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REVIEW OF "THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES"

(The Film)

Steven Mizrach

In 1966, John Keel, magazine writer, amateur magician, and Fortean enthusiast, heard about some weird goings-on in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, from UFOlogist Gray Barker. There had been reports of a strange winged being (which a press wag dubbed "Mothman" after a character in the old Adam West Batman TV show), UFO sightings, and other strange characters appearing in the town. Keel decided to visit and ended up spending a large part of 1966-7 in the town, investigating these strange phenomena. During that time, his life would be turned upside down via confusing prophecies given to him by phantasmagoric entities and various kinds of telephonic high weirdness. Then, the whole mad melange of events would culminate in the collapse of the Silver Bridge leading out of the town across the Ohio River in December 1967. After the Bridge collapse, Mothman sightings declined, and many of the dramatis personae of what Keel called "the Year of the Garuda" would die or fade into the woodwork. This all would lead to the writing of the book The Mothman Prophecies. Many people believe Keel's main motivation for this work was profit, which of course runs into the problem of explaining why he waited until 1975 to write the book, and why after 25 years, a film was finally made about the story. By and large, you have to read The Mothman Prophecies to understand the evolution of Keel's writing and work. It does not lend itself easily to commercialization; you aren't likely to see too many Mothman action-figure tcotchkes made based on the story. It provides the context for later, more pessimistic, fatalistic, and skeptical books such as The Eighth Tower, and Disneyland of the Gods. Keel does not treat the paranormal with sweetness and light, and like the earlier Spiritualist Swedenborg, he suggests to his readers that the spirit (or superspectral) world and its cracked Great Phonograph in the Sky ("it's the end of the world!") are not to be trusted. Belief is the enemy. "Just because it comes from heaven doesn't mean it's not stupid". But, he also recognizes, like Charles Fort, that we appear to be property. Worse yet, the landlords appear to be real jerks. The true value of Mothman the book is not so much as an account of events that occurred in a West Virginia town in 1966-7. Although I think Keel may have embellished some of his own adventures to some degree (you should read his little-known work Jadoo to get an idea of what type of "mondo" writer he can be), ultimately the book does represent a good faith effort on his part to capture and portray a series of puzzling and inter-related events╔ some of which occurred outside of Point Pleasant. On that level, though, it can be relatively useless as Keel tells the story in a non-chronological, thematic order. However, that is not its main value to a Fortean readership. More importantly, Keel sets out some very important axioms for Fortean research, and provides a unifying theory of paranormal events. It is these observations that are the greatest value in the book. Perhaps Mothman was indeed a screech owl or some cryptid bird, and the rest can be explained away as hysteria in the wake of the bridge disaster. Even so, many of Keel's theories and ideas about "the phenomenon" and the ways in which it manipulates belief and perception, remain valid in their own right, and people should read the book to learn the fundamentals of UKT (Unified Keelian Theory) of the paranormal. In 2002, producer Mark Pellington, who also brought the world the fascinating "just who is a terrorist?" psychological thriller Arlington Road, releases another psychological thriller film The Mothman Prophecies, "based on true events" and apparently also on Keel's book. In the film, we meet the person of John Klein, a Washington Post reporter, played by the handsome and affable Buddhist Richard Gere. Klein loses his wife Mary in a car accident to something that only she can see. Tantalisingly, we are told before she dies that a brain scan reveals temporal lobe disorder, which is often found in people who suffer from hallucinatory fugues. We don't know what she saw, but a hospital orderly shows some drawings she made before her death to Klein, and they look like a shadowy, mysterious moth-like figure. Cue eerie music and the passage of two years╔ On his way to do a story on the governor of Virginia, Klein's car mysteriously stalls on the way there in the middle of the road. He also finds he has "missing time" because he appears to have covered a much greater distance than he could have possibly done driving normally at ordinary speed. (Despite both these types of events being hallmarks of UFO encounters, UFOs never once feature or appear in Mothman the movie.) He knocks on the door of the nearest home to ask for assistance, and is confronted by an angry resident wanting to know why he has returned for the third night in a row. This man's name is Gordon Smallwood and will play an important role in the rest of the film╔ and Klein finds out that he is now in the town of, none other than Point Pleasant, West Virginia, where people have apparently also seen a strange moth-like thing much like the drawings his wife made. A large portion of this review is going to be based on showing how and why the film diverges from the book. I recognize that Pellington did not make a documentary, and that this is a fictional film, even if it does include the "based on true events" tagline. Therefore, like any Hollywood movie, it will obviously take creative liberties. I don't fault Pellington for that, and in fact I understand the reasons why he made some of the changes to the book's story. Some are to give the film the proper suspenseful and charged atmosphere to work as a psychological thriller. Others are simply for dramatic and narrative convenience. There's nothing wrong with what Pellington did, per se, but many people may see the film and not read the book by Keel (now reissued in paperback), or the recent one by Loren Coleman (which has its pros and cons also in terms of how it deals with the events of 1966-7). Thus, it's important to suggest what some of these divergences are. Now, granted, some people will argue that Keel's work, since it deals with the paranormal, is itself largely fictional. If so, then it doesn't matter what liberties Pellington took with the work. However, I obviously don't agree, and what Keel wrote about those events can be corroborated by others. The film works as a fictional plot-vehicle. If I had known nothing about the book or the events it is based on, and seen the film with fresh eyes, I would have found it a very engrossing psychological thriller. Pellington uses very fascinating cinematography to create an atmosphere of growing tension throughout the film. Since this is a psychological thriller, part of this tension is within the mind of Klein himself. Is he hallucinating like his wife? Is he going mad from grief and loss? How much of any of this is "real"? The posters promoting the film at theaters feature something that looks very much like a Rorschach blot. Given that Keel in Mothman the book deals heavily with questions of perception and belief, the film's parallel attention to these matters is well placed. Pellington wisely chooses to avoid having a CGI mothman flapping across the screen, or worse, somebody in a rubber suit. The "creature" is never glimpsed, except in drawings, or via retellings. What I am about to talk about will spoil the film if you haven't seen it, so you might want to skip this section. Although John Keel has never been married, John Klein is a married man in the film, and it is the loss of his wife that provides the continual dramatic tension throughout the story. The phantasmagoric entities Klein confronts appear to be able to simulate anyone or anything, and toward the end Klein is told that they will have his dead wife contact him from the beyond. Ultimately, Klein chooses the world of the living over the world of the dead, and accepts an invitation from Point Pleasant policewoman Connie Parker (Laura Linney) to have Christmas dinner at her home, deciding he will not wait for his wife's (or whatever is pretending to be her) postmortem phone call. This decision returns him to Point Pleasant as the nearby Silver Bridge is collapsing, and Klein saves Parker's life by freeing her from her sunken police car. Parker ultimately realizes the significance of a prophetic dream she had, including a message that "she was number 37" (we are told in the film that 36 people died in the bridge accident, although the actual number of people who died in the Silver Bridge disaster was in the 40's). Cue credits. Let me now turn to how and why (as I see it) the film departs from the storyline in the book. 0. Setting.. The film changes the narrative from 1967 to the present day. This can be confusing for the viewer, because the ending of the film, which supposedly occurs in the present, is a bridge disaster on the Ohio River which occurred 30 years ago. There are a variety of obvious reasons for this shift, probably most importantly it saved Pellington the effort of creating "period" clothing and sets. Although some events in the book take place in Mount Misery in the Long Island area, the focus of the film is exclusively on Point Pleasant, West Virginia. 1. Characters. It is clear that "John Klein" is supposed to be Keel, but he has now been given a wife, moved from New York to Washington DC, and given a high-profile job writing for the Washington Post.. Keel himself has never been married and has mostly written for magazines. However, "Klein" appears to actually be the 1967 Keel, still wet behind the ears, not sure of what's going on. Thus, there is actually a second "Keel" in the story whose name is Alexander Leek (Leek = Keel backwards, get it?) and the "Leek" character actually serves in many cases as the mouthpiece of the older, wiser post-1975 "Keel's" ideas. "Klein's" wife "Mary," who has no parallel in the book, mostly serves the storyline by dying in an accident. I thought the film's other central character, Point Pleasant policewoman "Connie Parker," was based on the 18 year-old Mothman witness Connie Carpenter, but I have been told her name actually comes from a Hollywood hairdresser. "Parker" is a quasi-love interest for "Klein" in the film, although nothing overtly romantic ever actually occurs between them. She is sort of more of an anchor for him in the real world, helping him move beyond obsessing on his wife and her death. Rounding out the storyline is "Gordon Smallwood", who appears to be based on the UFO contactee Woodrow Derenberger. However, it appears that his name is actually that of a Canadian UFO researcher (real name Laimon Mitris) who was, it is alleged, "visited" by the MIB. We of course cannot leave out the never-glimpsed "Indrid Cold", who shares the same name as the "UFO" entity that contacted Derenberger, and like Keel's "Cold", usually interacts with him via the telephone. 2. Mothman and Prophecy.. "Alexander Leek" tells "Klein" something ridiculous during the film, which is echoed on the picture's web site. He says "Mothman" was seen prior to the disaster at Chernobyl and that similar creatures have been seen prior to other tragic events. There is also some discussion of moth-like creatures being associated with the journey of the soul. All of that is nonsense; Mothman was never seen anywhere outside of Point Pleasant, nor is there any "tradition" of seeing similar creatures prior to disasters or at times of death and tragedy. The "prophecies" in the book's name were given to Keel by entities going by such odd names as Cold and "Apol", usually over the phone, and what they originally told him was that there was going to be a nationwide blackout following LBJ's lighting of the national Christmas tree, and that there would be an explosion in a depot in the "TNT area" near Point Pleasant. Instead, what happened was that the bridge collapsed, although Keel was not in Point Pleasant when it occurred. 3. Atmosphere.. Perhaps the thing that has changed most between the book and the film is the atmosphere of the story. Keel's adventures with Cold and Apol and the townspeoples' encounters with weird beings like the pop-eyed dwarf "Tiny", have a certain kind of absurd, perhaps even zany or comic, flavor to them. "Cold" told Keel he was from the planet "Lanulos" in the "galaxy of Ganymede", a nonsensical statement which is typical of such beings. There are obviously sinister overtones throughout the story, particularly as witnesses are threatened by the MIB (Connie was given a note saying "Be careful girl, I can get you yet"), and of course the events culminate in tragedy with the deaths of dozens of people on the bridge. Yet, Keel maintains a detached, maybe even ironic, sense of humor throughout the narrative, even as he recognizes that the phenomenon appears to be trying to drive him insane. The chapter titles, such as "Even the Bedouins Hate Their Phone Company," show his humorous nature. And Mothman the book contains things like the feather-winged Princess Moon Owl, and weird Air Force officers who drink Jell-O. Those have all been purged from the film, in order to create a more "pure" chiller-thriller by Pellington, where dread and suspense hangs over every scene, and the overarching themes are tragedy and its impact on our ability to grasp reality. 4. UFOs.. The year 1966 marked a nationwide UFO "flap", similar to earlier (1952) and later (1973) UFO waves. Pellington has carefully excised any references to UFOs or UFO sightings from the film. Derenberger, the UFO contactee who was the basis for "Smallwood," first met "Cold" outside a flying saucer. That's gone from the film. During the Mothman outbreak, UFOs (usually in the form of slow-moving purplish blobs) were seen sailing along the Ohio River on a regular basis. Although Keel never saw Mothman himself, he had several UFO sightings in Point Pleasant, and even reports that one "blob" responded to his flashlight. Many of the "prophecies" in the book were given to Keel not by "Cold" but instead by "Apol" and other entities who were "channeling" themselves through UFO contactees near Mount Misery. There were a wide range of paranormal events that occurred during Keel's Year of the Garuda, ranging from poltergeist outbreaks, to dopplegangers, to MIB waves, to malfunctioning electronic devices, and even to some force tapping into Keel's phone and pretending to be him. (It may have been a quite physical "spook" that tapped his line, but this still begs the question of how and why they did it.) Whatever people were seeing had physical effects, causing the aftereffects of actinic rays (swollen eyes, burnt skin). For those who want to think the Point Pleasant "furor" was all over a sandhill crane or an owl, that's an awfully large bunch of "coincidences" (a word Charles Fort often chuckled over). 5. Narrative. The real Keel did not wind up in Point Pleasant mysteriously, although he did have one episode where his car stalled and he had to use somebody's phone, and the poor hick thought he might have been Satan incarnate. He came of his own free will to investigate the sightings. But Pellington changes the beginning of the film so that Klein winds up in Point Pleasant without knowing how he wound up there, and explains his interest in the Mothman via the death of Klein's wife. This is necessary, I guess, in order to make "Klein" into a character whose interest in the paranormal is spurred on via a tragedy in his own life and by synchronicity, rather than being a vocation (as it is with Keel). Keel's main confidante in the town was the local newspaperwoman Mary Hyre (Keel calls her the "town busybody"), whose own prophetic dreams and personality seem to have been transferred to Connie Parker. She died in the 1970s. Pellington sets up things so that Connie is a potential love interest for Klein (although, again, nothing overtly romantic ever occurs between them), but Mary Hyre was married. And, of course, Keel was not in Point Pleasant when the Silver Bridge collapsed. That would make a boring ending to any film, so obviously Pellington changes the story so that Klein is on the bridge as it is collapsing, and dives off it to save Connie Parker's life. Despite departing from the book in terms of narrative and so on, the film still does do a very admirable job in terms of capturing certain aspects of the book. "Alexander Leek" gets to voice many of Keel's seminal ideas about the unknown, including the important "Keelism" that "just because they can see farther than us doesn't mean they're any smarter" (i.e. "just because they can observe the future doesn't mean we should trust them.") A large amount of Mothman the book deals with telephonic high weirdness, such as phone calls being placed to people by dopplegangers (who sound identical to the people they are pretending to be), strange phone calls consisting of nothing but electronic bleeps and whirrs (remember, this is in the pre-modem/fax days), and even a tap into Keel's own line in New York. This is captured well in a kind of cheesy "Chapstick Scene" when Gere/Klein receives a phone call from "Cold", who demonstrates that he can read Klein's mind over the phone, and in another scene where Klein is asked by townspeople why he called them telling them a factory was going to blow up on the river (he didn't). Because it's a psychological thriller, the film carefully hedges its bets on the paranormal, always dancing around the question of the sanity of its characters. Did Mary Klein see the "Mothman" or have a hallucinatory fugue triggered by temporal lobe brain disorder? Is John Klein really receiving these calls and hearing these voices, or is he simply losing his mind from grief and loss? Is Gordon Smallwood a true contactee, a crafty manipulator of Klein who simply dreamed up "Indrid Cold" for publicity and attention, or just plain nuts? His initial tense encounter with Klein seems designed to set up the latter possibility. Are the townspeople really seeing strange things or simply acting hysterically? Connie Parker is the one "grounded" character in the film, a no-nonsense woman who declares categorically that she will not change her life routine just because of prophecies spouted from the mysterious Indrid Cold. But even she has a prophetic dream, of Christmas packages floating in the water, and a strange voice╔ Yet Pellington, who has publicly stated in interviews that he is agnostic about the paranormal and that his film is really about the emotional and psychological effects it (or belief in it) has on people, puts in a number of scenes suggesting against a purely psychological interpretation. Klein manages to get his phone voices on tape and has them studied by a sound analyst, who declares them to be "electrical impulses". A doppelganger of Klein's wife Mary is seen by dozens of people. He gets a call from "Gordon" made after the real man appears to have been quite dead from exposure. And, the ending of the film emphasizes that the cause of the bridge disaster has never been determined. Technically, the cause of the disaster was the failure of the traffic lights on both sides of the bridge, causing a huge amount of Christmas traffic to stall on it. The old bridge was never designed to carry a very heavy load, and collapsed under the strain (cold weather also helping to make the metal suspension brittle and weak). But that doesn't mean there is no mystery to it╔ Keel reports that some townspeople told him they saw men in coveralls climbing on the bridge a few days beforehand, an interesting plot detail excised from the film. Still, you can't help but see that Klein may be paralyzed by grief, and that his desperation to solve the riddle of the West Virginia Mothman is really driven by his need to get some kind of answer or resolution to his wife's sudden death. The Connie Parker character, in many ways, serves as a kind of trigger to get him to move on in his life and forget about her. As I said before, a critical plot hinge in the film has to do with a choice Klein has to make. Will he wait in his DC apartment for a phone call that a mysterious hotel message tells him will be from his wife in the great beyond, or will he return to Point Pleasant at Connie's invitation to spend Christmas with her family? Klein knows that these weird entities can imitate anyone or anything. In the end, Klein chooses to forego the empty promises of the phantasmal world, and embrace the world of the living. By choosing to accept the invitation, he winds up saving Connie's life. Pellington's message to the viewer seems to be - "choose life," so to speak. The psychological emphasis of the film fits with Keel's own emphasis on the psychology of experiencers in the book. Keel's motto is "Belief is the Enemy". He notes that people tend to filter their perceptions of the anomalous through cultural lenses, hence his episode of him being mistaken by a West Virginia stranger for the Devil with his black coat and beard. However, Keel goes beyond the simple matter of mistaken perception to make a further point: he suggests that what he calls "the phenomenon" actually manipulates peoples' beliefs and tries to foster belief systems of various kinds. As he writes over and over again, he is not looking for the cause of these various manifestations, but instead the nature of the phenomenon that appears to underlie the manifestations. He claims that "the phenomenon" is reflective, and even tries to "mirror" the assumptions and expectations of witnesses and investigators. He suggests what many people are seeing are constructs ("tulpas") in their own mind, often triggered by exposure to a bright spectral light, whose origin may be what Keel calls "ultraterrestrial" (extradimensional). Furthermore, Keel also suggests that the "battle cry" of the phenomenon is "Make him look like a nut!" and that it tried its damndest on him to achieve that result. "Klein"'s struggles with his own sanity in the film are appropriate to this situation. Between weird telephonic behavior, eerie messages that suggest Cold and Apol are omnisciently tracking all of his movements and actions, rapidly escalating prophecies of doom and disaster (at one point Apol told him an assassination attempt on the Pope would trigger Armageddon) and strange tamperings with his contacts with witnesses, Keel admits feeling like he is losing his own grip on reality. This is perhaps the closest parallel between the Gere/Klein character and the actual 1967 John Keel. I have also heard that Keel did indeed tragically lose two girlfriends to cancer in the 1960's, so the tragedy that sets the film narrative in motion may have a sort of actual parallel as well. But really, it is "Leek" who is the true "Keel" of the film, the older, wiser 2002 Keel who knows not to trust these entities anymore. He is a distant, withdrawn man, chastened from discussing his own experiences with people, because they thought he was crazy for hearing voices telling of the future╔ All in all, if the film makes people interested in the real story of Point Pleasant, and then they turn around and read Keel's book re-issued in paperback, or Loren Coleman's new book on the Mothman, then it has accomplished something. Coleman apparently suggests in the new book that the Mothman sightings were largely of a cryptid bird and that there was no connection between those events and the bridge collapse. He points out that Keel apparently ignored reports that didn't support what he calls Keel's "demonological" convictions. For example, Mothman's "glowing" eyes may simply have been reflecting light at night. Making Keel's own points about perception, Coleman suggests to readers that what they are reading in Mothman the book is the events of Point Pleasant filtered through Keel's own obsessions to tie them all together into one pattern. Those are worthwhile caveats, but ultimately while Keel's viewpoint may be slanted, I think his original book comes closer to the Fortean spirit in examining the events in Point Pleasant, by not treating as "coincidence" things which are not (it was a word Charles Fort hated), nor by "damning" the high weirdness of what happened to "mass hysteria". Keel is interested in patterns in the data, much like I am, and has noted ever since Operation Trojan Horse that UFO sightings seem to peak on Wednesdays and Saturdays, around 10 PM. Furthermore, he also notes that sightings and "flaps" seem to reoccur in certain geographic "window areas". The area of West Virginia has a spooky history going back centuries; many Indian tribes refused to live in the region and the great Chief Cornstalk fell in battle there. Some whispered that it used to be the abode of a strange race of albino, moon-eyed people╔ it is this time/space clustering that leads Keel, perhaps similarly to Jacques Vallee, to conclude there may be a larger "control mechanism" behind what he simply terms "the phenomenon". The nature of that mechanism may defy both conventional religious, scientific, and philosophical ideas, however; Keel asks at the end of the book, "If there is a Universal Mind, must it be sane?" Some writers, like Salvador Freixedo, have taken up Keel's suggestion that "the phenomenon" tries to manipulate us through religious belief, and look at famous "miracles" such as Fatima in that light. And, beyond the books are what actually happened, of course. The bridge did collapse. Other people besides Keel claim they were warned of an upcoming disaster. Although, true to their trickster-like form, none of the entities' "prophecies" ever made specific reference to the bridge collapse itself. Many of the original Mothman witnesses are dead. Some are not. A few, like Linda Scarberry, wrote books of their own. (Hers is a kind of "scrapbook".) Many people suggest Keel made most of it up. However, his accounts were corroborated by townspeople like Mary Hyre, and by other investigators (Ivan Sanderson, Gray Barker, Dan Draisin), some of whom suffered the same kinds of sanity-depleting paranormal chicanery. Many reviews of the film have been negative, because obviously skeptical reviewers will look unfavorably on any film that contains mysterious events and then also the word "true". You can, I suppose, consider it as being total fiction and enjoy it for the storyline, just like an episode of the X-Files. However, something did happen in Point Pleasant in the Year of the Garuda, and it had physical effects on witnesses and left behind physical traces. You can stare at that film poster's Rohrshach blot for as long as you like, but ultimately keep that fact in mind. See the film. Again, if it were a purely fictional film, I would say it was an excellent chiller-thriller, probably far better than Pellington's work of suburban paranoia ("is my neighbor a terrorist?"), Arlington Road.. But watching it after having first read the book did not allow full suspension of my flaw-searching eyes. If you see it, then turn around and read the book, and see where the critical differences lie. It is based on true events, or true events as filtered through the pen of John Keel, and then secondarily via the scripting pen of the screenwriters. Read Coleman's book also, if only to get an interesting second opinion on what the furor was about, that at least is not as overtly dismissive as reaction to the film has been in such things as the Skeptical Inquirer. And remember, belief is the enemy. Don't trust Coleman, Keel, Pellington, or me. Check these things out for yourself. Trust but verify, as they like to say. Recent books on the paranormal, such as Harpur's Daimonic Reality, suggest that these phenomena may emerge from some sort of intersection between the worlds of psyche and matter. Carl Jung said it is from that nexus that synchronicities emerge. Forteans have known for a long time that the phenomena seem to play strange mental/associational games ("the Name Game"). Furthermore, the phenomena appear to be "tied" to certain experiencers, who often have repeat paranormal experiences. Perhaps it is crazy to assail Descartes' barrier between mind and matter; physicalists frequently assault it from their side, but people will look at you oddly if you strike at that barrier from the mental one. The two worlds of mind and matter may have a permeable barrier. Such people are not aware of the rich Eastern literature on imaginal or tulpoid reality as a kind of third realm of existence (see the works of Henry Corbin). Perhaps you do indeed have to at least taste what it is like to be a nut, to grasp what these trickster figures may be trying to tell us. What they are saying might best be summarized as, "Wake Up Down There!"

Austin Para Times - Not Your Normal News

From The ParaNormal to the ParaPolitical

HOME / LATEST / ARCHIVES / NEXT / SYNDICATION

PARANORMAL / UFOLOGY / FORTEANA / PARAPSYCHOLOGY

CRYPTOZOOLOGY / PARAPOLITICS / MYSTICISM

AUSTEX / PUBLISHER / EDITOR / DESIGN

 

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