Saturday, January 26, 2002
Los Angeles No one is quite sure what came to the river town of Point Pleasant, W.Va., in the 1960s.
Was it an alien? An angel? The devil? Or merely an instance of group hysteria?
Whatever the answer, it was called Mothman.
And now that Hollywood has produced a movie about "The Mothman Prophecies," mystery investigator John A. Keel expects skepticism about the bizarre phenomena he chronicled in his 1975 book.
That's OK with him ï¿½ Keel is a skeptic himself.
"I have tried to remain as objective as possible," he said. "I've gone through periods where I think, 'Now I know it all' ... but I don't know if anyone will ever fully understand it."
Although the sightings in Point Pleasant and the deaths that followed are more than 30 years old, the Mothman remains a potent piece of American folklore.
It started in 1966 when two young couples reported seeing a winged man with "glowing eyes" on a woodland road outside the town.
Sightings continued for nearly a year, making national news and prompting an investigation by police. The sightings ended in 1967 when the town's Silver Bridge collapsed into the Ohio River, killing 46 people.
Some believers said the Mothman had come to warn them, while others suggested the entity may have caused the tragedy.
Throughout the season of sightings, several dozen townsfolk said they witnessed the winged man firsthand while others only spotted glowing lights in the sky. Televisions and automobiles often malfunctioned during the sightings, farmers reported cattle mutilations and peculiar "men in black" supposedly menaced witnesses.
Piquing public interest
Although it now sounds like a warmed-over "X-Files" plot, the Mothman phenomenon became a national curiosity that helped shape the modern mythology of UFO sightings.
But Keel doesn't believe the Mothman was an alien, and the movie ï¿½ starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney ï¿½ doesn't subscribe to the "little green man" theory either.
"There's an ancient Egyptian proverb I made up that goes, 'The nature of the unknown is to remain unknown," said "Mothman" screenwriter Richard Hatem. "That's the underlying theme of both Keel's book and this movie."
The film fictionalizes some of Keel's experiences, with Gere's character changed to a Washington Post reporter plagued with visions of his dead wife. The movie also creates another alter-ego for Keel named Alexander Leek ï¿½ "Keel" spelled backward ï¿½ a curmudgeonly scientist with theories about the Mothman.
Gere's character asks: If the winged creature were an advanced being, why wasn't it better at conveying its message?
"You're more advanced than a cockroach," responds Leek, played by Alan Bates. "Did you ever try explaining yourself to one?"
"It's like he was quoting me," said Keel, who liked the film despite the license it took with his story.
"The bottom line is these creatures don't exist the same way we do," he said of Mothman.
Filmmakers are frequently drawn to dramatizing legends, from the countless Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster and alien documentaries of the 1970s to the fictionalized "Urban Legend" slasher films of the 1990s.
Meanwhile, relatively obscure tales are revisited in "The Mothman Prophecies" and the French-language "Brotherhood of the Wolf," about a predatory beast that terrorized provincial France in the 18th century.
In 1999, "The Blair Witch Project" advertised itself as a true story of three filmmakers who vanished in the Maryland woods while making a documentary about a local legend. Although everything, including the legend, was bogus, the story sent beguiled sleuths on treks to search for the witch.
"I think there is a fascination with the unexplained because everything in our lives is so overexplained," said "Mothman" director Mark Pellington, whose previous film work includes the conspiracy-filled "Arlington Road" in 1999. "We're always looking for something to add a little magic to life."
The Mothman legend appealed to him because there was no easy explanation ï¿½ the mysteries of the universe remained mysteries in Point Pleasant.
"As long as we get an answer ï¿½ any answer ï¿½ we're satisfied, but when these stories are not tied up neatly they continually perplex us," he said.