Guest Post: A Movie That Scares Jeff Hirsch

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

By Jeff Hirsch, author of THE ELEVENTH PLAGUE

I love horror. Scary books. Scary movies. Haunted houses. The whole bit. But honestly very few stories actually have made me feel afraid, like sleep-with-the-lights-on, can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head afraid. And then there was The Mothman Prophecies.

Now if you’ve heard of this movie, or even seen it, you may be saying to yourself, “But, Jeff, isn’t The Mothman Prophecies kind of, you know, stupid?” Well, the answer is yes. Yes it is. I’m fully aware that this movie is no Shining. It’s no Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby. Richard Gere can’t really convincingly portray the grief that’s required of him. The production design is a little ridiculous and heavy-handed. (Why, in the most terrifying moments of their lives, does no one in this movie turn on the damn lights!?) Gere’s investigation and the big action ending is kind of a letdown. In many many ways this is a terrible movie. And yet it scared the hell out of me and did again when I rewatched it this past weekend before writing this post.

So I got to thinking about why. What is it about this movie that scares me so much? For me? I guess it’s this…

Day to day, we rely on the idea that the world works in a more or less consistent way. We wake up in the morning in the same bed we went to sleep in. When we go out into the world, the nature of the people and the institutions surrounding us are mostly consistent. The sun rises and sets over 24 hours. If you drop something it will fall. To a certain extent it’s all predictable, there’s basic cause and effect and a rational progression of events.

The Mothman Prophecies is about what happens when all of that comes apart.

If you don’t know the movie, here’s the basic plot. Richard Gere is a reporter on his way to an interview in Virginia when he somehow ends up hundreds of miles away in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, with no memory of how he got there. Once there, he starts getting phone calls from a possibly omniscient creature, people he’s never met insist they know him, and his wife, two years dead, starts appearing in the town. He also finds that a large portion of the townspeople are having similar eerie experiences—hearing voices, having what may or may not be hallucinations—related to a creature that’s described as looking like a giant, well, moth man.

As the movie progresses it looks like the creature may be trying to warn the town of an impending tragedy, but its pronouncements are so vague, and the creature is so strange and frightening, that all it really succeeds in doing is driving people insane. Ultimately a tragedy does happen, lots of people die, and then the Mothman just…disappears. We never know where it came from, what it was, or what it wanted.

For me, that’s horror. It’s not vampires and guys with axes, it’s a story that tells you that not only is safety an illusion, but reality and causality are illusions as well. There’s no order. No justice. No rationality. Things just happen. You can’t understand them or control them.

Think about tragedies like Columbine or September 11th. The human toll is terrifying in both cases, but I think what also gets to us, why they lodge so firmly in our imaginations, is that they were violations of our expectations about the world. Before Columbine, a high school didn’t turn into a scene of mass murder between lunch periods. Before September 11th, we believed that the chaos and violence of the world stopped at our borders. Remember how nightmarish the images of those days were? How surreal? They didn’t seem like things that happened in the world that we knew. The fact that they did happen made us deal with the idea that maybe we’re always living just minutes away from an event that will transform reality into something new and terrible. And there’s nothing we can do about it.

If you ask me, that’s way scarier than Dracula or Jason with his hockey mask. And I guess that’s why Mothman gets to me. Even though it’s far from a perfect movie, it speaks directly to a really deep-seated fear.

What about you all? Is there a theme in books or movies that pushes your buttons whether it’s done well or not?

Jeff Hirsch graduated from UC San Diego with an MFA in dramatic writing. He lives in Astoria, New York. The Eleventh Plague is his first novel.

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