For my money, one of the best horror films of the 21st century is the 2002 supernatural thriller THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES. I love its moody atmosphere, impressionistic visuals and dreamlike narrative. Above all I love the haunted worldview behind the narrative—which comes from the brilliant but troubled mind of a writer named John Keel.
In the film, Keel (renamed John Klein, and played by Richard Gere) is a Washington Post reporter who stumbles onto some really weird shit in the town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. He’s a down-to-earth guy, tormented by the mysterious death of his wife in a recent car accident, and he approaches eyewitness reports about a “winged impossibility” in Point Pleasant with appropriate skepticism. He doesn’t go looking for the supernatural; the supernatural comes looking for him.
The real John Keel, on the other hand, spent his life chasing weird shit. I don’t mean to suggest that he wasn’t rational in his pursuits, only that he was obsessive about seemingly irrational phenomena. As soon as he got out of the military in the mid-1950s, he began traveling through the Far East in search of myths and mysteries to chronicle in his first book, Jadoo. A decade later, he was chasing UFOs in the Ohio Valley when he heard initial reports of The Mothman.
In Hollywood’s version of THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES, Richard Gere follows a trail of prophetic warnings that lead to the tragic 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant. Gere’s super-sleuthing allows him to save the woman he loves from dying in the bridge collapse, which provides a sort of cosmic counterbalance to the tragic death of his wife at the beginning of the film. It’s a good story… but it is not John Keel’s story. As screenwriter Richard Hatem pointed out in an interview with Thomas Fahy, John Keel’s story is one of those real-life stories with “real cool beginnings, great middles, and no endings.”
In the film, Keel is more accurately represented by the supporting character Alexander Leek (hence the anagram of the last name). Leek is more eccentric type of reporter, and he advises Gere to stop chasing The Mothman or risk becoming a raving paranoiac. The latter scenario is more or less what happened to the real John Keel. He was never able to make sense of all the strange messages he received in the late 1960s from purported psychics, UFO hunters, phantom Men in Black, and even a stranger who claimed that he himself was John Keel. The author spent several years trying to find a unifying explanation for all these strange reports, and nearly drove himself crazy in the process…. Because the real story has no simple resolution.
John Keel was not in Point Pleasant when the Silver Bridge collapsed. He didn’t save anyone. (For the record, the woman who served as the real-life inspiration for Gere’s love interest in the film wasn’t on the bridge either. She died three years later.) And those strange messages and events… kept on coming, for years.
John Keel was still wrestling with the mystery of The Mothman in 1975, when he published two back-to-back books. The first was The Mothman Prophecies, his now-famous account of the events leading up to the Silver Bridge collapse. The second book was called The Eighth Tower, and it offers Keel’s unified theory for all the weird shit he spent his life chasing. The subtitle sums up the subject: “The Cosmic Force behind All Religious, Occult, and UFO Phenomena.”
John Keel didn’t believe in demons or ghosts or aliens. He adopted the theory that all paranormal phenomena are attributable to “ultraterrestrials—beings and forces which coexist with us but are on another time frame; that is, they operate outside the limits of our space-time continuum yet have the ability to cross over into our reality.” This “other” reality, he explained, is a state of energy that exists beyond the perception of human senses—or at least, beyond the five traditionally-recognized senses. This is how he described it: “At this moment you are surrounded by all kinds of energy, much of it manmade, vibrating on every frequency from the ultrahigh frequencies of modern military radios to the very low frequencies of generators and telephone lines.” (In 2017, we have a lot more “manmade energy” to add to this list.)
Over and above the high end of the known spectrum, Keel says, there is a “superspectrum” filled with information that we can’t perceive. His description of the superspectrum is sort of like a big-budget version of the world Ray Milland sees in Roger Corman’s film X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES. Keel writes, “If your eyes were tuned beyond the very narrow confines of the spectrum of visible light, you would find yourself looking into a thick fog of dazzling, unreal colors.” This, he claims, is how some people actually see the world. According to Keel, 10 to 15% of humans can “tune in” to the superspectrum. We call these people psychics. But, Keel claims, psychics often can’t make sense of the information they’re tuning in to. They may be able to access a vast Internet of information, but they can’t easily navigate it; what they perceive is a chaos of mysteries. And it gets even more complicated than that….
Keel explains: “Then, too, the capricious human mind throws up a smoke screen of its own. If it has been programmed to accept religious, occult, or scientific beliefs, the mind can interject these beliefs into the messages being received. But the receiver thinks he or she is hearing directly from God, the late Aunt Clara, or Ashtar, the big cheese in the Great Intergalactic Federation.” Bottom line: The superspectrum is full of potentially meaningless noise that we (whether psychic or not) foolishly insist on ascribing meaning to. Once we embrace a specific belief or set of beliefs, Keel says, the superspectrum starts projecting our own ideas back at us—showing us what we expect to see, and forcing some of us to wonder if we aren’t just making it all up. Ultimately, Keel concludes, the “cosmic mind” is just fucking with us, forcing us to either surrender or go nuts. That’s the real ending of THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES.
The Eighth Tower is slightly more optimistic. In this book, Keel suggests that maybe we are all constantly receiving projections from some giant energy transmitter, built in ancient times to ensure that humanity is continually evolving…. and trying to prevent us from blowing ourselves up. To be fair, the author acknowledges, this is just another intellectual theory, just another attempt to ascribe meaning and cultivate belief. He concludes that perhaps there is no definitive truth or meaning in any theory, only the real-world effect of believing in them—what we project back out into the world. In the end, he said, “what we believe becomes more important than what we know.”