Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Religion of Mothman

This week is an extra special post! My brother Jon and I have joined forces to blog about different angles of the classic paranormal creature known as "Mothman." Check out his post on the topic here.

Mothman first entered my world in the spring of 1994. Rummaging through my high school library, I came across a copy of paranormal investigator John Keel's The Mothman Prophecies. (Why was this volume in the Rensselaer High School's library? That in itself is a mystery for the ages.) My friends and I had a good laugh at the chapter titles, which included "The Night of the Bleeding Ear" and "If This is Wednesday, it Must Be a Venusian." Interested in the paranormal and in need of a leisure read, I checked it out. (You also have to remember that this was the hey-day of The X-Files.)

The book chronicles the supposed appearances of a giant winged being around Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1966-67. The most famous incidents involved a few couples who said they saw a large feathery creature with burning red eyes haunting an abandoned TNT factory. In another incident, a man said he lost his dog when it ran off to chase something gigantic with glowing red eyes. Some witnesses crafted the following drawing of what they claimed to see:

Keel's book recounts his investigation in Point Pleasant while the sightings were occurring. He  also covers the simultaneous spike in supposed UFO activity in the area, as well as appearances by "Men in Black," the odd and vaguely threatening apparitions who some say try to intimidate or frighten witnesses of the paranormal into remaining quiet about their experiences. The sightings of Mothman and other strange phenomena culminated (as Keel presents it) in the collapse of Point Pleasant's Silver Bridge into the Ohio River, killing dozens of people. Keel suggests that the sightings of the paranormal beings anticipated or warned of the tragedy, hence the title, The Mothman Prophecies. (There is a movie based on the book, starring Richard Gere no less, but it is, as you might imagine, only quite loosely connected to the premise of the text.)

All these years later, and especially after blogging earlier this summer about religion and the paranormal, I started to wonder about the possible religious themes of The Mothman Prophecies. Could Religious Studies theory find any connection to the events or themes of the book?

Besides merely chronicling the events in Point Pleasant, Keel creates his own hypothesis for all paranormal phenomena. Rather than being the work of extraterrestrials, Keel believes such occurrences actually come about from encounters with ultraterrestrials, which are entities existing on another dimension or plane of reality who bleed through into our psychic realm either of their own accord (to cause mischief or issue a warning, about a bridge collapse, for instance) or because human concentration or activity inadvertently summons them. These energy-beings from a parallel universe have existed throughout history, but humans experience and label them differently as our contexts and frames of reference change. In ancient times, they were deemed gods who flew about on divine power. Nowadays, they are UFOs and monstrous Mothmen. On this last point, Keel sounds remarkably similar to Carl Jung's thoughts on "flying saucers." He is also in something of the same ballpark as certain folklorists who consider the "Men in Black" tales as a reiteration of a very, very old mythic motif of visits from mysterious strangers.

In my eyes, Keel's thought is somewhat analogous to some of the ideas of one of the founding figures of my discipline: Mircea Eliade. Eliade, by all accounts, was a very interesting person. Besides studying Religion, he was a novelist, a Yoga practitioner, and, according to some, possessed rather dubious political affiliations and aspirations while a youth in his native Romania. (Read more about him here.) Eliade's central interpretation of religious phenomena is that the Sacred, whatever that happens to be, manifests in the world in occurrences known as hierophanies, literally, "appearance of the divine." Interpretations of the Sacred vary from culture to culture and time to time, but they can be understood as different versions of the universal Sacred that bursts through into human experience. To me, the concept of the otherworldly divine breaking through periodically sounds a great deal like Keel's notion of "ultraterrestrials."

There are also faint traces of Ralph Waldo Emerson's concept of the "Oversoul," which is the idea that all humans have immortal souls which are interconnected, and thus create a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. People then consider this experience of a soul greater then theirs to be "God." Deja vu, psychic phenomenon, and so forth (including Keel's "ultraterrestrials") would thus be examples of human souls coming into contact with each other, transcending time and space. (Interested in learning more about the "Oversoul?" Check out this link.)

What is one to think of all this? For one, there have been plenty of hypotheses rationalizing and explaining away Mothman, not to mention UFOs and the like. Some of the most common (and, dare I say, likely) explanations for Mothman have been owls and/or cranes, both of which can appear larger than they really are and produce "eyeshine" in the presence of bright lights, making it look as though their eyes glow supernaturally. I do know that in the spring of 1994 I spent some wonderful evenings at dusk scanning the skies, wondering if I just might see some shadowy, feathery form on the horizon. Keel's book is also replete with numerous entertaining quotes (especially when removed from context). Case in point: "Bedroom phantoms in checkered shirts are old hat to investigators of psychic phenomena."

Perhaps most startling is how this entire blog post came about. As I re-read The Mothman Prophecies, out of the blue, Jon sent me a message asking if I wanted to co-blog about...Mothman. How did he know? He couldn't have. Is this evidence of Emerson's "Oversoul," the psychic interconnection of all human minds? You just never know....What do you think?

Next time, there are a number of topics I am considering: "Religion and Animals," "Lesser Known World Epics," and maybe something else. I may post ideas on my Facebook page. Until then, take care.

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