Horror films set in the holiday season are nothing new; arguably the first slasher is Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, a neurotically claustrophic film about a group of sorority girls being harangued by a babbling psychopath with a penchant for crank calls. The Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise gifted us with arguably too many films about murderous mental patients killing people during the Yuletide. And Christmas Evil, despite it’s almost unbearably punny title, is a genuinely chilling look at someone slipping away from reality and into the grips of a long simmering psychosis.
But the film that I turn to every December to scare me isn’t any of these. Instead, my spooky Christmas comfort food movie is Mark Pellington’s 2002 “supernatural horror-mystery film” (what?!) The Mothman Prophecies. There’s something almost intangibly Christmassy about this movie and I’m going to try and explain why it always feels like a perfect holiday movie to me. It doesn’t hurt that most of this film takes place around Christmas, from the tragic opening scene in which Gere loses his wife to the closing scene exactly two years later when disaster strikes Point Pleasant. Christmas, for me, has always been a kind of Halloween Jr. Weirdly, despite my own personal opinions on religion, the Christian imagery of Christmas has always fascinated and delighted me. But it that’s northern European pagan aspect of the Yule that makes the season quietly unsettling. It’s the time of year when the nights are longest and coldest, and who knows what sort of spooky alter-ego of Santa is out there lurking about. It’s a time that’s a perfect setting for genuine horror and not just schlocky gimmicky slasher movies with punny titles.
The Mothman Prophecies is a loose adaption of John Keel’s monumental work of the same name in the field of ufology/ultraterrestrials/ high strangeness, particularly the events in 1966-67 in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, a small town that the inhabitants of which claim to be haunted by a ghastly winged specter with glowing red eyes known colloquially as “Mothman”. Rather than a dull by the number’s cinematic adaption of Keel’s work, Pellington uses it to frame a story on the destructive nature of grief and self-delusion. Richard Gere plays John Klein, a journalist at the Washington Post who, in the opening scene, loses his wife to a rare form of brain cancer. Two years later, on a seemingly routine trip from D.C. to Richmond, John ends up hundreds of miles of course in a seemingly impossible time frame and in the small town of Point Pleasant, and soon finds himself wrapped up in the town’s recent flap of inexplicable and terrifying phenomenon: citizens have been reporting strange lights in the sky, eerie phone calls in the middle of the night, and most frightening of all a tall, gaunt red eyed figure staring at them through their windows. It culminates on Christmas Eve with the collapse of a bridge in the center of town, something that the Mothman had warned Klein about (apparently the Mothman in this film is a harbinger of doom in addition to just being spooky).
The film is ripe with the kind of down and out former factory town look that you can find in any number of small towns anywhere in the Rust Belt, and I think part of the appeal of it comes from the fact that it reminds me of an idealized version of the area I grew up in. Granted, Easton was somewhat spared the slow decline that other areas of the Lehigh Valley suffered in the ‘80s, but there’s something about the setting of this film that strikes a chord with me. The area a bit north of me, particularly Bangor, Jim Thorpe, Slatington, and the Wilkes Barre-Scranton metro area, are all brought to mind by the Christmas visuals of this film. Likewise, the Old Orchard section of Palmer not too far from here is a dead ringer for the DC neighborhood that Richard Gere and Debra Messing first encounter the Mothman in the beginning (or think they do anyway. Who knows with this movie.) That neighborhood in particular has a weird labyrinthian feel to it, almost like you’re underground instead of in the suburbs. Gere’s initial trip to Point Pleasant from DC late at night reminds me of my first year of college, when my roommate and I decided to come home on winter break at like midnight on the last day of classes. Driving through the seemingly empty town, onto the highway, and then into our hometown for Christmas…there’s something magical about that, something dreamlike, and the sequence in The Mothman Prophecies where Gere first leaves DC always reminds me of that. Similarly, the scene at the end when Laura Linney calls Gere up on Christmas Eve to tell him she booked him a flight back to Ohio to spend Christmas with her family hits that strange soft spot within me that resonates with the memories of coming home for Christmas, and the older I get and begin to appreciate the value of spending quality time with people I care about on holidays the stronger that resonance gets with me.
The horror of this film is two pronged. First, and most apparent, is the horror of the monstrous other that is the Mothman, or Indrid Cold, or whatever. Despite the fact that we never really see the Mothman (not clearly anyway) his (it’s?) presence is felt in almost every shot of this movie. Pellington is a master at creating a feeling of complete instability and horrific tension by using strange voyeuristic shooting angles. The motif of red lights representing the creature’s eyes is quietly unsettling. The reoccurring theme of townspeople reporting encounters with people who at first seem normal but who upon closer inspection are “not quite right”. And then there’s the phone calls. Several times in the film, Gere apparently speaks with the entity responsible for all of this. Not only is its voice eerie as hell, but the imagery of this thing standing in someone’s living room talking to him on the phone is almost too much to think about. It’s a cliché, but the film does a great job of scaring us with what it’s not showing us. Characters talk about how they don’t quite recognize their reflections in the mirror; again, fucking terrifying. This leads up to a shot of Richard Gere staring at himself in the mirror, and every single time I watch this I expect his reflection to change into something unspeakable. It never does, but Pellington still succeeds in making us feel like maybe, just maybe, things might be different this time. And the drawings people make of this thing, including those that Debra Messing makes in the grips of a feverish bout of delirium, are honestly frightening. I remember seeing this trailer for the first time and getting honestly freaked out when they show those drawings. The fact that no two of them look exactly alike makes it feel all the more like a nightmare.
The second flavor of horror in this is the horror of not being in control. Grief is part of it, but that grief is the result of an accident that Gere never quite comes to terms with and never really accepts that such things just happen. There’s a great exchange at the end when Laura Linney, in an attempt to comfort Gere, tells him that people we love are going to die and that sometimes bad things happen, despite Gere thinking that the universe is somehow lined up against him. He’s already struggling with moving on an accepting his wife’s death as a cruel and random occurrence when suddenly he’s thrust into a situation where’s dealing with an entity he can’t even begin to understand, and this further strains his ability to understand the way the world works. It’s bad enough your wife dies the night you two bought a house (on Christmas Even no less) and now you’re being harangued by a possible interdimensional creature with a penchant for imitating your wife? I don’t think there needs to be a metaphor there to show how fucking unsettling that idea is. It’s a vaguely Lovecraftian concept of being a victim of forces you cannot begin to fathom, and Gere is definitely that unfortunate victim. He’s not just a sinner in the hands of an angry god but also something akin to an insect being told to read Yeats or Chaucer; it’s all impossibly beyond him to comprehend and it further highlights how little control he has on the course of his life when it comes to what’s going to happen. Because Linney is absolutely right: sometimes bad things do happen and there’s nothing we can do about it, and our inability to accept that can lead us to some very dark and very dangerous places.
I love this movie. I know it’s not exactly hailed by critics, but it’s a weird little gem that is always rewarding for me to rewatch and still creeps me out after all these years. At this point it’s just as much of a Christmas tradition as Die Hard or Gremlins, and I think it would do people well to re-evaluate it and maybe work it into their own Christmas traditions.