High Times Greats: John Keel

The astute chronicler of the bizarre.
High Times Greats: John Keel
John Keel/ High Times

John Keel (1930-2009) had seen it all. He exposed fakirs in India and charmed cobras in Times Square. He chased UFOs, Bigfoot and the dreaded “men in black“—and lived to tell the tales. From the February, 1984 issue of High Times comes Jim Cusimano’s and Larry Sloman’s story about Mr. Keel, republished below on the occasion of his birthday March 25.

John Keel has spent much of his life being the world’s foremost authority. Mention his name back in the 1950s and the response would be, “Oh, isn’t he that guy who knows everything about black magic and the occult?” By the ’70s Keel’s name had become synonymous with UFOs, as his fascinating ideas revolutionized the way we looked at those mysterious things in the sky.

But Keel was no armchair theorist. He spent years circumnavigating the globe, peeking into the most arcane comers of the Third World, researching their ancient magical beliefs and rites. Along the way he became world famous for his expose of the Indian rope trick and adept at the fine art of cobra-charming.

When he returned to the States in the mid-’50s Keel lectured extensively, then settled back in his adopted hometown, New York City, where he served as head writer for Goodson and Todman, the TV impresarios, working on their hits To Tell the Truth, I’ve Got a Secret and the Price Is Right. After writing all of Merv Griffin’s early ad-libs, he packed up and moved to Hollywood, where he spent a year “hating every minute of it.”

Keel returned to New York in 1965, just in time for the big blackout. Intrigued by a UFO flap near his birthplace in upstate New York, he began researching an article for Playboy. Ten years and five books later, his obsession with UFOs was satiated with the publication of The Eighth Tower, a summing up of his crank cosmology.

Put simply, after thousands of hours of field research and hundreds of interviews with UFO contactees, Keel concluded that the UFO phenomenon could not be extraterrestrial in nature. Rather, he theorized that UFOs were part of the chimerical activity that has plagued this planet since its inception—a modem, updated version of fairies, monsters, Bigfoot and other strange entities that go bump in the night.

Besides his 12 books (the most famous of which are UFO—Operation Trojan Horse, The Mothman Prophecies, Our Haunted Planet and Strange Creatures from Time and Space), Keel has also managed to find time to write over 200 slapstick comedy movies under contract to the Trans-Lux Corporation. He is currently working on three books, one of which will “solve all the mysteries of the Universe.”

High Times: When did you begin your career?

John Keel: I was about twelve years old. I sold an article to a magicians’ magazine when I was about twelve or thirteen years old. They sent me a check for two dollars.

And then I started writing for things like Mechanics Illustrated. But, when I was sixteen, I sold to the New Yorker, and then I thought I was really really a hotshot, because the New Yorker was considered the toughest of all markets.

High Times: You were doing this from your family’s upstate New York farm?

Keel: Yeah. And it was my way of getting away from the farm. I was going to write my way out.

High Times: What did your family think of it?

Keel: They hated the whole idea. They wanted me to be a farmer, like them.

High Times: So when did you finally leave the farm?

Keel: When I was seventeen. I came to New York with seventy-five cents. It was four hundred miles. I hitchhiked to New York. It took two days. I slept on park benches and all that. In those days it was much different. The Village was much different than it is now. It was very easy to meet people; within a very short time I knew everybody in the Village. I was the editor of a poetry magazine down there. Then I started a newspaper called Limelight, a weekly tabloid about Village artists and writers.

High Times: Had you written for the pulp magazines?

Keel: I had written a lot of stuff for the pulps. I used to write by the pound. I’d write detective stories and science-fiction stories. I sold a lot of science fiction in those days, all when I was eighteen, twenty years old. The comic books then were booming—what happened to the comic books was that an idiot psychiatrist, Dr. Frederick Werthem, came out with an article in an obscure magazine, saying comic books were bad for children, that Batman and Robin were homosexuals… All this bullshit! And he ruined the comic-book business. Overnight this article got an enormous amount of publicity, and overnight they had to change all the comic books, and so, they… for years afterwards, you couldn’t buy anything except Donald Duck and Archie.

At that time, television was coming in. I worked in television. WABD, down at Wanamaker’s Store, down on Astor Place. And everybody worked for nothing in television. The cameramen, the directors, everybody was working for nothing, just to get started in it. And I was writing all kinds of stupid shows. They had really dumb shows in those days because they had no money. Their biggest expense, their big deal for production, would be to release balloons, and we were going crazy trying to think of ways to use balloons because they were cheap.

High Times: Then you got drafted?

Keel: I got drafted in ’51, the Korean War broke out.

High Times: Where were you sent?

Keel: They sent me to Europe, but first they sent me to Indiantowngap, Pennsylvania, because every day they would tell us that the hills there were just like the hills in Korea. And they had us running up and down these hills, playing soldier. The army was a charming thing in those days. All of our officers, most of them, were Southerners, and most of the guys that I was drafted with were from the North and most of them were black, and after we finished basic training they sent all the black guys to Korea and all the white guys to Europe. And this was an army policy, and the Korean War was fought largely by black guys—talk about racial prejudice carried to an extreme.

High Times: What did you do in the army? Didn’t you get into Intelligence or something? Propaganda?

Keel: Well, they told us how terrible it was going to be in Europe, that we would live in tents and that we would travel in these cattle cars to our destinations, and so on. So they shipped me to Frankfurt. I had no idea where I was going. They just had numbers on my orders. I didn’t know. We got off the train, and all these other G.I.s that were with us… I was with another guy, a friend of mine who went through basic with me, and all of the other G.I.s were being loaded into trucks and we were looking around—Where’s our truck? A limousine pulled up and this German driver gets out and he’s dressed like a Nazi storm trooper, and he calls out our names, and we get into the limousine and all these other people are getting into trucks, and he started driving through the night in Frankfurt, Germany, and we asked him, “Are we going to live in a tent?” And he said, “No, you’ll live in a castle,” and he drove us to this castle outside of Frankfurt, and that was a radio station, the American Forces Network, and we lived in a castle.

High Times: You were working for the Armed Forces Radio?

Keel: Yeah. It turned out it was the biggest radio network in the world. They had stations all over Europe, and within a year’s time I was the chief of continuity and production. I was the head of the whole production setup for the whole network. It took me about a year to work my way up to that position, mainly because nobody else knew anything about anything, and I was the only one that had any experience, and, you know, from writing Superman

And then I wrote my own way. I dreamed up assignments for myself and sent myself all over Europe. I produced the soldiers’ singing contest all over Europe. I went all over France and all over Holland and so on, finding singers in the army to record them for the radio program, and when there were disasters, like in the Po Valley in Italy, I would fly down and cover the disaster.

Then on Halloween in 1952 I dreamed up a radio show from inside Frankenstein’s castle. There really is a Frankenstein castle there, and it was a huge success. It scared the hell out of everybody, and the British newspapers wrote it up, Time magazine wrote it up, and they were comparing me to Orson Welles, and so the next year, in ’53, I had to top myself when Halloween rolled around. I suggested to the colonel who was in charge of the network that he send me to Egypt and I’d do a broadcast from the Great Pyramid, and he said, “Sure,” and they sent me and a whole team down to Egypt and we did a broadcast from inside the pyramid. I spent about eight or ten hours inside the Great Pyramid.

High Times: What happened when you came back?

Keel: I took my discharge in Europe. I decided that I would like to go and live in Egypt for a while. And then from there I worked my way around the world.

High Times: When did you start writing magazine articles?

Keel: Well, while I was still with the army.

I have six scrapbooks at home filled with clippings from Stars & Stripes. They would write me up every week because I was the only one that was doing anything. They would carry all of these John Keel stories, and pictures of me—I was a celebrity there. And I remember going into a nightclub in Berlin and they turned the spotlight on my table. Had me stand up.

High Times: When did you write Jadoo? How did that come about?

Keel: Well, first I did all of the traveling in India and so on. And then when I got to Singapore the British threw me out of Singapore. I ended up broke in Singapore. They called me an adventurer and threw me out. They made me take the first ship out which was going all of the way back to Europe. A Swedish boat—forty days to get back to Europe.

High Times: You describe some incredible adventures in Jadoo. The time you woke up in a brothel in Iraq and saw a prostitute disemboweled by her brother!

Keel: Yeah, well, I guess they still do it. If a woman becomes a prostitute she disgraces her whole family. And if the family catches up with her they’ll kill her. The brothers will kill her. I saw that happen to one girl.

High Times: There are some great things in that book. Your meeting with Ali Baba.

Keel: He was later killed by the Iraqi army. He was a bandit who lived in the desert. He made the mistake of killing a jeep full of tourists. If he had killed a jeep full of Arabs they wouldn’t have cared. But, my God. He was interfering with the tourist business. And it was a group of American tourists. That made it even worse. And so, about a year after I had spent some time with him the Iraqi army tracked him down and they killed him and his entire band.

High Times: Was it in Iraq that you visited that community of devil worshipers?

Keel: Yeah, the Izedi tribe in Iraq. I think they have been wiped out too. It was a tribe of primitive people in northern Iraq who believed that God was good so you didn’t have to worry about him. But, the Devil was bad and you had better appease him at any cost. And so they sort of worshiped the Devil. “Don’t bother us, Devil, because we think you’re the greatest.” And I spent some time with them. They had little ceremonies that were kind of weird. But it wasn’t anything like you’d see with the people practicing black magic in other parts of the world. It was just sort of a harmless form of religion.

High Times: Weren’t you buried alive in India?

Keel: For just a few minutes. That was a very unhappy experience. They didn’t use a coffin or anything. You would lie on the ground and they would put a board on top of you and cover you with dirt. Very porous dirt there. And some of these fakirs can be buried for days at a time. Because you can breath through the soil, especially if there is a shallow grave. But the claustrophobic feeling is awesome.

And I did all these things so that I could be photographed doing them. And then when I got the pictures I could sell articles from them. I have photographs of all of this stuff. I photographed people eating snakes alive, and doing all kinds of weird things. There were groups of people in India that used to walk down the street beating themselves with whips. Strange things.

High Times: How old were you then?

Keel: I was twenty-four or twenty-five years old.

High Times: And you were just making a buck? Would it be wrong if we said you were a hustler?

Keel: No. I wasn’t… If I had hustled I would have made more money than I did. Because I was broke most of the time. Most of the time I was waiting for checks from my agent. What I thought I was doing then was building a career. And because things were so fragile—one should become famous for doing something like that. You’ve got to keep on doing it. If you are going to climb the tallest building in Chicago, then you’ve got to climb the tallest building in Los Angeles and the tallest building in New York and it doesn’t matter if you can do card tricks too. They don’t want to see the card tricks. They want to see you climb buildings. And so, with me, I was constantly searching for…

High Times: …new buildings to climb.

Looking back, do you think you were then more of an adventurous person?

Keel: I was at that time. I was willing to take chances that I wouldn’t take today. I did things and went places that I wouldn’t think of doing now. And you know, I was never in very robust health. So I did a lot of things in spite of my physical condition. I climbed mountains, mostly because they were in the way. I was trying to get over them. I did a lot of things just because it was necessary at that time to do them. I suppose I had the soul of a hustler. But I didn’t have the kind of response that a hustler would get. I was not hustling per se. I was trying to go from point A to point B. And if there was a village of snake charmers in between, then I was spending time with the snake charmers.

High Times: Didn’t you become a celebrity in the places you were?

Keel: Yes. In India the newspapers gave me enormous coverage.

For some reason they loved Robert Ripley of Believe It or Not in India. He must have been a big tipper. And the newspapers decided that I was another Robert Ripley. They followed me around and they were always calling me the “new Robert Ripley.” Well, that helped me enormously.

High Times: Tell us about the Indian rope trick. That was a big stunt you exposed in Jadoo.

Keel: Basically, you know, the trick is that the rope climbs into the air and the boy climbs up the rope and the magician tells the boy to come down and the boy says, “No.” And the magician climbs up the rope and then pieces of the boy start falling down to the ground. Then the magician climbs down the rope, he gathers up these pieces and puts them in a basket and the boy jumps out whole. And that’s the Indian rope trick. In a nutshell. There are about ten different ways of doing it.

High Times: Yeah, but then you attempted to do it?

Keel: Well, then I attempted to do it and I attempted to do it on a very small scale. I invited all of the newspaper men in New Delhi to come and see this thing. And everything went crazy. The string broke… So the newspapers gave me enormous publicity, and I would say that most of them were very kind about it. And I have all of those clippings still somewhere in my boxes at home.

High Times: It was a fiasco!

Keel: It was a total fiasco.

High Times: The rope went up about three feet. How was the trick usually done?

Keel: Well, it’s a secret. Read Jadoo.

High Times: It’s out of print, John.

Keel: Well, you have to go to a rare-book dealer and cough up forty or fifty dollars and he’ll find you a copy of the book.

High Times: So, in essence, a lot of these things that you were doing was going around debunking this primitive magic.

Keel: Yes. Mostly debunking.

High Times: But, on the other hand, there were authentic miracles, like the tricks the Tibetan lamas did.

Keel: Yeah. I saw a lot of weird things up there. There was a monastery in Tibet where the lamas were studying certain disciplines and they’d go naked through the snow. Bitter cold. And they seemed to have such control over their bodies. There was one discipline where they learned to run very very fast… hard to explain to an outsider. But, they become messengers. They can travel like the wind, practically. And they did levitation.

High Times: You actually saw levitation?

Keel: I saw a levitation. There was just a man sitting cross-legged in the air. And this is a lot more common than Westerners believe. And I suspected magic tricks at the time but there doesn’t seem to be any way to do it. He had one hand on a stick, keeping his balance on the stick. But I think if he could do it mechanically it would be beyond the means of the Tibetans. I know that other people photographed it. I couldn’t, because by then I was broke and I had to sell my camera.

Yeah, there are all kinds of amazing things. I saw one man who could gradually pull his eyeballs all the way out. They’d just hang down his face. They will do these things just as a trick to beg. There was one man that could hang enormous weights from his genitals. This was the way he made his living. He had this thing rigged up and it was like a bag and he’d fill it with stones. And tie it to his genitals. And pick up this bag that weighed fifty or seventy-five pounds. And everyone said, “Wow.” And they’d give him money.

High Times: And you sold your cameras?!

Keel: Well, yeah, then… you have a man standing on one leg for thirty years. And people will give him money for standing on one leg.

High Times: What was the heaviest thing you saw in your travels?

Keel: Well, the thing that will shake you the most—to see that millions of people are suffering. People living on the streets in Calcutta, dying on the streets of Calcutta. People living in the kind of poverty you can’t imagine. I remember in one village almost crying over the state of these people and knowing that I could leave the village and I might be in New York or Chicago the next month. But these people were there all of their lives. I was in a village in the desert and they had a little muddy hole in the ground. It was their well, the village well, and the chief of the village said, “Did you ever see such water in your whole life? Have you ever seen so much water and such great water?” And I had to drink some of it and it was like drinking urine. For them this was the center of their whole life. That stupid well. These were the things that shook me up the most.

There were other things, like walking through the jungle in India, they call it the “bush.” And I saw this huge thing that I thought was an anthill. You see these big anthills. And as I got right up to it and turned around—it was an elephant. The elephants move with total silence through the jungle. I don’t know how they do it, but they don’t snap any twigs or rustle the leaves. They just sort of glide through, and fortunately this was a peaceful elephant. But sometimes they can be rather nasty. The Indians call them the “elephant people.” They are almost human. They are so intelligent.

You know, I have seen the ants on the march. You lie awake at night and it sounds like it’s raining out. It isn’t raining—it’s the ants. Eating as they go along. Eating everything in their path. And they are huge vicious ants.

High Times: How did Jadoo do?

Keel: It did pretty well. The publisher was a very aggressive publisher. They promoted the hell out of it. There was a period in 1957-’58 you couldn’t pick up a newspaper without seeing a picture of John Keel—charming cobras and doing all of this other stuff.

High Times: Didn’t they have you in a window?

Keel: I was in a window—of a pet shop, near Times Square. Every day at three o’clock I’d get in the window and charm my cobras. I brought three cobras back from India. And two boa constrictors.

High Times: Were they defanged?

Keel: No. They die if you do that.

High Times: They were cobras that were actually dangerous?

Keel: The window was only about six-feet square, so there wasn’t much room for me to move around in. And the snake, of course, was always trying to get at you. That’s why… you really can’t charm a cobra. He’s just biding his time, waiting to strike at you.

High Times: Well, how the hell do you—

Keel: You have to learn how to do it.

High Times: That’s what I’m asking. How do you keep the guy from getting you?

Keel: Well, you learn from his actions when he’s about to strike. And he’s not going to strike until you are within range. He’ll strike at a distance of about one-third of the length of his body. So, if he’s six-feet long he can strike about two feet. And you have to be two and a half feet away, and when you’re in a window that’s only six-feet square… and huge crowds used to gather every day and watch this stupid kid get in the window. And I had the flute and all of the equipment and the snake was in the basket.

High Times: It wasn’t just bullshit?

Keel: Yeah. You are moving your hands back and forth with the flute. And the snake is following the movement of your hands. If you stop moving the snake strikes. And, well, I had a whole act I worked out. So that the people outside that were watching were terrified, because a cobra is a very awesome thing when you see it alive in front of you.

After I would do this, I would go home and I’d fall apart. While I was doing it I was perfectly calm and I could do it. And I would get home and suddenly—blah! Crazy time.

High Times: How did you get the snakes in the country?

Keel: Packed them in a box marked cobras. At five o’clock one morning the airport phoned me and said, “We’ve got a box here that says it’s full of snakes and we want you to come out here and get it.” And I said, “Well, suppose it’s full of diamonds.” And he says, “It says they are poisonous snakes. And we believe it.” And so I had to run out to the airport and pick this box up.

High Times: Did you buy them in India?

Keel: Yes.

High Times: How much were they?

Keel: They were cheap. Like three dollars apiece. This guy I knew used to go out and collect them and sell them to zoos. And he made very little money.

High Times: Are they smart?

Keel: No. They have no personalities. They live entirely by instinct. A snake is totally devoid of intelligence or personality.

High Times: You started your research into flying saucers when you did a Playboy article about a UFO flap in your hometown in 1965. Before you went up to Buffalo to investigate during the flap, were you at all interested in flying saucers?

Keel: Oh, sure, I’d been interested in it since I was a kid, because I had read Charles Fort then, and so I was one of the few people who attended the first flying-saucer convention in 1948. They had a convention on Fourteenth Street here in New York, and there were about thirty people there, and I remember it rather well. I can’t remember who staged the damn thing, but I do remember that everybody was shouting at everybody else. It was a screaming match, but even in 1948 they’d all decided that the government was withholding information about the flying saucers and that something should be done about the air force.

So in 1952, when I was with AFM in Germany, I did a radio program about flying saucers and it was very well received and it got mail from all over about that, people in Europe testifying to what they had seen themselves. There were a lot of sightings in 1952 everywhere in the world, especially in Europe.

High Times: How much of an influence did Fort have in shaping your ideas?

Keel: Oh, I’m sure he had an enormous influence, because Charles Fort didn’t just write a lot about flying saucers. He wrote about all sorts of unusual things. The biggest influence of my childhood would be the various books about Harry Houdini though… I was more interested in magic than I was in Fortian things. I wanted to be a stage magician. Of course, there was no way to make a living in magic anymore.

High Times: So you wrote this article for Playboy.

Keel: And I wrote a lot of other articles too. I did an article for True magazine on flying saucers, and after the issue came out I went up to the editorial offices and the editor showed me three or four big bags. He said, “This is the mail that’s come in on your article, you want to take it home with you?” Eighteen thousand letters from one article, and today, of course, you get three letters from an article like that, but this was at the height of the UFO thing in 1967. We just read samplings of those letters, but most of those people have stories of their own, really unusual contacts or missing time. Really bizarre things. I’m sorry that I had no way of preserving those eighteen thousand letters.

High Times: So you went to Buffalo. When you first started investigating and actually doing work in the field, on UFOs and contactees and everything, you went in there with the theory that they were extraterrestrial?

Keel: Well, I went in there with a belief, not a theory. I accepted the extraterrestrial belief because everybody else accepted it.

High Times: Which you’ve known about since like ’48.

Keel: The extraterrestrial explanation was a belief that sprang out when everybody reasoned that since the UFOs don’t belong to the Russians or to the United States, they have to come from Mars or Venus or something like that.

High Times: But they were seen as spacecraft, machines.

Keel: They’re always called spacecraft, even today. You pick up the UFO fan magazines and they’re always talking about the craft, and what people are mostly seeing are lights, not objects. The solid objects are very rare, and when you really investigate those cases they fall apart.

I had a friend who saw objects and photographed them and what had turned out on the photographs was entirely different from what he saw, which often happens with the UFO thing. But he had seen these huge things rising up out of fields and so on, and a lot of other people saw the same things.

High Times: What have you seen?

Keel: I’ve seen a lot of the lights in the sky, a lot of them. I’ve seen—I’ve lost count—I’ve seen maybe fifty or seventy-five of these; they’re very special lights. If you see one, you know how different they are from any other light. But once you’ve seen these lights, you know that it can’t be a star or any other thing that’s in the sky. It’s a special kind of light that there’s no way to describe. People usually try to describe it as a diamondlike light, but it’s a very special kind of thing. The strobe lights on airplanes don’t come close.

When I first got into this, I used to drive out to the airport at night and sit there and watch the planes entering and leaving and I became familiar with every kind of light that the airplanes carry, just for that reason, so I would be able to recognize, but then when I was down in West Virginia, in those days, in the ’60s, these objects were flying like an airline on a regular schedule, and they’d say, “Well, if you want to see a flying saucer, come out at eight o’clock on Wednesday night, they go over every week at that time.” And you would go out at eight o’clock on Wednesday night and there would go one of these strange lights, and sometimes they seemed to be very low in the sky. One night we tried to chase them with a private airplane. We couldn’t chase them because they would just take off, zip, like that, and be gone, and we tried all sorts of ways of finding out something about them, but—

High Times: Did you ever see any other physical evidence, like burnt ground?

Keel: Oh, yeah, we’ve had things like rings, but in earlier times they used to call them fairy rings. These are circles in the fields that sometimes are burnt, sometimes the grass is just knocked down, pressed down like something round has landed there. The weirdest thing was in Ohio—a lovely dog, a farm dog, had been crushed to death in the center of one of these circles, and the local veterinarian said that every bone in the dog’s body had been crushed. It was like some very heavy thing had landed on this dog, this poor dog in the field, and that there was a circle of crushed grass around it.

High Times: First animal mutilation.

Keel: Well, there were a lot of animal mutilations in those days in Ohio and West Virginia, and I was checking those as sort of an extra added thing. They seemed to be related to the UFOs but I couldn’t figure out how. There was one case where a cow in Ohio had been cut in half, like a big pair of scissors had just cut it right in half, and I couldn’t figure out—suppose you wanted to do that to a cow, how would you do it? I mean, you’d have to build a huge buzz saw or something and run it through the buzz saw, and the cut was absolutely clean and there was no blood oozing. There should have been a lot of blood from something like that, but there was no blood.

And about four years ago a man in Mexico turned up in the same unfortunate condition. Some people were driving on a highway in Mexico and something hit their car. They stopped the car and it was one half of a man’s body, and then some distance away they found the other half and the body had been cut right in half and they don’t know what happened to him. He was an elderly man. They don’t know what happened to him and how it happened, but it’s pretty scary that these things happen at all.

I also remember some people that I knew in West Virginia who had a little puppy, you know, a lovable little puppy like puppies are, and they let it out one night and as soon as it went out the door it let out a little yelp and they went outside and the dog was lying dead and there was a little cut in his body and the heart had been removed, and this is in like a matter of a minute or two minutes that they let him out, and I examined the body of this dog and I don’t know how the hell they did it. Somebody or something made a cut, a little cut, and reached in and removed the heart, and all in the space of a few seconds. There’s no animal that would do that. You try to blame owls or whatever. No way.

We don’t know what happened to that poor little puppy. There are a lot of dog disappearances during UFOs. Many dogs disappear. Often the dog will go running out of the house yelling and barking at something in the field and the people will see something in the field, and the dog will never come back and it’s a mystery what happens to these dogs.

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