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The Original Man in Black: UFO Expert John Keel

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We have been watching the skies for flying saucers from other worlds for 60 years now and to celebrate this landmark in the modern UFO phenomenon the Fortean Times recently dedicated an entire issue to the subject. The Times, a British magazine devoted to the objective study of anomalous phenomena attempted to give its readers a comprehensive overview of events since a man called Kenneth Arnold saw some strange lights in the sky near mount Rainer, Washington in the summer of 1947.

But for some there was something missing in the magazine’s coverage. Something which has been missing in almost all mainstream discussion of this strange anniversary and is crucial to any understanding of the cultural impact of large sections of the western world’s population believing in visitors from other worlds for the last half century. This something is a 76-year-old man called John A Keel.

It has come as no surprise to those of us on the alternative websites and blogs that John has been left out of the story. Last year the news that he was recovering from a heart attack drew no attention from the mainstream press. But for us the man in the New York City hospital was a high priest of the paranormal and the original man in black. We remembered then and we remember now that a few years earlier there had been a hugely popular TV series that drew on his research and that Hollywood had made at least two films based on episodes in his life. So how did the world forget John Keel so quickly and what does that tell us about the UFO phenomenon?

Part of the answer lies in Mount Pleasant, West Virginia. It was here, just over 40 years ago that people began to see and hear a strange, winged, man-like, flying creature with piecing red eyes and a high-pitched scream. The local press dubbed it Mothman. Mount Pleasant was a small community and mass hysteria took hold. Lights were seen in the sky. Old Indian curses were evoked and cattle were found mutilated. Keen got wind of the story and arrived in town when the lunacy was in full swing. The Mothman Prophecies, the book he produced about the events, was an absurdist masterpiece of sorts. It made little linear sense but the way it drew connections between the Mothman sightings and other strange phenomenon, particularly UFOs, struck a huge chord with the burgeoning paranormal community.

The book’s importance is summed up by Jon Downes, director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology: “It was a seminal work; it’s what led many of us to get into the field in the first place. It showed us that all this weird stuff is connected somehow.” For Downes and many others in the community Keel’s book opened up a new world view which was generally optimistic and escapist. The movement remained small and mostly underground until the mid-nineties. This period, post-communism and pre-September 11, now looks like an oasis of calm and perhaps it was this perceived lack of threat which allowed many in the west to indulge a wacky fantasy or two.

Certainly the period was the high water mark of Keel’s influence. Hollywood made The Mothman Prophecies starring Richard Gere and Men in Black, which was based on Keel’s idea of sinister black-suited government agents whose job it was to cover up signs of alien contact. And Chris Carter created a series called The X-Files. Word was many of the episodes of the show were based directly on Keel’s research. Many of us speculated that Mulder was Keel in all but name.

Certainly, through vehicles such as The X-Files Keel had been able to shift UFOs from the margins to the centre of mainstream culture. I want to believe, indeed.

The atmosphere now is very different. After September 11 the concept of the alien changed. They weren’t using flying saucers anymore. The conspiracy websites now are more likely to show endless replays of the planes hitting the twin towers than strange lights over Mexico City. And their equally endless discussions about who was behind it all are in danger of doing nothing but adding to the culture of fear so prevalent in the mainstream media.

Keel could see the way things were going and by all accounts took to not leaving his apartment, virtually or otherwise. But as the online reaction to last year's heart attack showed, not all of us have forgotten Mr. Keel’s importance. Keep well, John. And keep watching the skies.

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About Michael Guiry

  • duane

    Nice job, Michael. Didn’t know about Keel.

    I’m a little slow. What’s the supposed connection between UFOs and 9/11? Or is it just some kind of musical chair game for conspiracy enthusiasts?

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Do a Google search for “9/11 UFO” Duane and you’ll have no problem finding video which purports to show a UFO on the scene during the 9/11 attack in NYC.

    Nice job on the Keel tribute Michael. I’ve long held kind of a side interest in UFOs (and most other things weird and conspiracy oriented) and Keel is definitely a player out there in the fringes. I’ve never taken him that seriously, but in the world of characters that is UFOlogy, Keel is certainly a true character in every sense.

    -Glen

  • Loren Coleman

    I’m taking notes on the overlaps between the I-35W collapse and the Silver Bridge/Mothman/US Hwy 35 story.

    I wrote a longer message here but it disappeared into the void, such is what happens when dealing with the Mothman and Keel.

    Point Pleasant is important, John Keel is significant, and I’m glad you wrote this blog.

    Best wishes
    Loren Coleman

  • Dr Dreadful

    Since aliens seem to be present at or have a hand in pretty much every human catastrophe, it follows that there must be quite a lot of them.

    Why would they only want to be around during disasters?

    Where, for instance, is the video showing UFOs watching game 2 of the 1993 AL East playoffs, or during news coverage of the 1998 Macy’s Thanskgiving Parade, or at Uncle Glenn’s summer bar-B-Q 2005?

    Sheesh…

  • Alec

    The “balloons” that float down the street during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade are actually the latest model alien spacecraft. Aliens love a parade.

    Also, Ann Coulter is an alien. No human female could possibly spew so much bile.

    I didn’t know much about Keel before, and this post was certainly interesting. Ironically, though, if in the end, Keel did not leave his apartment, this suggests that the culture of fear has nothing to do with the mainstream media, or even space aliens, but with a need for some people to create their own personal bogeyman so that they can rationalize their fears.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Aliens…Hmm, that movie was pretty damn good but the rest of them stunk. Sigourney Weaver started looking like a dude…LOL *Smirk*

    Anyways, how does this drudge of an article make it on this website?

  • http://www.asup-inc.org Joi Kate

    It was POINT Pleasant and while we while all of his contemporaries love John Keel, the new kids on the blcok tend to forget most of the old timers who really open the field up to the general public so many years ago. Remember Rick Moran of the ASUP or Lauren Coleman; Maybe D. Scott Rogo or even Peter Jordan, all of whom researched Mothman, long before there was a movie!
    “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to relive it!” We have to stop reinventing the wheel and start to learn from all of these people who dedicated their lives to all things Fortean!

  • Catey

    My post disappeared… ghost post. Hello?

  • Catey

    Interesting, I didn’t know about John Keel or Mt./Point Pleasant. I’m wondering if anything else has happened,up to the present?

  • http://www.taylorhickblues.blogspot.com Jewels

    Being a rabid X-Files fan back in that era, it was interesting reading about John Keel, I was not aware of him.

    Regarding the Mothman conspiracy, it seems a version of that tale has been retold in different areas of the country, the figure provided different names such as the Jersey Devil. A story popped up in our area during a period in which some of the rural farms experienced some cattle, goat and sheep mutilations. Never found the culprits for the animal slayings. Coyotes initially were blamed until stories surfaced that the animals were not just slain and devoured, more like carved to remove only certain internal organs.

    The creature blamed was dubbed the Pleasant Valley Goatman, after the area where the mutilations occurred. Descriptions by ‘witnesses’ had it resembling a Mothman type creature. Some of the locals claimed it looked into the windows of their houses, slept in their barns.

    Made for great horror tales to ‘thrill’ my kiddoes with…

  • Nigel Black

    One difference between Keel and Mulder. Keel has some degree of scepticism which leaves his ability to doubt intact. As a result he was able to arrive at his “ultraterrestrial” hypothesis. Mulder had his mind made up and was convinced that he was dealing with extraterrestrials. At least in as much as you can say anything about a fictional character. Mulder was a naive character, whereas Keel was already an experienced journalist and had seen quite a bit of the world (his book “Jadoo” is a great deal of fun to read.)

    Nigel

  • Indrid Cold

    Boo!