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The goofier the tale, the more it’s swallowed

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Keel 1975 The Mothman Prophecies The goofier the tale, the more it’s swallowed

When the Richard Gere-starring “The Mothman Prophecies” was released some years ago, it made me think about the eagerness of certain people to believe nutty things, especially since it claimed to deal with supposed happenings that I reported on back in the day.

In the 1960s, I wrote newspaper articles on the Mothman craze in my home state of West Virginia. After witnesses reported a “man-size” bird with a 10-foot wingspan and glowing red eyes, I figured they had seen a huge crane in the night and gotten overexcited. But the Mothman tale was unstoppable. Ardent fans didn’t want an ornithological explanation. Speculation grew.

Flying saucer buffs — who flock to such bizarre happenings like, uh, moths to a flame — held a worldwide “Congress of Scientific Ufologists” at a Charleston, W.Va., hotel in June 1969. Sponsors said a Philadelphia mystic who communicated with “space intelligences” foresaw a wave of West Virginia UFO appearances during the session. But none occurred.

The Mothman craze was similar to the much-publicized Braxton County Monster uproar during the same era — but I won’t bore you with the 584th retelling of the Braxton sighting.

The reason for my focus on such dingaling topics is because someone sent me a book titled The Abduction Enigma. It says matter-of-factly that “between 3 million and 6 million Americans have been abducted” onto UFOs by space aliens who then experimented on them. A website offered to perform “alien implant removal and deactivation” for victims.

I’ll place a wager: If you concocted the most preposterous claim imaginable — say, that Mothman reappeared and told you to start a cult worshipping him — I’ll bet some followers would join your movement and give you money. The record contains plenty of corroboration for my claim. For example:

  • Heaven’s Gate commune members believed that if they “shed their containers” (committed suicide), they would be transported magically to a UFO behind the Hale-Bopp comet. So they engaged in ritual suicide.
  • Followers of Japan’s infamous Aum Shinrikyo (“Supreme Truth”) sect worshipped their guru so fervently that they kissed his big toe, paid $2,000 each for a drink of his bathwater and paid $10,000 to sip his blood. At his command, they planted nerve gas in Tokyo’s subway that killed more than a dozen commuters.
  • Science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard declared that planet Earth was an alien colony 75 million years ago, and troublemakers were exterminated by nuclear blasts. Their spirits, called “thetans,” became the souls of all humans. This assertion turned into Scientology, a moneymaking religion that has attracted such Hollywood stars as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
  • Americans spend a huge amount each year on calls to psychic hotlines.

What does it mean that certain earnest, trusting people are eager to believe astounding things — so much that they’ll part with their money or even their lives? It’s baffling.

Back when Mothman and the Braxton creature were hot topics, my cousin and I — young renegades — hatched a scheme. We had some brilliant reflectors that had been pried from those old-time wooden guardrails along roads. We plotted to hide among roadside trees at night, step into the glare of approaching headlights, run away — and then wait for hysterical news reports about the glowing-eyed monster prowling West Virginia.

We never did it, but I still relish the memory of our youthful scheming. If we had pulled it off, eager believers today probably would be recalling the mysterious visitor with gleaming eyes who haunted West Virginia, then vanished. Who knows? Maybe it would have been a blockbuster follow-up to “The Mothman Prophecies.”

The column is adapted and updated from a nationally syndicated piece in the April 25, 2002, Charleston Gazette. Image in the public domain.

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