Imagine yourself as one of the millions of Americans for whom the supernatural is not a meaningful reality. It’s not that you utterly swear off the possibility of something extramundane existing at some level of reality, but rather that such things do not, and seemingly cannot, impinge upon your day-to-day life. If they are, they are elsewhere, unconcerned with what is transpiring down where we are, operating at a register that doesn’t impact the routines of being and doing.
Imagine you are such a person. Imagine you have a steady job, one you reasonably enjoy (or at very least do not despise). You read the newspaper each day to stay acquainted with the state of the world and of your community. You have a house and the other accoutrements of late modern America, things you are glad you have but are all too aware you do not fully own. For you are encumbered with debt you will be working for decades yet to pay off. The pressure to maintain all you have is enormous at times, but you figure this is Life, this is what Normal is made out of.
Imagine this is you, and now imagine the stomach-turning trauma of watching your life collide with the Unimaginable. It comes to you, uninvited, imposing itself upon a routine ride home: the unforeseeably, unthinkably Other suddenly takes notice of you and evaporates the momentum of your typical, workaday patterns. It locks on you and though you try to swerve away you find your own self unresponsive— you will to command your body to flee, to close your eyes and wait for this nightmare to subside, but nothing happens. Your own self does not answer to you and you are made to traffic in high strangeness and the games nonpeople play.
This is the premise of the 2002 film, The Mothman Prophecies. It follows a widowed reporter, John Klein (Richard Gere), who becomes enmeshed in a wave of sightings of an otherworldly winged creature with glowing red eyes. In time he realizes this entity played a part in the death of his wife two years earlier and, further, that he has been drawn to the area it is haunting by a force beyond human comprehension, a force which exploits the human longing for meaning and foster obsession.
The Mothman Prophecies continually frames its scenes with disconcerting aerial shots suggestive of pervasive, invisible surveillance and images of electrical signal either fragmenting apart or converging into an identifiable image. At times a shot of two people situated near each other talking will suddenly shift to an oblique, overhead view, giving the appearance of a voyeur’s first-person observation. But why is it positioned so high above the characters we’ve been viewing? In one scene in a hospital the camera moves in this way and appears to be spying above a privacy screen, peering from a height human beings do not, in the main, attain. The audience is made privy to the perspective of something non-human.
These shots imply a continual monitoring of the film’s protagonists’ activity, both of minutiae and at citywide levels. They typically resolve into a vaguely moth- or angelic-shaped conjunction of lines which reinforces the odd coincidences and development of patterns at the explicit level over the course of Klein’s investigation. In addition, they often incorporate distortion patterns in signal which dissolve into a new scene, as though seeing, hearing, and speaking all existed on a continuum for the forces Klein and the town of Point Pleasant are coming into contact with.
These directorial moves insinuate an ubiquitous scope to the activity of the entity or entities haunting the protagonists as well as suggest an eerie parallel to the unseen but always present existence of electromagnetic forces. Perhaps, the film’s visual language posits, these entities are as natural a feature of our world as electricity? And perhaps their motives are just as capable of being understood.
The film is adapted from John Keel’s 1975 classic of paranormal journalism of the same name. The film doesn’t attempt to cinematize Keel’s investigation so much as it draws from the frightening and inexplicable events Keel catalogues to depict the traumatic upheaval of contact with inscrutable non-human entities. While there is some embellishment and conflation of multiple events from book to film, the film captures the horror of typical American lives being caught up in the net of chaotic powers with no apparent scruples against toying with intelligences they esteem lower than themselves.
Keel’s investigation of the Mothman sightings in 1966-1967 uncovered vastly more than sightings of the bizarre flying humanoid. An invisible “zone of fear,” strange aerial lights, and a network of strange visitors who appeared human but behaved in absurd, nonsensical ways and monitored both Keel’s movement and who he spoke to. High strangeness sprang up everywhere Keel followed up with eyewitnesses.
The phrase “high strangeness” was coined by J. Allen Hynek in a 1975 paper entitled, “The Emerging Picture of the UFO Problem.” Three years later, in an address to the United Stations on the scope and implications of worldwide UFO sightings, he would describe the enormity of what these sightings represented:
There exists a global phenomenon the scope and extent of which is not generally recognized. It is a phenomenon so strange and foreign to our daily terrestrial mode of thought that it is frequently met by ridicule and derision by persons and organizations unacquainted with the facts…
We have on record many tens of thousands of UFO reports… they include extremely intriguing and provocative accounts of strange events experienced by highly reputable persons… events which challenge our present conception of the world about us and which may indeed signal a need for a change in some of these concepts…
[A]ny phenomenon which touches the lives of so many people, and which engenders puzzlement and even fear among them, is therefore not only of potential scientific interest and significance but also of sociological and political significance, especially since it carries with it many implications of the existence of intelligences other than our own.
“High strangeness” refers to the consummately bizarre happenings that surround certain UFO sightings, happenings such as time dilation, poltergeist activity, heightened states of consciousness, unusual phone calls and messages, and intimidation from bizarre persons who betray a sense of not belonging to our time or place. Anomalies seem to cluster together in a significant number of UFO cases, anomalies which seem so outlandish and absurd they call into question the reality of the initial sighting. Investigators wedded to the extraterrestrial hypothesis routinely discount these reports because they problematize their presupposed interpretation of the phenomena; moreover, they are simply so fantastic they seem to belong to another era and its mysticisms and superstitions.
But this is precisely the common thread which ties together the UFO phenomenon and the otherworldly experiences of our ancestors. Keel and other researchers such as Jacques Vallee have noted the similarities between the bizarre behaviors of UFO occupants in the modern era and fairies, goblins, and other supernatural creatures in past eras. Rather than trying vainly to superimpose the popular conception of visitors from outer space upon the data by hastily harmonizing a minority of reports, they allowed the data from thousands of sightings to testify on its own terms.
Keel remarks that his “long and very expensive excursions into the borderland where the real and the unreal merge have failed to produce any evidence of any kind to support the idea that we are entertaining shy strangers from some other galaxy. Rather, I have come to realize that we have been observing complex forces which have always been an essential part of our immediate environment” (The Mothman Prophecies [New York: Tor, 1975], 44).
These forces manifest principally in “mysterious aerial lights which appear to have an intelligence of their own,” but also in what Keel calls “explanatory manifestations”: “explanatory manifestations have accompanied them always, and these manifestations have always been adjusted to the psychology and beliefs of each particular period in time” (45). Therefore, these things (whatever they are) present themselves as djinn in Arabia, or as impundulu in South Africa, or as animistic spirits in Southeast Asia and in the pre-conquest Americas, or as witches and sprites in the European medieval period. In a modern era characterized by mechanistic rationalism, however, they have shifted their strategy and often present themselves as the crew of interstellar spacecraft as this better fits the plausibility structure.
But this goes beyond simple sightings of strange things at a distance. Keel interviewed (and claims to have come in contact with) beings with mysterious intent and superhuman knowledge of the world and of the future. These entities execute strategies of deception (“the games nonpeople play”) which bewilder the human subjects with whom they come in contact. They are as persuasive as gravity and the things they describe as belonging to the future seem just as inevitable. Contactees are given predictions and seeded enough true information over a period long enough to secure their trust in the entities, but more than this, they come to believe that these entities possess a knowledge base and a means of gathering information which borders on omniscience.
As contactees are drawn further and further into the web of manipulation they often undergo a shift in self-understanding and in their understanding of the universe (“false illumination”), a shift which reorients them completely. Though the entities adhere to the world-picture of the eyewitnesses with whom they make contact, they enlarge the frame of that world-picture to enthrall the contactee.
Many tilt full-on into fanaticism and reconfigure their lives around promulgating the good news of the cosmic benefactors they represent. Keel avers that “[t]heir lives are manipulated disastrously. Once a person has undergone false illumination [i.e., has experienced a shift in consciousness brought on by these entities] he becomes vulnerable to repetitions, just as once a person has been hypnotized he can easily be hypnotized again” (168). They become addicted to the contact experience, to its insider route to revelation and mystery. Would it not be insanely difficult to resist the flattery of such an experience? To turn your back on an invitation into a larger, more fantastic world than the one you had known before?
Others, however, simply run aground on the shoals of the contact experience. They are shattered by the otherworldly tangent striking their plane and cannot recover to a state of mind or state of being belonging to a time prior to the obtrusion. In cases such as these, the contactee crumbles beneath the weight of the entities’ apparent omniscience. Every new prediction which proves correct tightens the screws upon the contactee, enclosing them within a tight alley of predestination so exhaustive they feel trapped within these entities’ omniscient gaze. They experience the extinction of any will for an alternative.
In every instance, whether the contactee becomes an evangelist for the powers that have “illuminated” them or she succumbs to the crushing constriction of totalitarian omniscience, the end result is the same: the contactee is abandoned and subsequently humiliated by the public. She has been fed enough accurate information that she wholly trusts her sources; she therefore feels no basis for doubt when she is given a final message to relay, one, she is told, of paramount importance to the world. It is usually on a scale beyond any prior prediction she has been given and typically involves calling for others to avoid a catastrophic outcome by joining the contactee in a shelter or waiting on top of a hill for her benefactors to come. But inevitably the promised end does not come. The catastrophe doesn’t arise and the contactee is exposed and becomes an object of ridicule.
Keel notes how the forces at work within these phenomena seem to enjoy damaging and destroying marriages and other relationships (105). They plainly see nothing wrong with ruining people’s reputations and show little regard to the personal wreckage that follows failed prophecy. They do nothing to help rehabilitate the contactee following their disgrace; instead, they vanish back into the silent spaces of a seemingly once-more disenchanted universe, leaving their lackeys to spiral into the loss of their jobs, of their social capital, into alcohol and drug addictions, divorce, mental illness, and sometimes suicide. They play upon the credulity of those to whom they offer false illumination and wreak havoc upon their lives and those with whom they share their lives.
Faith is clearly a key component of the contact experience. These entities take advantage of the human need for something beyond the Given, something which complicates the prosaic picture of reality we are encumbered with and toil within. Apart from faith or belief in them, they can do nothing:
The phenomenon is dependent on belief, and as more and more people believe in flying saucers from other planets, the lower force [i.e., the beings that mimic genuine illumination] can manipulate more people through false illumination. I have been watching, with great consternation, the worldwide spread of the UFO belief and its accompanying disease. If it continues unchecked we may face a time when universal acceptance of the fictitious space people will lead us to a modern faith in extraterrestrials that will enable them to interfere overtly in our affairs, just as the ancient gods dwelling on mountaintops directly ruled large segments of the population in the Orient, Greece, Rome, Africa, and South America. (168)
Perhaps this last sentence strikes you as alarmist, but Paul testifies that “[f]ormerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods,” (Galatians 4:8). If belief in older pantheons of powers is indeed on the wane in the modern west, than this is because it is to these beings’ advantage for it to be so. They are more than capable of adapting themselves to new patterns of belief, whether it’s in the form of capitalism, alt-right nationalism, or even Christian fundamentalism; whatever allows them to cloak themselves as rulers and authorities to be trusted and obeyed absolutely.
The activities of these entities disrupt and dismantle the disenchanted world-picture which most of us in the post-Reformation, post-Industrial Revolution West occupy. Examining the accounts of encounters with them we find outcroppings of a universe vaster and stranger than the prosaic closed system we take for granted. And these beings use this dissatisfaction with disenchantment to further their ends.
On this matter, regarding the disconnect between a naïve modern sense of superiority over the “magical” thinking of our predecessors, particularly with regard to the powers and principalities, Karl Barth writes,
In this matter we have one of the not infrequent cases in which it has to be said that not all people, but some to whom a so-called magical view of the world is now ascribed, have in fact, apart from occasional hocus pocus, seen more, seen more clearly, and come much closer to the reality in their thought and speech, than those of us who are happy possessors of a rational and scientific view of things, for whom the resultant clear (but perhaps not wholly clear) distinction between truth and illusion has become almost unconsciously the criterion of all that is possible and real.
(Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV, Lecture Fragments [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981], 216)
In our time and place it can be easy to dismiss as fanciful primitivism the view that non-human powers influence our affairs and bring about disorder and death. A confident rationalism that presumes Western ingenuity and technique is capable of explaining all of reality in mundane, mechanical terms scoffs at the possibility of another unseen strain to that reality, one which complicates the closed system of the Enlightenment. And it is this picture of reality which sickens the souls of millions who inhabit it.
The testimony of the church, however— the testimony commissioned by Jesus Christ— has always asserted, counter to any worldview on offer throughout every period it has had to critique and deconstruct, that this is reality. Barth similarly notes that
Nothingness rejoices when it notices it is not noticed, that it is boldly demythologised, that humanity thinks it can tackle its lesser and greater problems with a little morality and medicine and psychology and aesthetics, with progressive politics or occasionally a philosophy of unprecedented novelty— if only its own reality as nothingness remains beautifully undisclosed and intact.
(Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III: The Doctrine of Creation, Part 3 [London, New York: T&T Clark, 1960], 526)
We cannot dismiss the existence of evil powers, Barth asserts, but we simultaneously cannot believe in them. “Theological exorcism must be an act of unbelief which is grounded in faith,” he writes (CD III/3, 521). To orient ourselves towards them in a posture of belief is to give them power over us and to become like them. We acknowledge their existence, but we must disbelieve in them. We must expose them as the frauds they are and broadcast the poverty of their lordship. But we can only do this effectively if we remember we are free from their tyranny and enact that freedom we have in Christ.
It is in this spirit that Paul asserts with all the forcefulness that can be funneled through a single set of lungs, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). This is not a naïve fundamentalist or secular call to assert self-mastery: it is the summons of God himself to accept the proffered gift of healed (and healing) agency and the liberty at the center of God’s being by which it is funded. The freedom which God is in his inmost self is enfleshed in the man Jesus Christ and rendered available through his Spirit. It is only in Christ that the mastery of the powers and principalities is broken. Their domain is being extirpated so long as Christ reigns, and it is in the sphere of his rule that their coercive regime is exposed as the Nothingness it truly is.
Whatever patterns of servitude you have found yourself participating in, whatever labyrinth of passivity you have become bewitched within, it is not too late to remove yourself from the playing board. You do not belong to the powers and principalities. And you are not an inert mass of matter to be manipulated and bent to the will of anyone or anything. Nothing you have done under the subjection of the powers necessitates you continuing on because you deserve no better. They don’t exhaustively know the future; they cannot decide your fate; you can decide otherwise. In Christ you can recover your agency as an image bearer, and if you can’t remember what genuine agency feels like, you can discover for the first time in the liberating power the God-Man wants to share with you.
The overtures of the powers and principalities is often attractive in the way they defamiliarize the ordinary world and seem to present something grander and more mysterious. But the end of these overtures is slavery and abandonment. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ also disrupts and dismantles that disenchanted world-picture; not an alien dawn, but an apocalyptic dawn. The graced reaching out of God in Christ is an acid eating away at the mis-enchanted propaganda world these entities promulgate. The Mothman prophecies may prove correct for a time, but they aren’t true. Take hold of the freedom Jesus Christ is and stand firm.