TALKING PICTURES: MYSTERY MOTHMAN

Loren Coleman wasn’t all that frightened by The Mothman Prophecies, the odd new creepshow starring Richard Gere as a journalist on the trail of an eerie supernatural being. To Coleman, the fact that his 16-year-old son is getting his driver’s license this week is a whole lot scarier. Were he any other moviegoer, however, The Mothman Prophecies might have had Coleman shaking in his well-worn boots. But Loren Coleman is a different breed of man.
A professional cryptozoologist (that’s what he calls himself: a person who tracks and studies unknown critters), Coleman has authored numerous books (Cryptozoology A to Z, Mysterious America) exploring a plethora of hard-to-fathom phenomena, from Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster to the goat-sucking chupacabra.
Then there’s Mothman, described in detail in Coleman’s popular book Mothman and Other Curious Encounters. Mothman is a big, shadowy shape with giant wings and glowing red eyes, supposedly sighted by dozens of folks near Point Pleasant, West Virginia, over a 13-month period beginning in 1966. The sightings stopped after the mysterious collapse of the Silver Bridge on the Ohio River, a tragedy that killed 46 people. These events were also chronicled in John Keel’s book The Mothman Prophecies, on which the film is based.
In the movie, Gere plays a tense investigative reporter trying to connect the Mothman sightings to his wife’s death. With the help of a local sheriff (Laura Linney), Gere talks to the locals, sees a bunch of supernatural things, and gets a lot of very strange phone calls.
Coleman, who has studied the phenomenon for years, has a much less mystical view of Mothman than does Keel. As a, um, cryptozoologist, Coleman suspects that the so-called Mothman—named, he says, by a newspaper copywriter with a fondness for Batman—was a bird. Not the skinny sandhill crane that some theorists have pointed to, but a very large, very secretive creature that may be a descendant of what some South American Indians called the Thunderbird.
Or maybe it was just a big owl.
“Either way,” he says, “I think there might be some overlap between the Mothman and these other big bird cryptids–‘cryptid’ means unknown–that are talked about in Native American tradition.”
Coleman, who lives in Maine, liked the movie. “When I go to things like The Mothman Prophecies, where I know the book so well and know the phenomenon so well,” he says, “I realize that it’s a fictionalized version of the real story. So I can just sit back and enjoy myself.”
Sounds sane enough.
“What’s interesting about Mothman,” Coleman continues, “is that there are so many peripheral phenomena around this story–more than just the creature itself–that have impacted my own life.”
“Oh? What, for example?” I ask.
“Well, I was in Point Pleasant a month ago,” he says. “While I was there, I sat in my hotel room and talked to John Keel about what I was doing and who I was interviewing, and while I was talking to him . . . I had telephone trouble.
“Then I go on these radio shows,” Coleman continues. “I was doing a phone interview on this one show in Toronto last Saturday night, and five times throughout the interview the phone would start blasting and echoing, and then I’d be thrown off the line. A couple seconds later the technician from the show would call back and apologize, and he said, ‘We’ve been having telephone problems ever since we started talking about Mothman.’ “So that’s kind of spooky, I suppose.”
“Hmmmm. It could be a coincidence,” I suggest.
“Definitely. Sure, it could be a coincidence,” Coleman replies. “The fact that I then went upstairs and a light bulb blew out over my head could have been a coincidence, too.”
It’s damn hard to argue with that.
“It’s just that when they’re all happening so close to each other,” Coleman goes on, “right around the time we’re all talking about Mothman, people start putting these events together and saying, ‘Mmmmm. This is pretty weird.’ I mean, even the collapse of the Silver Bridge after 13 months of Mothman activity—for all of those sightings to end in that way—it spooks people out enough that they may start drawing conclusions where there are none.”
Once again, that sounds sane enough. More or less.
“It’s like with Bigfoot,” Coleman says. “You say the word Bigfoot, and we know that there’s a breeding population of 2000.”
“Um, we do?”
“Yes we do,” he says. “But then people say ‘Mothman,’ which has generically become the umbrella word for a bunch of different creatures seen at the same time.”
I have no response to that.
Instead, I ask Coleman what he thinks it is that fascinates so many people, himself included, with all these Mystery Critters and X-Files and UFO’s that increasingly populate our movies, T.V. shows, and apocryphal stories.
“Well, they are mysteries that we don’t have the answers to,” he says. “A lot of people walk around through their lives, going to their jobs, thinking that everything is nice and neatly tied in a box and easily explained. So when people are tantalized with the thought that there are mysteries out there that we just don’t know the answers to, well—I think we have to find that greatly appealing.”
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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to the movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.
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Posted on March 8, 2002 in Features by
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