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.