The Enduring Legacy of The Mothman Prophecies
As The Mothman Prophecies turns 20, we look back at the legends that inspired the movie and explore its everlasting creepiness.
This feature contains spoilers for The Mothman Prophecies
Twenty years ago, on Jan 25, 2002, The Mothman Prophecies opened in movie theaters. Starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney and directed by Mark Pellington, the movie was a critical and commercial nonstarter, but in recent years it has developed a cult following as a truly creepy psychological horror flick.
Adapted from the book by John A. Keel, the film follows Gere’s reporter character John Klein, whose wife witnesses a flying moth-like creature with red eyes shortly before dying of a brain tumor. Two years later, he finds himself lost in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, where strange sightings of a similar figure are on the rise. As he becomes a part of this mystery he’s likewise grappling with his lingering grief, and his sanity begins to unravel.
Atmospheric and unsettling, the movie also features one of the weirdest product placements in cinema when a demon-alien voice on the phone tells Gere’s character that it knows he’s holding Chapstick lip balm. (Just say “Chaaaaapstick” to a fan of this movie and watch the response.)
Now, two decades later, Mothman — a mysterious cryptid/alien/ultraterrestrial — is having a moment. The Mothman Prophecies created a slow burn movement that launched Mothman into “It Monster” status, and it’s certainly become a darling to Etsy designers who seem to love making Mothy merch.
To honor the anniversary of this weird movie — which Keel said “managed to squeeze the basic truths” of the real story into it — let’s explore some original Mothman lore.
On Nov. 15, 1966, in the small town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, two married couples fled a World War II munitions dump site — dubbed the “TNT area” — claiming they’d seen a terrifying creature. The Point Pleasant Register ran a headline the next day: “Couples See Man-Sized Bird … Creature … Something!”
Steve Mallette and Roger Scarberry reported seeing a “man with wings” “about six or seven feet tall, having a wingspan of 10 feet and red eyes about two inches in diameter and six inches apart.” Moreover, the thing was said to be a clumsy runner but extremely fast, traveling up to 100 mph once it took flight.
By Nov. 18, more sightings had emerged that took place before the couples’ report. A community gravedigger named Kenneth Duncan, and other men, were digging his brother-in-law’s grave about 500 miles away when they saw “something that looked like a brown human being” flying. Newell Partridge, who lived about 100 miles outside of Point Pleasant, said he saw the thing about 90 minutes before the married couples. He believed it was linked to the disappearance of his dog who spotted red eyes in a field, chased after them, and never returned.
As around 100 other accounts mounted, wildlife biologist Dr. Robert L. Smith postulated the creature was a sandhill crane. Mason County Sheriff George Johnson said he thought it was a “freak shitepoke” heron.
On November 17, 1966, the Huntington Herald-Dispatch published the headline, “Bird, Plane Or Batman? Mason Countians Hunt ‘Moth Man.'” This adds credence to the theory Mothman got its name because the Adam West Batman series was quite popular during the time of the sightings. Though the comic book villain Killer Moth did not appear in the series, he was in an eight-minute unaired “pilot” for Season Three in 1967, which debuted Yvonne Craig as Batgirl.
John A. Keel
Journalist and UFOlogist John A. Keel wrote The Mothman Prophecies in 1975. It collected his research on the Point Pleasant sightings while also connecting them to a larger pattern of phenomena such as UFOs, reports of flying men, Men in Black (MiBs), Native American Thunderbirds, the birdlike Garuda of Buddhist and Hindu lore, and even ghosts. Keel posited theories of “ultraterrestrials,” or beings not from outer space, but from a reality slightly out of alignment with our own, whose presence aligned with ancient folklore.
The NYC-based author, who died in 2009, was often on the ground in Point Pleasant beginning in 1966 — calling it his second home for a time — and maintained frequent contact with eyewitnesses. In The Mothman Prophecies, the author is adapted into Gere’s John Klein, but Keel’s UFOlogy researcher side is represented by the character Leek (Keel spelled backwards), played by Alan Bates.
It should be noted that Gray Barker published The Silver Bridge, a book about the Mothman, in 1970, five years prior to Keel. Barker also notably introduced the concept of MiBs to the mainstream in his 1956 book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, though Keel is attributed as coining the term. Barker’s credibility remains dubious due to his involvement in hoaxes.
In November 1966, about 51 miles from Point Pleasant, Woodrow Derenberger was driving home one night when he saw an unusual craft land ahead of him. He described it as “an old-fashioned kerosene lamp chimney, flaring at both ends, narrowing down to a small neck and then enlarging in a great bulge in the center,” and from within a man emerged through a hatch that had “slightly elongated” eyes, with slicked back dark brown hair, and deeply tanned skin. He wore reflective blue clothing and had an expression of a wide grin.
Communicating telepathically, the figure introduced himself as Indrid Cold, and said “we mean you no harm.” Derenberger said he visited with Cold and others like him subsequent times, and learned they were from the planet Lanulos. The man even said he visited the planet.
Around the same time, the Lily family in Point Pleasant told Keel they had seen strange lights in the sky and poltergeist activity in their home. One night the daughter Linda woke to a large man looming over her with a broad smile.
Cold came to be known by another moniker, The Grinning Man. Along with an October 1966 sighting in New Jersey, Keel’s Mothman investigation came to include Cold and these strange smiling visitors. Derenberger is adapted into a character played by Will Patton in The Mothman Prophecies, and it is Cold who is the voice of Mothy, uttering the creepy “chaaapstick” line while on the phone with Klein.
Mary Hyre was considered a star reporter at The Athens Messenger — located on the other side of the Ohio Rive near Point Pleasant — where she would also write a column about strange occurrences called “Where the Waters Mingle.”
Keel viewed her as a friend, and held her in high regard, writing, “If you wanted to find out anything about the area, and its people, the quickest way was to ‘ask Mary Hyre.’” Indeed, Mary joined Keel on his investigations, and she likewise experienced phenomena. She was also visited by potential MiBs that warned her not to write about sightings.
Additionally, it would seem her niece Connie Carpenter was one of Keel’s early interviewees on the case. Carpenter saw a huge, flying gray figure with red eyes while on the way home from church. The experience left her with “eyeburn,” or red, watery, swollen eyes; these are symptoms Keel associated with UFO encounters.
In the film, Debra Messing plays Klein’s wife, Mary, who encounters the moth creature, and later dies from a brain tumor. Laura Linney’s police officer character Connie is more closely the Mary Hyre of the film as she befriends Klein and provides a voice of sanity as he unravels.
Keel dedicated The Mothman Prophecies book “To Mary Hyre, and the people of West Virginia.”
The Mothman sightings mounted, with upwards of 100 associated with the phenomenon. These preceded the collapse of the Silver Bridge into the Ohio River on Dec. 15, 1967 — a year and a month after the first reported sighting. The collapse during rush hour killed 46 people and was attributed to a defect in a single link of the low redundancy eyebar-chain suspension bridge.
Built in 1928, the Silver Bridge was under undue strain. By 1967, the average vehicle was more than twice as heavy as in the late 20s, and the bridge experienced frequent traffic jams. The collapse of the bridge was inevitable considering it was not designed with a radically different future in mind.
The Silver Bridge disaster was linked to Mothman sightings, with some paranormalists concluding the creature was either a harbinger of doom, a messenger who seeks to warn of disaster, or simply an observer of human events.
The Mothman Prophecies failed to make much of a dent in the box office, only landing in the top three on opening day. Box Office Mojo reports it made $55 million worldwide off its $32 million budget, and it was a dud with most critics. Still, the film has garnered a cult following in recent years as a creepy, underrated flick. And it has done wonders for Mothy!
Keel’s book brought Mothman into the mainstream, and paranormal weirdos (aka fans of anomalistic phenomena) knew of the creature, but aside from being mentioned in the 1997 X-Files episode “Detour,” it wasn’t getting a lot of love. The film helped make Mothy a rock star over time.
In 2002, Point Pleasant organized an annual Mothman Festival, held the third weekend of each September (which will be returning in 2022 after being canceled the previous two years). And in 2003, artist Bob Roach unveiled his 12-foot-tall, polished steel Mothman statue (with red, orb-like eyes) just steps from the Mothman Museum in downtown Point Pleasant.
As for sightings, there have been numerous accounts in the years since the movie was released. Unfortunately, most — like the Freiburg Shrieker at a collapsed mine in Germany — are likely the stuff of internet legend that then influenced urban legends.
Many stories, such as the Blackbird of Chernobyl, seen before the nuclear reactor disaster in 1986, were retconned to have taken place in the past, but only emerged in the early aughts. The Mothman Prophecies also references Chernobyl and claims the “moth man” moniker is translated from Ukrainian, but this is total fiction.
More recently, Chicago has laid claim to its own Mothman, beginning with standalone reports in 2011 and then additional accounts in 2017. The reports were elevated by paranormal bloggers and then picked up by news outlets, but are questionably sourced. Unfortunately, what seemed like multiple sightings may have been only a few repeated across sites. Interestingly, they coincided with both the 50th anniversary of the West Virginia sightings, and with The Mothman of Point Pleasant documentary.