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Macabre Moth Motif

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Emily wishes she had an Incurable Cough of Death instead.
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Butterflies are 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.

Compared to their cousins, moths aren't well-liked, because moths are very much like the equal and evil mirror images of butterflies — alike in shape, flight and metamorphosis, but unlike in that moths are dark, nocturnal, and weighed down with negative stigma; While butterflies are associated with the image of them dancing among flowers in broad daylight and looking pretty, moths are best known for suddenly showing up on your windows at night and looking spooky. Moths can thus 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.

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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. See also Moth Menace, in which the lepidoptera are actively malevolent instead of just serving as a symbol of bad stuff, and The Mothman.

Note: 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.


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Examples:

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     Anime 

  • 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. Really, 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.
  • Legosi, the hero of Beastars, has an affinity for insects, particularly moths. This shows his gentleness despite his frightening appearance. When he is preparing to fight against Tem's murderer, he eats a live moth larva in order to experience what it is like to kill something. The gives him a vision of speaking to the moth's spirit and makes him stronger, as though he had been reborn. And during his final battle with Tem's murderer, he somehow displayed the ability to transform into a swarm of moths.

     Comic Books 

  • 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.

     Film 

  • 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 dying. 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 Hawkmoth,note  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 and Mothra: The Battle for Earth.
  • 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!
  • Before I Wake: In Cody's dreams, The Canker Man turns into swarms of creepy moths. This is because of his dead mother's love of insects.
  • Crimson Peak features the dusty, fluttering moths of Allerdale Hall as a motif, mostly tied to Lucille, while the ingenue heroine, Edith, is associated with butterflies.
    Edith: What do they [the moths] eat?
    Lucille: Butterflies, I'm afraid.

     Literature 

  • 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.
  • Sleeping Beauties: Flocks of moths appear throughout the novel, as they are linked to the Aurora flu and the character Evie Black. At one point, while in prison, Evie emits a whole flock of moths from her mouth to subdue fellow inmate Angel Fitzroy.
  • In The Haunting of Drearcliff Grange School, Amy flirts with the notion of giving up her benign Proto-Superhero-style alter-ego of Kentish Glory (a harmless moth species) for that of the Death's Head Hawk: a role in which she could feel free to kill her foes, rather than apprehend them.

     Live-Action TV 

  • The Big Bad of The Magicians, an Ax-Crazy Humanoid Abomination called the Beast, is heralded by swarms of moths, a cloud of which constantly shrouds his face.
  • The Ultraman Ace Choju Doragoris (or Doragory) goes by the Boss Subtitles of "Poison Moth Super-Beast" and is pretty well known in the fandom for being one of Yapool's most brutal and physically powerful monsters, overpowering Ultraman Ace and tearing lesser kaiju into pieces.

     Music 

  • 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.

     Tabletop Games 

  • 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).
  • In Pathfinder, as well as its future setting Starfinder, the symbol of Urgathoa, the goddess of disease and undeath, is a death's-head moth.

     Theatre 

  • 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.

     Video Games 

  • Silent Hill has two enemies, Twinfeeler and Floatstinger, a larva and moth respectively (or rather, the game has one enemy with two forms). It's notable above being a random enemy because Alessa, the dark force moving the town against Harry, had a moth collection growing up which she uses as a basis for Floatstinger. Beyond that, Alessa herself is transformed two or three times through the game. First by being burned to near death, then when she's reunited into a godlike being, and finally when the god sealed inside her is released into a demonic form.
  • In The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, the boss Odolwa will at one point summon a cloud of moths to harass Link. They can be wiped out with a bomb, as they will be drawn to its fuse.
    • Its predecessor Ocarina of Time also had moth statues in the horror-themed Shadow Temple. Said moth is actually a boss from A Link to the Past and Oracle of Seasons. While his dungeons (Skull Woods and Poison Moth's Lair, respectively) were fairly dark, its status as this trope is more questionable.
  • Morph Moth from Mega Man X2 actually makes a fairly frightening boss, inhabiting a dusky robot grave/junkyard with zombie robots, and transforming from a fairly harmless pendulum/cocoon.
  • In Darkfall: Lost Souls, one of the hotel rooms is filled with pupae suspended from the ceiling, with nasty grubs inside that hiss and writhe creepily. Old paintings of moths are propped against the walls.
  • The Elder Scrolls:
    • Moths are primarily associated with the eponymous Elder Scrolls themselves. Also known as "fragments of creation", the Elder Scrolls are both a form of Tome of Eldritch Lore as well as Tomes of Prophecy and Fate. The Scrolls are of unknown origin and number which simultaneously record past, present, and future events irrefutably; what did happen, what could have happened, what might yet happen. Even the falsehoods in them are true. Reading the Scrolls tends to lead to blindness and madness for the user. Even those who merely study the Scrolls, never actually using or even handling them, are driven to complete madness with alarming regularity. The Scrolls are typically in the possession of the Cult of the Ancestor Moth, whose members are known as Moth Priests. Originally, the Cult was a Cyro-Nordic group that exported ancestor-silks, simple but exotic shawls woven with the silks of the Ancestor Moth and inscribed with the genealogy of the buyer. During the silk-gathering ritual, the singing and hymnal spirits of one's forebears were recorded in the silk. The swishing of the silk material during movement reproduces the wonderful ancestral chorus contained in the silk. At a time lost to history, it was discovered that this same ritual granted the performer special protections which allowed for the (relatively) safe reading of an Elder Scroll. The Cult was co-opted by the various Cyrodiilic Empires to perform this task specifically in service to the Empire ever since.
    • Moths are also associated with the "dead" creator god of Mundus (the mortal plane), Lorkhan. After being killed, Lorkhan's heart was launched down into the world he helped create and his spirit was forced to wander, occasionally taking physical form as a "Shezarrine" (Shezarr being the Imperial name for Lorkhan). Perhaps the most famous Shezarrine was Pelinal Whitestrake, a famous Berserker who aided St. Alessia in overthrowing the Ayleid Empire and establishing the First Empire of Men in Tamriel. Whitestrake notoriously hated being referred to as a "god" or being associated with the divine in any way. One of Alessia's soldiers who accused Whitestrake of being a god was found "smothered by moths" in his sleep.
    • At one point in the Dawnguard expansion for Skyrim, you need to read an Elder Scroll as part of the expansion's main quest. Unfortunately, the Moth Priest you find has been left blinded from his last reading and cannot do it for you. However, he gives you a special item which will allow you to attract ancestor moths who can protect you as you read the scroll yourself.
  • The fan-game Manos: The Revenge of Torgo uses the once-innocuous moths as a plot point: they're reincarnated minor servants of Manos.
  • In Resident Evil 2, on the lab portion of the game, one of the bosses you face is a gigantic mutant moth.
  • From the Bayonetta series, while Bayonetta has a butterfly motif, Jeanne, who acts as Bayonetta's enemy for most of the first game, has a moth motif. This even extends as far as the demons they have a contract with, with Bayonetta being contracted to Madama Butterfly, and Jeanne contracted to Madama Styx (a moth woman). Subverted by the end of the game and the sequel when it turns out Jeanne isn't evil after all, but then again, Dark Is Not Evil is a running theme in these games.
  • In Kirby Star Allies, the fearsome Morpho Knight, which is the result of the merge between Galacta Knight and the seemingly innocuous butterfly seen in every Kirby game intro from the past few years, has an overwhelming butterfly imagery, including butterfly wings, butterfly-themed swords and fiery butterflies flying away when he moves.
  • Tales of the World: Radiant Mythology uses moths as the theme for the villainous Aurora. Her clothes invoke the moth image, though she tends to use butterflies in her attacks.
  • Cultist Simulator uses Moth as the name for "the wild and perilous principle of curiosity and yearning". It's named after The Moth, and associated with the enigmatic Precursors known as the Carapace Cross.
    I knew a man who captured moths in a bell-jar. On nights like this, he would release them one by one to die in the candle.
  • In Sengoku Basara 4, the sorceress Kyogoku Maria is likened to a poisonous moth by her brother-in-law Oda Nobunaga.
  • Inverted in Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. Samus is trying to save a light-loving moth-like alien race called the Luminoth, who are implied to have connections to the Chozo, from the Ing.

     Webcomics 

     Western Animation 

  • 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 Big Bad of Miraculous Ladybug is known as Le Papillon ("The Butterfly") in the original French version. The English and Korean dubs, seemingly deeming this an insufficiently threatening name for a man with the power to create supervillains, renamed him Hawk Moth.

     Real Life 

  • The Death's-head hawkmoth has coloring that looks like a human skull on its back, and as a result has become a symbol and omen of death and ill fortune in many European traditions.
  • 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. The most dangerous are those with venomous spines for defense, such as the notorious Southern flannel moth.
  • 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.

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