Indrid Cold | The Smiling Man

Things always seem mysterious on chilly fall nights in the country.

For Woodrow Derenberger, his mysterious encounter with an almost human grinning man on the backroads of West Virginia one November night would affect him and his family for almost a quarter of a century.

In 1966, Woodrow Derenberger was a sewing machine salesman living in Mineral Wells, West Virginia. One November night that year, Derenberger said he was returning from a business trip to Marietta, Ohio, when he had to stop to adjust a sewing machine in the back of his truck. Once he got back on the road, he noticed lights ahead of him.

Thinking the lights were police officers, he stopped, only to discover that the lights didn’t belong to a car, but to what he said was an aircraft that looked like a “kerosene lamp chimney.” Derenberger said a man stepped out and approached his truck.

“He looked perfectly natural and normal as any human being,” Derenberger told Ronald Mains, during an interview on WTAP-TV in Parkersburg, West Virginia, the day after the encounter.  

“His face looked like he had a good tan, a deep suntan. He was not too dark but it was just like he had been out in the sun a lot and had a good tan. His hair was combed straight back and it was a dark brown and he seemed to have a good thick head of hair. His eyebrows, his face, his features were very normal. I don’t believe that he looked any different from any other man that you would meet on the street.”

But he wasn’t normal, Derenberger said. He had a large grin and kept his arms folded with his hands up under his armpits. And though he spoke to Derenberger, his smile never moved. He spoke, Derenberger said, telepathically.

“He asked me to roll down the window on my right-hand side of my truck and I done what he asked,” Derenberger said during the interview. “And this man stood there and he first asked me what I was called and I know he meant my name and I told him my name and he asked me, he said, ‘Why are you frightened?’ he said, ‘Don’t be frightened, we wish you no harm,’ he said, ‘We mean you no harm, we wish you only happiness,’ and I told him my name and when I told him my name he said he was called ‘Cold’.”

It was Derenberger’s, and the world’s, introduction to the entity known as “Indrid Cold.”

Naturally, Derenberger reported his encounter to the Parkersburg police. By the next day, the media frenzy surrounding the story took off. Derenberger agreed to be interviewed on live television on WTAP. Taking part in the interview were members of the state police, representatives of the Wood County Airport, the Parkersburg Police, and a representative from the Wright Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio. For 30 minutes, the men peppered Derenberger with questions about the strange encounter.

After the interview aired, however, others came forward with claims that they had also seen a figure matching Derenberger’s description of Indrid Cold. One man reported that a man matching Indrid Cold’s description tried to flag him down, but he was too afraid to stop. Other people claimed to see lights and “fluttering vehicles” on the road Derenberger said he talked to Cold on. And several witnesses reported they had seen Derenberger stopped on the road talking to a man on the same road.

For the next three weeks, newspapers in the area ran stories about Derenberger’s claims and the claims of others.

News coverage eventually died down, but Cold’s visitations continued. Derenberger reported he was visited often by the strange grinning man over the course of the next month. Eventually, Derenberger’s family said they too had seen Cold and other strange things.

Naturally, the media attention given to the story brought locals to Derenberger’s house, hoping to get a glimpse of Cold. The attention, as well as the scorn and ridicule he was suffering from, led Derenberger to seek medical attention. His physician gave him a clean bill of health and found no evidence of chemical imbalance or disruption.

Although he wrote a book about his visits, nothing good came from Derenberger’s recounting his encounter. In fact, it didn’t just negatively affect him, but it affected his family and his friends as well. The family received years of harassing phone calls and blamed lost jobs and friends on Derenberger’s tales of Indrid Cold. Derenberger suffered from painful headaches and depression, and eventually, his wife divorced him. Derenberger moved away from the area to escape his notoriety.

After years of living somewhere else, however, Derenberger moved back to the Mineral Wells area before his death in 1990 at the age of 74 – 23 years after Indrid Cold supposedly pulled him over on the highway. While he never recanted his statement, he never spoke of them again either.

Since then, Derenberger’s account has lingered, propelling Indrid Cold into the realm of the rural myths and legends as well as into tales of the creepy and unknown. After Derenberger spoke to John Keel, the author of the Mothman prophecies, the legend of Indrid Cold was linked to Mothman – even so far as appearing in the 2002 Mothman Prophecies movies.

It’s difficult to tell if it really happened, said Brian Dunning, author of Skeptoid Magazine, but it’s clear that Derenberger gained nothing from coming forward.

“Who knows what actually happened to Derenberger on that strange night,” Dunning said. “Derenberger’s story did little for him. His obsession with it cost him his job and his wife, and according to Keel who visited him a year later, they found him “hiding behind drawn curtains” from what he believed were “hundreds of UFO believers and skeptics,” saying that “Indrid Cold and his friends frequently visited the farm, often arriving by automobile, for long, friendly chats.” He had almost certainly become delusional.”

Cold November nights on lonely rural roads will always be a good setting for mysterious encounters, Dunning said.

“Rural areas are always the best place for a creepy tale,” he said. “It’s dark, there are trees and murky creeks, and you are far from the comforting protection of lights and people.”

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