If you weren’t paying attention, you could easily have seen The Mothman Prophecies, and thought “interesting” and never thought about it again because you were expecting a more traditional “horror movie” or some such nonsense where a winged guy comes out of the woods all deranged and starts hacking up the locals. But that is not, anyway, what “Mothman” is about. It’s a film that on the surface anyway, doesn’t entirely bend to genre. Or you could have missed it entirely because a film about a moth, you thought, sounded really dull and boring. But it wasn’t about a moth per se either. So what is Mothman about? Ahhh, that’s where it gets interesting…
At its core, Mothman is a film about the fear of the unknown and about warnings missed and warnings heard. The quick review – Mothman Prophecies, based largely on the work of writer John Keel, is about events in Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1966-67 that lead up the dramatic and tragic collapse of the Silver Bridge (connecting the town to Ohio), that took the lives of forty-six people. Beneath the journalistic element, Mothman plays on our very basic instinctive fear of that which we cannot define, those things that fly in the face of logic, defying it and us at every turn.
Like any good film that sets out to unnerve you and make you think this could happen to you – which is really the engine behind any horror or psychological thriller, because if there’s not a chance in hell that you too could fall prey to whatever the horror is, then the film will fall flat on it’s face, n’est pas? Mothman does and excellent job of helping you see yourself in this picture.
So when John Klein (most likely based on a the real character of Point Pleasant, Washington, John Keel) and his beautiful, vibrant, and wife Mary (Debra Messing) are house hunting. They are the peak of their lives; successful, young, attractive and happy, and now they have found their perfect dream house. Delirious and happy, John and Mary shut themselves into one of what will be their giant wardrobes for a quick fuck me up|fuck me down session, to which most of us can relate. Even if we haven’t yet found our dream house, the happiness of even finding the right apartment is enough to get any couple going, and who wouldn’t wish to inaugurate such a thing with some frisky making out when so deliriously happy? The moth that flies fast around the lightbulb when the realtor flips on the switch and catches the two startles Messing and is the beginning of what will be the end.
This moth is a forbearer or omen of what is to come, the great Messenger of the afterworld – Osiris, the Egyptian God of the Dead. We want so much to put have an answer or explanation for the tragedies that befall us. So when the lead character John Klein’s (played by Richard Gere) wife, Mary, (Debra Messing) suffers a nasty head contusion when she crashes their BMW as the two return home from happy house hunting. Mary sees a giant, red=-eyed cloaked figure flying to the front windshield and grill of the car and swerves to avoid it. John does not see this Mothman (our first real sighting) and is somewhat mystified about the car accident.
Everything is soon explained in logical terms when Mary’s subsequent hospitalization leads to the discovery of a temporal lobe brain tumor, remarkably and actually shaped like a butterfly (I checked on this and such tumors do exist and when I checked my own MRI, I noticed remarkably similar butterfly patterns repeated in the brain, but particularly in the temporal lobe). The moth and butterfly, interestingly, have also been the symbol for “bridge” at various points in history, and of course, most revelatory, the moth is the symbol for the human soul.
Lying in her hospital bed, injured and scared, Mary says to John, “You didn’t see it … did you?” asking about the red-eyed thing that came screaming at their BMW as they were rushing home from their newly bought house to their old house for celebratory love-making. Such happiness ruined in a moment. The tumor of course, is too convenient, but it’s natural that we seek something logical, scientific on which to pin these odd happenings. The tumor is real, and we watch as Mary goes through various MRIs and tests, but the thing that she says she saw defies logic.
The temporal lobe is the seat of memory and artistic vision, so this is an interesting place for Mary’s tumor to appear, for it would affect everything, especially what Mary perceives. It is also the area of the brain that helps form the bedrock of character, determining who we will be, and governing everything from our emotions, memory, and consciousness- acting as a sort of sifter…receiving and expressing emotional feeling, the lobes function as a computer. (Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and Social and Psychological Considerations ) As such, Mary’s temporal lobe tumor is used as a device to appeal to our logical sense and as such, can logically account for the many weird visions and sounds that Mary begins to experience after the accident and according to Mary (and to the viewer, for we too have seen Mothman now), things before — the very thing which caused the accident: our red-eyed entity that was, yes, moth like, but also very much like a figment of what an injured brain would summon up. Are we perceiving something that is real and actual then, or are we simply seeing what Mary’s injured brain hallucinates for us?
Or more, could it be as many believed in other cultures that there were those, such as the village Shaman, who had altered states that allowed them to perceive things that others could not perceive but were nonetheless quite real. Such shamans were considered sacred and holy, for only they could communicate with the gods of the underworld and after-life. Shamans and medicine men and women were considered holy and as such, enjoyed a privileged status in their village.
Most shamans were also epileptic. It was believed that their epilepsy. Such stark contrast to the more Westernized notion of epilepsy that put many in mental institutions and labeled them mad and attributed their disorder to “excessive masturbation,” which lead, of course, to castration and cliterodectomies Mothman takes these antiquated notions and turns them on their head. In this film, those who can perceive Mothman are the gifted among us – The Chosen, for only they can communicate with this higher power. Sure, they may die for it, but in many ways, they are also martyred, canonized.
For those interested in the real events that came to pass in Point Pleasant in 1966 and 1967 – author John Keel wrote extensively about Mothman and other unexplained anomalies that took place across the country. According to Keel, man has had a long history of interaction with the supernatural. He believes that 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 and even ghosts. Keel is no doubt considered eccentric and a bit “off” but he remains one of the most respected authorities concerning events that would be considered supernatural. Today he is best known for his work concerning Mothman and became the major archivist, chronicling the stories of the many 100 or more good citizens in Point Pleasant who believe they saw Mothman in various forms (including strange lights, winged creatures, sounds emitted from telephones and televisions etc. – all believed to be some attempt at communication). Keel wrote The Mothman Prophecies in 1975. For more information, check on Keel and Mothman, check out http://www.prairieghosts.com/moth.html
In a sense, then, John and Mary Klein have been warned about the car accident – the moth as omen and that is what Mothman is all about. It’s not that Mothman himself is evil – he isn’t. It’s that he just happens to appear whenever there is going to be tragedy. It’s about being aware and awake enough to recognize that perhaps there are warning sings after any great tragedy – that we look but don’t see, as Hannibal Lecter has told us so many times.
Two years pass, Mary does die from her temporal lobe tumor, and John Klein sets off as part of his job as a journalist at The Washington Post, to interview the mayor. After driving for what seems like quite a short time, he finds himself in a completely different part of the country in a small town called Point Pleasant in West Virginia.
It’s the middle of the night and his car (an Audi, of course) just stops dead – some electrical anomaly and he walks to a local house to ask if he can use the telephone. There he is met with a rather crazed looking man, played by Will Patton, wielding a gun, who says to his wife, “I told you he’d come back”. Patton forces Gere into the bathtub while he holds him prisoner until the local Deputy Connie Parker (Laura Linney) arrives. He tells her this “strange guy” has been paying him visits and that he’s warned him off his property several times now, but that he keeps coming back. He describes the creature as half moth, half man. Linney manages to talk Patton into letting Gere go, but tells the reporter (Gere) “There have been some strange things going on around here lately” apparently referring to people seeing things – strange things that she can’t explain. She drops Gere off at a local motel for the night and arranges for his car to be towed to a local garage.
The next morning, when Gere goes to get his car he is told that there is “nothing wrong with it and that there is “no charge”, which is odd because it had just died – flat out, electrically zapped. He then visits Linney at the police department where she says, “Did you see that woman?” of course, Gere didn’t see anyone. Linney describes the woman as “real pretty with red hair and green eyes” describing perfectly the two-year dead Mary Klein. Gere rushes out to the street, but sees nothing, though he is desperate to see her (this will be the first time that his dead wife tries to contact him. Messing reappears in the background several times in the film, though Gere never really makes contact. He may hear her, and even see her, several times in his own bed or receive a phone call – a voice that sounds like her. Frustratingly, he is never able to speak directly with Mary. Instead, it’s a one way communication on her part as if she is trying to convey a message that he can’t quite get no matter how hard he may try.
If you look carefully during the scene when Gere steps outside the police station, you’ll see that the woman in question is a rather tired looking Debra Messing, back from the dead somehow, wandering lost and solemn around this small town. She is walking down the sidewalk, head down, hands in he pockets, looking like anyone on their worst day; she passes through the crowd, undetected by Gere who rushes back into the police station to Connie to ask what she wanted.
Linney tells Gere, that she left a message which is: “Tell John I’m sorry for ruining everything.” And that’s it and it just happens to be a slight variation on almost the same thing Mary said to her husband from her hospital bed just before she died (“I’m sorry for ruining everything.”) Though John rushes out to see if he can find his dearly departed, it is to no avail. This is just another of many odd coincidences that seem to be racking up now faster and furiouser, building as they will continue to throughout the film.
After some quick investigatory work, John Klein discovers that the locals in this small town have all been seeing the same moth, winged creature that his own wife was seeing before she died. She had left a notebook full of odd drawings (the kind you’ve seen in The Ring, only this time, the drawings are of moth type creatures but use the same dark black and rich red grease pencil to same effect.) The hospital attendant tells Klein, she was drawing “angels” but these do not look like angels – unless your conception of angels is that of the evil angel – the one who is cast down by God and sent to Hell and winds up being called Satan instead of Seraphim. No – these are moth men and the locals have been drawing eerily similar portraits of what they have seen.
The ancients believed that the moth was the carrier or symbol of the soul. In ancient Egypt, the moth or Isis or Osiris (also symbolized by the butterfly) as she was then called, was drawn on many cartouches and symbolized the soul’s journey to the other world or in the case of the butterfly, a happier connotation of the soul’s flight and life after death. The moth was also recognized as the forbearer or omen of a death or disaster to come – as in this film, though in Mothman, it seems to be both.
In all cases, the mothman’s intention is not to harm to cause harm, but really often to warn (if you can ascribe intentionality or emotion, though that would be to humanize perhaps too much). The moth is also a messenger who simply speaks of what will be but what we cannot stop or prevent. Most interestingly, the moth has been the symbol for bridges, dreams, reincarnation, and an omen of sickness, among many other things (anyone interested should check this out here. )
The forms Mothman takes in this film are myriad, depending on who is doing the looking – he may literally be man with wings and giant red eyes or more representational, like Messing’s moth that flew at the BMW causing the accident who looking more like two giant red eyes cloaked in black. It may sound corny, the red eyes and all, but see the film and there’s something really eerie about the way it is done. Something almost too convincing. Most eerie of all, however, is the means Mothman uses to communicate with John Klein and myriad others, traveling through existing telecom systems, traveling the long and short wires, traversing the earth.
Mothman is smart – not only can he appear in many forms and shape-shift to suit the viewer’s idea of what is scary to get his message across, but he also makes use of modern technology to communicate. He seems to be some collective energy, and what is energy after all but electricity. That he travels using our telecommunications system is then not really surprising. It makes sense.
If you were an electrical current, wouldn’t it be most efficient to travel through a pre-existing network of landlines that grace the country, swinging from pole to pole and through huge metal power girders that stand like monsters with huge batwings – the kind you’ve seen on the sides of highways on long road trips. The same things that used to scare the hell out me when I was a kid because they looked like giant steel monsters walking across the British country side and coming right for the back of our car.
To be clear Mothman isn’t entirely made up. In fact, the film is based on the very real happenings of several small towns in West Virginia in the mid 1960s where extensive sightings of Mothman were reported. On November 12th, 1966, five local men in West Virginia in a small town called Clendenin were preparing a grave for burial when they spotted a “brown mothlike figure” lifting from the cemetery. Later that month in nearby Point Pleasant, a young couple saw a similar red-eyed mothlike figure as they were making out in their car. Many other sightings followed for the entire month – one local man was watching television, when the screen suddenly went blank and he heard what he described as high pitched screeching sounds that he believed were sending some kind of message of warning.
Many people saw strange lights in the skies around Point Pleasant – and almost all reported the strange sightings to local police. Eventually, this made the newswire and local reporter named Mary Hyre, who was the Point Pleasant correspondent for the Athens, Ohio newspaper the Messenger, was gathering all of the information for a story. Hyre reported that one night around this time while she was working late, and saw a strange little man who terrified her. She described him: “He was very short and had strange eyes that were covered with thick glasses. He also had long, black hair that was cut squarely “like a bowl haircut”. Hyre said that he spoke in a low, halting voice and he asked for directions to Welsh, West Virginia. She thought that he had some sort of speech impediment and for some reason, he terrified her. “He kept getting closer and closer to me, “she said, “and his funny eyes were staring at me almost hypnotically.”
Alarmed, she summoned the newspaper’s circulation manager to her office and together, they spoke to the strange little man. She said that at one point in the discussion, she answered the telephone when it rang and she noticed the little man pick up a pen from her desk. He looked at it in amazement, “as if he had never seen a pen before.” Then, he grabbed the pen, laughed loudly and ran out of the building.” (http://www.prairieghosts.com/moth.html).
In the film, as in real life, on December 15th, 1967, The Silver Bridge, foot bridge linking the town Point Pleasant to Ohio collapsed and crashed into the river below. In the film, this is eerily predicted by Laura Linney’s dream in which she imagines she is floating in a river of wrapped gifts with silver bows and wrapping paper. She feels herself sinking to the bottom of the river, where there are lights (later, we discover, these are the lights from cars that have plunged into the water from the high Silver Bridge). A voice says, “Wake up number forty-seven.” Forty-six people will die on this night, in the film as in life. She is saved, in the film, of course by Richard Gere who has become a love interest and she, the first for him since the death of his wife, so particularly significant…
No mater what you point of view, to say that the entire Mothman incident in Point Pleasant (or elsewhere, for there have been other sightings, other disasters where great and awful happenings were foreshadowed by Mothman and light sightings as they were in this case) was a complete hoax. People did see something and what they saw was remarkably, spookily similar and mothlike in appearance, and there is no question that awful things did happen.
It’s worth seeing Mothman to be sure, but it’s more worth it if you do some preliminary research first on what the symbolic meaning of the butterfly or moth is. And be sure too, to note the repeated and excellent imagery in this film – the way the symbol of the moth and the wingspan is duplicated again and again and the pattern found in almost every scene, from Mary’s seemingly winged hospital bed, to the front lights and grill of the car, to the dark tree branches over the accident scene.
Here is a film worth seeing, but do check out some of the symbolism beforehand just to get a real good angle on what the moth is really all about. Understanding that deepens the horror of the film, and this one ranks among the best, with The Ring, and others in the genre. As I write this, I want to note that the TV has just gone completely bobo and all static, when a moment ago it was in fact, just fine, and yes, there are strange high-pitched sounds coming from it – and I shit you not, and it is spooky and it wouldn’t be spooky if I hadn’t seen Mothman so many times and now associate it with some kind of communication or sign, but of what, I can’t say… so either I’ve lost my mind I’ve gone bobo, or (and I pray this later is more likely), The Mothman Prophecies is a highly effective thriller. See it | believe. Do not go gentle into that good night.