Check out this essay from Mary Kay McBrayer, author of America’s First Female Serial Killer.
From the prophecies of the Oracle of Delphi to Miss Cleo’s toll-free number, humans have always clamoured to know their fate before it happens. The thing is, at first blush, we seem to crave that knowledge, but our reactions to prophecy swing wide: on a scale from full-on Oedipus Rex to me getting my numbers read while Jackie, my hairdresser, trims layers into my curls (which said I should have met my soulmate in 2013…) These are the foretellings I remembered when rewatching Mark Pellington’s The Mothman Prophecies (2002). They demonstrate that scale emphatically, but most of their reactions seem distinct to their gender: women accept their fate, while men fight it… and, as with the Greek tragedies, fighting against Fate is a fruitless pursuit. In The Mothman Prophecies, accepting your fate, if it can even be called that, is just as fruitless. This fruitless fight against what’s coming inverts the Christmas narrative into a haunting horror film.
I think it’s appropriate to begin by unpacking the allusion to the story of the First Christmas because The Mothman Prophecies is, in this sense, a Christmas movie. It takes place during Christmas time, both in the film and in the historical event of the Silver Bridge collapse of 1967, and the film, as well as the Christmas story, begins with a prophecy. I’m partial to the NKJV (New King James Version) of the Bible, in which several angels preface their news numerous times with the phrase, “Be not afraid.” According to the sermons of my youth, angels had to say that because (even though the Bible does not physically describe them) angels are scary. Plus, you know the Virgin Mary was afraid. She had to have been. She was a young virgin, and this angel of the Lord, Gabriel, came to her to tell her she was pregnant out of wedlock and that she would bear a son who would save all of humankind. Granted, that is intended as great news—but it is also a lot of pressure.
It’s worth stating outright, too, that when Gabriel says, “Be not afraid,” there is, in fact, no reason to fear. In the Bible, angels are the literal harbingers of the almighty and omnipotent God. To know that God is in your corner is something that should assuage all human fears. These foretold things did come to pass, according to the Gospels, and just as they were foretold. But where Mothman is concerned, here’s the rub: aliens are not angels. On the Dungeons and Dragons chart of alignment, angels are lawful good by definition, and aliens are lawful neutral, and by aliens I mean “Indrid Cold”.
I should clarify that there are two entities in The Mothman Prophecies, but only one of them actually speaks. The first is the Mothman itself, and it only shows up in flashes, or on paper. The Mothman does not speak. Mary Klein (Debra Messing) sees a flash of the Mothman, which results in her wrecking her car. When she realizes that her husband (Richard Gere) in the passenger seat did not see the vision, her immediate reaction is, “Something is wrong with me.” On examination, it is revealed that she has rare, terminal brain cancer. When I mentioned earlier that the women take prophecy in stride, this is what I mean: Mary does not attack the Mothman or demand an explanation or more information. Though she is racked by the fact that she sees the vision and her husband does not, she immediately internalizes the facts and snaps into action by going in for an examination.
Similarly, when Connie the police chief (Laura Linney) has a prophetic dream of drowning among presents, with a voice in her head saying, “Wake up, number 37,” it takes her until almost too late to put the pieces together. Her prophecy may come from Indrid Cold, but the film does not make the origin clear. It’s not until she’s on the bridge with the traffic jam that she makes the connection, but when it clicks, Connie also snaps into action by trying to get people off the crumbling roadway to safety.
I can’t help but notice, though, that these visions are so vague that they are extremely unhelpful. Literally, the Mothman throws itself at Mary’s car, which makes her jerk the wheel and crash. Connie has a weird Christmassy drowning dream. It’s not a whole lot to draw conclusions from; to quote Colin Dickey from his Atlas Obscura Experience lecture about the Mothman, he said, “If these are prophecies… they suck.” He’s right. That vision and that dream don’t prevent any of the atrocities from happening. The “prophecies” are unclear, too late, or delivered to the wrong person. The Mothman Prophecies is a true Christmas horror show because it inverts the prophecy from the Christmas story. That message boils down to, “Hey girl, here’s what’s going down: I just need you to be strong.” In this film, there is no essential take away.
If the first prophetic being (the Mothman) only shows up in flashes, the second, Indrid Cold (Bill Laing), doesn’t really “show” up at all. It is a figure we never see in the film, but only hear in a disembodied, electronic voice over the phone. And Indrid Cold tells prophecies to men, exclusively. In the film, that is. When asked what they look like, Indrid Cold responds, “It depends on who’s looking.” Indrid Cold’s first lines, though, are our main allusion to the Christmas story: when he appears to Gordon offscreen, he says, “Do not be afraid,” just like the angels say when they appear. However, when he talks to John on the phone, Indrid Cold says, “I have seen you afraid. You’re afraid right now, aren’t you?” At best, this being is lawful neutral because we cannot know his intentions. We can’t trust him, and neither do the men on screen. Gordon comes out of his house with a shotgun when he thinks Indrid Cold is on his porch for the third night in a row, and John puts him through a ringer of tests to try to disprove that he can prophesize. Their motives are unclear, and their messages are unclear, and that makes the prophecies scary. I mean… what are they supposed to do?
It should also be noted that the film takes many liberties in adapting John A. Keel’s book The Mothman Prophecies: A True Story. That’s well within the purview of adaptation, of course, but to paraphrase my best friend, they wasted the skill of Debra Messing in a backstory to make a boring white guy more interesting to the viewer because that’s what the industry thought people wanted to see at the time. The women characters—Connie in particular, because she is the actual hero of the narrative—are far and away the most interesting of the film, and Indrid Cold won’t even talk to them.
In the film, that is. In the documentary The Mothman of Point Pleasant, many women tell their stories of seeing the Mothman or of meeting the extraterrestrial beings near Point Pleasant. In Keel’s book, the UFOlogist states that supernatural entities are particularly drawn to women while they are menstruating. So, bottom line, the depiction of prophetic experiences by the writers of this film is a problem of the industry, whereas prophetic beings in life (including/and in the First Christmas) are closer to equal opportunists.
Mary Kay McBrayer is the author of America’s First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster. She also co-founded and co-hosts the horror movie comedy podcast, Everything Trying to Kill You. You can follow her on Twitter @mkmcbrayer and Instagram @marykaymcbrayer, or visit her author site, www.marykaymcbrayer.com.
Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster
For readers who are fascinated by how serial killers are made. This book is for listeners of true crime podcasts and readers of both fiction and true crime nonfiction. It is for watchers of television shows like Deadly Women and Mindhunter, who are fascinated by how killers are made. It’s for self-conscious feminists, Americans trying to bootstrap themselves into success, and anyone who loves a vigilante beatdown, especially one gone off the rails.