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Based on a True-Life Story, but Was That Story for Real?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The local headlines screamed: “Couples See Man-Sized Bird ... Creature ... Something!” “Monster No Joke for Those Who Saw It,” “Gigantic, Fuzzy Bird Chases Auto in Storm.”

No, this was not a Samuel Arkoff B-horror production. This was real--or possibly real anyway.

The time was 1966 in Point Pleasant, W.Va., and something very strange was happening. More than 100 people reported seeing a 9-foot-tall, black, winged creature with glowing red eyes. Some said it spoke to them and forewarned of an impending disaster in their town, a small farming community at the intersection of the Ohio and Kanawha rivers. One year later, their worst fears were realized when the bridge over the Ohio River, connecting Point Pleasant to Ohio, collapsed and 47 people died.

“Mothman"--as the beast was known by locals--was never seen or heard from again.

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“There are a lot of people who just don’t want to talk about it anymore, either because they are traumatized or they don’t want the press attention,” said Jeff Wamsley, a Point Pleasant native and author of “Mothman: The Facts Behind the Legend.” “People were pretty much scared out of their wits.”

The story of this strange season in Point Pleasant was chronicled by journalist John A. Keel in his 1975 book “The Mothman Prophecies.”

The book is now a movie.

“The Mothman Prophecies,” a $42-million Sony Screen Gems release that opens Friday, stars Richard Gere as a crusading Washington Post journalist named John Klein who, through a personal tragedy, finds himself in Point Pleasant. He gradually becomes embroiled in the town’s strange sightings until he reaches a point of obsession and near lunacy. Although the real story occurred in the 1960s, the movie is set in contemporary times. The film also stars Laura Linney (who was paired with Gere in the 1996 thriller “Primal Fear”) and “Will & Grace’s” Debra Messing.

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Screenwriter Richard Hatem (“Under Siege 2: Dark Territory”) had been fascinated by science fiction and the paranormal since childhood. But it was not until one night in the spring of 1997 that he was pulled into the Mothman world.

During a bout with insomnia, he found himself in a Pasadena bookstore. He saw “The Mothman Prophecies” on the shelf, picked it up and soon enough was sitting cross-legged on the floor reading the book. He read through the night. By the next day, he was on the phone with author Keel and began writing the screenplay.

Hatem based two characters on Keel. Gere plays the younger, cockier journalist, while Alan Bates plays an older, wiser and spooked professor who at one time also witnessed a paranormal event.

By 1998, Lakeshore Entertainment (producers of “The Gift,” “Runaway Bride”) bought the rights to the script and began a two-year development process. But Hatem’s vision for the film remained intact.

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“Most Hollywood movie ghosts make their presence known to help us get back together with our girlfriends,” said Hatem. “I wanted to write a story that said you can ask questions about why things happen, but they are the sort of things that we are never going to get an answer to. This was a movie about dealing with something that human beings will never be equipped to understand.”

Director Mark Pellington (“Arlington Road”) was not interested in making a “monster movie.” Rather, he wanted a film about the psychology of belief.

“Could this be a man? A voice? A light or a monster?” Pellington said. “Many of these things we don’t answer. That was the appeal to me, the ambiguity and the unanswered questions. We wanted to play it straight and strip out any melodrama or kookiness.”

Keel, who has seen the movie, said he thought “Richard Gere does a great job of gradually going nuts.” Now 72 and still writing books and articles from his home in New York City, he says: “I didn’t go nuts, but I was very upset. When the bridge collapsed, it was pretty distressing.... I was determined I was going to find the answers to this. As it progressed, I became more and more baffled. It took a long time for me to realize that I was dealing with something that the human mind could not understand. There are many things that we will never know.”

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Indeed, nobody knows what those people saw on those dark West Virginia nights. But for the folks who say they saw the strange, malevolent creature--whatever it was--their lives were never the same.

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It began in mid-November 1966, when two couples, parked at an old World War II munitions dump site that the locals called TNT, say they were chased by a large creature. They reported the incident to the police, and the sightings continued from there. Some said the creature chased them to the ground. Others suffered from bleeding eyes after reportedly seeing it. Many never slept well again. It did not help to calm fears when the town’s investigative reporter Mary Hyre, who had devoted much ink to the Mothman, died suddenly.

One theory is that people saw a huge sandhill crane that veered off course. Another is that it was a giant, mutated owl. And others say the people in Point Pleasant succumbed to mass hysteria.

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“I believe that some people saw something. It was probably a bird,” said Hilda Austin, 58, who lived through the Mothman sightings and is currently the head of the Point Pleasant Chamber of Commerce. “Some of it was just hoax. It could have been something spawned by the toxic ground from the TNT area. Some of the eyewitnesses were on drugs. I thought it was a hoot [when this happened]; everyone just sort of laughed at this. They just thought it was preposterous.”

But others, like cryptozoologist and author Loren Coleman, said there is a history of this kind of lore in the Ohio River Valley. The Native American tribes of the area had a long history of chronicling stories about Thunderbirds--large “bird-man” figures that were always harbingers of woe.

“A lot of people want to make fun of Mothman because it’s poor, white Appalachia people [talking about it], but I try to put it into context,” said Coleman, who wrote the book “Mothman and Other Curious Encounters.” “The Iroquois and the Tuscarora and the Wyandot tribes called them flying heads and big heads. They were exactly like the Mothman--headless creatures with big red eyes.”

David Grabias, who was hired by the studio to make a Mothman documentary that will air on the FX channel today, said he was convinced the locals saw something frightful.

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“When I first heard about it, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s West Virginia and these are a bunch of hicks drinking too much hooch in the mountains,’” said Grabias, who produced the Emmy-nominated documentary “Why Dogs Smile and Chimpanzees Cry.”

“But the more people we talked to, the more we felt a sense that there was a feeling of something strange and to let sleeping dogs lie. The people were very believable.”

Pellington says that Mothman follows a pattern of the unexplained, which makes rational, modern society ill at ease.

“I believe in things greater than us that are unexplained,” he said. “The mysteries of life are so profound; that is why this legend and other kinds of mythology exist. I feel it keeps us human.”

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Many locals were upset that the movie was not filmed in Point Pleasant itself. It was shot in Kittanning, Penn., because it was a large enough town to accommodate cast and crew. In addition, Pellington needed to shut down the local bridge for two months during filming--something the economy in Point Pleasant could not sustain.

Instead of running from the Mothman legacy, Point Pleasant locals are embracing it. A thriving port city at the turn of the century, Point Pleasant has been suffering from a slow economy for many years. Without jobs, most of the young people leave to find a better way of life.

Mothman, they are hoping, will bring them better fortunes.

The Chamber of Commerce sold Mothman Christmas ornaments this year. Another local created Mothman beanbag toys, which sold like hotcakes, according to Austin.

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They don’t seem to fear being placed in the pantheon of strange places like Roswell, N.M., or Loch Ness, Scotland.

“We are hoping that it will do something that will help our economy,” said Austin.

“We don’t understand what the fascination is. This new popularity of the Mothman started before the movie.... We don’t care, we just hope it will help us out.”


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