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The Flatwoods Incident: Decades Later, Critical Examination Continues

On September 12, 1952, what is recognized as one of the strangest incidents involving an alleged close encounter with an exotic presence occurred near the small town of Flatwoods, in Braxton County, West Virginia. The story of this object or entity, which was observed at the time by several area locals, remains one that defies simple classification, whether or not its subject was indeed otherworldly. 

The story has been widely retold in popular books and magazines over the years. Some attribute the case to having been an alien “monster” surveying a hilltop after its spacecraft landed nearby, while others suppose some kind of unusual “cryptid” animal had manifested, only to vanish as mysteriously as it appeared, retreating back into that aether that conveniently swallows so many of the purported haunts of the twilight realm. On the skeptical side of things, some have argued that the Flatwoods locals had merely been spooked by an owl, whose large eyes reflected the beams of their flashlights as they pursued a meteor streaking through the sky. 

To briefly summarize that well-worn fable here, on the evening of September 12, 1952, young Fred and Eddie May, along with Tommy Hyer, a neighbor of the May family, were playing together in a field when they observed some brightly-lit object moving through the sky some distance ahead of them. Near a wooded hilltop on the land of farmer G.B. Fisher, the glowing object seemed to descend toward the ground, prompting the trio to make haste back to the May’s home, where the boys convinced Mrs May to head with them toward the apparent landing area (at the time, the children expressed that they had been told in school that meteorites may be of value, and hence their primary interest with regard to investigating the area). Kathleen May began to lead the boys in the direction that the object had been seen, and were soon accompanied by local boys Neil Nunley, Robbie Shaver, and Gene Lemon, who at the time was a teenage member of the West Virginia National Guard.

As the party reached the area where the object appeared to have landed, the group noted the presence of a strange mist, accompanied by a “sickening, burnt, metallic odor” which burned their nostrils, and purportedly lasted for several days afterward at the primary site. As Lemon led the group into the forested area, a small dog that had joined them ran into a pocket of the low-lying mist, and apparently ran back down the hill again; upon returning later that night, the dog was found to have vomited, and subsequently died once it returned.

Shortly after entering the forest, Lemon and the others reported seeing a pair of lights, which were high enough that they appeared to be in a tree. Believing that these had belonged to a raccoon or an opossum, Lemon shown his flashlight at the illuminations, which revealed what was later described as a “ten foot monster” with a blood red face, and a green body which seemed to glow as it began moving toward the group “with a bounding motion.”

Mrs. Lemon was said to have fallen backwards, and as the group made haste to leave the area, several of the group were said to have fainted or vomited upon returning home. At that time, Mrs. May called Sheriff Robert Carr, and A.L. Stewart, one of the owners of the area newspaper, the Braxton Democrat (the latter being a point which, among the more hardened skeptical commentators, would seem to denote a desire for attention-getting, rather than merely a police investigation, though arguably, many would interpret this differently in such a small community as Flatwoods).

flatwoods_newspaper

Both the police investigators, as well as Stewart and Lemon who returned to the location later that night, reported the unusual smell, but no further evidence of any object in the area had been present. The following day, further investigation did reveal tracks in the mud, though it was believed this was likely to have been from a vehicle that another local man drove to the spot earlier that day while observing the purported landing site.

In the minds of many, this strange series of events would be all there ever was to the Flatwoods incident, which obviously leaves much to the imagination. The descriptions given by the various witnesses, many of them young boys, seemed to indicate something mechanical in nature, rather than being some variety of beast or monster. One local man, Bailey Frame, had purportedly watched a light on the same evening in question, which he observed for 15 minutes before it eventually took off “like a rocket.” However, a subsequent interview with Frame by independent investigator Gray Barker (also an occasional prankster, as noted by Fortean researcher John Keel) yielded no admission from Frame that such an observation had ever occurred.

Gray Barker

Gray Barker

Barker further claimed, however, that two other witnesses he had interviewed, Junior Edward and Joey Martin, had visited the site within a half hour of the initial terror that Kathleen May, Gene Lemon, and the others experienced, only to find a quiet, empty forest (and, strangely, no peculiar odors, which Steward and Lemon nonetheless claimed to have detected when visiting a short time afterward).

Interestingly, records indicate that at around 7:00 PM ET on the evening in question, a “slow-moving reddish fireball was tracked over Baltimore, MD, traveling northeast to southwest, and ultimately passing over West Virginia.” Ivan Sanderson had noted this, in fact, and many believe that this object, and the one seen over Flatwoods, West Virginia, had been one and the same. Granted, Sanderson had noted that there were numerous separate reports of glowing fireballs seen that evening, which might have actually qualified for being constituents of the Piscid meteor showers that occur annually around early September. Incidentally, the Harvard Meteor Project began that same year, which had undertaken the most ambitious photographic study of the Piscid meteors to-date.

Other observations of the purported “craft” on the evening of September 12, 1952, seemed less easily explained as meteors streaking through the sky. A farmer on an adjacent hill several miles away, as noted by Sanderson, had claimed to observe a brightly lit spot on the hill where G.B. Fisher’s property was located for an extended period. The witness explained to Sanderson that he had been concerned that a wildfire had occurred, and watched for several minutes using a pair of binoculars until the illuminated area on the hillside vanished into a single point of light.

While conflicting descriptions of the illuminations observed on that evening may lend to speculation about the purported UFOs that were being seen, what are we to make of the actual “monster” that had been witnessed? Buzz Brandt, in his lengthy article on the subject for Magonia Magazine, noted that, “Even rabid UFO crusader Donald Keyhoe ascribed the glowing eyes to those of an owl perched on the limb, while the underbrush and vegetation were transfigured into the shape of the creature (this accounts for the green coloration and the torso disappearing at the ‘waist’). The excited witnesses imagined the rest.” Indeed, it had been suggested by the witnesses themselves that the initial bright lights they had observed resembled the reflections of light against a raccoon or opossum’s eyes; the question is whether, upon illuminating the creature’s face, any simple forest beast—be it avian, marsupial, or otherwise—would have lent itself so easily to the often-asserted “imaginings” that sent the group running in terror. And what is to be made of the intermittent scent of burning metal, which some recalled smelling, while others did not?

A number of the explanations offered for this case over the years border on being so simple in their prosaicness, that they nearly strain credulity themselves; such is often the case with skeptical interpretations of UFO incidents (i.e. a meteor was observed by several witnesses untrained in astronomy, after which the reflection of light against an owl’s eyes caused them to believe a Frankenstein-like monster was chasing them). In equal measure, we must note that the principal investigators on the end of UFO advocacy, namely Barker and Sanderson, had been replete with their own varieties of issues: while Barker had been ousted by Keel and others as a hoaxer, Sanderson had been similarly ridiculed (despite an impressive, and at times exhaustive body of work he authored over the years) for occasional logical failings of his own: consider the time he suggested that giant, three-toed footprints found along a beach had been evidence of an undiscovered species of “gigantic penguin”. The prints were later found to have been a hoax, of course, and a clumsy one at that.

On the discussion of the object having been a meteor, it is worth noting that the May children and their companion, Tommy Hyer, had explained subsequently to Ivan Sanderson that they actually had presumed the object was a meteor initially, which had been what inspired them to go searching for it in the first place. The fact that they later interpreted they circumstances much differently does not prove that the experience had been otherworldly; however, it does cause us to question the oft-asserted notion that the Flatwoods residents possessed no knowledge of even simple backyard astronomy. If anything, these children may never have proceeded to the supposed “landing site” at all, had they possessed no knowledge or interest in meteors streaking through the sky.

Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern

To consider things from a different view, in recent years my fellow MU blogger Nick Redfern has proposed there may be parallels between various descriptions of the Flatwoods monster (inconsistent though they may be from one to the next), and a declassified RAND Corporation file containing a document which divulged various implements of psychological warfare. Apparently during the Second World War, British Army officials devised a scheme that would involve the creation of a 12-foot tall “scarecrow” that would emit various loud noises and other illuminated visual effects, which would confuse or frighten the enemy. In his book Nick Redfern’s Monster Files (2013, New Page Books), Nick makes associations between the description of the scarecrow in the RAND files and the Flatwoods “monster”, noting that the peculiar spade-shaped head of the latter matched separate documents which suggested the ace of spades might bear certain significance for use in psychological warfare due to bad omens associated with it.

This kind of circumstance could very well be a more plausible scenario underlying the Flatwoods enigma, though it is still difficult to make any direct associations between Flatwoods and psychological warfare projects the RAND Corporation file mentions. It is noteworthy, however, that around the same time, the CIA had begun its Project MK Ultra, in which members of the general public were unwittingly involved in various testing which, largely, had been deemed unethical. Congressional review of surviving files pertaining to the program in the 1970s (the majority of which had been destroyed) detailed a number of likely human rights violations, which certainly make it easier for one to accept the notion of covert psychological experiments having been carried out against the public in previous decades. MK Ultra was only officially sanctioned in 1953, although aspects of the program may have been underway even earlier; though incidental, the Flatwoods case does fall right within this general period. 

When reviewed carefully, the Flatwoods incident of 1952 presents us with a number of difficulties: the “easy” explanations of meteors and marsupials dangling from trees seem a bit too mundane, when compared with the reported sickness, fainting, and psychological effects incurred by the witnesses. On the other hand, the exploits of some of the investigators involved had done little to help lend credibility to the circumstances, and the general volatility and paranoia present during this period in American History certainly lends itself to speculation about what else could have been at play: whether that be overactive minds, or agencies seeking to explore what happened to those minds when influenced via covert methods.

At times, it becomes difficult to dismiss the Flatwoods case as simply being “a whole lot of something made from nothing.”  However, among the careful reevaluations of the case that have emerged over the years, one thing certainly appears to remain a consensus amidst the fray: whatever happened in September, 1952, in West Virginia likely had not been what was reported at the time… nor was it what various books that chronicled the event have led us to believe about the case since that time. It was probably much less than this, in fact, though perhaps still a case worthy of consideration as we cast a critical eye back on the Forteana of yesteryear.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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