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Macabre Moth Motif

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Image by FlyrobotFly. Used with permission.

You are, always and still, a moth to folly's candle.
A Bad End ("...don't turn back yet"), Fallen London

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 flutter about in the dark, are 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, fluttering around lamps and looking all spooky. Moths can thus be used as generic symbolism for Bad Stuff™ whenever the plot needs it. This includes but isn't limited to: poison, the supernatural, Demonic Possession, death, and transformation. They also make a handy animal motif for the occasional vampire for whom bats are too much of a cliche.

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. When viewed up close, moths can range from being Ugly Cute to just plain endearing, with fluffy bodies, large eyes and delicate, intricate antennae. But, nobody ever let a little science get in the way of a good bit of creepiness.

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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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Adolescence of Utena, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In Black Butler, the cult of demon worshippers who kidnapped Ciel and his twin wore butterfly masks. The masks then "transform" into a swarm of moths that flocked around both twins as the cultists have them gang raped.
  • In Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' on Heaven's Door, 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.

    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.

    Fan Works 
  • Lexi in Infinity Train: Blossoming Trail is a Paper Master who can transform himself into different beings. He transforms into a swarm of moths during a Childish Pillow Fight and even gifts Chloe a paper bracelet with a large moth on top since he knows that she has a love of a macabre and that it's his way of saying that he's with her.

    Film — Live Action 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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?
  • 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!
  • The Moth Diaries, about a new girl in a boarding school who may or may not be a vampire, features heavy moth symbolism.
  • The Mothman Prophecies: In this film adaptation, Mothman is named for a Ukrainian myth of the moth as a psychopomp or dark angel.
  • The Possession has the moths presage the oncoming Demonic Possession and transformation awaiting Emily.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.)
  • 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 Carlos Ruiz Zafón's Marina, a special kind of moth is associated with Kolvenik. Later is revealed that they literally maintain his life.
  • The slake-moths of Perdido Street Station eat dreams, leaving their victims mindless Empty Shells. Unlike most examples of this trope, they're brightly coloured, which they use to enthrall their prey.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Live-Action TV 

  • In Neko Case's "Prison Girls", the narrator follows a mysterious voice into "a passage so poorly lit, there are moths flying away from it." Ultimately, things end poorly for the protagonist.
  • 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.
  • Finnish Symphonic Metal band Dark Sarah's third album is titled The Golden Moth, after the form that Sarah is reduced to when the gods destroy her at the end of the album. The liner notes for the next album, Grim, describe a moth, implied to be the same one, alighting on the brim of a witch's hat in the city of Grim; the witch transforms her into a human who takes the name Luna.
  • Vocaloid: Utsu-P's song Ga uses the symbolism of moths and evokes the disgust and fear they incite in comparison to butterflies.

    Mythology and Folklore 
  • The 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.

    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.

  • 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 
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • True death in Fallen London is difficult, but people who keep coming back to life eventually become too scarred or mutilated for polite society, and retire to the Tomb-Colonies. Before their bodies waste away enough to trap their minds inside, many of them instead choose to incubate Frost-Moths within their bandages; when they die, moths emerge from their corpses with their parents' memories encoded in their icy wings, and flock in the skies above. Colonists hope this means that they will live on in this new form, or at least that creating a new life makes their deaths meaningful.
  • The True Final Boss of Hollow Knight, The Radiance, manifests as a gigantic moth-like creature with Luciferian Features. She is responsible for destroying her civilization she created for rejecting her and creating a plague driving Zombie Apocalypse.
  • 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 butterfly particles appearing in many of its animations.
  • 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.
  • The fan-game Manos: The Revenge of Torgo uses the once-innocuous moths as a plot point: they're reincarnated minor servants of Manos.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In Resident Evil 2, on the lab portion of the game, one of the bosses you face is a gigantic mutant moth.
  • In Sengoku Basara 4, the sorceress Kyogoku Maria is likened to a poisonous moth by her brother-in-law Oda Nobunaga.
  • 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.
  • 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.

    Web Comics 

    Western Animation 
  • 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.
  • In PJ Masks, the villain Luna Girl has an army of moths that do her bidding.
  • In Teen Titans (2003), Killer Moth is a scary-looking moth/human hybrid.
  • A moth appears on the UPA adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart, adding to the eerie atmosphere of the short.
  • 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 Trese, the goddess of death's emissary has moths flying around her and sometimes out of her mouth.

    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. This trope is Averted in Hawaiʻi however, where they're viewed as an embodiment of a person's soul, and it is believed that seeing one after a loved one has passed away means that said person is coming to say goodbye.
  • 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.
  • Moths are loathed by people who work with natural fabrics for a living - the larvae of some species like to chew holes in woolen clothing. Traditionally, clothes were sometimes stored in a cedar cabinet, as cedar oil repels the moths.