Credit: Illustration by Ryan Smith

“So . . . I think I may have seen that flying thing or whatever,” Jeff said sheepishly before taking an extra-long drag from his cigarette.

This was last month. We’d been drinking beers and lounging on the rooftop of his Fulton Market District loft when he revealed that he’d personally witnessed some kind of giant owl/man-bat/flying humanoid thing soaring in the August night sky. You know, the Chicago Mothman.

“Huh,” I replied.

I’d sort of half dismissed Mothman as the trendy social panic of 2017—a sequel to last year’s Pokemon-Go-Is-the-End-of-Western-Civilization freakout (the Apokélypse!) and Great Creepy Clown Scare. (The latter could be considered a wildly successful sequel to the Homey the Clown sightings in Chicago in 1991.) Likewise, five years ago many of us were convinced that the street drug “bath salts” was turning users into cannibalistic zombies because of one surreal case in Miami. As a child of the 80s, I distinctly remember the satanic ritual abuse panic and the UFO abduction craze. These mass hysterias pop up from time to time, often as a weird and irrational manifestation of some kind of real societal anxiety or upheaval. Sometimes the hoaxes are proved false; sometimes the rumors and stories just die down as people move on to the next thing. When the dust finally settles, we don’t see killer clowns, anal-probe-wielding aliens, or sinister bands of child-kidnapping Satan worshippers—we’re faced with nothing but the banal horrors of everyday life under late capitalism. That’s where horror movies come in: they represent our grotesque worst fears in fictional form.

So I admittedly wasn’t very alarmed when I read about the “record number of reports of flying humanoids” that Aimee Levitt blogged about for the Reader this summer. I browsed the website sourced in the piece, Lon Strickland’s Phantoms and Monsters, an unofficial archive of stories about the Chicago Mothman (or Chicago Phantom, or Lake Michigan Bat Creature, or whatever), and read of the alleged eyewitness accounts. Turns out, it’s pretty easy to dismiss wild tales about seven-foot-tall winged figures staring at you with glowing red eyes while flying over Lake Michigan when the authors are anonymous, the stories come accompanied by grainy and indecipherable pictures, and the website where they’re posted is hilariously out-of-date. (Seriously, why do websites making claims about the paranormal always look like they’re from 1997?)

But it’s one thing to laugh off an enthusiast’s website and quite another to scoff at a close friend, especially one you’ve known for 22 years. Jeff has never been one for indulging in paranoid bullshit.

And so I listened.

His encounter, if that’s what it was, happened at about 1 AM in mid-August. He’d been alone smoking a cigarette on this very roof on Fulton Market Street, near the corner of Morgan, when it caught his eye. A massive . . . thing (a bird? a human?) flying slowly over the Green Line beyond Lake Street.

“At first I thought it was a bird, but none I’d seen before, because it was just so huge and the way it was flapping its wings,” he told me. It was a slow, deliberate, flowing kind of flying—almost gliding. He saw it soar southeast toward the lake until it disappeared, and as he watched he grew ever more fearful. “The longer I watched it, it was like . . . what the hell is that thing? It was freaky.”

He also texted his girlfriend Megan about the incident, and she replied with a link to Aimee’s Reader story about the flying humanoid sightings. It rang a bell in his head. A couple weeks prior, one of his coworkers at the bookstore where he’s assistant manager mentioned the Mothman trend, but Jeff dismissed it by jokingly quoting a line from Tim Burton’s Batman movie: “Listen! There ain’t no bat!”

“It’s not like [Mothman] was on my mind immediately,” he told me. “It was something said in passing that I remembered later. I never expected to actually see the thing, yet I can’t say I was completely unaware of people talking about it.”

Does that mean that Jeff subconsciously created the Mothman he saw in his own head?

Maybe. He still isn’t sure. “No idea. Maybe it was some unusual bird that got lost. Maybe someone created a drone that’s like a practical joke,” he said. “Do I think I saw the Mothman? I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything supernatural before—I’m very skeptical.”

He may be skeptical, but he’s nonetheless rattled by his encounter. For several nights he jumped at every unaccounted noise in his apartment, and for a week or two he’d go out onto his roof at 1 AM, just in case the creature had some kind of nightly flight plan. But Jeff never saw it again, and he didn’t report it to the Phantoms and Monsters website—even when another friend tried to convince him to.

Maybe some mass hysterias just aren’t worth getting hysterical about, even when they seem to touch you personally.