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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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24 thoughts on “Guest Post: A Movie That Scares Jeff Hirsch

  1. I think for me, the most frightening things are normal things that stop making the sense they should. Then it’s uncertain if it’s the event that’s wrong, or if it’s you.


  2. omg that goosebumps dummy cover is creepy! what is it about puppets that is so scary? i think “chucky” really traumatized me. and how beautiful is that harbinger cover? to die for!

  3. I remember years ago, I went to the theater with a guy I had been dating, to see The Devils Advocate…….the movie did not bother me one bit in all honesty, but my boyfriend….he was outta control. I tried to comfort him my placing my hand on his knee, my hand got swatted away, and he hissed at me to stop touching him because he was freaked out. I just shrugged and said ok. 😉

  4. I know I’ve seen The Mothman Prophecies, but I can’t remember it that well. I agree that events that completely deviate from our expectations are scary. We think we know more or less how our days are going to play out, so a situation like the one in Mothman Prophecies is hard to accept.

  5. Like Dani there, I agree with why Mothman might be scary. I think I’d try to find something else that’s scary for a similar reason, though. =D

    (Of course, now that I’ve said that, I can think of books and short stories by the score, but not so much movies.)

  6. I haven’t seen this one but I usually stay away from scary movies. I even found while trying to re-watch the X-Files that I’m to much of a fraidy cat.

  7. If you want to be truly frightened see Last House on the Left. Years ago, I went to see the original “Last House on the Left” with a friend. It was so scary we ran home in the dark from the theatre.
    I couldn’t sleep for weeks afterward. To this day no movie has scared me as much as this.

  8. This is so true. I think you put this really coherently, because this is my opinion but better thought-out and stated. It’s the same as when someone close to you dies – you don’t expect it, and you’re all of the sudden in grief and pain and it happens so fast – it is really terrifying.

  9. Yeah, I read the book awhile back and just seeing the title brought me back to a scary place. I think psychological thrillers are the scariest because you never know what you’re going to get with a psycho. They’re just so…what’s the word? Oh, yeah. PSYCHO.

  10. I’m not alone! The Mothman Prophecies terrified me, too! I think what scared me most were the disembodied voices come up out of the sink, in the middle of the night. After watching that movie, the master bathroom suddenly seemed way, way too close for comfort! You were brave to watch it a second time, Jeff!

  11. What really gets me is when the characters do stupid things–like walking into a run down building, all alone, where they know the “monster” is hiding…and yeah, not turning on the lights…being that careless is really scary!-Just kidding.

    I think for most people it is the idea of being out of control–in whatever form that takes. Either the illusion that life is orderly and safe is threatened or they find themselves in a situation where they either are not being understood or they can’t make a difference.
    –you’re sane but they lock you up as a lunatic
    –something eerie is happening but no one else is aware
    –events that defy what we consider “natural order” unhinge our mind

  12. I love the story of the Mothman. The whole myth of it and then the movie deaths are so freaky that I can barely read about them. The exorcist also creeps me right out.

  13. I’ve never seen the Mothman Prophecies, but the trope in books and movies that I always find scary even when they aren’t horror are stories where something is taken to be true, then at the very end all that is just ripped away. I’m thinking Leo Dicaprio movies like Shutter Island and Inception (which I’m not really sure what that ending was all about). Or even the Buffy episode where she thinks she is in a mental asylum and dreaming her life as a slayer. Those things always scare me because it causes that question of how do we know this is all real and then I start to trip myself out.

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