"The Mothman Prophecies"

Photo: Lakeshore Entertainment

A psychological thriller that asks important questions about a real, extremely bizarre series of events that frightened a West Virginia town in 1966

WHAT IN THE NAME of all that's rational took place in Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1966-67?

The many bizarre events that occurred in that quiet town on the banks of the Ohio river beginning in November, 1966 have puzzled and intrigued paranormal researchers for decades.

And despite all the hype, publicity and scrutiny the events have received in concert with the release of the film The Mothman Prophecies, we are no closer to explaining what really happened.

Much of what we know of the phenomena comes from the research of the late paranormal investigator and author John A. Keel, who was in Point Pleasant when many of the strange events were going on. His findings and his experiences - Keel was directly affected by the phenomena - were chronicled in his classic non-fiction book, The Mothman Prophesies, published in 1975. The motion picture is loosely based -- or "inspired," as they say -- on Keel's book.

The Mothman event stands as one of the most peculiar and multi-layered episodes in the annals of paranormal phenomena. So many odd things were taking place that a list of them looks like entire seasons of The X-Files or Fringe:

  • Sightings of the Mothman creature itself
  • UFO sightings
  • Men-in-black appearances
  • Phantom phone calls
  • Electrical disturbances to such devices as TVs, telephones and a police radio
  • Eerie predictions and spontaneous prophecies
  • Missing time
  • Animal mutilations
  • Mental telepathy
  • Strange coincidences and repeating numbers
  • A missing, possibly dead dog
  • Encounters with the enigmatic Indrid Cold

    The movie version of The Mothman Prophecies understandably relies on certain cinematic conventions in its translation from book to film. It moves the time from the 1960s to present day, creates composite characters, adds phenomena that never took place, omits phenomena that reportedly did take place, and fictionalizes the life and background of the story's protagonist, John Klein (Richard Gere) -- the character based on John A. Keel. But the film remains true to the spirit of the book and, indeed, to the nature of the true life events.

    John Klein, a successful reporter for the Washington Post, is inexplicably drawn into the Point Pleasant phenomena two years after the death of his wife. She is killed in a car accident resulting from a sighting of Mothman. In reality, John Keel, a researcher of Fortean anomalies and a UFO investigator, traveled to Point Pleasant in the Ohio River Valley specifically to inquire about the Mothman sightings, which began on November 15, 1966 and were reported in the local newspaper.

    By Keel's account, 100 or more people actually saw the Mothman creature. It was described as being between five and seven feet tall; apparently headless, but with two large, hypnotic, glowing red eyes in the shoulder area; a shuffling walk on human-like legs; large bat-like wings that spread but did not flap as the Mothman ascended into the air.

    Yes, the Mothman was reported to fly, some say with a mechanical humming noise.

    As strange as this creature sounds, it was often background to the other weird events affecting dozens of people in the area. The film handles this aspect quite well. Screenwriter Richard Hatem and director Mark Pellington are to be credited for keeping the movie from becoming a run-of-the-mill monster flick in which a slime-drooling Mothman leaps onto the screen every 20 minutes to terrorize people or tear them to shreds. Instead, the creature is barely seen in this film and is a stepping-off point for deeper, more unsettling disturbances that culminate in what was to become one of the worst disasters in the state's history.

    Next page: An enigmatic reality: Making Mothman work

    The Mothman Prophecies is a psychological thriller rather than a horror film, and succeeds quite well as such. Like John Klein, we are gradually drawn into the Twilight Zone-like high strangeness of phantom entities and unexplained messages. What happens in Point Pleasant is so queer and irrational that when Klein begins to question his own sanity, we're with him. And it's even more effective knowing that this really happened to Keel.

    He was caught up in "a vortex of phenomena, and couldn't really tell one from the other," says Loren Coleman (author of a book on the subject, ) in an article for IGN FilmForce. "It was a scary situation for John."

    Making this story work is no simple feat. On the surface, the phenomena are so crazy -- so unbelievable -- that it can be instinctive to dismiss them or not take them seriously. "This is difficult territory," said director Pellington, "and it's really easy to veer into melodrama or wackiness. It's really kind of unbelievable so you have to go deeper, to a metaphysical, naturally surreal, enigmatic, mysterious emotional place with this material to make it work. Otherwise it's ridiculous."

    Fortunately, Pellington does make it work. Many of the reviews for the film in the mainstream press have been generally favorable. It's understandable that film critics want to judge a film strictly on its merits as a work of cinema -- and they should -- but many did not even mention that it is based on real events, or they dismissed that point outright.

    To omit that many elements of The Mothman Prophecies really happened is to miss much of the meaning and resonance of the film. Because it really happened, The Mothman Prophecies becomes more than an edgy piece of entertainment -- it forces us to question the nature of our world, perhaps of reality, or at the very least the workings of the human mind.

    What happened in Point Pleasant? Was there really a monster? Are all the other phenomena explainable? Was it just mass hysteria? Or did something more profound and ultimately more unnerving occur that we do not yet have the faculty to fully understand? Something happened. And we are left to ask questions to which we may never find the answers: how -- or more important: Why?

    Note: Also see the documentary Eyes of the Mothman.