In September I’ll be speaking at the annual Mothman Festival in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. It’s a weekend-long event that sees literally thousands of people turn up. Indeed, all of the local hotels and motels are already sold out. The same goes for the places in the nearby towns. And it’s a cool, fun few days. There are bands playing, competitions, lectures, Mothman-themed snacks and food, t-shirts for sale, and much more. As for my lecture at the gig it’s on the U.K. equivalents of Mothman. Although there are a number of strange creatures in the U.K. that could be fall into that category, but today I’m going to focus on the most famous of all in the U.K.: the Owlman. With that said, let’s take a look at the saga of the winged monster. It was in the summer of 1976 when the dense trees surrounding Mawnan Old Church, Cornwall, England became an absolute magnet for a diabolical beast that was christened the Owlman. The majority of those that crossed paths with the creature asserted that it was human-like in both size and design, and possessed a pair of large wings, fiery red eyes, claws, and exuded an atmosphere of menace. No wonder people make parallels with Mothman.
It all began during the weekend of Easter 1976, when two young girls, June and Vicky Melling, had an encounter of a truly nightmarish kind in Mawnan Woods. The girls were on holiday with their parents when they saw a gigantic, feathery “bird man” hovering over the 13th Century church. It was a story that their father, Don Melling, angrily shared with a man named Tony “Doc” Shiels. I say “angrily” because Shiels was a noted, local magician who Melling came to believe had somehow instigated the whole affair. Or as Shiels, himself, worded it: “…some trick that had badly frightened his daughters.” Shiels denied any involvement in the matter whatsoever. But that was only the start of things. Another one to see the Owlman was Jane Greenwood, also a young girl. She wrote a letter to the local newspaper, the Falmouth Packet, during the summer of 1976 that detailed her own startling encounter: “I am on holiday in Cornwall with my sister and our mother. I, too, have seen a big bird-thing. It was Sunday morning, and the place was in the trees near Mawnan Church, above the rocky beach. It was in the trees standing like a full-grown man, but the legs bent backwards like a bird’s. It saw us, and quickly jumped up and rose straight up through the trees. How could it rise up like that?”
Two fourteen year old girls, Sally Chapman and Barbara Perry, also had the misfortune to have a run-in with the Owlman in 1976. At around 10.00 p.m., while camping in the woods of Mawnan, and as they sat outside of their tent making a pot of tea, the pair heard a strange hissing noise. On looking around, they saw the infernal Owlman staring in their direction from a distance of about sixty feet. Sally said: “t was like a big owl with pointed ears, as big as a man. The eyes were red and glowing. At first I thought that it was someone dressed-up, playing a joke, trying to scare us. I laughed at it. We both did. Then it went up in the air and we both screamed. When it went up you could see its feet!” Barbara added: “It’s true. It was horrible, a nasty owl-face with big ears and big red eyes. It was covered in grey feathers. The claws on its feet were black. It just flew up and disappeared in the trees.”
While there were rumors of additional sightings of the creature in the immediate years that followed, it wasn’t until the summer of either 1988 or 1989 that the Owlman put in an appearance that can be documented to a significant degree. In this case, the witness was a young boy, dubbed “Gavin” by a good friend of mine, Jon Downes (who wrote an entire book on the winged monster, titled The Owlman and Others), and his then girlfriend, Sally. The beast, Gavin told Jon, was around five feet in height, had large feet, glowing eyes, and significantly sized wings. It was a shocking, awe-inspiring encounter that Gavin and Sally never forgot. As was the case in the immediate post-1976 era, a few reports from the 1990s and 2000s have surfaced. Chiefly, however, they are from individuals who prefer not to go on the record – something which has led to understandable suspicions of fakery and hoaxing. But, one could also make a very good argument that going public about having seen a monstrous “birdman” in English woodland would not be the wisest move to make.
Today, the matter remains the undeniable controversy that it was back then. For some researchers, Doc Shiels is the man to blame. They perceive him as a trickster, a faker and someone not to be trusted. Jon Downes, however, suggests something else – something with which I concur. Namely, that Shiels – dubbed the “Wizard of the Western World” – has profound knowledge of “magic.” And by that, I don’t mean people pulling rabbits out of hats. We are talking, here, about something far stranger, something ancient, and something filled with swirling mystery. In a review of Doc’s excellent book, Monstrum, I noted: “[Doc’s] is a world filled with a deep understanding of the real nature of magic (chaos and ritualistic), the secrets of invocation and manifestation, of strange realms just beyond – and that occasionally interact with – our own, and Trickster-like phenomenon. Doc’s is also a domain where, when we dare to imagine the fantastic, when we decide to seek it out, and when we finally accept its reality, we perhaps provide it with some form of quasi-existence.” Perhaps Doc, in a decidedly strange way, really did play a role in the formation of the Owlman legend. But, such was the allure of the beast it quickly stepped out of the world of imagination and story-telling, and right into the heart of the real world. And on that last point, be careful what you wish for, lest you unleash into our reality a monster that has no intention of returning to that domain from which it was originally created, imagined, or invoked.