The Mothman Prophecies (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

"The Mothman Prophecies" is supposed to be based on a real-life incident. Do you know that campfire game where you whisper something in a circle to see how much it changes when it comes back to the originator? That's what happened with this story as it progressed from life to a book to a movie.

Here's what really happened.

For more than a year in the late 60's, terror and uncertainty gripped the town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, as witnesses reported seeing a "big bird" that stood taller than a man with huge grey wings and glowing red eyes. It was first seen by about ten people in the area of the McClintick Wildlife Station, which had been a bird sanctuary for many years.

It was nicknamed the Mothman by the local press. Hundreds of people reported seeing the creature. During this time, there were some other reports of strange lights in the skies, and miscellaneous corollary events like a missing dog ninety miles away that was felt to be related (a man reported hearing, then seeing, the Mothman just before his dog disappeared).

Dr. Robert L. Smith, associate professor of wildlife biology in WVU’s division of forestry, told the sheriff that the "thing" was a migratory bird called the greater sandhill crane. Dr. Smith said the bird can stand five feet tall with a wingspread of seven feet, has gray plumage, has an eerie cry that can be heard for miles, and can fly at great speeds. A feature of its appearance is a bright red flesh area around each eye. In car lights, the bare skin around its eyes reflect as bright red circles. Dr. Smith warned that the crane, if cornered, may become a formidable antagonist. Its dagger-like bill is a dangerous weapon which it does not hesitate to use when at bay and fighting for its life, and these birds have severely injured many a hunting dog.

"The cry of the sandhill crane is a veritable voice of nature, untamed and unterrified," says one book on birds. "Its uncanny quality is like that of the loon, but is more pronounced because of the much greater volume of the crane’s voice. Its resonance is remarkable and its carrying power is increased by a distinct tremolo effect. Often for several minutes after the birds have vanished the unearthly sound drifts back to the listener, like a taunting trumpet from the underworld."

Nobody was ever injured by the Mothman in any way. In fact, nobody ever saw a dog attacked by the creature. The missing and wounded dogs were simply assumed to be related to Mothy.

More than a year after Mothman's first appearance, around 5:00 in the evening on December 15, 1967, the 700-foot bridge linking Point Pleasant to Ohio suddenly collapsed while filled with rush hour traffic. Dozens of vehicles plunged into the dark waters of the Ohio River and 46 people were killed. Two of those were never found and the other 44 are buried together in the town cemetery of Gallipolis, Ohio. That same night, one family reported strange lights in the sky above their home. People began to speculate that the Mothman was somehow responsible for the bridge’s collapse, but there was no reason to make such a connection. The Mothman disappeared about this time, and never returned.

Here are the actual related archives of the local paper. There were no reports of prophecies, communications from the dead, or any other type of similar paranormal phenomena.


Here's what the book was about.

About a month after the first sightings, John Keel got an assignment to go there. John was on a contract to write a book about UFOs.

As Keel began to talk to people and gather information, the journalist found himself getting more deeply involved in the events, to the extent that "There were entities that communicated with John by phone", one reporter declared. As Keel analyzed the events, he found Point Pleasant to be "a vortex of phenomena." Keel received constant predictions throughout the 13 months, presumably "channeled" by various contacts.

Although these "prophecies" were precise, none of them ever came true, except in the sense that any general type of prophecy may come true if worded correctly and interpreted liberally. If you say "an important man will die in June", for example, sooner of later a June will come along in which a prominent man will die.

  • The voices predicted an assassination attempt on the pope -- followed by "days of darkness". There were such assassination attempts many, many years later, long after locals had forgotten the Mothman. No darkness ensued, except for nighttime.
  • They also predicted that "when President Johnson turned on the Christmas lights at the White House, the whole Northeast was going to go into a blackout." Well, something like that did happen, but in the past, not the future. There had been such a blackout about two years earlier, in November of 1965. The predicted Christmas tree blackout didn't happen, but that very night turned out to be the same night that the bridge collapsed between Point Pleasant and Ohio. Keel saw that as a fulfillment of the prophecy somehow, but I'll be darned if I can see why.

I need to stress here that not only were the prophecies all inaccurate, but these types of mysterious paranormal communications happened only to John Keel, not to any locals or others who could corroborate them. He wrote a profitable book based on these claims. The locals only saw the Mothman and some lights in the sky, and reported some lost and mutilated dogs, as noted in the newspaper stories cited above.

I should probably also point out that, according to Keel, man has had a long history of interaction with supernatural beings. The intervention of mysterious strangers in the lives of historic personages like Thomas Jefferson and Malcolm X provides evidence of the continuing presence of the “gods of old”. The manifestation of these elder gods comes in the form of UFO’s and aliens, monsters, demons, angels, ghosts, possibly even Christopher Walken and several members of the Harmonicats.


Here's how the movie altered the story further.

  • In the film's version, the reporter is no longer a UFO investigator who believes in crackpot theories, but a distinguished investigative reporter for the Washington Post (Richard Gere).
  • All of a sudden there are "proofs" of paranormal occurrences. The reporter, for example, leaves D.C. for a location in Virginia at 1:00 A.M. One and a half hours later, way off course, he knocks on a door in West Virginia. In 90 minutes, he has moved 400 miles away from his point of origin. Witnesses can pinpoint him in both places. When he knocks on that door, he does not know where he is. The people in that house claim that he was there at the exact same time the previous two nights. Some of those details would be impressive if based on real events, wouldn't they? All of it is fictional. (Rod Serling narrates from the bushes next to the house. "Richard Gere - an aging leading man who made a livelihood in movies based entirely on his stunning looks - attempting to prolong his career. He will find that new career not on earth, but in The Twilight Zone". Cue theme music. Play opening sequence. Cut to commercial.)
  • In addition to the reporter, other people hear the strange voices and predictions. All fictional.
  • The voices on the phone know Gere's every thought and action. All fictional. He asks, "where are my keys?". The voice says, "in your right shoe under the bed." Gere grabs a book, asks, "what is the third line in page 51?", and the voice immediately recites it verbatim. "Why", we think, "this is incredible evidence, and it's all based on real incidents!"
  • In the movie, the predictions come true. In addition to some earlier predictions, the bridge collapse is predicted as a catastrophe on the "River Ohio". All fictional. The real prediction is discussed above. Apparently the supernatural voices, as imagined in the film, can recite long passages verbatim from the Chanson Roland in properly inflected Old French, but can not remember the correct order of the two words "Ohio" and "River".
  • Gere gets some calls from his dead wife in her voice. Other people get calls from Gere that he did not actually make. Calls are recorded by tape recorders or answering machines and analyzed. A scientific expert would testify in court that the Gere call was made by Gere's voice. All of this is fictional. (Remember the real incidents happened in 1966-67!) In real life, there was not even any proof that the calls ever existed, only Keel's claim to have received them.
  • The Mothman looks exactly like some sketches that Gere's dying wife had made two years earlier, providing a further inexplicable, pseudo-scientific link between the reporter and the Mothman. All fictional.
And thus is our film based on real incidents. If you consider the scientifically validated existence of corroborated paranormal phenomena to be based on a migratory bird sighting.

Aside from that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs Lincoln?


Well, although it has nothing to do with reality, the movie is OK. There is no reason to say that it is based on real incidents, other than that many people reported seeing the Mothman in the month before the bridge collapsed, and that one of the mysterious predictions said that something completely different would happen on the same night the bridge fell.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen anamorphic format, 2.35:1

But if you ignore that and just watch the movie, it is a good extended Twilight Zone episode. The director does an excellent job at maintaining the creepy, spooky atmosphere and the sense of mystery. On the other hand, if you need a big finish, it doesn't have one. There is no final surprise or last-minute payoff. When the bridge collapses, there is only the usual unrealistic movie rescue in which humans stay under water for weeks at a time without air, often performing heavy labor or writing complete symphonies.

The ending doesn't deliver the knockout punch of The Others or The Sixth Sense, but in the developmental acts it is a comparable movie to those two. According to the Guardian, critics in the U.K. almost universally savaged it, but it received positive reviews from 53% of the reviewers who comprise the Rotten Tomatoes panel.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 2/4, Berardinelli 3/4

  • General UK consensus: one and a half stars - Daily Mail 4/10, Daily Telegraph 7/10, The Guardian 6/10, The Observer 2/10, The Times 2/10, Evening Standard 2/10, The Sun 6/10, The Express 6/10, The Mirror 2/10, BBC 3/5

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 6.6/10. Guardian readers are 5.5/10.
  • with their dollars: gross $35 million. The studio hoped for far better - the film played on 2331 screens, and cost $42 million to make. It bombed completely in the U.K. with only $3 million gross.


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C. It is not really based on real life, but it is a slick, professional film about the paranormal, which would make a good extended episode of X-Files or Twilight Zone. The director does a great job on the atmosphere, and I look forward to his future projects.

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