Typically, the books you find in the “paranormal,” “new age,” or “occult” sections of the local library are pretty single-minded. Bigfoot books tend to center around Bigfoot. Flying saucer books tend to center around flying saucers. Telepathy books tend to center around telepathy. While that seems pretty obvious, such is not the case for the late John A. Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies, which runs the whole gamut of UFOs, Men in Black (MIB), catastrophe clairvoyance, tulpas, and (perhaps least of which) the eponymous Mothman, in what amounts to a bubbling cauldron of narrative cognitive dissonance (or what classical skeptics used to call “crank magnetism”).
Not to be confused with the rather similar Owlman of Cornwall, nor the Flatwoods Monster of Braxton County (some 110 miles east of the run of sightings described in Keel’s book), Mothman was supposedly a seven-foot-tall, winged humanoid with hypnotic red eyes, who’s managed to flap his way into modern American folklore.
In The Mothman Prophecies, Keel relayed the string of strange sightings (pertaining to both Mothmen and spacemen) that plagued the rural community of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, during the winter seasons of 1966 and ‘67, which culminated in the mid-December collapse of the Silver Bridge that killed 46 people, two of whom were never found. Keel maintained that the Mothman sightings acted as an omen of warning leading up to the bridge’s collapse.
But as noted, there is surprisingly little Mothman in The Mothman Prophecies. Keel is instead perhaps best known for popularizing the Men in Black, who are nothing like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones’ agents J and K. They do wear the black suits (albeit ill-fitted and out of style), and they may at times pose as government agents, but “real” MIB are ultimately more akin to the blockbuster film’s antagonist Edgar — otherworldly entities in human disguise. Keel describes them as being tall with long, tapering fingers, bulging eyes, pointed features, and displaying a socially awkward demeanor and driving older yet well-kept cars.
In one instance recounted by Keel, an awkward MIB restaurant patron, in his poor attempt to posture as human at Max’s Kansas City saloon, was uncertain how to use his dining utensils while cutting a steak. In other instances, the MIB pose as members of the Air Force or press, despite having no real knowledge of either. With few exceptions, they uniformly give mundane, WASPy names such as Brown, Jones, or Smith.
One take on the mysterious MIB is that they’re not extraterrestrial/inter-dimensional entities in human skin — they’re the flock of socially inept flying saucer-chasers who descended upon Point Pleasant in the later ‘60s. Surely geeks who can’t afford tailored suits offer up a more plausible explanation than humanoid aliens vacationing in West Virginia.
Keel himself (albeit unwittingly) backed this claim, as he wrote about a West Virginian urban legend regarding a bearded, black-suited Beelzebub who went about knocking on peoples doors in the wee hours of the night. Keel admits (perhaps in a failed ploy to gain the confidence of the reader) that this nightly, door-to-door Lucifer was none other than himself, looking to telephone a tow truck after his car broke down. Beards were highly uncommon in rural West Virginia at the time, the providence of hippies and college professors (I imagine Keel at one time or another fancied himself as both, yet was neither), and the blue collar community was unaccustomed to nocturnal visits during heavy downpours.
If Mothman Prophecies prophesied anything, it was perhaps future flap interest (“flap” referring to reports of multiple paranormal incidents within a single area and a set timeframe). The myriad of alleged supernatural phenomena laid out by Keel paved the way for the goings-on at Skinwalker Ranch, Missing 411, and paranormal waves like them, when single-use UFO sightings simply don’t cut it. The problem here is that Keel and his cohorts remain less than reliable sources of information. Keel’s own letters to fellow Fortean Gray Barker (yet another author responsible for solidifying the MIB legend), during Keel’s time “investigating” Point Pleasant, are inconsistent with the events he later laid out in his book.
Further, Journalist John C. Sherwood (who’d formerly worked with Barker directly) later came out critical of Barker’s penchant for deception. As Sherwood himself put it, “Barker hawked his books and magazines by embellishing stories and encouraging others to fabricate more. He launched hoaxes, joined others’ deceptions, and manipulated people’s beliefs.” That’s a relatively damning characterization, considering how reliant The Mothman Prophecies is on Barker supposed testimony (he’s cited several times throughout the book).
As with several modern accounts associated with Skinwalker Ranch, Keel was among the first few voices to move away from a “nuts and bolts” approach toward UFOs, and view them as more of an ethereal phenomenon. He frequently gave credence to overt hucksters like Barker and known charlatan/spoon-bender, Uri Geller. In a vapid attempt to give Mothman credibility, Keel drudged up just about every instance of an anthropomorphized, winged man in mythology, ranging from angels, to the Hindu demigod Garuda, to the Native American thunderbird (which isn’t even anthropomorphic).
Bigfoot-hunters are often guilty of this, citing the folkloric “wild man of the woods” present in several classic mythologies. As always, there remains far better answers to these cultural trends offered up within the disciplines of psychology and anthropology. Better answers than what anecdotal “evidence” self-styled parapsychologist John Keel could offer up, anyhow.
The Mothman Prophecies was inevitably adapted into a typically underwhelming, early aughts, slow burn, suspense film (think Dragonfly, White Noise, or What Lies Beneath). Rather than beginning as a ufologist, Keel (renamed Klein, presumably not to protect the integrity of the author) is a political reporter, more akin to Robert Redford’s Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men than some flights-of-fancy flying saucer-chaser.
Both book and film make a meal out of connecting Mothman to the climactic collapse of the Silver Bridge (among the few things the two actually share), but a thorough/official assessment of the wreckage attributed the bridge’s collapse to stress corrosion cracking and strain to one of the eyebars along the suspension line. I’d call the film an incredibly loose adaptation of the book, were the book not such an incredibly loose adaptation of reality itself.
Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture.
AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.
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