How The Mothman Prophecies uses prediction and paranormal activity to tell a story about love, grief and second chances.
Washington Post journalist John Klein (Richard Gere) is riding high … until tragedy strikes. His wife Mary (Debra Messing) is driving them home one night when, startled by the apparition of a winged figure, she crashes the car.
That accident turns out to be dead man’s luck. While treating her head injury, doctors discover Mary has a glioblastoma, a rare but aggressive brain tumour. Within weeks, she’s dead.
Grief is just the beginning of John’s trauma, though. A nurse tells him Mary knew she was dying because: “She was drawing angels”. But when John looks at the sketches, the grotesque figures are anything but angelic …
Two years later, John is out driving in the early hours when his car, phone and watch all lose power. Having set out for Richmond, he somehow finds himself in Point Pleasant, West Virginia – hundreds of miles away.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, one local man claims John has been showing up at his door for the past three nights. When police officer Connie Mills (Laura Linney) reveals others have reported strange apparitions, John suspects Point Pleasant may be connected with Mary’s death.
Soon he’s dictaphone-deep into a personal investigation: who or what is “the Mothman”, and can those who claim to see him be trusted? Then things take a nightmarish turn. The Mothman’s prophecies appear to predict disasters before they happen … but before anyone can be saved.
Who or what is the Mothman?
The Mothman Prophecies is a loose adaptation of a 1975 non-fiction book by parapsychologist John Keel. Actually, the film nods at Keel in a number of ways.
Protagonist “John Klein” is a play on “John Keel” (who was also a journalist). Alexander Leek (Alan Bates) as the plot’s parapsychologist author is also pretty self-explanatory.
There’s a cinema tradition for plots to use bookish expertise to explain arcane knowledge. It’s common in horror movies, where – before the digital age, anyway – writers, booksellers, letters and librarians unlock the significance of demons and devilish behaviour (Se7en, for example).
Here, Leek – Keel spelled backwards – is our guide to the unknown. When John first tracks him down, Leek explains:
“In ancient cultures, the moth represents a form of the psyche, or the soul immortally trapped in the hellish death realms.”
In the film’s universe, the Mothman thus represents the bridge between life and death, between the known world and the unseen.
As knowledge keeper, Leek doesn’t just reveal this ancient wisdom; he effectively creates the film’s lore, setting up the dread to come.
According to Leek, the Mothman appears in the days before tragedy: there were sightings before the Galveston hurricane and the Chernobyl disaster. Leek even claims the concept of the “Mothman” comes from Ukrainian folk tales.
The film’s Mothman is ultimately also a harbinger of doom. It tells Gordon Smallwood that “Ninety-nine will die. Denver Nine” – and then Flight 9 out of Denver crashes, killing all 99 on board.
Later, it warns John of “great tragedy on the River Ohio” – though technically Leek predicts the disaster first when he tells him not to return to Point Pleasant. Either way, it isn’t until the final scenes that the true horror of that prediction swings into view.
The Silver Bridge disaster
If horror films use bookish symbols and stand-ins to authenticate their lore, some go further by mixing markers of reality in with the fiction. Knowing (2009) invokes the 9/11 disaster, for instance.
Similarly, The Mothman Prophecies subtly suggests its story must be grounded in truth when it tells us about Mothman sightings around the time of real-life disasters in Galveston and Chernobyl.
Actually, the crossover is far more tangled, because the film’s disaster-laden finale actually recreates a historical event.
In December 1967, the Silver Bridge connecting Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and Gallipolis, Ohio, gave way beneath rush-hour commuters, killing 46. The film recounts this, like a campfire horror, as an open-ended mystery.
Less spookily, but more accurately, investigators actually found the cause pretty quickly: a critical flaw in an eyebar in a suspension chain. [Cough, cough – exactly as the film depicts.]
Anyway. In the 12 months leading up to the disaster, Point Pleasant residents reported seeing a man-sized, bird-like creature with red eyes and a 10-ft wing span. John Keel later linked these accounts to the bridge disaster, popularising the Mothman as an omen of tragedy.
His investigation into the sightings draws together supernatural phenomena and ultra-terrestrial theories. Keel was a noted ufologist, but whether he meant the book to be taken literally or not, its potent but messy mix of ideas chimes with the film’s approach, too.
The ambiguity of The Mothman Prophecies
The film never quite resolves the Mothman’s purpose. Instead, it cycles between a number of possibilities, by turns presenting the figure as:
- A hallucination / symptom of disordered perception. The film’s poster even partly resembles a Rorschach test
- The angel of death, which in some religions comes to individuals before they die, and/or guides them into the afterlife. Compare depictions of the archangel Azrael
- An alien. Consider the way the John’s car loses power – and he loses time – with shades of Close Encounters of the Third Kind
- A non-alien higher intelligence that travels as energy, and which can see further in time than we can
- A malevolent demon / horror trope, complete with jump scares and creepy voice
- Ghostly echoes, or the souls of loved ones (i.e., Mary)
- Our inner psyche or intuition – things we know without consciously knowing them. Hence sometimes the Mothman appears as Gordon and even John
- A tool of precognition, particularly of mass disaster.
This uncertainty – the state of not knowing – is very much part of the plot, and a source of its horror. It’s a common genre strategy, in fact, along with mystery left unresolved at the end credits.
The story’s ambiguity even has John wondering if the apparitions predict tragedy or cause it.
Leek says Mothman motivations aren’t human, so we can never fully understand them. Instead, we’re left with a figure that shows us the future – but not in a useful way. Whatever it is, it’s not a rescue mission.
But if the film hedges its bets, the Mothman has another kind of purpose altogether as far as storytelling is concerned.
John Klein feels powerless when his wife dies. He also feels unfairly singled out.
As it turns out, this is just a foretaste. Later, he’s also ‘chosen’ to hear the Mothman prophecies – and second sight is quite the double-edged sword. Alexander Leek is so traumatised by it he becomes a recluse; Gordon Smallwood winds up dead.
We don’t know why John is chosen. Neither does he: once more it’s just the random luck of the universe.
Yet while John feels powerless when Mary dies, these encounters give him a second shot at redemption.
At the start of the film, Mary dies and there’s nothing he can do about it. At the end, destiny puts him in the right place and time to save Connie. Miraculous, no?
When the Mothman appears as Mary, and uses her words about wanting John to be happy, it’s another kind of grief resolution. It’s a message – from God, aliens or the psyche – to let go and carry on living.
It’s common in grief to see lost loved ones seemingly everywhere but always out of reach, as John does when he “just misses” Mary at the police station. But even the depths of grief inevitably deliver you to a crossroads: will you give up and die too, or will you live again?
For John, the question comes in the form of a phone call; he has to decide whether to pick up.
Motifs of the Mothman
The Mothman Prophecies parallels (…predicts?) 2009 apocalypse horror Knowing in lots of ways.
Both are about grief, and feature ambiguous angel/demon/aliens with grim predictions. Each has a male protagonist who can’t persuade anyone to believe him. And where there is salvation, it’s very selective.
The other thing they have in common is the two-genre split: horror and disaster. The Mothman Prophecies certainly exudes horror. There are weird noises, demonic sketches, disturbing voices, and faces and figures that appear without warning.
Mothman motifs echo throughout the story, too – and not just in the obvious sightings:
- Almost every scene features lamps and lights, even in the daytime. Some of these resemble the red eyes of the Mothman
- When we see Mary’s MRI scan results, the tumour flashes in the shape of a moth
- The shape of the nurse standing in a doorway later repeats at an abandoned quarry, suggesting he’s another avatar of the Mothman
- When John returns to the motel one night, his pose in the doorway is also momentarily reminiscent of the nurse.
The last is doubly ironic given the Mothman sometimes travels around Point Pleasant as John … or maybe John’s aura projects around Point Pleasant in the form of the Mothman.
The film’s many transitions involving lights and wires also imply the ghostly-alien being moves around as energy. But there are times too when we seem to be watching the story through its eyes (again, note those dissolving transitions).
In one scene, John looks at a picture of Mary pinned on the mirror … but we see the shot from the other side of the glass, with the photo in reverse.
Side note: mirroring in The Mothman Prophecies
How often do mirrors appear in The Mothman Prophecies? Well, consider that:
- Something seems to be watching John from the other side of the motel room mirror
- A creepy face appears in a mirrored door
- John tries to headbutt a mirror
- Mary looks back at him from the mirror, too (i.e., as a photograph).
Mirroring – repetition, reversal and symmetry – is built into the film into other ways, though.
While lights appear in many scenes, often they – and other background elements – are arranged symmetrically in shot. Coincidental or not, this chimes quite nicely with the symmetry of moths.
The story repeats in mirrored halves, too. Mary dies in the first half; Connie is saved in the second. Both times, John races over a bridge to realise his destiny. The film even repeats the scene of him racing to the hospital to make this clear.
When destiny calls
For John Klein, the Mothman is a wake-up call. It phones him, sends notes and visits him in the guise of people he knows and loves. This might explain why John imagines headbutting a mirror: it symbolises his desire to break through to the other side (of death / knowing).
Incidentally, John’s wake-up call has a dual function. It’s an invitation both to see the future, and to embrace being alive.
Leek says everyone encounters the Mothman in their own way. Those who see him die soon after. John doesn’t see him directly – because he’s not destined to die – but is sensitive enough to pick up echoes, everywhere.
Likewise, Connie experiences divination via dreams. She dreams of falling through water and knowing she’s about to die, until she also gets a wake-up call: “Wake up, Number 37”.
As it turns out, this is the film’s big twist lying in plain sight.
When John first hears the Mothman’s whisper of “great tragedy on the River Ohio”, he assumes it means disaster at the chemical plant. In fact, it aligns with Connie’s dream, and the collapse of the Silver Bridge.
For all the horror set-up, the film’s ending is pure disaster movie. To be fair, there’s plenty of cross-overs between the genres: a sense of looming tragedy, for instance, and a hero fighting to be heard (see also The Day After Tomorrow).
Unlike horror movies, disaster movies typically resolve on love, and the hope of life continuing – somehow, however altered it might be. So it is with The Mothman Prophecies.
In the closing scenes, Connie’s dream comes true – and finally makes sense. Thirty-six people died that night; if John hadn’t come back for her, Connie would have been Number 37.
John’s last last wake-up call comes earlier that day as a phone call from beyond the grave, supposedly from Mary. It’s only by refusing to answer that he’s able to ‘move on’. As it happens, that brings him to his destiny, to save and be with someone new. Life finds a way … if you let it.
The Mothman Prophecies (2002), directed by Mark Pellington
What to read or watch next
- Arlington Road, Jerry McGuire (Mark Pellington)
- Primal Instinct (Richard Gere, Laura Linney)
- Spotlight (cinema journalists)
- The Ring (horror, cinema journalists)
- Candyman (urban legends)
- The Silence of the Lambs (moth motifs)
Picture credit: Hermann Rorschach, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (with additional work)