John Keel's Legendary
'Mothman Prophecies' To
Begin Filming With Gere
By Paul Davids
There's a potentially huge development in the UFO wars in Hollywood. A major project, based on a famous real-life humanoid / UFO incident, is making it to the big screen. As you know, large-scale UFO-related projects based on fact rather than fiction are few and far between. You can count almost everything produced to date on the fingers of one hand. The Betty Hill case, Roswell, Whitley Strieber, Travis Walton, and the Kathy Davis case from Budd Hopkins, which the film heavily fictionalized, are all that Hollywood has offered.
The latest film is MOTHMAN, which Mark Pellington (director of Arlington Road) will direct. For those of you who have long been interested in ufology, you'll probably know instantly that Mothman, written by John Keel, is esteemed as a classic in our field and is one of the few great books dealing with cross-dimensional realities and a strange being in physical form. John Keel, whom I have disagreed with strenuously about Roswell, is one of the most gifted writers to tackle the controversial subjects that so readily interest us.
Mothman begins shooting with Sony Pictures Entertainment in January. Lakeshore Entertainment Chairman and CEO Tom Rosenberg, President Gary Lucchesi, and Gary Goldstein will produce the film. The latest word is that the state of West Virginia, where Keel's story originates, is encouraging the production crew to film at the real locations. However, no one issued confirmation of the selected filming location yet.
The actual Mothman was widely sighted in Point Pleasant in conjunction with UFO sightings, power outings, and the collapse of the Silver Bridge in 1967. Mayor John Roach is already thinking about the potential commercialism of having a major motion picture (starring Richard Gere, no less) bring the bizarre events of his region into national awareness. Roswell is a perfect precedent of this commercialism. Few people were even aware of the remote New Mexico town until the UFO incident was the subject of books, TV shows and our film Roswell. As good as John Keel's book is, and as much as it has already done to bring awareness to Point Pleasant and Mothman among a select group, the book can't be expected to do for the story what a big film can. And that film is coming.
Richard GereJohn Keel, a long-time Fortean who recently turned 70, knows the whole spectrum of UFO history. He's one of the wise elders who rarely ventures forth anymore because he's been burned more than a few times. He and I used to butt heads on many subjects. In the early 1990s, John Keel thought the explanation for the Roswell incident was a Japanese balloon bomb. He published papers denouncing the ET / crashed-UFO explanation and I believe he touted these views in FATE magazine. He explained that the Japanese launched hundreds of balloon bombs in World War II to catch the easterly winds that would carry them to the United States. Keel claimed that such balloons could have taken up to two years to reach the U.S., thus explaining the July 1947 Roswell incident. A couple of times Japanese Balloon bombs did touch down on U.S. soil and authorities were apprehensive about how to handle them; there was a genuine danger to the population if a bomb detonated.
I thought that this explanation was far off the mark. At that point, I spoke to witnesses in Roswell and their claims did not match the Keel story one whit. Therefore, I probably wouldn't have picked up a John Keel book on my own accord, but a friend told me I had to read The Mothman Prophecies. The enthusiasm circulating about this book was so intense it was off the charts. Even though it never became a bestseller, for those who read it, it was a lightning rod with a strong electric charge.
The book begins with a quote from Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke. The quote somehow sums up what happened when the birdman, the human-sized creature with moth-like wings, was sighted both on the ground and in the air. "There was no mistake. The leathery wings, the little horns, the barbed tail - all were there. The most terrible of all legends had come to life, out of the unknown past. Yet now it stood smiling, in ebon majesty, with the sunlight gleaming upon its tremendous body . . ."
In the film version starring Richard Gere, the star will play a reporter who goes to Point Pleasant, West Virginia, to investigate the bizarre events connected with the UFO sightings and the sightings of Mothman. Clearly, the role is based on John Keel himself.
The Mothman sightings began in late 1966. John Keel heard about the incidents and personally went to Point Pleasant on December 7, 1966, intending to write about them. He found it to be a sleepy little town in the Ohio River valley, a very industrial area. There were modern homes and many hotels. Keel selected the hotel just across the Silver Bridge, which figured significantly into bizarre future events. He arrived just as the strangeness accelerated. The collapse of that bridge the next year was rumored to have been a result of the paranormal influences which touched the lives of so many people at that moment in history.
His arrival came just a few days after pilots saw the Mothman flying majestically along the Ohio River just behind the airport. The estimated speed was seventy miles per hour, about three hundred feet up. As it drew close to the planes, Keel reports that the pilots realized that it wasn't an airplane, but some kind of enormous bird with an unusually long neck. It seemed to be turning its head from side to side as if taking in the scenery. Its wings were not flapping. The pilots thought it was like a prehistoric creature.
The book then describes in detail how the continuing sightings of Mothman by many West Virginians at Point Pleasant affected their lives and the town. NICAP also got involved in facets of the investigation. NICAP was the prominent UFO organization at that time, more or less the equivalent of MUFON today (though some would say that NICAP was much more scientific). NICAP boasted members such as Major Donald Keyhoe, author of many of the first serious UFO books of our era and an Air Force Major who contradicted the official Air Force UFO conclusions by claiming that ETs in orbiting flying saucers were observing the human race. Another member was Rear Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter, quoted in the New York Times as saying that the government was covering up the truth about flying saucers from space. Later, Hillenkoetter resigned from NICAP. NICAP eventually became defunct, as did APRO (Aerial Phenomenon Research Organization), replaced later by MUFON and CUFOS.
NICAP's involvement tended to make the Mothman sightings into a "real" UFO case of that era, just two years before the Condon Committee report out of the University of Colorado closed the door on future serious UFO research (and Project Blue Book shut down, because there was "nothing to" the subject of UFOs.)
As a filmmaker, it is interesting to me that about a ten year slew of "flying monster" science fiction films preceded the Mothman sightings. The biggest and best back then was RODAN out of Japan. Rodan was a terrifying, huge (the size of many buildings) prehistoric bird awakened from a slumber of millions of years by nuclear explosions. Rodan destroyed Japan in the story, and Japan followed that successful film with a brainless film called MOTHRA. Mothra was another of the stable of Japanese monsters of that era - a giant flying moth that carried two singing Princesses on its back in one scene. It was a cross between a fairytale and a science fiction movie and didn't know which it was.
In the United States, another "giant bird" movie was arguably one of the worst science fiction films of all time: THE GIANT CLAW. The film was noticeable for its bird-puppet (you could actually see the strings at some points in the story). In one scene, the gigantic, dorky-looking, cross-eyed bird sat on top of a United Nations building obviously made of cardbard - a standard technique for low-budget special effects in the late 1950s.
The people of Point Pleasant might never have been exposed to the cultural phenomenon those few flimsy motion pictures represented. Perhaps they never heard of RODAN, MOTHRA, or the GIANT CLAW. To suggest a connection between those film stories and the fact that dozens of people in West Virginia claimed to see a giant man-bird that looked almost like a giant moth is a cheap shot at debunking. It's the sort of argument skeptic Phil Klass might make. For instance, he connects many of the claims of humanoid sightings in UFO occupancy cases to the fact that there was a TV movie about Betty and Barney Hill's abduction. People saw the movie and "got the idea," he says.
We may never know what or who Mothman really was, if he existed at all. He is as elusive as Bigfoot. He is shrouded in legend and myth. In a way, the myth of the chupacabra overtook him. There is a similarity - both Mothman and the South American flying monster that viciously assaults livestock are strange, large-winged creatures that fly. The chupacabra has been more sensational in recent years. But we should not forget that before the chupacabra there was Mothman. Therefore, the new Richard Gere movie is a seminal project. It takes us back to the root of an entire "field" of paranormal experience much the same way that Roswell became the Mecca of the UFO movement. If it is successful, it could begin an East Coast phenomenon reminiscent of what happened in the town of Roswell. Will we see a Mothman museum in Point Pleasant?
At the time John Keel's book came out, Point Pleasant was not so publicity hungry or kind to the whole phenomenon. Keel reports at the end of his book that as soon as reviewers received the galleys of the book, several major tabloid reporters arrived in town. Keel claims that the local police kicked them out of town after local residents reported being "harassed" (bombarded with requests for interviews and information). By the time the reprint of Keel's 1975 book came out in 1991, most of the main witnesses in the case were dead, he says, or they moved away. He reports that the landscape changed and that old buildings were gone. "New motels, homes, and an airport have swallowed up Mothman's old haunts," he explains. But we know that when the Richard Gere film is released, the spirit of Mothman will once again hang over Point Pleasant just as the saucers keep flying over Roswell.
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