It was a normal summer night for John Amitrano, working a Friday shift as security for Chicago’s popular Logan Square hangout The Owl—but when we went outside, he saw something odd. “I saw a plane flying, but also something moving really awkwardly under it,” he told VICE. “It didn’t look like a bat so much as what illustrations of pterodactyls look like, with the slenderness of its head and its wing shape. I know what birds and what bats look like. This thing didn’t have any feathers or fur, and it didn’t fly like anything I’ve ever seen.”
Amitrano added that the thing he saw—which, according to him, had muscular legs, a jutting tailbone, and a human-like shape—flew in a “strange swooping motion, undulating up and down.” After it flew away, he retrieved his phone from charging in the bar and texted his girlfriend and close friends what had happened. “I remember thinking, This was the worst time in the world to have my phone charging,” he laughed.
What Amitrano saw that night was one of 55 reported Chicago-area sightings of a flying humanoid in 2017. Accounts have varied from “a large, black, bat-like being with glowing red eyes” to “a big owl” or something that resembled a “Gothic gargoyle” or a “Mothman.” Most eyewitnesses spotted the being in-flight, but some particularly disturbing reports detailed it dropping onto hoods of cars, peering in through windows, and swooping down at bystanders. The alleged “Mothman” has captured the attention of the city, from local media articles and rap songs to Halloween costumes and countless speculative Facebook groups.
Amitrano later remembered seeing something on Facebook about the sightings, and as he read more about it he contacted Lon Strickler, a self-described Fortean researcher who’s been compiling all of the Chicago sightings on his website Phantoms and Monsters. Strickler—whose book Mothman Dynasty: Chicago’s Winged Humanoids was released last month—has been investigating paranormal sightings since the late 1970s and claims to have seen both a “Mothman” and Bigfoot. Since the rash of sightings started in February, he’s been painstakingly interviewing witnesses and documenting their accounts.
According to Strickler, these Chicago sightings are unlike anything he’s seen in his decades investigating alleged flying humanoid sightings: “This group of sightings is historical in cryptozoology terms. For one, it’s happening in an urban area for the most part and that there are so many sightings in one period.” He added that he believes there are at least three flying humanoids around Chicago due to the varied locations, the concentration of sightings in certain neighborhoods, and the small differences in the eyewitness testimonies.
The main reference point Strickler uses for explaining this phenomenon was the wave of reported “Mothman” sightings in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. From 1966 to 1967, there were several reports of a large, man-like bird with glowing red eyes; local folklore later tied the monster to a bad omen connected with a tragic bridge collapse in 1967. The sightings were popularized by John Keel’s 1975 novel The Mothman Prophecies, which was later adapted into a 2002 film starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney—and since 2002, the town has commemorated the “Mothman” sightings with an annual festival.
Strickler doesn’t believe that what Chicagoans have been seeing are harbingers of bad things to come: “These beings are less aggressive than the one in Point Pleasant, for the most part. I believe overall there was only one being in the Point Pleasant-area that was seen during that period.” While he’s not sure why Chicagoans are seeing what they’re seeing, he theorized, “I think they’re flesh and blood beings that aren’t of this world.”
Dr. David A. Gallo is a psychologist from the University of Chicago whose research deals with memory—specifically, how people “actively (and sometimes inaccurately) reconstruct the past,” studying why people believe or are skeptics of paranormal psychic phenomena. A fan of The Mothman Prophecies, he offered his own explanations for what’s happening in Chicago: “It’s a selective sample. When people are choosing to report sightings, the basis of data upon which your paranormal researchers are collecting is all self-report,” he said over a phone call. “He’s not sampling random people and asking if they saw the Mothman—he’s just counting the number of people that voluntarily came forward to report a sighting.”
According to Gallo, the people more likely to visit a paranormal-centric website like Strickler’s might also be more inclined to believe in, and therefore witness the existence of, a “Mothman.” “Ideas about the supernatural can be culturally transmitted and socially transmitted. When incidences of UFOs are reported in the media or represented in popular culture, more sightings happen. I’ve heard it called The Will Smith Effect.” But Strickler doesn’t buy that explanation: “We have had very few cranks from what I can tell, which I think is pretty unusual. If the media would have picked up on it more than it has, I think that we would have had more fraudulent sightings.”
“So many things could be different factors for why there’s such a big uptick in the sighting,” Gallo stated, adding that he doesn’t deny these witnesses saw something out of the ordinary. “There’s a phenomenon where there’s basically some real witnessed experience, but if there are holes or gaps in that original experience, sometimes the mind is unable to fill in the gaps.” Because of this, Gallo warned, “if something is suggested to them subsequently as a plausible scenario—like a Mothman or whatever—that person might be inclined to fill in the gaps with that.”
While Gallo’s theories for why people have been seeing this flying humanoid might help soothe the nerves of Chicagoans afraid to look up at the sky, Amitrano still believes he saw something that night: “The reason I said something in the first place is that nobody wants to say anything because they don’t want to be perceived as a crackpot or a crazy person. That doesn’t mean that those things don’t happen.”