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'The Mothman Prophecies' Come True

Commentary by Rick Kleffel

Copyright © 2002 by Rick Kleffel



I'm not really sure what path lead me to 'The Mothman Prophecies' some ten years ago.

It may have been my budding interest and participation in the Forteana Usenet newsgroup, but I suspect it was the fault of (as are many things on this site) an entry in a Mark V. Ziesing book catalog. I was a very heavy horror-head at the time, and I probably couldn't resist a tag line like "A Classic True Story of Modern Horror!" Not that I was ever much interested in stuff like 'The Amityville Horror'. But this book had a very different vibe about it. It seemed further-ranging, less tidy. It had a fantastic Frank Frazetta cover. But I was to discover that the real reason to buy the book was the author, John A. Keel. That's the reason we buy books, right? To read them? 'The Mothman Prophecies' is a hell of a read.

I'll spare you the blurbs, since you've been relentlessly pelted by publicity for the movie. Just remember what your English teacher told you 10-30 years ago: "Just because it's true, that doesn't mean that it's interesting." Yes, Keel's book is based on actual events, events that were documented by others and experienced by many. But what John Keel brings to the party is something unique: his 'Our Haunted Planet' hypothesis, and something not so unique, but something that's a lot of help when your describing reality -- a sense of humor. He's also a skilled storyteller, not a cut and dried documentarian. He was there, and he tells us the story from his point of view, with all the backstory he'd accumulated while writing classic works of "paranormal expose" like 'Disneyland of the Gods' and 'Operation Trojan Horse'.

'The Mothman Prophecies' book by John A. Keel takes the reader through thirteen months of complete weirdness that enveloped a typical small town in America, Point Pleasant, West Virginia. And this is complete weirdness, not just monsters and predictions.

This is men and women out of place, strangely dressed, absurd pranks and humorous jokes, terrifying visions, senseless and illogical "monsters" that don't threaten other than by simply being really out of place. Keel's sanity, possibly tenuous at best, given his past lines of work is put to the test, but it clearly wins out. He's not suckered into simple, closed explanations. He's not buying anybody's party line other than his own. In the back of his mind are events that took place years ago and miles away; James V. Forrestal (you've heard about the aircraft carrier named after him), the Secretary of the Navy who went bonkers in the Pentagon. Bostonian William Denton given a guided tour of Venus in the 1860's. UFO's from which emerge our favorite cryptid, Bigfoot. Contactees, mysterious dog tracks, phone pranks. It's not just scary, it's funny. Whatever is behind the Mothman Prophecies understands why horror movies are also, often convulsively funny. Imagine Philip K. Dick, off his meds, and looking into some UFO shenanigans and you'll get a feel for the truly crazy quilt that is John A. Keel's 'The Mothman Prophecies'. Then go out and buy the book.

Of course, a couple of years ago that would have involved an Internet search and perhaps some serious expenditures. These days, you can probably pick it up at the Grocery store. [Those who know will know that I love finding books at the grocery store. Alas it's pretty hard these days when the Chicago airport as described by Harlan Ellison has become the merchandising model for the entire publishing industry: if it hasn't sold by the time the trucks' gone round the loop, pull it and pulp it.]

But there's one there today for You, Dear Reader, and you can thank a used bookstore in Pasadena (I believe) and screenwriter Richard Hatem for that, and for his fine adaptation. One night, unable to sleep (so the marketing ploy goes), Hatem went to a used bookstore and found a copy of Keel's book. One sleepless night and a few phone calls later, he's tied up the rights for a book I always thought would make a great movie. And it is a great movie, though it's not the movie that played in my brain when I read the book. How often does that happen? (It does happen: read 'Black Hawk Down' and then see 'Black Hawk Down'. That's about as good as it gets.)

Hatem and Director Mark Pellington have taken the darker, more frightening elements of Keel's book and created a dark, disturbing tale of malevolent supernatural invasion. It's NOT a documentary. It's not even true. It's BASED on true events, as documented by Keel's book, which is NOT A NOVEL. Keel's book, as is, probably could not be made into a movie in the entertainment business that is Hollowood. It has no love story, and the people in it play second fiddle to the mosaic of weirdness that Keel is documenting. So, Hatem put some well-crafted romantic wrappers around the story, and took out the parts that might have detracted from the dark and frightening aura they're trying to create. But they do keep Keel's ideas of the supernatural mostly intact, and using Alan Bates as a mouthpiece, they do get quite to the heart of Keel's message: "We're not supposed to know," he whispers. "Just because they can see farther than us doesn't mean that they're smarter than us." Good stuff for a Hollowood star vehicle.

The actors acquit themselves well; Gere and Linney hover around a romance, but never actually get there. Given the state of decay, it's pretty incredible that we got a PG13 movie with no extraneous sex or violence that is still much more frightening than the usual 'man is a suit' movie. It's fantastic to realize that along with Gere and Linny, Hatem's often intelligent script and Pellington's editing and direction are clearly stars in this movie. It's a movie that will bear more than one viewing, just as Keel's book is a work that will bear more than one reading. If the movie leads readers to Keel's book -- or vice versa -- everybody wins. We all know that there's more to this planet than we're finding in the headlines. 'The Mothman Prophecies' -- in any format -- does an excellent job of pointing out that the gaps in our understanding of reality are no smaller than the gaps in our understanding of corporate accounting.




Rick Kleffel