Born Alva John Kiehle and raised in Hornell, N.Y., he developed an early interest in magic and mysterious phenomena, and was only 12 years old when he published his first story in a magician’s magazine. In his teens, Keel changed the spelling of his surname and the order of his initials, and hitchhiked to New York City to become a professional writer. Over the next decade, he created comic book scripts, edited Poets of America magazine, worked as a freelance writer and produced several radio programs, yet a passion for stories about the unusual, strange and unexplained soon became his professional focus.
During the Korean War, Keel was drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed in Frankfurt where he worked on the staff of the American Forces’ Network. After leaving the service, however, he traveled through Europe, Asia and the Middle East seeking out the truth behind outlandish tales of myth and legend. Investigating these controversial topics was not the most lucrative career move, but Keel supported his efforts by writing ad libs for Merv Griffin and contributing scripts to shows like “Get Smart” and “Lost in Space.”
Keel published numerous books on the supernatural over the course of his four-decade career, including “Our Haunted Planet,” “UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse,” “The Complete Guide to Mysterious Beings” and “Strange Creatures from Time and Space.” But his biggest claim to fame was the 1975 book, “The Mothman Prophecies,” which was turned into a major motion picture starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney in 2002. The book chronicled Keel’s 1966-1967 investigation into reported sightings of a strange creature in Point Pleasant, W.Va.
Known as the Mothman, the creature was described as being 7 feet tall with grey skin, red glowing eyes and large wings. Its origins were unknown, but theories abounded. Some believed the Mothman was a mutant spawned from local chemical and weapons dumps. Others theorized that it was either an extraterrestrial or the result of an Indian curse. Eyewitnesses claimed it screeched like a rat, ate farmers’ dogs, destroyed area fields, caused cars to stall and interfered with TVs, radios and telephones.
Although the creature was known for scaring people — particularly couples sitting in parked cars — Keel wrote that the Mothman may have tried to telepathically warn people that the Silver Bridge was going to collapse into the Ohio River. It did so in 1967, killing 46 people.
Keel’s coverage of the Mothman phenomenon turned Point Pleasant into a tourist attraction, and sparked the launch of the annual Mothman Festival. A Mothman Museum, containing props from the movie, eyewitness accounts of Mothman encounters and other curiosities, also opened on Main Street. Keel last visited Point Pleasant in 2003 when a stainless steel statue of the Mothman was unveiled.
Keel’s final years were often spent in an self-imposed isolation. He did few interviews, distanced himself from family and friends and struggled with both health and financial issues.