Center for Inquiry
: Skeptical Inquirer magazine
: November/December 2000 : Buy this back issue
The Flatwoods UFO MonsterJoe Nickell
In modern police parlance a long-unsolved homicide or other crime may be known as a "cold case," a term we might borrow for such paranormal mysteries as that of the Flatwoods Monster, which was launched on September 12, 1952, and never completely explained.
About 7:15 p.m. on that day, at Flatwoods, a little village in the hills of West Virginia, some youngsters were playing football on the school playground. Suddenly they saw a fiery UFO streak across the sky and, apparently, land on a hilltop of the nearby Bailey Fisher farm. The youths ran to the home of Mrs. Kathleen May, who provided a flashlight and accompanied them up the hill. In addition to Mrs. May, a local beautician, the group included her two sons, Eddie 13, and Freddie 14, Neil Nunley 14, Gene Lemon 17, and Tommy Hyer and Ronnie Shaver, both 10, along with Lemon's dog.
There are myriad, often contradictory versions of what happened next, but UFO writer Gray Barker was soon on the scene and wrote an account for Fate magazine based on tape-recorded interviews. He found that the least emotional account was provided by Neil Nunley, one of two youths who were in the lead as the group hastened to the crest of the hill. Some distance ahead was a pulsing red light. Then, suddenly, Gene Lemon saw a pair of shining, animal-like eyes, and aimed the flashlight in their direction.
The light revealed a towering "man-like" figure with a round, red "face" surrounded by a "pointed, hood-like shape." The body was dark and seemingly colorless, but some would later say it was green, and Mrs. May reported drape-like folds. The monster was observed only momentarily, as suddenly it emitted a hissing sound and glided toward the group. Lemon responded by screaming and dropping his flashlight, whereupon everyone fled.
The group had noticed a pungent mist at the scene and afterward some were nauseated. A few locals, then later the sheriff and a deputy (who came from investigating a reported airplane crash), searched the site but "saw, heard and smelled nothing." The following day A. Lee Stewart, Jr., from the Braxton Democrat discovered "skid marks" in the roadside field, along with an "odd, gummy deposit" -- traces attributed to the landed "saucer" (Barker 1953).
In his article Barker (1953) noted that "numerous people in a 20-mile radius saw the illuminated objects in the sky at the same time," evidently seeing different objects or a single one "making a circuit of the area." Barker believed the Flatwoods incident was consistent with other reports of "flying saucers or similar craft" and that "such a vehicle landed on the hillside, either from necessity or to make observations." (At this time in UFOlogical history, the developing mythology had not yet involved alien "abductions.")
In addition to Barker's article and later his book (1956), accounts of the Flatwoods incident were related by another on-site investigator, paranormal writer Ivan T. Sanderson (1952, 1967), as well as the early UFOlogist Major Donald E. Keyhoe (1953). More recent accounts have garbled details, with Brookesmith (1995), for example, incorrectly reporting five of the children as belonging to Mrs. May, and Ritchie (1994) referring to the monster's hoodlike feature as a "halo," which he compared with those in Japanese Buddhist art. However, Jerome Clark's The UFO Encyclopedia (1998) has a generally factual, sensible account of the affair, appropriately termed "one of the most bizarre UFO encounters of all time."
The UFOOn June 1, 2000, while on a trip that took me through Flatwoods, I was able to stop off for an afternoon of on-site investigating. I was amused to be greeted by a sign announcing, "Welcome to / Flatwoods / Home of / the Green Monster." Although the village has no local library, I found something even better: a real-estate business, Country Properties, whose co-owners Betty Hallman and Laura Green generously photocopied articles for me and telephoned residents to set up interviews.
Johnny Lockard, 95, told me that virtually everyone who had seen the alleged flying saucer in 1952 recognized it for what it was: a meteor. He, his daughter Betty Jean, and her husband Bill Sumpter said that the fireball had been seen on a relatively horizontal trajectory in various states. In fact, according to a former local newspaper editor, "There is no doubt that a meteor of considerable proportion flashed across the heavens that Friday night since it was visible in at least three states -- Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia" (Byrne 1966). The meteor explanation contrasts with the fanciful notions of Sanderson (1967). He cites several persons who each saw a single glowing object. Although observing that "All of the objects were traveling in the same direction and apparently at the same speed and at exactly the same time," he fails to draw the obvious conclusion: that there was one object, albeit variously described. (For example, one report said the object landed on a nearby knoll, while another described it as "disintegrating in the air with a rain of ashes.") Instead of suspecting that people were mistaken or that they saw a meteor that broke apart, Sanderson asserts that "to be logical" we should believe that "a flight of aerial machines" were "maneuvering in formation." For some reason the craft went out of control, with one landing, rather than crashing, at Flatwoods, and its pilot emerged "in a space suit." Observed, it headed back to the spaceship which -- like two others that "crashed" -- soon "vaporized" (Sanderson 1967).
Such airy speculations aside, according to Major Keyhoe (1953), Air Force Intelligence reportedly sent two men in civilian clothes to Flatwoods, posing as magazine writers, and they determined that the UFO had been a meteor that "merely appeared to be landing when it disappeared over the hill." That illusion also deceived a man approximately ten miles southwest of Flatwoods, who reported that an aircraft had gone down in flames on the side of a wooded hill. (That was the report the sheriff had investigated, without success, before arriving at the Flatwoods site.)
Keyhoe's sources told him that "several astronomers" had concluded that the UFO was indeed a meteor. As well, a staff member of the Maryland Academy of Sciences announced that a meteor had passed over Baltimore at 7 p.m. on September 12, "traveling at a height of from 60 to 70 miles" (Reese 1952). It was on a trajectory toward West Virginia, where the "saucer" was sighted minutes later.
Spaceship Aground?If the UFO was not a spaceship but a meteor, then how do we explain the other elements -- the pulsating light, the landing traces, the noxious smell, and, above all, the frightening creature? Let us consider each in turn.
As the group had proceeded up the roadway that led to the hilltop, they saw "a reddish light pulsating from dim to bright." It was described as a "globe" and as "a big ball of fire" (Barker 1953), but Sanderson (1967) says they "disagreed violently on their interpretation of this object." We should keep in mind that it was an unknown distance away -- and that there was no trustworthy frame of reference from which to estimate size (reported to Sanderson as over twenty feet across).
Significantly, at the time of the incident, a local school teacher called attention to "the light from a nearby plane beacon," and Sanderson (1952) conceded that there were three such beacons "in sight all the time on the hilltop." However, he dismissed the obvious possibility that one of these was the source of the pulsing light because he was advocating an extraterrestrial explanation.
But if a UFO had not landed at the site, how do we explain the supposed landing traces? They were found at 7 o'clock the morning after the incident by A. Lee Stewart, Jr., editor of The Braxton Democrat, who had visited the site the night before. Stewart discovered two parallel "skid marks" in the tall meadow grass, between the spot where the monster was seen and the area where the red pulsating light was sighted. He also saw traces of "oil" or "an odd, gummy deposit" (Barker 1953).
Johnny Lockard's son, Max, describes Stewart in a word: "windy." Max had tried to explain to him and others the nature of the unidentified object that left the skid marks and oily/greasy deposit, namely Max's black, 1942 Chevrolet pickup truck. Soon after news of the incident had spread around Flatwoods that evening, Max drove up the hillside to have a look around. He told me he left the dirt road and circled through the field, but saw nothing, no monster and no landing traces in the meadow grass.
At the time of the incident a few locals who had been skeptical that a flying saucer had landed on the hill attributed the skid marks and oil to a farm tractor. When several others told Gray Barker that the traces had actually been left by Max Lockard, he recalled his old high school chum and decided to telephone him. They had a proverbial failure to communicate and Barker -- who admitted to seeing "an opportunity to get my name in print again" -- concluded that Max's truck had not been at the exact spot where the alleged UFO markings were found.
Reading Barker (1956), one senses his impulse to dismiss the tractor and pickup hypotheses and never even to consider the possibility of some other vehicle. It is not clear that Barker ever saw the traces. He arrived one week after the incident and during the interval rain had obliterated evidence. He could find "no trace of the oil reported to have been on the ground," and although he saw "marks and a huge area of grass trampled down," he conceded that could be due to the "multitudes" that had "visited and walked over the location" (Barker 1953, 1956).
Max Lockard took me to the site (figure 1) in his modern pickup. A locked gate across the road prompted him to shift into four-wheel drive and take us on a cross-country shortcut through a field, much as he had done in his search for the reported UFO and monster nearly a half century before. He has convinced me that he indeed left the supposedly unexplained traces. With a twinkle in my eye I posed a question: "Max, had you ever piloted a UFO before?" His smile answered that he had not.
As to the nauseating odor, that has been variously described as a sulfurous smell, "metallic stench," gaslike mist, or simply a "sickening, irritating" odor. Investigators first on the scene noticed no such smell, except for Lee Stewart who detected it when he bent close to the ground. The effect on three of the youths, particularly Lemon, was later to cause nausea and complaints of irritated throats (Barker 1953, 1956; Sanderson 1967; Keyhoe 1953).
This element of the story may be overstated. Ivan Sanderson (1967), scarcely a militant skeptic, also noticed the "strange smell in the grass" but stated that it was "almost surely derived from a kind of grass that abounds in the area." He added, "We found this grass growing all over the county and it always smelt the same, though not perhaps as strongly." Keyhoe (1953) reported that the Air Force investigators had concluded that "the boys' illness was a physical effect brought on by their fright." Indeed Gene Lemon, the worst affected, had seemed the most frightened; he had "shrieked with terror" and fallen backward, dropping the flashlight, and later "appeared too greatly terrified to talk coherently" (Barker 1956). As to the strange "mist" that had accompanied the odor (Barker 1953), that seems easily explained. Obviously it was the beginning stage of what the sheriff subsequently noticed on his arrival, a fog that was "settling over the hillside" (Keyhoe 1953).
The CreatureFinally, and most significantly, there remains to be explained "the Flatwoods Monster," a.k.a. "the Phantom of Flatwoods," "the Braxton County Monster," "the Visitor from Outer Space," and other appellations (Byrne 1966). Many candidates have been proposed, but -- considering that the UFO became an IFO, namely a meteor -- the least likely one is some extraterrestrial entity. I think we can dismiss also the notion, among the hypotheses put forward by a local paper, that it was the effect of vapor from a falling meteor that took the shape of a man ("Monster" 1952). Also extremely unlikely was the eventual explanation of Mrs. May that what she had seen "wasn't a monster" but rather "a secret plane the government was working on" (Marchal 1966). (Both she and her son Fred declined to be interviewed for my investigation.)
I agree with most previous investigators that the monster sighting was not a hoax. The fact that the witnesses did see a meteor and assembled on the spur of the moment to investigate makes that unlikely. So does the fact that everyone who talked to them afterward insisted -- as Max Lockard did to me -- that the eyewitnesses were genuinely frightened. Clearly, something they saw frightened them, but what?
The group described shining "animal eyes," and Mrs. May at first thought they belonged to "an opossum or raccoon in the tree" (Barker 1956, Sanderson 1967). Locals continued to suggest some such local animal, including "a buck deer" (Barker 1956), but a much more credible candidate was put forth by the unnamed Air Force investigators. According to Keyhoe (1953), they concluded the "monster" was probably "a large owl perched on a limb" with underbrush beneath it having "given the impression of a giant figure" and the excited witnesses having "imagined the rest."
I believe this generic solution is correct, but that the owl was not from the family of "typical owls" (Strigidae, which includes the familiar great horned owl) but the other family (Tytonidae) which comprises the barn owls. Several elements in the witnesses' descriptions help identify the Flatwoods creature specifically as Tyto alba, the common barn owl, known almost worldwide (Collins 1959). Consider the following evidence.
The "monster" reportedly had a "man-like shape" and stood some ten feet tall, although Barker (1953) noted that "descriptions from the waist down are vague; most of the seven said this part of the figure was not under view." These perceptions are consistent with an owl perched on a limb (figure 2).
Also suggestive of an owl is the description of the creature's "face" as "round" with "two eye-like openings" and a dark, "hood-like shape" around it (if not the "pointed" appearance of the latter) (Barker 1953). The barn owl has a large head with a "ghastly," roundishly heart-shaped face, resembling "that of a toothless, hook-nosed old woman, shrouded in a closely fitting hood" and with an expression "that gives it a mysterious air" (Jordan 1952, Blanchan 1925).
Very evidential in the case of the Flatwoods Monster is the description of its cry as "something between a hiss and a high-pitched squeal" (Barker 1953). This tallies with the startling "wild, peevish scream" or "shrill rasping hiss or snore" of the barn owl. Indeed its "shrill, strangled scream is a most unbirdlike noise." Its "weird calls" include "hissing notes, screams," and "guttural grunts" (Blanchan 1925, Peterson 1980, Bull and Farrand 1977, Cloudsley-Thompson et al. 1983). The latter might explain the monster's accompanying "thumping or throbbing noise" (Barker 1953), if those sounds were not from the flapping of wings.
Descriptions of the creature's movement varied, being characterized as "bobbing up and down, jumping toward the witnesses" or as moving "evenly," indeed "describing an arc, coming toward them, but circling at the same time" (Barker 1956). Again, it had "a gliding motion as if afloat in midair." These movements are strongly suggestive of a bird's flight. When accidentally disturbed, the barn owl "makes a bewildered and erratic getaway" (Jordan 1952) -- while hissing (Blanchan 1925) -- but its flight is generally characterized with "slow, flapping wing beats and long glides" (Cloudsley-Thompson et al. 1983).
According to Barker (1953), "Not all agreed that the 'monster' had arms," but "Mrs. May described it with terrible claws." Sanderson (1967) cites the witnesses' observation that "the creature had small, claw-like hands that extended in front of it," a description consistent with a raptor (a predatory bird). The barn owl is relatively long-legged and knock-kneed, sporting sizable claws with sharp, curved talons that may be prominently extended (Peterson 1980, Forshaw 1998).
It is important to note that the youths and Mrs. May only glimpsed the creature briefly -- an estimated "one or a few more seconds," and even that was while they were frightened. Barker (1956) asks, "If Lemon dropped the flashlight, as he claimed, how did they get an apparently longer look at the 'monster'?" Some said the being was lighted from within (probably only the effect of its "shining" eyes), while Nunley stated that it was illuminated by the pulsing red light (ostensibly from the supposed UFO but probably from one of the beacons mentioned earlier). This might also explain the "fiery orange color" of the creature's head (Sanderson 1967), but as an alternative explanation, while the barn owl is typically described as having a white facial disc and underparts, in the case of the female those parts "have some darker buff or tawny color" ("Barn Owl" 2000).
For this reason, as well as the fact that in this species (a medium-sized owl, measuring about 14-20" [Peterson 1980]) the male is typically the smaller (Blanchan 1925), I suspect the Flatwoods creature was a female. It is also interesting to speculate that it may not have been too late in the year for a female to have been brooding young. That could explain why "she" did not fly away at the first warning of intruders (given barn owls' "excellent low-light vision and exceptional hearing ability" ["Barn Owl" 2000]); instead, probably hoping not to be noticed, she stood her ground until invaders confronted her with a flashlight, a threatening act that provoked her hissing, attack-like swoop toward them.
Significantly, the locale where the Flatwoods Monster made its appearance -- near a large oak tree on a partially wooded hilltop overlooking a farm on the outskirts of town -- tallies with the habitat of the barn owl. Indeed, it is "the best known of farmland owls" (Cloudsley-Thompson 1983). It builds no nest, but takes as its "favorite home" a "hollow tree" (Blanchan 1925). It "does not mind the neighborhood of man" (Jordan 1952), in fact seeking out mice and rats from its residence in "woodlands, groves, farms, barns, towns, cliffs" (Peterson 1980).
Considering all of the characteristics of the described monster, and making small allowances for misperceptions and other distorting factors, we may conclude (adapting an old adage) that if it looked like a barn owl, acted like a barn owl, and hissed, then it was most likely a barn owl.
How "Monsters" AppearIt may be wondered, however, why the creature was not immediately recognized for what it was. The answer is that, first, the witnesses were led to expect an alien being by their sighting of a UFO that appeared to land and by the pulsating red light and strange smell that seemed to confirm the landing. Therefore, when they then encountered a strange creature, acting aggressively, their fears seemed to be confirmed and they panicked.
Moreover, the group had probably never seen a barn owl up close (after all, such birds are nocturnal) and almost certainly not under the adverse conditions that prevailed. The brief glimpse, at night, of a being that suddenly swept at them -- coupled with its strange "ghastly" appearance and shrill frightening cry -- would have been disconcerting to virtually anyone at any time. But under the circumstances, involving an inexperienced group primed with expectations of extraterrestrials, the situation was a recipe for terror.
And so a spooked barn owl in turn spooked the interlopers, and a monster was born. A "windy" newspaperman and pro-paranormal writers hyped the incident, favoring sensational explanations for more prosaic ones. Such is often the case with paranormal claims.
About the AuthorJoe Nickell is CSICOP's Senior Research Fellow and author of numerous investigative books.
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