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The Mysterious Case of the Flatwoods Monster

Some cases within the world of cryptozoology, UFOlogy, and the paranormal have managed to become almost legendary in their fields. These are the rockstar cases that seem to have defied all attempts to dispute or debunk them, refusing to die and managing to live on and even transcend mere eyewitness reports to become legendary. One such case that is as well known and persistent as it is mysterious is that of a very strange creature that appeared one evening in a small U.S. town amid stories of a UFO landing, and would go on to catapult itself into the annals of great cases of the paranormal.

The setting for this very bizarre tale is the small rural town of Flatwoods in Braxton County, West Virginia. It is a quiet town pretty much in the middle of nowhere, where everyone knows each other and not much typically happens, but on September 12, 1952, all that would change, and the peace would be disrupted by a world changing event for them. On this evening, at around 7:15 PM, brothers Edward and Fred May were outside playing a friendly game of football when they were surprised to see what looked like a pulsating, blazing ball of fire go streaking across the sky to come down and seemingly crash in some hilly woods at a nearby farm owned by a G. Bailey Fisher.

Not quite believing what they had just witnessed, the excited boys ran to the house of a neighbor named Kathleen May, to whom they breathlessly told of what they had seen. May gathered up a flashlight and called together a group of people composed of local children Neil Nunley and Ronnie Shaver, as well as 17-year-old West Virginia National Guardsman Eugene Lemon, to go investigate the area where the strange ball of fire had gone down, along with Lemon’s dog. As they followed the beam of the flashlight out into the night past the dancing, flickering trees they still had no idea what they were dealing with or what to expect out there, and there was a sense of apprehension and even fear as they stumbled along up a hill on the farm. Little did they know that things were about to get very bizarre indeed.

When they reached the top of the wooded hill they could see through the trees what seemed to be a pulsating red light, and they were overcome by a sudden, nauseating metallic stench that they would later describe as a “pungent mist.” In the meantime, the dog snarled and barked before retreating with its tail between its legs, leaving them stabbing about in the darkness with the flashlight beam, searching for whatever it was that had chased the animal away. As they peered through the darkness trying to make out just what the light ahead was and what lie out there in the gloom, they could see glinting in the light of the flashlight what looked like the shining eyes of some nocturnal animal, but it soon became apparent that this was no animal any of them had ever seen before.

The mysterious eyes seemed to be set within a massive humanoid figure standing around 10 feet tall, with a round, fiery red face with glowing yellow eyes set within it, framed in some sort of hood or cowl shaped like “the ace of spades” embedded with flickering lights, and possessing small clawed hands, and a dark green, possibly black cylindrical body with what appeared to be folds upon it like some sort of draped fabric or molded metal, the whole of which was wreathed in some mist or fog. None of them got much of a chance to examine it for too long, because after a few moments whatever the entity was emitted “something between a hiss and a high-pitched squeal,” and then glided right towards them with a “thumping, throbbing noise” to send the terrified witnesses running for their lives down the hill, dropping the flashlight in the process to send them into near total darkness. Upon returning home they would all experience severe nausea, swelling of the throat, and even convulsions, compared with the symptoms of mustard gas by the doctor who examined them.

The next day, local law enforcement checked out the site of the purported incident, but were unable to find any corroborating evidence for anything the group said they had seen. There was no trace of any pulsing light, no sign of the creature or its odiferous stench, and nothing at all to suggest anything out of the ordinary. That was the official consensus, but of course word got out and it was not long at all before the media was stoking the fires of UFO rumors by claiming that signs of a landing, such as “skid marks” and an “odd, gummy deposit,” as well as strange pieces of a plastic like material, had been found at the scene by a reporter named A. Lee Stewart, Jr., and it was also discovered that numerous people in the area had also seen an object streak across the sky on the night in question. The case took off as a real UFO landing, and the media went with it, splashing it all over newspapers as various UFO enthusiasts and paranormal investigators descended on the area as well, including esteemed Fortean writers Gray Barker, Ivan T. Sanderson, and John Keel arriving to investigate.

Various strange accounts began to come out of the woodwork at the time, such as one woman who claimed to have seen the same monster that had been described just a few weeks before, and another witness who said that her house had reverberated and been shaken by some mysterious force on the night in question. Another report came from a couple who claimed that just hours after the original sighting they had been driving down the highway when they had noticed a horrible metallic smell and been assaulted with what felt like an electrical charge, before witnessing an otherworldly reptilian creature float across the road in front of them.

There were other odd accounts as well. Mrs. May would claim that the day after the incident she had been approached at her home by two mysterious men who said they were reporters and had asked to be shown the site, after which they would emerge from the trees with strange oily stains on their clothes. In later years even more strange accounts would surface, such as a commander of the West Virginia National Guard named Captain Dale Leavitt, who in the 1990s would say that he had examined the area with 50 Air Force personnel after the “crash” and find an oily substance and a mysterious “6m circle of depressed grass.”

There would also turn out to have been numerous other sightings of UFOs on the night of September 12 across several states. Indeed, in an account compiled by investigator Frank Feschino, Jr. in 2004, there would be hundreds of reports of unidentified flying objects and landings reported on from the same night as the incident. Adding to all of this were the odd physical symptoms reported by the witnesses and their doctors, as well as the subsequent strange death of the dog who had been with them, which allegedly began vomiting uncontrollably and dropped dead for no clear reason. All things told, the weird incident sparked UFOmania in the small rural town, and many were convinced that what had been seen was an actual alien spacecraft landing and its unearthly occupant. Indeed, Ivan T. Sanderson was sure that this was the case, and that the numerous other UFO reports from the same time frame implied perhaps a whole fleet of the objects passing the area.

In the years after the Flatwoods encounter the original witnesses would stick by their story, insisting on what they had seen, and it became one of the most famous alien encounters in the annals of the paranormal. So what was it they saw out there? What was that light, the noxious odor, and indeed that looming, glowing eyed beast? What connection did this have to the lights that so many people saw shooting across the sky on that same exact evening? Just what is going on with the case of the Flatwoods Monster? That depends a lot on who you ask.

A very persuasive skeptical argument is that the whole mysterious event is the result of a unique convergence of a mixture of misidentification and coincidence. In this theory the light, or lights as the case is often described, was perhaps a meteor, which was mistakenly thought to have crashed behind that wooded hill by the witnesses. There were indeed many people who reported the light seen as not a UFO, but as a meteor, so perhaps the witnesses saw this celestial event and jumped to a different conclusion. They then warily went up that dark hill in a state of fear, the atmosphere made more ominous by a blanket of fog that was covering the area at the time. In this state of dread, they saw one of the three aircraft warning hazard beacons in the area visible from that hill, and considering the meteor they had seen mistook it for a UFO.

But what about the horrible monster they saw, you ask? The skeptical take on it is that this was no monster at all, but rather a large barn owl perched atop a high branch. In the murky darkness, with fear pervading the air and low visibility and that sinister light visible through the trees, the witnesses misidentified the owl and its perch as being part of a single entity. The owl, just as startled as the witnesses, had then flown off past them into the night, letting out one of the bird’s distinctive shrill cries in the process. In their panic and surprise, the witnesses had mistaken it for an alien entity flying towards them, sending them running. Many of the features of a barn owl match up with the description of the creature, and looking at artistic representations comparing the monster and an owl it is easy to see the similarities, especially considering that they had only seen it fleetingly for a few moments in dim lighting before fleeing in terror.

This all seems to make sense so far, but then we are left to ask just what about the other evidence found, such as the oily residue and the strange track marks? Some have pointed out that these tracks could have been caused by a tractor that was in the area at around the time of the sighting, the oil perhaps leaking from it, or even from the truck of a local man who had gone driving through hoping to see the creature. The foul odor had been suggested as being exuded by a type of grass native to the area with a distinctive smell. And the negative physical symptoms are claimed by skeptics to have been simply caused by deep fear and over exertion. Skeptic Joe Nickell wrote a whole deconstruction of the case for the Skeptical Enquirer, which you can read here, and it is so convincing that even many paranormal researchers and UFOlogists have conceded that this is probably what actually happened.

Joe Nickell’s sketch comparing a barn owl and the alleged “monster”

It certainly seems to be open and shut when looking at all of the clues and evidence that this may have just been one big misunderstanding seen through the lens of anxiety and fear, later sensationalized by the media and embellished with countless books and articles in the lore of the paranormal. Yet there are many who think that the case is far from solved, pointing out that there are still aspects that don’t fit in neatly with the skeptical theory, such as the pulsing quality of the “meteor” and the fact that a whole group of people saw the creature and maintained that it was no owl.

Whatever the answer may be, whether this was some alien entity or the product of misidentification and overactive imaginations, the tale of the Flatwoods Monster still gets plenty of play in paranormal circles, and is still talked about and debated to this day. It has become such a legendary case that the town of Flatwoods has a museum dedicated to the creature and an annual weekend festival to commemorate it called “Flatwoods Days,” which features live music, and food and craft vendors. There is even a sign on the road leading into town that reads “Welcome to Flatwoods / Home of the Green Monster,” so it seems that whatever the Flatwoods Monster was or wherever it went, it has been ingrained in the town’s culture and in the world of Forteana, and in a sense is here to stay.