Macabre Moth Motif
Butterflies are seen as symbols of death and rebirth
as well as transformation
. But if you take away their beauty
and make them nocturnal, you end up discovering the Macabre Moth Motif.
Because moths are very much like equal
and opposite mirror images
of butterflies — alike in shape, flight and metamorphosis, unlike in that they're dark
, weighed down with negative stigma and nocturnal — they can be used as generic symbolism for Bad StuffTM
whenever the plot needs it. This includes but isn't limited to: poison
, the supernatural, Demonic Possession
, death, and transformation.
This trope is not well supported by Real Life
; the biological differences between moths and butterflies are small, with both families containing colorful and drab, nocturnal and diurnal species. But nobody ever let a little science get in the way of a good bit of symbolism.
No relation to Wallet Moths
To qualify as examples they must be intended to cause dread and/or fear by the author and/or the invoking
character. This trope is not
a more specific Big Creepy-Crawlies
focused on moths.
- In the Cowboy Bebop movie, the genetic tampering the villain underwent causes him to constantly hallucinate swarms of what are referred to as butterflies, but their ghostly whiteness and eerie atmosphere seems to invoke this trope.
- In the Revolutionary Girl Utena movie, one scene has a flashback of a young Touga getting raped by his adopted father in a field full of Cabbage White butterflies intercut with scenes of a nude Shiori sprouting white wings formed out of bedsheets. Given the symbolism of the scene is parasitism and "cruel innocence" it fits this trope.
- Rosine from Berserk looks like a cute, humanoid luna moth. So why does she belong here? Well, she's an Apostle, and her realm of humans-transformed-into-fairies quickly turns into a Sugar Apocalypse and Rosine herself proves to be a very dangerous opponent even before she goes One-Winged Angel and takes on a truly monstrous form.
- The Batman villain "Killer Moth" wasn't initially dark, wearing a garish costume with striped purple and green spandex, orange cape and a moth-like mask. Later on though, he was redesigned to look more menacing in his demonic Drury Walker / Charaxes incarnation.
- Mama has moths appear whenever she's nearby or about to make a "physical" appearance. In this case, the moths are attracted to her because her corpse was left to rot in a lake, and moths nested in it before burrowing out. At the end, when Lily is taken by Mama off of a cliff Lily is transformed into a blue moth rather than straight up die. Probably?
- The Moth Diaries, about a new girl in a boarding school who may or may not be a vampire, features heavy moth symbolism.
- The Possession has the moths presage the oncoming Demonic Possession and transformation awaiting Emily.
- The Mothman Prophecies: In this film adaptation, Mothman is named for a Ukrainian myth of the moth as a psychopomp or dark angel.
- In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling finds the pupa of a black witch moth inside the mouth of one of "Buffalo Bill"'s victims. The film changes it to a death's-head sphinx, and features it on the poster.
- Averted in The Lord of the Rings films, where a moth seems to be the go-between for Gandalf and his eagle friends. It's certainly playing on the mystery and magic of the motif, though.
- Also averted with Mothra, a gigantic moth in the Godzilla universe, who is generally depicted as benevolent, but vengeful. Played closer-to-straight with her angrier counterpart, Battra, who features in the 1992 Godzilla vs. Mothra.
- Swarms of moths adorn "Manos" The Hands of Fate. It wasn't even on purpose, since they were attracted to the location shooting's bright lights!
- In Arcia Chronicles, large gray moths are usually a sign of dark magic at work (especially of the Cialian tradition). Only magically-gifted people can see these magical moths, however.
- Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Sphinx: The narrator is horrified when he sees a humongous moth-monster with the image of a human skull on it. Then he realizes that it was just a normal moth, it was just much closer than he realized.
- In The Tatami Galaxy, one of the characters is phobic about moths because of this, and will have panic attacks if one lands on her.
- In The Hobbit, when the party is traveling through Mirkwood they go without campfires at night rather than attract the swarms of huge black moths that come out at night. Though not actually harmful, they're very unpleasant.
- Inkdeath, a book which as the title suggests, is replete with symbols and imagery of death, features several dark moths on its cover.
- In one of Joe Hill's short stories in the collection 20th Century Ghosts, a ghost in a movie theater appears friendly and normal at first, but after people interact with her for a little while strange things start happening, including creepy white moths gathering all around her.
- Playing straight into the trope, one of Wolfgang Hohlbein's Hexer von Salem stories features entire swarms of moths magically altered to cause rapid aging in anything and anyone they touch and under an intelligent antagonist's control. (The moths themselves are no smarter than usual.)
- The slake-moths of Perdido Street Station. They're sort of like Aliens... except much, much worse.
- In Carlos Ruiz Zafón's Marina, a special kind of moth is associated with Kolvenik. Later is revealed that they literally maintain his life.
- Deadhouse Gates describes a whole sub-continent sinking into bloody rebellion, and a native kind of moth that thrives on rotting flesh can be seen everywhere, covering the corpses and feasting. Thanks to that, that same moth is one of the symbols associated with the God of Death in the setting.
- Kenneth Oppel's Such Wicked Intent has butterflies from the spirit world latch onto the heroes and come into the living world. At first, they're harmless, but slowly become more like an addictive substance. And to boot, the giant demon at the end of the book is completely made out of these butterflies, making it incredibly hard to kill.
- French Black Metal band Peste Noire made a song entitled "Phalènes et Pestilence - Salvatrice Averse" ("Moths and Pestilence - Saving Downpour"), which mentions moths in a long metaphoric description of a plague epidemic.
- Poets of the Fall:
- The band's "Morpho" logo is a silhouette of a pinned moth with wings distressed as though they've been partially scorched by fire.
- In the video for "Lift," Poet County Jail inmate and Mad Dreamer Mark is very attached to his Hallucinations of moths, pleading with them to make him fly, and consistently makes a flapping moth shape with his cuffed hands when undergoing psych screening. He's diagnosed with delusional parasitosis and finally deemed a "Menace to society" as a result.
- All things fae in Changeling: The Dreaming have a colorful, stylized butterfly symbol. The Kiasyd, who are a hybrid of faeries and vampires, turn this to the morbid with their death's-head moth symbol◊, and spend a lot of time around moths in art (perhaps because of their habit of frequenting places full of old books).
- The final scene of The Insect Play has a succession of moths, including one emerging from a chrysalis, proclaiming the fascination of their existence while dying one after another.
- Giant vampire moths feature in THAT, a side-story to the webcomic Bad Machinery.
- In Teen Titans, Killer Moth is a scary looking moth/human hybrid.
- Subverted in The Tick with Arthur and his moth costume/flying suit. He's the opposite of dread-and-fear evoking, and is often mistaken for wearing a bunny costume.
- In PJ Masks, the villain Luna Girl has an army of moths that do her bidding.
- A moth appears on the UPA adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart, adding to the eerie atmosphere of the short.
- The Death's-head sphinx has coloring that looks like a human skull on its back.
- The Black witch moth, an omen of death and bad luck in Central American folklore.
- Famously, the peppered moth became murky because of the massive levels of pollution brought on by the Industrial Revolution in England.note
- Adult moths can't chew; generally either they drink nectar from flowers, or they don't eat at all. The only known exception is the Malayan bloodsucking moth, which drinks blood rather like a mosquito.
- Moth caterpillars can bite and chew, but any given species will have only a few things that it eats, and most are herbivorous.
- Mothman, a creepy Winged Humanoid with Red Glowing Eyes of Doom sighted in West Virginia. It supposedly causes (or at least prophesies) disaster wherever it goes, with the most infamous example being the collapse of Silver Bridge in 1967, killing 46 people. Another story claims a similar creature was sighted at Chernobyl before the nuclear disaster.