The Mothman: Film, Fiction, & Fact
by Dan Schneider, 2/6/02
This past weekend my wife & I went to see the new Richard Gere film ‘The Mothman Prophecies’. It was supposed to be a supernatural thriller based upon the same-titled classic book of Forteana by John Keel. It was a bad movie, but worse- it was dull. In this essay I’m gonna 1st review the film, then compare it with some of the claims of the ‘real’ incident the film is based upon, & then compare both to each other & place them in their proper place in American legendry.
always had an interest in psi phenomena, & having read many of
Keel’s books & essays in magazines, I wanted to see it to see if
Hollywood could actually make a decent film of a genuinely interesting
phenomenon- whether a true encounter with the unknown, or as
myth-in-the-making. The film starts off in late 1999 with Washington
Post political reporter John Klein (Gere- 1 of America’s hammiest
actors) & his wife Mary (Debra Messing from tv’s ‘Will &
Grace’) looking to buy a house in the DC area. Driving home they are
in an accident when Mary swerves off the road after having a vision of
some red-eyed creature coming toward their car. She hits her head, is
hospitalized, & found to have some tumor that could warp her
perceptions. A few weeks later she dies. Gere weeps, but discovers his
wife filled a notebook with the creature she saw- some dark angelic
being. Gere is solemnity itself. 2 years pass & he’s on his way
south from DC to go to Richmond, Virginia to interview a possible
Presidential candidate: the state’s governor. Driving at night he
somehow ends up 400 miles west of his destination- in Point Pleasant,
West Virginia. His car breaks down & he knocks on the door of a
house. Gordon & Denise Smallwood (Will Patton & Lucinda Jenney)
answer. Gordon pulls a gun on John & holds him prisoner in his
bathtub until town cop Connie Parker (Laura Linney) arrives. She
convinces the Smallwoods to let John go. They claim he has harassed them
the past few nights. Connie takes John to stay at a motel & the next
day his car is towed, but turns out to be in perfect working order.
Mysterious music & MTV-like film cuts intone this, & every
John is confused about how he arrived in this town, while the Smallwoods tell a tale of a creature with red eyes, & of hearing voices. So do other townsfolk. Connie reveals a dream of drowning & being called #37. John gets call after call from someone or something. Each phone call provides the director to hammily zoom in & out towards & from the phone. Closeups of a frightened Gere are legion. It seems a spirit/entity named Indrid Cold is telephoning prophecies of death- sometimes right & sometimes not. A woman resembling John’s dead wife is spotted about town- is it Indred Cold in drag? The Mothman with a nylon fetish? John must solve the mystery. He contacts a renowned Chicago psi researcher named Dr. Leek (Alan Bates- the character is Keel spelled backwards) who refuses to speak to him & warns him to stay away. This is a given of these types of films, the elder with ‘forbidden’ knowledge who refuses assistance but then- of course- relents. Of course, John goes to Chicago, has visions, hears spooky music, gets phone calls that sound human, yet researchers say the voice is ‘not human’. John’s boss at the Washington Post tells him to interview the Virginia governor when he visits West Virginia the next day. John is scared- something must happen or why would this film exist?
Gordon gets a tumor like John’s wife did, goes insane, his wife leaves him, townsfolk see things but the movie audience does not (most noticeably the MIA Mothman- which leaves only some acidic like residue, ala the Aliens from film series of the same name), & Connie & John develop chemistry- well, no- but the film wants you to think they do. By standing near each other & exchanging fearful looks the director wants to make you believe this is how people connect. Instead of that, John believes the governor will be part of a disaster that will befall the chemical plant he will tour in Point Pleasant. Why? Because a depressed Gordon calls him on the phone & mumbles. An hour later John finds him dead in the woods of exposure- over 8 hours dead! My God, John thinks, this psychotic hick’s death can only mean that the chemical plant will explode- or something. Nothing happens. John is devastated that things turn out well, returns to DC to await a promised phone call from his dead wife- aka Indrid Cold. Instead, Connie calls to invite him to Xmas Eve dinner. As he’s leaving the phone rings- is it Mary? We don’t know. A hysterical John rips the phone out of the wall. It STILL rings- didn’t see that 1 coming, did you? The whole usage of melodramatic eerie music, weirdly-tinted film, excessively perverse angles of vision & close-ups, reminds me of the old 1970s psi tv show In Search Of.... (hosted by Leonard Nimoy), spliced with MTV-style aesthetics, & faux symbolism.
On the way back John is stuck in traffic as the Silver Bridge into the town is jammed. Stop lights don’t work. Then John realizes: the disaster augured by the loony Gordon’s death was not meant to be for the plant- but the bridge. Why? It is not made clear & does not matter by this point in the film- either to the viewer or filmmaker. He runs to warn all- but the bridge collapses. Connie’s cop car goes into the river. John dives a 100 feet into the frozen water, somehow avoids all the twisted metal from the bridge & dozens of cars, swims down dozens of feet to save Connie. That he would have had hypothermia in 1/3 the time he actually spends underwater is beside the point. She is saved. The final death toll- 36. Connie would have been 37! Symbolic- eh? Eerie music. Hold me. End film.
This is a film too bad to be good & too good to be so bad it’s good. DULL is the watchword, unless watching Richard Gere’s Shatnerian reactions to a phone ringing is your idea of edge-of-the-seat horror. That Mothman never makes an appearance would be fine if the film gave us something else, or kept a mystery worth keeping- but nada. & this is perhaps the only ‘action’ film I can recall where a gratuitous love story would have improved the tale. Laura Linney’s Connie is the only character developed to any emotional or deep extent, or which induces any concern. She radiates a down-home sensuality, yet John never makes a move, even after saving her. Not even a peck on the cheek. Loser!
enough of just the film. Let us compare it with the real-life version of
‘supposed’ events & see where Hollywood went wrong in bringing
this tale to the big screen. 1st off, the real tale took
place in the 1960s. The reason for the updating seems to be so the film
could link subsequent events with the prophecy element- like Chernobyl.
The Mothman story began on November 12th,
1966 near Clendenin, West Virginia. 5 cemetery workers were preparing a
grave when an 8-10 foot tall ‘brown human being’ lifted off from
some nearby trees & flew over their heads. It seemed more like a man
with wings, than a moth. On November 15th, 2 couples had an
encounter as they drove past an abandoned chemical plant near Point
Pleasant. They spotted 2 large eyes that were attached to something that
was ‘shaped like a man, but bigger, maybe six or seven feet tall. And
it had big wings folded against its back’. When the creature moved
toward the plant door, the couples panicked & sped away. Moments
later, they saw it on a hillside near the road. It spread its wings,
rose into the air, & followed their car, going over 100 mph. ‘That
bird kept right up with us.’ they said. They told Deputy Sheriff
Millard Halstead that it pursued them down Highway 62, right to Point
Pleasant’s city limits. 4 other witnesses claimed to see the
‘bird’ 3 different times! Another local’s dog was missing &
later found dead, on the side of the road, & exsanguinated- emptied
On November 16th, a press conference was held in the county courthouse, & the couples from the chemical plant sighting repeated their story. Deputy Halstead took the report very seriously: ‘They’ve never been in any trouble.’ The news of the sightings spread around the world. The media dubbed the creature ‘Mothman’. The remote abandoned chemical plant seemed to become the epicenter of the Mothman sightings. Most of the property was virtually inaccessible, & it could have hidden for weeks or months without detection. Then, later that day, Ralph Thomas & his family spotted a ‘funny red light’ in the sky that moved and hovered above the chemical plant. ‘It wasn’t an airplane’, Marcella Bennett (Thomas’s friend) said, ‘but we couldn’t figure out what it was.’ Bennett drove to Thomas’s house & as she got out of her car, with her baby, a figure rose near the automobile. ‘It seemed as though it had been lying down.’ she later recalled. ‘It rose up slowly from the ground. A big gray thing. Bigger than a man with terrible glowing eyes.’ Bennett was so terrified she dropped her baby girl. She recovered, picked up the baby, & ran screaming into the house. The family locked everyone inside but hysteria reigned as the creature lumbered onto the porch, peering into the windows. The police were summoned, but Mothman disappeared by the time they came. Many believed the sightings of Mothman, UFOs, & encounters with ‘Men In Black” in the area, were all related. For over a year strange things continued. Psi researchers swarmed over the town- including John Keel: a little-known meat & potatoes freelance writer, not a celebrated Washington Post reporter. Keel was generally a level-headed observer & commentator on things unexplained. He became the major proponent of the Mothman case, & claimed 100+ people personally witnessed the enigmatic creature between November, 1966 and November, 1967. According to most reports, Mothman stood anywhere between 5 & 10 feet tall, was wider than a man, & shuffled about on humanoid legs. Its eyes were set near the top of the shoulders, or in its chest, & it had bat-like, or furry, wings that glided, rather than flapped, when it flew- its ‘flying’ seemed more mechanical than natural, & made a humming ‘whoosh-like’ sound. Witnesses also described its skin as gray or brown. Mothman was apparently incapable of rational speech, & gave off screeching sounds- not unlike those the film portrays as coming in the telephone calls to John Klein. Marcella Bennett said the screeches sounded like a ‘woman screaming’. Then, on December 4th, 5 pilots at the Gallipolis, Ohio, airport saw a giant bird flying at about 70 mph. Its wings weren't moving, but unlike the others they swore it had a long neck.
Keel, himself, had arrived in Point Pleasant in December, 1966 & gathered evidence on the Mothman, as well reports that suggested that a problem with tv’s & telephones began in Fall, 1966. Lights were seen in the skies, & cars that passed along the nearby road sometimes stalled without mechanical explanation. He also discovered some poltergeist/visitation cases in nearby towns. A month later- January, 1967- a reporter named Mary Hyre, the Point Pleasant correspondent for the Athens Messenger, in Ohio, was besieged by over 500 phone calls from people who reported strange lights in the night skies. 1 night, as she was working late in her county courthouse office, a man walked in her door. He was short, with ‘strange’ eyes & thick eyeglasses. He had thick, matted, black hair cut squarely ‘like a bowl haircut’. Hyre said he spoke in low, deep, halting tones & asked for directions to Welsh, West Virginia. She thought that he had some sort of a speech impediment- but for some reason, he terrified her. ‘He kept getting closer and closer to me, and his funny eyes were staring at me almost hypnotically.’ She asked the newspaper’s circulation manager to come to her office. She said at 1 point she answered the telephone when it rang & noticed the little man pick up a pen from her desk, look at it in amazement, & twirl it around ‘as if he had never seen or held a pen before.’; she grabbed back the pen, & the odd man laughed loudly, & ran out of the building. A month later, she was crossing the street near her office, & saw the same man. He seemed startled when he saw her watching him, turned away quickly, & ran for a large black sedan that drove around the corner. The man climbed in & quickly drove away. By now, most of the sightings had come to an end.
But the story of the town’s weird goings-on had not yet ended. At around 5 pm on December 15, 1967, (not Xmas Eve, as in the film), the 700-foot bridge linking Point Pleasant to Ohio collapsed while filled with rush hour traffic. Dozens of vehicles plunged into the Ohio River & 46 people were killed. [The rumor as to why the change from 46 to 36 dead is this: the producer thought 46 was ‘too high a death toll’. Perhaps 36- with its 62 implications of sinistry is also a reason.] The next week, another weird man- short, & dark-skinned- entered Hyre’s office. He was dressed in a black suit, with a black tie, & she said he looked vaguely Oriental. He had high cheekbones, narrow eyes & a weird accent. He was not interested in the bridge disaster, rather wanting to know about local UFO sightings. (This is classic MIB iconography!) Hyre was too busy to talk, so handed him a file of related press clippings instead. He was not interested in them, & insisted on speaking with her. She threw the annoying man out of her office. That night, the same man visited the homes of several witnesses in the area who had reported seeing UFOs. He made them uneasy with claims of being a reporter from Cambridge, Ohio, even while inadvertently admitting he did not know where Columbus, Ohio was- even though the 2 towns are only a few miles apart.
Whatever Mothman was, however, it was probably no conscious hoax (too many reliable witnesses)- more a conflation of several local myths & bad timing. It was suggested the creature may have been a sandhill crane, which while they are not native to the area, could have migrated from Canada. The witnesses, however, stated what they saw looked nothing like a crane. But, even Keel suspected a few of the cases involved people who were spooked by recent reports and saw owls flying along deserted roads at night. Robert Smith, a professor at a nearby university, was the proponent of the Crane Theory. He said Mothman was no monster, but a sandhill crane- which can grow as large as 6 feet in height, with a wingspan of 10 feet. The bird sports bright red patches of feathers about its eyes. While adults are all white, younger cranes do have gray & brown feathers. The Crane Theory was quickly endorsed by local officials- therefore ensuring its disbelief by true believers in hoodooery & conspiracy. The theory seemed the most likely because Mothman was bird-like, screeched in a somewhat crane-like manner, & the chemical plant where it was most often seen is next to a bird sanctuary. Keel carried around a photo of a crane, after hearing of the theory, yet no witnesses recognized the bird as Mothman- or at least admitted to their misrecognition. However, after the theory hit the media a # of very strange birds were spotted in the area- including an ostrich &, at Gallipolis Ferry, a farmer shot an Arctic snow owl. The owl was 2 feet tall, with a 5 foot wingspan.
But Keel doubted the Crane Theory, as it did not fit with all the other weird things. He believed Point Pleasant was a ‘window’ area- sort of like the theories proponents of the Bermuda Triangle pushed- a place marked by periods of strange sightings, & monster reports. Others pointed to another supernatural link to the strange happenings, blaming the events on the legendary Cornstalk Curse that was placed on Point Pleasant in the 1770s. A few years before the American Revolution, the Governor of Virginia- Lord Dunmore, a Tory- tried to divert attention away from ideas of independence by inflaming race hatred between the colonists & Native Americans. He tricked the Virginia Militia & Native American tribes into a major battle, October 10, 1774, on the land that was later the site Point Pleasant was founded on. The leader of the Native Americans, Shawnee chief Hokolesqua (Chief Cornstalk), was killed in an ambush, thinking he was coming to sign a peace treaty. He cursed the land for the next 200 years with his dying words- words which have been invoked after every disastrous occurrence in the town since then, including floods, fires, & a 1976 hostage situation at the Mason County Courthouse. Pre-eminent in this mythos is the Mothman & the collapse of the Silver Bridge. A subset theory says Red Hawk, Cornstalk's underling, returned to the area to warn people of danger, just as he had done in 1777, in the form of a red hawk. Many witnesses, indeed, felt the creature was trying to tell them something.
Another theory relates to the mysterious deaths of a # of farm animals & pets. Many of the animals died from almost surgical wounds to the throat & thorax that were almost entirely bloodless- the wounds & the soil around the dead animals. The accompanying lack of footprints, or any other trace of a killer also baffled investigators. Many believed the animals were sacrificed in a Satanic Ritual that called Mothman up from Hell, or that Mothman needed vampirism of some sort to stay alive. That Point Pleasant was a hotbed of Revivalist nonsense also led some to believe Mothman was a demon come to test the purity of the community. As for who was responsible for the phone calls Keel & other claimed as harassing?- this seems to be the film’s conflation of psi phenomena. Indrid Cold was a supposed entity involved with UFO celebrity Contactee-hoaxer Woody Derenberger. On September 18th, 1968 people in the area supposedly saw Mothman for the last time. But, it seemed anyone involved was affected for months afterward- including Keel. Before long many phone calls claimed knowledge of his future actions before he decided on them. His phone lines- in Point Pleasant & around the country as he traveled, were wracked with untraceable interference, tapping, line cutting, crossed lines, harassments, hoax calls, & shady photographers & detectives trailing him around Manhattan. Keel also received predictions for 13 months, channeled by various contactees &/or entities. These 'Mothman Prophecies' were almost right- but not quite. Regardless, they formed the basis for Keel’s now-classic psi account called ‘The Mothman Prophecies’. That little of this subsequent mumbo-jumbo had a thing to do with the sightings of the bird-like thing that started it all- well, 1 needs to sell books & movie tickets, doesn’t 1? Now, that I’ve limned the supposed doings, let’s do a little comparing of things & reach some conclusions.
In my recent essay on the Lowest Common Denominator in pop
culture I touched upon the issue of backdating- or
linking- claims, of UFOs & such, with older, more scientifically
established disciplines, to lend a veneer of respectability to true
believers’ claims. The same holds true for the Mothman incidents. What
were originally just a series of weird sightings, quickly became linked
with other phenomena- UFOs, MIBs, Satanism, animal mutilations, ancient
Native American curses, & even mutations caused by the chemical
plant. Add to this the supposed weird phone messages, predictions, &
harassment of Keel & others, & what you have is something more.
The movie even adds an acidic touch to the neverseen Mothman, not to
mention the unrelated Indrid Cold thrown in for good measure- plus a
dead wife for Keel/Klein. Add to that, that as years have gone by
Mothman is claimed to now supposedly have been sighted earlier in Point
Pleasant & around the world. Much like UFO Abductees, there seems to
be a purposeful need for newer witnesses to trump older witnesses’
claims by either claiming to be the ‘true 1st’ spotter of
Mothman &/or having the ‘most terrifying or strange encounter’.
The Cornstalk Curse aspect nicely mirrors the advocates of Ancient
Astronauts in ufology. It also plays into shamanism, white liberal guilt
over Native Americans’ treatment, etc. That Mothman has now been
‘sighted’ all over the world, all throughout history, is just a bald
example of urban legendry gone global. If you Google Mothman you will
get the movie website that claims Mothman has been spotted dozens of
times in just the last few weeks- does it augur DANGER!? No. Simply mass
marketing trying to resurrect a little-known, but explicable, mystery
from a few decades back.
The point is that there was a potentially much better film to be made regarding mass hysteria, & public paranoia about the government. Even had the film taken the tack that the Mothman was real there was alot more that could have been done. Instead, all that was served was refried animism, superstition, & a moral that ‘There are things Man should not know!’ Real original. Recent coming attractions I’ve seen point to a new film about an even more intriguing- & possibly real- psi phenomenon than Mothman: crop circles. Hollywood is sure to butcher this, though, especially considering Mel Gibson is starring. Again, LCD rules- this time in the negative. No room for a discussion of the merits of the claims will be made (bank on it), just another sad monster tale without a monster.
As for what really happened during the whole Mothman thing? I was a child, not ever there, never interviewed the witnesses, etc. But I am an expert with words, & can read between the lines of many of the statements. It seems clear that the 1st few people involved saw something weird- probably the non-native cranes. That they would mistake something, especially that they’ve never had experience with, is human nature. Consider the familiarity humans have had for eons with wolves yet still fear & lycanthropy ooze from our dealings with them. Then these tales get out & the people receive attention- a news conference, for example- which makes other ‘little people’ long for their own 15 minutes. Anything vaguely unexpected creates the expectation of seeing Mothman. These increase with exponential frequency as regular people don’t wanna be the only ‘unspecial’ people on the block. An animal is killed- couldn’t be a predator or poacher- must be Mothman! Anything a little strange- Mothman. That these things occur all the time & fly under our conscious radar is not acknowledged- especially when others have claimed to see something ‘special’. Owls, cranes, lights in the sky- Mothman! Then we get the people who actively hoax, just to be involved, & be ‘special’, or to get their jollies over believers’ stupidity, or to scam them for money by offering cures or spells to drive away the demons or ghosts (this is a very old trope in these cases). These folk claim sightings, pretend to be secret governmental workers, leave weird phone messages, & spout mumbo-jumbo to add ‘depth’ to their claims. Others recall ½-forgotten local myths- to be ‘special’- or conflate ½-heard tales from others into full-blown claims- sometimes for themselves. People’s ideas of specialness are reinforced by the swarm of ‘outsiders’ who turn up, eager to prove their town’s ‘specialness’- &/or their own in solving ‘the mystery’. This goes on for months- the prophecies some hear are mere addenda with all the rest until a poorly constructed bridge collapses & kills many. People retro-fit the vague (& 99.9% wrong) ‘Prophecies’ to suit their means- the disaster was ‘foretold’! Nostradamus grins. Conflations with all sorts of other phenomena- psi & not- occur. Thus, a modern myth is born.
This has been seen in many other instances. In the psi world there are similar arcs of myth-making & mass hysteria, involving the Mattoon Gasser during World War 2, the 1970s Dover Demon of Massachusetts, the Jersey Devil, the 1954 Hopkinsville, Kentucky Goblin raid, Spring-Heeled Jack of Victorian London, & Latin American Chupacabras. But psi is not alone- serial killers have invoked similar arcs toward eternal subcultural immortality from the public: Peter Kürten- the Vampire of Düsseldorf, Ed Gein- inspiration for many filmic killers, John Wayne Gacy’s killer clown, & most of all the ever-unsolved Jack the Ripper! Some killers often engage in active conflation of their own mythos with other elements designed to ensure longevity- Ted Bundy blames his impulses on porno- securing the ‘I told you so!’ elements of Left Wing FemiNazis & Right Wing Nazis alike; O.J. Simpson- ‘enough said; Mumia Abu-Jamal blaming all of white society’s ills for his duplicities- all the while reaping fame as a martyr; Charles Manson’s continuing absurd claims of his ‘family’ still prowling America for victims; Henry Lee Lucas 1st inflating, then recanting his wild claims of depravity & bodycount; & Jesse James playing the wronged Southern Gentleman even as he left murder, rape, & chaos in his wake. Pop art has also manipulated this tendency for humans to conflate reality with what they secretly desire: witness Orson Welles’ 1938 Halloween War of the Worlds broadcast, which- despite numerous commercial breaks & disclaimers- wreaked havoc all along the Eastern Seaboard, as panicked citizens thought New Jersey decimated by invading Martians. A more recent example can be seen with 1999’s cult movie hit The Blair Witch Project. Despite never claiming reality, the ‘game’ aspect of the website- which promoted the film for months before its release- evoked a fascination with the ‘real’ town of Blair, & its history, that far surpassed what the dull little film actually offered in dramatic or horror content. Note how the consciously made-up mythos neatly intertwined the supernatural ‘actual tale’ of the film with backdating of the phenomenon, & a town serial killer. Also refer to my LCD essay for a brief foray into how these myths are consciously abetted, & how easily people are gulled (sometimes willingly)- see the Sasquatch/Paul Bunyan connection.
Both the film & the mythos behind it have followed this very predictable trajectory; despite claims to the contrary Mothman was a genuinely, uniquely American, & specifically1960s Ohio Valley, thing. [I even wrote a poem about it that expounds on this POV- see below.] It had no direct precedents- save for the all-too human tendency to perceive monsters in shadows. There was no series of continua in which this thing played out, & a # of the claims about the Cornstalk Curse, some actual sightings, alot of the claims of phone harassment, etc. have proven to be without basis in fact. That said, I am a believer in the Unexplained. Big point- I believe in the Unexplained, not the Unexplainable. Because I, or humanity at this point, lacks the ability to explicate a phenomenon does not mean that 1 need invoke ‘magic’. Forteans are eager to boost, ‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’ yet ignore the logical codicil- ‘Current lack of an explanation does not mean there can never be an explanation.’ I have had experiences in my life that I truly cannot explain- does that mean there is some force greater than me out there? Perhaps. More likely, though, is I’ve misremembered or unwittingly distorted the facts. Could Mothman have been real? Sure. But Occam’s Razor seems to come down firmly in the camp of misidentification of many factors & willful distortions, by some, of other factors. Unfortunately, the myopic Hollywood establishment deems this phenomenon too mundane to merit a film. Oh well, that’s show biz!
Click to read Dan Schneider’s poetic take on The Mothman!
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