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Why and How John Keel’s “The Mothman Prophecies” Got its Name

There can be few people reading this who have not at least heard of the legendary Mothman of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, who so terrorized the town and the surrounding area between November 1966 and December 1967, and whose diabolical exploits were chronicled in the 2002 hit Hollywood movie starring Richard Gere: The Mothman Prophecies, so named after the book of the same title written by Mothman authority John Keel. A devil-like, winged monster with glowing, red eyes, Mothman’s appearance came quite literally out of nowhere and, some say, culminated in high tragedy and death. But what was the Mothman of Point Pleasant? And how did the legend begin?  To answer those questions we have to go back to the dark night of November 12, 1966, when five grave-diggers working in a cemetery in the nearby town of Clendenin were shocked to see what they described as a “brown human shape with wings” rise out of the thick, surrounding trees and soar off into the distance.

Three days later, the unearthly beast surfaced once again. It was late when Roger and Linda Scarberry and Steve and Mary Mallette – two young, married couples from Point Pleasant – were passing the time away by cruising around town in the Scarberrys’ car. As they drove around the old factory, the four were puzzled to see in the shadows what looked like two red lights pointing in their direction. These were no normal lights, however. Rather, all four were shocked and horrified to discover that, in reality, the “lights” were the glowing, self-illuminating red eyes of a huge animal that, as Roger Scarberry would later recall, was “…shaped like a Mothman, but bigger, maybe six and a half or seven feet tall, with big wings folded against its back.”

Not surprisingly, they fled the area at high speed. Unfortunately for the Scarberry’s and the Mallette’s, however, the beast seemingly decided to follow them: as they sped off for the safety of Point Pleasant, the winged monster took to the skies and shadowed their vehicle’s every movement until it reached the city limits. The four raced to the sheriff’s office and told their astounding story to Deputy Millard Halstead, who later stated that: “I’ve known these kids all their lives. They’d never been in any trouble and they were really scared that night. I took them seriously.” And even though a search of the area by Halstead did not result in an answer to the mystery, the Mothman would soon return.

Early on the morning of November 25, yet another remarkable encounter with the mysterious beast took place, as John Keel noted:  “Thomas Ury was driving along Route 62 just north of the TNT area when he noticed a tall, grey manlike figure standing in a field by the road. ‘Suddenly it spread a pair of wings,’ Ury said, ‘and took off straight up, like a helicopter. It veered over my convertible and began going in circles three telephone poles high.’” Keel reported that Ury quickly hit the accelerator. Nevertheless, Ury added: “It kept flying right over my car even though I was doing about seventy-five.” Over the next few days more sightings surfaced, including that of Ruth Foster of nearby Charleston – who saw the winged monster late at night in her garden, and who said: “It was tall with big red eyes that popped out of its face. My husband is six feet one and this bird looked about the same height or a little shorter, maybe.”

Needless to say, the local media had a field day with the story. Tales of what were referred to as the “Bird-Monster” hit the headlines; while both the skeptics and the police ensured that their views and opinions on the matter were widely known. Dr. Robert L. Smith, Associate Professor of Wildlife Biology in the West Virginia University’s Division of Forestry, expressed his firm opinion that Mothman was nothing stranger than a large sandhill crane. This hardly satisfied the witnesses, however. In response to Dr. Smith’s assertion, Thomas Ury said: “I’ve seen big birds, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”

As for the local police, they offered stern warnings to any and all would-be monster hunters contemplating seeking out the mysterious creature, as the Herald Dispatch newspaper noted: “Sheriff [George] Johnson said he would arrest anybody caught with a loaded gun in the area after dark [and] warned that the scores of persons searching the abandoned powerhouse in the TNT area after dark risked possible serious injury.” In the weeks and months that followed, further encounters with the bizarre beast were reported; however, they were overshadowed by a tragic event that occurred on December 15, 1967. It was on that day that Point Pleasant’s Silver Bridge (so named after its aluminum paint) that spanned the Ohio River and connected Point Pleasant to Gallipolis, Ohio, collapsed into the river, tragically claiming forty-six lives. Interestingly, after the disaster at the Silver Bridge, encounters with the Mothman largely came to a grinding halt.

And while a down-to-earth explanation most certainly circulated – namely, that a fatal flaw in a single eye-bar in a suspension chain was the chief culprit – many saw, and still continue to see to this very day, the cause as being directly linked with the ominous and brooding presence of the accursed Mothman. As for the angle of time travel and Mothman, it goes like this: John Keel did not title his book, The Mothman Prophecies for no random reason. Keel himself foresaw a terrible disaster enveloping the city and the result being terrible carnage and death in the dozens. Admittedly, Keel wasn’t entirely sure what was looming on the horizon, only that something was. Moving on…

In 2002, a big-bucks movie version of The Mothman Prophecies, and starring Richard Gere, was made. Although the movie was fictionalized, it was fairly close to the reality of the sinister situation. And that included a reference to certain prophecies, hence the title of the book and the movie. The Chasing the Frog website asks if there really were prophecies around town in the 1966/1967 era. There certainly were, as the site shows. It asks the question: “Did Connie Mills [a local] really have a dream about drowning while surrounded by Christmas gifts?”

The answer: “Not exactly. A dream prophecy was reported and the event happened, however, it was not the same premonition as in the movie. Mary Hyre, a newspaper reporter that often accompanied Mr. Keel in Point Pleasant investigations, dreamt that there were a lot of people drowning in the river and Christmas packages were floating everywhere in the water. (The Mothman Prophecies book) Her counterpart in the movie, Connie Mills (Laura Linney), describes a dream in which she herself is drowning in an ocean, surrounded by floating Christmas presents.”

What this demonstrates is that before the terrible tragedy at Point Pleasant’s Silver Bridge occurred, people were having glimpses – in the format of dreams and prophecies – of events and deaths that had yet to come, but that soon would. In short, people in and around Point Pleasant were seeing future events.

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Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.
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