How real is ''The Mothman Prophecies''? The director of the Richard Gere thriller and the author of the book that spawned it explain
The Mothman Prophecies
Credit: The Mothman Prophesies: Melissa Moseley

In its Richard Gere-centric TV ads and posters, ”The Mothman Prophecies” touts itself as ”based on true events” — a bold claim for a tale centered around spooky-voiced entities making prophecies via telephone. Maybe TOO bold a claim, acknowledges director Mark Pellington (”Arlington Road”). ”It’s really very fictionalized,” he tells ”Maybe it would have been more accurate to say ‘inspired by true events’ rather than ‘based on true events.’ Anyway, you’re talking about events that were [originally] questioned as to whether they were truthful or not.”

The movie — set in the present day with Gere as John Klein, a Washington Post reporter who happens upon a supernatural mystery in rural Point Pleasant, Virginia — is not without a basis in reality. In the summer of 1966, residents of the real Point Pleasant began claiming numerous sightings of a man-sized, moth-like flying creature with glowing red eyes. When the Associated Press picked up a local report about the visitations, an editor dubbed the alleged creature the ”Mothman,” apparently thinking of the then-popular ”Batman” TV show. The sightings continued over the next year, and fear and paranoia grew in the small town, as chronicled fairly faithfully in the ”Mothman” movie.

Then in December 1967, dozens were killed when Point Pleasant’s Ohio River Bridge suddenly collapsed — a tragedy some townsfolk saw as the culmination of the terror they had been feeling. Author John Keel, a sort of pre-Fox Mulder paranormal expert who spent months in Point Pleasant at the time, agreed. In 1975, Keel published the purportedly non-fiction tome ”The Mothman Prophecies,” which included some hard-to-verify claims — including his belief that he was warned in advance of the bridge collapse via mysterious phone calls that coincided with the Mothman sightings.

”I was called by all kinds of voices,” the 72-year-old Keel tells ”They would give me information — they would give me prophecies that came true. It was a very scary time.” In his book, Keel claims to have had vague advance word of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy; he casually tells that his voices warned him of trouble ahead for Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, too.

In the ”Mothman” movie, Gere’s character manages to capture the prophetic voices on tape, and an expert tells him that human vocal cords couldn’t have produced their sound — a dramatic touch that lends believability to the story. But significantly, Keel never got that kind of scientific proof. When he tried to record, he says he only ”got a lot of static.”

The Mothman Prophecies
  • Movie
  • Mark Pellington