September 9, 2009

John A. Keel: A Brief Biography

Filed under: — admin @ 9:50 pm

[This biography is neither exhaustive nor definitive; I hope it’s useful. It’s based on one I wrote for the Fortean Times back in 2002.  (Doug Skinner)]

Alva John Kiehle was born on March 25, 1930, in Hornell, NY. His father was a singer and bandleader; his mother a “lively, pretty girl with a strong sense of humor.” The marriage was a brief one; John was raised by his grandparents in the nearby town of Perry.

As a child he read insatiably (he remembered himself as a “reading machine”), especially anything about magic, humor, science, travel, and aviation. By the time he was 14, he was determined to be a writer: he wrote a column, “Scraping the Keel,” for the Perry Herald; published his own science fiction fanzine, The Lunarite; and was routinely sending out submissions to magazines.

In 1947, he hitch-hiked to Manhattan — or, more specifically, to Greenwich Village. He became associate editor of the quarterly magazine Poets of America (1947-1949), and editor of the weekly newspaper Limelight (1949-1951). At this time, he was also writing for comic books, contributing poetry to various magazines, and turning out scripts for the early TV station WABD. He also wrote scripts for radio shows, including Grand Central Station and First Nighter.

When he was 18, he had a strange (but classic) illumination experience in his furnished room off Times Square. He remembered the room “filled with an indescribable light, a pinkish glow”; and his mind “flooded with a torrent of information.”

In 1951, he was drafted. He spent his military years in Frankfurt, working mostly for the American Forces Network. Some of his programming ideas — a remote broadcast from the Great Pyramid, another from Frankenstein’s Castle — earned him a great deal of publicity.

In 1954, he was restless, and determined to see more of the world. He spent the next year wandering throughout the Middle East, supporting himself by sending back stories and articles to his agent, who then placed them in men’s adventure magazines. In Singapore, he was deported as an “adventurer,” and moved to Barcelona, where he turned his experiences into a book, Jadoo.

When Jadoo was published in 1957, he moved back to NYC, and promoted it by performing with cobras in the window of the Midtown Aquarium at Times Square, and with many TV and radio appearances. He suffered a bit of writer’s block after this, and turned to editing the magazine Echo. Funk & Wagnall’s also hired him as a science and geography editor (1959-1960).

In the ’60s, he worked a great deal in television: he was the head writer for the game show Play Your Hunch; and turned out many scripts for such shows as Mack and Myer for Hire, the Chuck McCann Show, the Clay Cole Show, and the animated series Snooperscope. He also wrote a couple of novels, under his preferred pseudonym, Harry Gibbs.

In 1966, Playboy commissioned him to write an article on UFOs. The resultant piece was rejected (the assignment was turned over to J. Allen Hynek, and published in the December 1967 issue). But he had become hooked on the subject; and traveled around the country, interviewing witnesses, and writing dozens of articles. The phenomenon, he learned, took its toll on its investigators: he entered a shadowy world where black cars vanished on country roads, meaningless messages turned up in hotel rooms, and his phone and mail suffered strange interceptions. In 1966, he made repeated visits to Point Pleasant, West Virginia, then the site of a particularly active monster and UFO flap; the result was one of his most popular books, The Mothman Prophecies. Along the way, he also put out a lively newsletter, Anomaly; wrote a regular column for Saga; and published several classic books on forteana.

He was a technical advisor to the Library of Congress (1968-69), and special consultant to the office of Scientific Research and Bureau of Radiology (1968-71), before becoming a consultant to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, for whom he produced a prototype for a magazine, You. He also fulfilled a boyhood dream by earning his pilot’s license.

In the 1980s, he attempted a number of plays and novels, none of which made it to the page or stage. He devoted his time to various mail order projects, and revived the dormant New York Fortean Society. And he contributed a regular column to Fate magazine, “Beyond the Known.”

In his later years, he was slowed down considerably by diabetes and its complications. He had some lean times, particularly when cataracts, and the resultant eye surgery, made writing difficult. His luck turned when The Mothman Prophecies was made into a movie in 2002; he was particularly delighted at being portrayed by Richard Gere, whom he referred to as a “John Keel look-alike.” The publicity sparked several new editions of the book, including numerous foreign editions. He bought a car, which he dubbed the Mothmobile, and often disappeared on solo road trips.

With age, his health declined, and he spent several years in and out of hospitals and nursing homes; his friends pitched in to keep him going. He died July 3, 2009, at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.

Despite reports to the contrary, he did not die alone and abandoned. Larry “Ratso” Sloman and I were his medical proxies, and very active in helping him in his final years. Many friends visited him in his various hospitals and homes. I was at his bedside the day he died, to give the final directives, and to tell him goodbye. Despite other reports, his papers were saved by his friends and family.


  1. Glad to hear he was with Friends when he passed, I was a fan of his writings.

    Comment by joe — November 10, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

  2. Mr Keel, in my opinion was THE Paranormal investigator and writer, I have been hooked on his books since the days of my youth, and I still thrill when ever I re-read my very worn, dog-eared yet treasured mid 70’s copy of ‘Strange Creatures from Time and Space’, and am reading (yet again) ‘The Mothman Prophecies’, and still finding new points to consider.
    I think his theories of the root cause/source of Paranormal events, are the most complete and fitting explanation (s) that any investigator or writer in this field have proposed; yet, he seemed to me, to temper his views with a humour and humility that the ‘answer’to the phenomena would, due to it’s adaptive and reflective ability, probably always remain just beyond our reach. Thank You, John, for shining a light into the darker corners of what we believe, is ‘reality’

    Comment by Mark C — November 18, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

  3. Have just finished ‘The Mothman Prophecies’ my first taste of Keel (as it were!)

    Comment by Jo — February 21, 2013 @ 8:22 am

  4. I totally agree with the comments by Mark C. John Keel was far and away the most intelligent and imaginative investigator and writer in the paranormal field we’ve had so far. He was the first to see the importance of large scale statistical patterns, and to look at the big picture. He was the first to really see that ‘psychic’ and ‘UFO’ phenomena were the same thing and to look as carefully at the percipients as at their reports, noting the strange details that keep cropping up in widely-spaced experiences. His insights were many, thought-provoking and always based on his own monumental field work.
    I still read anything by him I can get hold of. Wherever you are John, I hope you’ve found the answer at last.

    Comment by paul tinman — August 26, 2015 @ 6:01 am

  5. Doug – Thank you for this very informative web site! Please excuse me if this question has been answered elsewhere; do you know of any paranormal researchers/authors who are continuing the work of John Keel; specifically, his theories on “ultraterrestrials?” I know that other authors have referenced his work, but is there anyone who is actively doing research with the same passion, interests, and beliefs as Mr. Keel? I believe that he was on to something, and he spent much of his life trying to investigate and explain it. I would like to know if some reputable researcher and investigator has picked up where Mr. Keel left off. Did he have an understudy, or someone to whom he turned over his work? Thank you.

    Comment by Jim — September 22, 2015 @ 12:36 pm

  6. No, John didn’t have an understudy. He wasn’t doing that much work himself in his last years. He certainly influenced many researchers, but I don’t know anyone who’s working quite the way that he did. They may be out there, though!

    Comment by Doug — September 28, 2015 @ 3:56 pm

  7. It was John Keel’s books that first got me interested in the paranormal. I wrote to John in the 1980s and I still have the note he mailed back to me. I was heartbroken when he died. No one else can fill his shoes and his books will continue to be classics. I have all his books, including the hard to find Jadoo, which I will always treasure.

    Comment by Beth Robbins — January 24, 2016 @ 4:02 pm

  8. I’m a college professor, and despite John’s disdain of my species, I revere his work. So much so, in fact, that two years ago I began teaching a seminar titled “The Paranormal.” I use parts of his oeuvre in the course, and some of the students read his books as research for their semester projects. I’m also, by way of academic specialty, a literary theorist (the part of English that connects with other disciplines, especially philosophy and psychology). In my opinion, his very sophisticated critique of the “reflective” phenomenon is just as intellectually viable and interesting as writing by professional scholars, if not more so. He’s the only person–so far as I know–to see so penetratingly and tellingly into the occult and the mysterious. I love it when he razzes the “Type B” scientists! Peace and joy to John Keel, situated as he now must be on the Other Side. If ever I see a UFO or get a strange call or find a ten-foot grinning man in a checkered shirt on my back porch, I’ll have John to thank!

    Comment by Jeff C. — February 26, 2016 @ 8:16 pm

  9. Nice to hear! I don’t think John had disdain for academics (he had great respect for Peter Rojcewicz, among others); he just didn’t like it if anyone disagreed with him. His own education was spotty: he was a high school dropout, but endlessly curious and, as he put it, “a reading machine.” Keep feeding those students Keel!

    Comment by Doug — February 27, 2016 @ 10:34 am

  10. I’m glad to see Keels inspired someone to keep this informational site going. Thanks for your hard work.

    Comment by Steve O — May 16, 2016 @ 10:36 am

  11. Came by John Keel’s writing recently – he was mentioned quite favorably in Colin Wilson’s Alien Dawn for his research into the paranormal. But what got me reading him was the reference to Yahoo, which I bought and immediately read. Just finished Mothman and have to say that the vibrancy and sheer life energy he put into his prose is just fantastic. I’ve been an avid reader for decades and having tripped across Keel’s work is such a tonic. What a discovery!

    My two most recent discoveries: Robert Anton Wilson and John Keel – both of whom have a huge presence on YouTube. These guys knew how to talk, too…

    I’ve read on the periphery of UFO lit until recently and I had no idea this guy ever existed. I just wish I knew about him when he was alive. Long live Keel!

    Thanks for putting this website together. I have a few friends who would find this fascinating stuff.

    Comment by Joe G — May 18, 2016 @ 10:22 pm

  12. I’m doing some research on John’s life and wonder if he ever enjoyed a drink or two?
    If so, which was his favorite?
    Thanks, Doug.

    Comment by Jimmer — July 23, 2017 @ 8:34 pm

  13. Jimmer — No, John didn’t drink; he didn’t drink coffee either. He stuck to Diet Coke. I assume he drank when he was younger; he certainly looks like he’s lifting a beer in this photo, although it’s hard to tell:

    Comment by Doug — July 23, 2017 @ 8:58 pm

  14. Well, that settles that. John was wise beyond his years.
    I wonder if he would sip tea when offered as a courtesy?
    Thanks, Doug.

    Comment by Jimmer — July 24, 2017 @ 12:08 pm

  15. Jimmer — Well, he was diabetic, so he avoided both caffeine and alcohol, at least by the time I met him.

    Comment by Doug — July 24, 2017 @ 10:07 pm

  16. Thanks for that, Doug.
    Did he drink Diet Coke, caffeine-free?

    Comment by Jimmer — July 25, 2017 @ 11:32 am

  17. I don’t remember. Probably, if he thought of it!

    Comment by Doug — July 25, 2017 @ 12:53 pm

  18. I bet he did. Thanks as always.

    Comment by Jimmer — July 26, 2017 @ 11:33 am

  19. I’m re-re-reeading Mothman Prophecies and wonder if any of the audio recording John discussed have been uncovered?
    At one point, he began tape recording conversations off his telephone.
    Soundcloud links to them would be an epiphany to his fans.

    Comment by Jimmer — September 11, 2017 @ 8:05 pm

  20. Unfortunately not… All the tapes we found were of talks and radio appearances.

    Comment by Doug — September 12, 2017 @ 12:27 am

  21. What a shame. Thanks.

    Comment by Jimmer — September 13, 2017 @ 3:27 pm

  22. When I was 15 I read the Mothman Prophecies and I didn’t know what to make of it. I loved the movie and couldn’t reconcile it with the book very well then. Now, 12 years later, I have re-visited the book and Keel’s legacy. I went to the Mothman Festival in Point Pleasant this year (2017) and I have since made a request to the Army through the freedom of information act to release all documents pertaining to all activities in Pleasant Pleasant in the years 1966-67. Simply put, John Keel has inspired me in adulthood and I’m so thankful for his work and legacy. I will always help to make sure his works and legacy live on.

    Comment by David Ryals — October 10, 2017 @ 3:50 am

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