snakes which climb the cow’s legs and drink them dry overnight (“udderly”ridiculous!). Think it can’t get any weirder? Well then, I reckon you haven’t heard about the Grassman...but you’re on your own there, dear reader.
One of the most persistent of Appalachia’s contemporary “rural legends” is the rattlesnake reintroduction tale. It takes many forms and differs in details across the region, but in its essence, it purports to explain how a government agency, often cited as the Ohio Division of Wildlife, is secretly trying to reintroduce timber rattlesnakes to local public lands. Typically, the story includes details about how helicopters are employed to disperse the baby snakes at night; some versions tell of packing the little rattlers into water-filled balloons, presumably to cushion their falls. When asked what the rationale behind such a scheme would be, most local raconteurs can provide a reason, from the absurdly benign (to introduce a predator of wild turkey eggs) to the truly sinister (the plan is part of a larger government conspiracy to deter citizens from intruding onto secret areas in our forests).
Although this legend can be, and has been, discredited in multiple ways, from flat-out denials by public officials to explanations that attempt to show it wouldn’t work anyhow (i.e., snakes would probably drown if placed in water balloons, rattlesnakes don’t typically eat eggs, the snakes don’t adapt well to new environments), it just keeps on going. I heard it first from two local tobacco farmers near Shawnee State Forest in 1993; I heard it most recently from an attorney last month. I’ve even heard now that a parallel story has popped up in, of all places, France. So much for a lack of local exports...
Some local stories are true, some are extreme exaggerations, some are made up from whole cloth. Still others, like the milk snake legend, are based upon misconceptions about real animals or other phenomena. For those interested in digging up more stories of all every conceivable type, a visit to a local library or online newspaper archive can prove fruitful—as can a perusal of the pages of a number of different academic journals on folklore. One particularly good source can be found in the Appalachian oral history repository at Alice Lloyd College in nearby Pippa Passes, Kentucky.
But regardless of the ultimate origins, all of these are our stories. I know. In addition to being something of a social scientist, I grew up in a Ohio River holler and cut my teeth in an environment where calling someone a “BS artist” was just as likely a compliment as an insult. In the jargon of academia, we live in a subculture with a rich oral tradition. Heck, we’re downright famous for it. Even some of our heroes have been tale-spinners who have taken a few liberties with the truth. A good example is Daniel Boone, whom, according to one of his biographers, regularly told stories from Swift’s fictional Gulliver’s Travels as if they were his own exploits.
In the light of all this, what then was Mothman? Was he a type of evil entity known as a garuda, as the author John Keel speculated? Did he come to warn of, or even cause, that tragedy of 35 years ago? I don’t think so. In the end, it is most probable that he is a creature who is only known because he inhabits our language. We must remember that storytelling can serve multiple social functions, especially in a marginalized part of the world such as Appalachia. It can be entertainment, it can be a mark of social status (or a way to gain it), and it can be a tonic for the soul that is trying to cope with an unfathomable tragedy or a perplexing world. Whatever it is, embrace it. It’s part of you if you’re from ‘round here. Honestly.
Matt Zuefle is a university professor, consultant, and writer who lives in Oxford, Mississippi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.