Stories of “close encounters”, that is to say, contact between humanity and something not of this earth, have become major cultural touchstones of modern society. Our collective imagination has, since before the time of mass communication, envisioned visitors from the stars descending upon chariots of fire and bringing with them alien technologies. Sometimes these imagined visitors come as peaceful apostles bearing gifts of enlightenment. Other times they come as conquerors and destroyers who enslave and exterminate with Roman efficiency.
Hollywood loves these tropes. Since the dawn of cinema, science fiction classics like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), “E.T.” (1982) and “Independence Day” (1996), have basked in the pop culture love affair we have with the concept of extraterrestrial life. When you think about it, our affection for the otherworldly makes all the sense in the world – we are curious creatures adrift in an average galaxy, circling a nondescript star on, as influential astronomer Carl Sagan put it, “a pale blue dot.” Ours is a lonely existence, and we want to know how alone we really are.
It is with this understanding that I wish to tell the tale of a very strange incident that occurred not far from the Mid-Ohio Valley on a cool September evening in 1952, in the town of Flatwoods, West Virginia.It’s a quarter after 7pm on the 12th of September. Brothers Edward and Fred May and their friend Tommy Hyer are enjoying the pre-autumn air at the school playground. Shortly thereafter, the youths spot a bright object arc across the darkening sky, slamming down over a nearby hill. The boys, excited by what they have just observed, rush to the May household where they relay the incident to Mrs. Kathleen May. The boys convince her to accompany them to the property where the fireball had descended. Along the way, the quartet is joined by neighborhood boys Neil Nunley and Ronnie Shaver, along with 17-year-old national guardsmen, Gene Lemon.
The woods of Appalachia run deep and are dense.
The events that occur after the group enters the woods vary by interpretation and we’ll discuss that here in a moment. I want to take a second to set this stage, just for the sake of perception. I don’t know if you have ever spent any time a West Virginia forest, but if you haven’t, know this – the woods of Appalachia run deep and are dense. They can be disorienting in broad daylight and downright eerie at night. Now, imagine that you and a group of your friends who are aged between ten and seventeen are walking through the forest at night, armed with flashlights. There is one adult with you, but you are otherwise on your own. You have seen something that you cannot explain crash into the woods and you are unsure of what you will find once you reach the crash site. There is an innate anxiety there, no matter how stout your heart may be, and suddenly every sense is magnified. You are aware of every footstep, every whippoorwill’s call. You sense every shadow, every breath. The mind, in situations like these, rests in a liminal space between logic and instinct, floating between what is real, and might be real.
This state of being is what horror movies are predicated on. With that understood, let’s return to our story.
The group treks through the woods and eventually reaches the area where the boys had witnessed the bright object fall and are immediately overwhelmed by a foul, metallic odor that radiates from a strange mist that has settled along the ground. The group notes a pulsating red light through the trees. Gene Lemon, the young national guardsmen, notices a pair of eyes, not unlike that of a nocturnal animal, watching the group from what appears to be a branch on a nearby tree. He shines light upon the figure, revealing an unearthly terror standing nearly ten feet tall with a spade-like face and claws outstretched in front of it. The beast hisses and glides toward the terrified party. The group flees at the sight of it and later reports the sighting to authorities. Their stories are corroborated and reports are filed. The testimony from the witnesses will later fall under the cross-examination of ufologists, cryptozoologists, hobbyist believers, and skeptics around the world over the course of several decades.
On the surface, there is a lot of compelling – if subjective – evidence that one could use to build a case for a close encounter in Flatwoods, WV. The UFO, the strange lights, the metallic-smelling mist, the creature itself – all of this comes together to create a fantastic story. The skeptics, however, chalk up the events that occurred in this small West Virginia town to coincidence and, as we discussed earlier, human imagination.
Take the UFO for example. The boys describe a “fireball” blazing across the sky. A crashing alien ship, perhaps? Well, maybe not. On September 12, 1952, the bright, blazing light was witnessed by a large number of people across Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Most observers surmised that it was a meteor – an impressive sight, but certainly not an indicator of a Martian visitor. The pulsing red lights described by the eyewitnesses are largely dismissed as airplane lights or perhaps an optical illusion attributed to the overall stress of the situation. The metallic-smelling mist might sound compelling as anecdotal evidence, but according to investigators who looked into the incident, nausea felt by the witnesses at the time was likely psychosomatic and the mist itself was likely fog settling in over the forest. As for the monster itself, most skeptics point to the same perpetrator – the common barn owl. The creature is described as having a spadelike face, outstretched claws, and raspy hiss, all characteristics of a barn owl. The creature’s size can be attributed to the height at which the owl would have been perched before the flashlight’s beam spooked it, causing it to “glide” toward the group. So while the Flatwoods Monster is a great moniker for a creature that will become embedded into the pantheon of West Virginian mythology, it is more likely that the residents of Flatwoods did not have contact with an otherworldly entity but rather a very perturbed nocturnal bird.Despite a myriad of banal explanations regarding the incident, skeptics have not kept the tale from becoming a centerpiece of Appalachian folklore, and nowhere is that more evident than in Braxton County, WV. The town of Sutton, WV houses a museum dedicated to the creature and all throughout the county, one can find oversized decorative chairs dedicated to Braxxie, an endearing nickname for the monster. If you’re adventurous enough to track down all five chairs and have your picture taken at the locations, you can earn a special sticker showing your dedication to preserving local lore (yours truly might just have to do that before the summer is out). If all that isn’t enough, Flatwoods is home to a restaurant and dairy bar close to where everything went down all those years ago.So there you have it – the harrowing tale of the Flatwoods Incident, one of the many unique stories that enriches the Appalachian experience. The events that took place on that September night in 1952 have become part of West Virginia’s history and is something that will not be found anywhere else. Real or imagined, the Beast of Braxton County has left its mark.
I love folklore. It is, in my opinion, one of the purest form of storytelling: fantastic events, real or imagined, passed down through generations where truth and tall-telling blend into something greater than the sum of its parts. You will find these kinds of tales wedded to civilizations throughout all points in human history. It is one of those things that makes us, well, us.I hope you have enjoyed sharing in this tale with me and I hope that you’ll join me over the next few installments of this series, looking at the folklore that makes our neck of the woods special.
As for the existence of extraterrestrial life, who knows?
The truth is out there.
Thanks to Andrew Smith and the Braxton County CVB for sharing their photos!