John Keel’s Enduring Relevance—for Good and Ill

Keel with Doug Skinner
Keel with Doug Skinner

I’m occasionally questioned about my long-standing admiration of John Keel. As Sam Shepard (another hard-case hero) repeatedly says in the movie version of The Right Stuff, “fair enough.” My admiration has not so much to do with his take on ufology/paranormal phenomena, as it does the context in which he embedded these matters. It didn’t start that way, but that’s where it ended up—and remains. Why? Call it a complex admixture of nostalgia, fascination, cultural deep-diving, and a smatter of personal experiences that haunt me and won’t go away.

I dedicated my nonfiction book, Black Light, to Keel. Why? Because he taught me to trust the visionary aspect of life, which must include nightmares, pleasant dreams, misperception, outright hallucination (sober), and jarring thoughts all of us once in a while experience, but wish we hadn’t. Example: I once stood on Cleveland, Ohio’s Terminal Tower observation deck (at 708 feet), when it occurred to me I might somehow smash a window and jump. Not a compulsion, mind you, but a disturbing fantasy. My morbid imagination already knew that suicide survivors—upon taking the penultimate leap—instantly regret so doing. I’d read as much. Terror blasted through me, envisioning the fall…the final impact. You get it. I suspect many have such fantasies, but rarely discuss them. A simple contemplation of violent death. I concluded that anyone with the stones to jump off some tall structure must be seriously, tragically, masochistic.

What I gather from Keel’s work is an inner turmoil, not over the “meaning” of anomalies, but that they exist at all, and rational science cannot prevent human collateral damage. This might “explain” his “belief is the enemy” maxim. Belief ends rational thought—hence faith, religious and otherwise. A nail Keel frequently center-punched, perhaps rightly. Once we halt intellectual scrutiny, we open the door to exploitation, potentially destructive fantasizing, and passive acceptance of notions dangerous and manipulative.

Sure, I think Keel occasionally exaggerated.

One thing that bothers me: Point Pleasant Register reporter Mary Hyre wrote to Keel about a disturbing dream involving Christmas gifts floating in the Ohio River, before the Silver Bridge collapse. This is documented in so many places I won’t belabor it. I have viewed the actual letter, and Keel’s response (basically, “Don’t tell anyone about this, because you’ll be seen as crazy.”), on display in Point Pleasant’s Mothman Museum. As a 99% questioner, I have to ask myself whether this represents genuine “precognition.” Even if it does, well….

I see Keel’s work as a Trojan Horse within same, as the term is commonly known. Too, I don’t think—in his own mind—Keel ever arrived at closure regarding the authentic existence of Mothman, UFOs, etc. He was a lonely, yet self-contained, man. Read his early memoir, Jadoo, for a taste of this. It’s there, nestled between all the snake tricks and handling, “primitive” locals reacting to a tall white man, physical attacks from those who thought Keel had money, etc. Above all, he made clear to me the danger of taking literally extremely subjective—even solopsistic—perceptions. Perhaps akin to that of a “thunderbird” witness in Greensburg, Pennsylvania in 2002, who claimed to have seen one soaring over midday traffic. At that time, I resided roughly 4 miles from the place he spoke of (Route 119). Investigator Stan Gordon (a Greensburg resident I’d spoken to once regarding triangular UFOs, and mentioned in my Black Light introduction) checked out the witness, and did a thorough job of it. Daylight sightings of “cryptids” near a heavily-trafficked area are rare. Driving that route, would I have perceived the thunderbird? Frankly, I envied the frightened young man…perhaps wrongly.

No matter what he saw, it broke the symmetry of his life. Keel was masterful in reporting the effects on witnesses to the unknown, and never neglected their dignity or (when requested) confidentiality. My very brief meeting with Keel, in 2003, surrounded by others, prevented one-on-one converse. At that time I was on a downward spiral (the Nine Inch Nails reference is intentional), and encountering Keel in Point Pleasant literally saved me from implosion.

For that, I owe him.

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