The Flatwoods Monster: a Critical Re-Examination

Buzz Brandt
Magonia 80, January 2003

Dubbed one of the “most bizarre UFO encounters of all time” (Clark, 1992), the strange tale of the Flatwoods Monster was destined to become a classic of early flying saucer mythology. Popularised by such seminal Fortean anthologists as Frank Edwards, the story surely reflects the flourishing awareness in the public imagination of “alien spacecraft” in the years immediately following Kenneth Arnold’s famous sighting of nine “flying objects” over Mt. Rainier.

A synopsis of the published accounts of the incident is as follows:

It was just getting dark on the evening of September 12, 1952, when a group of boys playing football near the village of Flatwoods, West Virginia looked up to see what appeared to be a bright red disc-shaped object travelling overhead, shooting out sparks in its wake. Thinking it might be a flying saucer, they watched as it seemed to hover for a moment in mid-air, then drop abruptly behind the crest of a hill. A moment later, a bright orange light blazed up from behind the hilltop, followed by a pulsing red glow. Two of the boys, Eddie May (13) and his 12-year-old brother Fred, rushed home to notify their mother Kathleen, a local beautician. Although she was initially sceptical of the notion of an alien spacecraft, as soon as she stepped out onto the porch where she could get a glimpse of the eerie illumination, she immediately sent the boys hustling to alert neighbour Eugene Lemon (17), a member of the National Guard. A search party was hastily assembled, which included Neil Nunley (14), Ronnie Shaver (10), and Tommy Hyer, also 10. Accompanied by Lemon’s dog, and armed only with a flashlight, the seven started up the hill.

As the dog trotted ahead, the investigators became aware of a foul-smelling mist which was irritating to the eyes and throat. Suddenly the dog began to bark and bolted past them, heading for home. Undaunted, the party continued to climb, and as they rounded the last bend of the trail, the odour became overpowering. And there, resting on the ground 50 feet in front of them, they saw a “big ball of fire”, as “big as a house”, pulsating orange and red like a mass of hot coals.

Before anyone could recover from the shock of this otherworldly sight, Mrs May noticed two small lights in the branch of a tree to her left, shining in the dark like the eves of some nocturnal animal. Eugene Lemon swung the flashlight in this direction. and Mrs May screamed. Standing there under the branch was a huge, manlike creature 10-15 feet tall, with a round, blood-red face set in a head shaped like the ‘ace of spades’, a green-coloured body, and eyes which shot out beams of light.

When the creature began to glide toward them, Lemon fainted and dropped the flashlight. In a panic some of the boys hauled him to his feet and thev all fled to the May house, where the-, called the sheriff in nearby Sutton. He was unavailable, however. because he had been called to investigate the report of a flaming plane which had crashed into a hillside. While some of the witnesses were being treated with first aid, A. Lee Stewart, Jr., co-editor of The Braxton Democrat, arrived and after some entreaty finally persuaded a reluctant Lemon to lead an armed posse back up to the hilltop. On their return they could find no trace of machine or monster, but the strange odour still persisted.

The next morning, Stewart revisited the site, where he discovered a huge area of flattened grass where the object had lain, as well as two “skid marks” in the tall grass about 10 feet apart and a strange oily substance on the ground (Edwards, 1956: Clark, 1992).

Almost 50 years have passed since this strange occurrence. Did an alien monster in an extraterrestrial spacecraft really touch down on an isolated hilltop in West Virginia’? Could this have been a hoax? Or perhaps simply the outpouring of overwrought imaginations’? After such a lapse of time is it still possible to ascertain what really happened in the tiny village of Flatwoods?

The answer is an unqualified affirmative. [ronicallv enough, it is the very reports of the principal investigators of the case - biased though they tare - which provide the essential clues to disentangling the truth from half a century of mythological speculation.

Sanderson investigates

By the morning of September 15, the national wire services had released reports of a 12-foot tall green monster with bulging red eves and "clawy" hands terrorising the inhabitants of Flatwoods, WV. Intrigued by the story, the North American Newspaper Alliance dispatched naturalist/writer/ anomaly hunter Ivan Sanderson to investigate, who arrived at the village on the morning of September 19, exactly one week after the alleged encounter.

Accompanied by his assistant, Eddie Schoenenberger, Sanderson proceeded to car¢fully cross-examine the witnesses singly and in pairs. In Uninvited Visitors he reports a composite summation of their story.

Several of the boys were playing football on a field located approximately one mile from the hilltop. At about 7:15 p.m. a roundish object. "large as a small outhouse" and glowing bright red, came soaring overhead at a slow speed around the corner of a hill. after which it paused in mid-air before dropping abruptly behind the crest. Almost immediately, a bright orange light flared up from behind the ridge, only to diminish to a reddish glow. As the boys began to run in the direction of the illumination, the light seemed to pulsate regularly with these same colours.

It took the boys about 10 minutes to reach the May house, at which time Kathleen May stepped out onto the porch to ask them where they were going. Ronald Shaver explained, "A flying saucer has landed on the hill and we're going to look at it". Mrs May and her two sons decided to go along after stopping to invite Eugene Lemon, who owned a flashlight. Tommy Hyer was the last to join the party.

As they climbed the twisting path to the hilltop, all could make out something lying on the slope about 50 yards from the ridge crest, still pulsing from orange to red.

Lemon had brought his dog along, which now darted ahead. Suddenly it began to bark, then turned tail and shot homeward. It was at this time that the party became aware of an "unnatural mist" which obscured the ground, accompanied by an overpowering odour, an "atrocious, sickly, 'warm' smell like that of hot, greased metal", which caused their eves to water and their nasal passages to constrict.

Then, rounding the last bend of the trail, thev found themselves within 50 feet of the object. All agreed that it was approximately the size of the May outhouse (over 20 feet across), shaped like the "ace of spades" with the point narrowing skyward, and black. Ronald Shaver made the observation that it was "obviously black really, but as it was hot, it was getting red like a hot poker". No one, however, felt any heat. At Sanderson's prompting, the boys compared the illumination to that of a neon sign.
Although all attention was fixed on the spacecraft, Mrs May suddenly noticed a pair of animal-like eyes in an oak tree to the left of where she was standing. She called out to Neal (sic) Nunley. who was carrying the flashlight, to shine it in that direction. The beam revealed an enormous manlike figure whose topmost features were level with a branch of the tree, and whose torso seemed to end 6 feet below at a 'waist'. No arms or any other appendages were visible, but it had a distinct head which was shaped like the "ace of spades". Set within this head was a large circular window through which they could see "darkness" and two "things like eyes which stayed fixed and shone straight out". These eyes emitted pale blue beams of light about the size of a flashlight bulb in dimension. All agreed that the beams were focused above their heads and to the south, and only changed trajectory when the monster began to glide first toward them, and then in die direction of the object.

As soon as Lemon sighted the creature, he "passed out". Some of the boys dragged him to his feet, and all fled to the May house, where he was revived. An armed posse hastily assembled, which returned to the hilltop within 25 minutes and found neither the object nor its occupant.

When the sheriff arrived approximately two hours later, he scoffed at the storv and refused to climb the hill. Three hours later two reporters turned up (one of whom was probably A. Lee Stewart), who searched the area, discovered nothing, but did report a "powerful, metallic stench".

The following day the entire site was explored again. A 15-foot circular shape of flattened grass was found where the object had rested, but otherwise no trace of physical evidence was visible, except some odd 'grease' clinging to the vegetation. Stewart claimed to have discovered two 'skid marks' in the grass, but Sanderson could not personally confirm this anomaly, and the boys were unaware of it as well.

The local searchers pointed out the strange smell which still permeated the grass. Sanderson identified it as an odour peculiar to the colloquially-named 'tar grass' which grew abundantly in the region. The 'grease' was nothing more than the common exudate of the same plant.

Barker arrives

Alerted by a September 15th United Press story about a 'Frankenstein monster' which had frightened the citizens of Flatwoods, Gray Barker, a theatrical film booking agent and aspiring writer in Clarksburg (West Virginia), telegraphed Fate magazine in the hope of securing a freelance reporting assignment. Assured of a contract, like Sanderson he reached the village exactly one week after the alleged sighting, and immediately began to seek out witnesses to interview.

His first candidate was A. M. Jordan (Neil Nunley's grandfather), who testified that he had been sitting on his porch when a brilliant elongated object flashed overhead in the direction of the hill opposite his house. The top of the object was coloured a light red, while its underside glowed a bright shade of the same colour. Red balls of fire shot out from the rear. Thinking it was a jet plane, he watched the strange light as it seemed to halt sharply in mid-air and fall toward the hilltop.
Barker's next witness was Neil Nunley himself, who disagreed with Jordan, describing the object not as elongated, but resembling a "silver dollar going through the sky". It did, however, discharge a trail of fire behind it. Approaching at a low altitude, the fiery disc appeared to hover over the hilltop, then drop "like a door falling down flatwise". After it disappeared over the ridge, he could still see the light pulsing from dim to bright.

Once the search party had been recruited, the seven proceeded up the hill, with Nunley and Lemon in the lead. Near the crest they became aware of a "strange mist" which smelled faintly "like some kind of gas". Climbing to the top of the summit, they first saw a "huge globular mass" about 50 feet to their right.

Nunley described it as a "big ball of fire", which dimmed and brightened at regular intervals. He could not determine how large it was, but some of the others estimated it to be "as big as a house". Notwithstanding, some of the witnesses did not see it at all, and no one could remember whether it was a complete sphere or a hemisphere. Nunley heard nothing, but others recalled a "low thumping or beating sound, like someone hitting a canvas", as well as a noise "halfway between a hiss and the noise made by a jet plane".

At the top of the hill the stench had grown more powerful, resembling burning metal or burning sulphur (although later questioning revealed that in reality it was unlike anything any of them had ever encountered before), and irritating to the throat and nasal passages.

Lemon, who was carrying the flashlight, thought he spied animal eyes in the tree and pointed the torch in that direction. Approximately 15 feet away stood a huge, manlike shape, no more than 15 feet tall (the height of the branch it stood under), with a round, blood-red face which showed no evidence of a nose or mouth. Eyes, or eye-like apertures were projecting greenish-orange beams of light which pierced through the haze. These rays were focused over the heads of the party.

Surrounding the face was a dark, hood-like shape, which tapered upward to a point. The body of the creature extended down only to its "waist", and appeared dark and colourless to Nunley, but green to others. Mrs May thought she saw some kind of internal illumination in the figure when the flashlight beam brushed against it. She also described clothing-like folds and "terrible claws". No one could remember whether the thing was floating in the air or resting on the ground.

When the entity moved toward them, Nunley maintained that it approached with an even motion, while at the same time circling away towards the globe. Others, however, insisted that it bobbed or jumped.

The dog had already shot away, and Lemon dropped the flashlight. The seven raced to the May house, where the owner of a funeral home in Sutton allegedly administered first aid (when questioned by Barker, he denied any involvement, insisting that he had attended church on that night). At this time, A. Lee Stewart reached the house, where he found most of the participants too terrified to provide coherent testimony. Finally he persuaded Lemon to return with him to the hilltop, where they saw and heard nothing. However, when Stewart did put his nose to the ground, he sniffed a pungent, irritating odour.

The following morning Stewart detected the "skid marks" in the grass about 10 feet apart. Aside from the displacement of a few stones, the ground underneath the marks was undisturbed, as if someone had "skied" over the vegetation. Where the globe had rested, a "huge area" of grass was flattened.

The sheriff, who been absent in the fruitless investigation of the "crash" of a Piper Cub, made his appearance in Flatwoods one to one-and-a-half hours after the event and climbed the hill. He found no trace of anything unusual. Barker also located two additional witnesses, Junior Edward and Joey Martin, who had ventured to the site one-half hour after the landing. They also saw, heard, and smelled nothing. Max Lockhart, a local businessman, drove his pickup to the scene about an hour after the report, and was likewise unsuccessful in his search. Then, on the strength of a rumour, Barker travelled 50 miles to question a man named Bailey Frame, who was said to have observed a 'rocket ship' take off from the hilltop. But when cross-examined, Frame denied any knowledge of such an event.

Secondary reports

Sanderson includes in his narrative three additional newspaper accounts of the incident. The first was generated by the national wire service, which broadcast the story of a 12-foot, man-shaped monster, green in colour, with "bulging red eyes and `clawy' hands". According to this story, when the sheriff and others searched the hilltop the following morning, they encountered a "dreadful, sickening, hot, stuffy odour". The second report, from The Braxton Democrat, downplayed the aerial object, concentrating instead on the mist and odour, as well as the creature, which was depicted as 10-12 feet tall, with an "oversized head of a fiery orange colour". Its eyes protruded and emitted beams of light. The body was dark green in colour and extended claw-like hands. The third story, from the rival paper in Sutton, The Braxton Central, "differed considerably" (details unspecified), and was published almost a week after the sighting. It offered Kathleen May's description of the monster as 10 feet tall and 4 feet wide, with a bright red face and eyes "resembling flashlights" about a foot apart. Bright green clothing hung in folds from the waist down, and the head looked like the "ace of spades".

A comparison of the reports

Even a cursory glance at the various reports reveals glaring inconsistencies and incompatible contradictions. In Sanderson's version, the object was black (but incongruously glowing red hot), and shaped like the ace of spades; but to Barker it was a spherical, globular mass (and some didn't see it at all!). In one testimony the beams shooting from the creature's eyes were pale blue, in another they were greenish-orange; most reports described claws on the thing's arms, but Sanderson insists there were no appendages of any kind visible; the monster was wearing some kind of helmet with a circular window or simply had a round face (which was initially depicted as orange, and subsequently as blood-red), the sheriff either climbed to the hilltop upon his return or he did not. The list goes on and on. No one could even agree on who was holding the flashlight!

It is crucial to remember that Sanderson and Barker conducted their investigations and cross-examinations of the same witnesses on the same day! It is very clear that the tale had evolved and mutated during the week between the actual event and the arrival of these two writers.

Sanderson alludes to his investigation of mysterious three-toed tracks which he concluded could only be the footprints of a 15-foot tall penguin

Professional bias
Sanderson betrays his prejudice for the fantastic in his other writings as well. In Investigating the Unexplained (1972), he tells of an encounter in West Africa with a “giant bat” which zoomed at him on a 12-foot wingspan while baring 2-inch-long fangs. The same volume alludes to his investigation of mysterious 3-toed tracks (later unmasked as a hoax), which he concluded could only be the footprints of a 15-foot tall penguin!

To be fair, Sanderson does include in his report the synopses of the competing newspaper accounts, and volunteers conventional explanations for the strange odour and ‘grease’. But it is more than apparent that he is intent on promoting the crash of an alien spacecraft and its monstrous occupant.

Similarly, UFO mythologist Gray Barker cannot be considered to be anything but an extremely partisan reporter, since it has been revealed that he was an inveterate hoaxer and fabricator of tall tales presented as true accounts (Sherwood, 1998). Together with Jim Moseley, the then editor of Saucer News, he concocted the famous Straith Letter hoax. After having obtained official stationery from several government agencies, the two conspirators wrote to UFO contactee George Adamski in December of 1957, granting him federal endorsement for his claim from the FBI and the Air Force (Clark, 1992). In fact, even veteran paranormalist John Keel has admitted that Barker was not to be trusted after 1959 (Keith, 1997).

Notwithstanding, in this his solo assignment, Barker appears to be conducting himself in professional manner. Not only does he concentrate on rounding up stray witnesses, but he also includes material severely damagin€ to the confirmation of his persona theories (although he seems oddh unaware of this disparity).

Things in the sky

On the evening of September 12, 1952, at approximately 7:00 p.m, slow-moving reddish fireball ww tracked over Baltimore, MD, travelling northeast to southwest, and ultimately passing over West Virginia. P.M. Reese of the Maryland Academy of Sciences estimated its altitude as 60-70 miles (Sanderson, 1967). Surely this was the unknown object observed at Flatwoods. But how could a group of eyewitnesses mistake such a high-flying celestial body for the visitation of a ship from anothe world?

Astronomy provides I easy answer. When a meteoroic particle in space, such as a piec of an asteroid) plummets into f Earth’s atmosphere, air friction heats it to incandescence, thus transforming the tiny chunk of rock into a streak of light – a meteor. Some of these particles are the size of a grain of sand, while others can weigh thousands ofpounds, and will not completely vaporise in their descent, but survive as meteorites when they collide with the planetary surface. In general, the larger the object, the brighter the meteor. Particles weighing more than one-quarter ounce produce fireballs – meteors which can be as bright as the sun.

Brilliant fireballs can exhibit a range of colours, from yellow to green to red, which often appear to flare up and then dim. As the object blazes through the atmosphere and its topmost layer is ablated by friction, this material vaporises, only to condense as it cools, forming a dust or smoke trail behind the fireball. Red sparks or “fire” are often reported as shooting out in the wake of these objects (just as they were at Flatwoods). As a fireball nears the end of its trajectory, it will flush a bright red and then explode. At this point its velocity is reduced almost to zero, its incandescence is snuffed out, and it falls to earth as a dark body (Hutchinson and Graham, 1993; Norton, 1994).

Eyewitness testimony of the altitude of fireballs is quite commonly underestimated, even among trained professionals such as airline pilots. Many observers believe that they are watching the flaming crash of an airplane a short distance from their standpoint (thus the sheriff was absent in search of such an accident based on a phoned-in report), when in fact the meteor is many miles above the surface of the planet. A case from 1969 illustrates this phenomenon clearly. A man and woman driving about 80 miles north of Reno, NV attested to the sighting of a brilliant red ball of fire, shooting sparks, and soaring so close over their heads that they feared it was about to collide with their car. They calculated that the object fell to earth behind a hill about a mile away. However, other observers in Reno stated that the same meteor touched down in the hills south of town, and in Las Vegas, 400 miles to the southwest, witnesses swore that it landed near Hoover Dam. Similar descriptions followed the fireball all the way to the Mexican border (Norton. 1994).

Fireballs have often been mistaken for UFOs by witnesses uneducated in basic astronomy. Sanderson, in fact, cites as crucial evidence for the extraterrestrial hypothesis the boys’ testimony that the object was slow moving and appeared to soar around the corner of a hill (“Meteors don’t go round comers,” he states). But some do travel relatively slowly. The rate of movement can be illusory as well, depending on the distance and the direction of motion relative to the observer. Movement parallel to a witness’s line of sight will appear much slower than the same motion at a right angle. Fireballs have also been reported to change course or direction, a perception often due to the shifting pattern of the smoke or dust trails behind them. (Menzel and Boyd, 1963).

There can be no doubt that the strange aerial object seen by the boys at Flatwoods was indeed the reported fireball (the conclusion of the majority of the citizens of Flatwoods [Nickell, 20001). As untrained observers they grossly underestimated its altitude and were fooled into thinking that it was flying low over the hilltop.

A. M. Jordan specified an elongated object, while the boys thought it resembled a silver dollar (i.e., disc-shaped). Again, this is not an uncommon perception. Menzel and Boyd (1963) record an oval or cigar-shaped fireball which at the same time displayed a noticeable disc. The boys also stated that the object seemed to halt in mid-air before "landing". Menzel and Boyd (1963) list a slow-moving meteor which appeared to stop short before spiralling away. The illusion that the object fell behind the hilltop is likewise consistent with reports of "plane crashes" which fool observers into thinking that the fireball has landed nearby. It is important to recall that the boys' viewpoint was over a mile from the hill, a distance conducive to optical illusion. The pulsating illumination could have been due to the normal flaring and dimming of the fireball's colour shift, and the continued glow could have been simply its luminous trail reflecting the rays of the sun setting on the western horizon. Moreover, in a typewritten report of 1952, Sanderson admitted that three plane beacons were in sight on the hilltop (Nickell, 2000).

Sanderson ascribes the unpleasant odour to the tar grass native to the region, and while this may have been the source of the smell, magnified by a willing imagination, it is still interesting to note that fireballs can be accompanied by noxious gases, most commonly with a strong sulphurous odour. On April 22, 1922, a huge ball of fire with an incandescent trail flashed over southern New Jersey, gushing clouds of foul-smelling gas. Observers were compelled to cover their faces with moistened handkerchiefs for 15 minutes until the powerful, irritating stench dissipated (Lewis, 1996).

Some members of the seven heard a thumping sound, like "someone hitting on canvas", and another noise halftvay between a hiss and the roar of a jet. Once again, this is perfectly consistent with meteor reports. Witnesses describe hissing (like radio static), as well as rumbling, crackling, or whistling sounds. Frequent also is a thumping or "whomping" noise, similar to the sound of a flat tire on a moving car (Menzel and Boyd, 1963; Norton, 1994). Since a fireball travels much faster than sound, any noise generated can take as much as several minutes to reach the ears of the observer. Although this time frame would rule out the more than 10 minutes required to run to the May house and climb the hill, the exact placement of the sounds in the reconstruction of events could easily have been confused in the general excitement (Neil Nunley reported no sound at all).

What really happened at Flatwoods?

Although the possibility of a hoax cannot be dismissed entirely, logic demands that the events of September 12 were nothing but mirages conjured up by overactive imaginations. 1952 was a "flap" year in UFO history as the frequency of 'flying saucer' sightings escalated, no doubt inspired by the popularity of The Day the Earth Stood Still, released the previous year. Time and Lifc circulated articles about visitors from space; the Air Force launched Project Blue Book; Kenneth Arnold and Ray Palmer published The Coming of the Saucers, and Frank Seully's Behind the Plying Saucers had achieved best-seller status. By mid-summer, the Air Force was swamped with sightings from all over the country (Peebles, 1994).

In other words, flying saucers were - so to speak - in the air, and the cultural climate was ripe for the leap of imagination at Flatwoods. It is precisely this very human capacity for self-delusion and misperception which has contributed so much to the history of UFO mythology. For example, in July of 1909, due to rumours of advanced German technology and fears of invasion, New Zealanders were terrorised by a wave of Zeppelin sightings. On the 24th of the month, 23 schoolchildren and one adult detailed a report of a low-flying dirigible-type craft, describing it as a black winged ship with a propeller-like wheel at the stern. Another child added that he had seen the wheel reversing, causing the craft to change course. An alarmed posse of volunteers searched in vain for any sign of the Zeppelin. The media were notified, resulting in an inundation of similar sightings from around the country, as well as rumours that one of the airships had crashed and several German corpses recovered.

Of course, no Zeppelins or look-alike aircraft had been flying over New Zealand during this period. The sightings were the result of mass delusion, hoaxes, and the misperception of natural celestial objects. Subsequent investigation proved that the students had been previously exposed to a fictional Zeppelin story in a magazine (Clark, 1992), and years later when some of the participants were interviewed, thev admitted the illusory nature of their experiences, and blamed the sightings on overactive imaginations (Bartholomew and Howard, 1998).

In a similar manner the West Virginia fireball was transformed into a 'flying saucer'. But what of the glowing, pulsating object actually resting on the hillside? Once again, a chimerical mind-set must be invoked. Ample proofs are the contradictory statements given to the investigators, and the admission (to Barker) that not everyone had seen the object, even though it was only 50 feet away and as big as a house! Just one month before, in August of 1952, a well-publicized case with remarkable parallels had occurred in West Palm Beach, FL. A local scoutmaster named D. S. Desvergers was driving three boys home from their weekly evening meeting when he noticed odd lights glowing through the pine trees along a country road. At first the scouts could not make out the lights, but then caught sight of them. The scoutmaster decided to investigate, leaving the boys in the car.

After scrambling about 50 yards into the woods, Desvergcrs encountered a "sharp" or "pungent" odour which grew in intensity as he pushed forward. The heat suddenly became oppressive and lie found it hard to breathe. It was then that he realised that the sky was blocked out in front of his eyes, and he raised that a huge, domed, circular-shaped craft was hovering about 30 feet above his head. As he stared in amazement, the ship sprayed out a cloud of red mist which engulfed him, and he fell to the ground, unconscious.

On the road, the scouts had been tracking their leader's progress by the bobbing of his flashlight through the trees. He had been gone only about 5 minutes when thev were horrified to see a huge red ball of fire envelop him. The boys, in a state of shock, bolted to a nearby farmhouse to contact the authorities.

When the sheriff arrived, the four of them raced into the woods to find the scoutmaster still unconscious. His arms, face, and cap had been scorched, and when revived, he seemed genuinely terrified. The Air Force was called in to investigate.
Desvergers' story, however, soon began to disintegrate. His personal history was less than exemplary. He had been drummed out of the Marine Corps after a few months for car theft and AWOL charges, and had been incarcerated in a federal reformatory. One local resident remarked that if Desvergers claimed that the sun was shining, he would look up to see for himself before he believed him. The scoutmaster had already hired a press agent, apparently planning to cash in on his 'experience'.

Tests performed at the FBI laboratory demonstrated that the burns could easily have been manufactured with a cigarette or match. Upon interrogation, the scouts' testimony began to fall apart as well. Experiments at the site proved that not even by standing on the roof of the car could anyone have witnessed Desverger's reported position in the woods. The entire incident was a hoax, coupled with consenting imagination on the part of the boys (Menze; and Boyd, 1963: Ruppelt, 1956).

Misperception of ordinary sources of illumination is the cause of many alleged UFO sightings. Menzel and Taves (1977) give an account of an army sergeant who in the early morning hours was surprised to see a brilliant object blaze overhead, appearing to land behind the base mess hall. When the man ran around the comer of this building, he could make out a bright light pulsating in a wooded area. Thinking it was a downed saucer, he summoned Air Force investigators, who were quickly able to determine that he had witnessed a fireball (which had been tracked by astronomers), then later the 'pulsating' floodlight on a distant dairy farm which had only recently been replaced.

A similar incident occurred in 1980 on an American Air Force base in Suffolk, England. Early in the morning of December 27, two security guards claimed to have observed an alien spaceship crash into Rendlesham Forest (which bordered the base) in an explosion of light. Three patrolmen were dispatched to inves tigate, and reported a glowing triangular-shaped object, metallic in appearance, and approximately two metres in height. Whatever it was lit up the forest with white light. As the airmen approached, the object seemed to manoeuvre away from them, as if under intelligent control.
Research proved that the flight of a daxzling meteor had been recorded over southern England at the time of the 'crash'. The 'eerie' pulsating light turned out to be the beam of the lighthouse at Orford Ness on the Suffolk coast, five miles away, augmented by overactive imaginations. A BBC camera crew returned to the woods to photograph what the patrolmen actually saw that morning. Because the forest is situated on a plane higher than the coastline, the beam appeared to be shining only a few feet above ground level, fooling the airmen into thinking that the illumination was deliberately changing position. This same optical illusion also caused the light to appear to be much closer than its actual location (Frazier, Karr, Nickell, eds., 1997).

Even rabid UFO crusader Donald Keyhoe (1953) 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. A quick glance at a photograph of a horned owl or barn owl will reveal that this bird can provide all the necessary details: a circular, heart-shaped face and ear tufts which could inspire the impression of a hood or the ace of spades shape; luminous eyes; claws; and rippled feathers which look remarkably like the folds of clothing.

The overpowering odour might have been the aftermath of gases spewed out by the fireball, or the strong smell of the tar grass, and the grease on the ground can easily be ascribed to its exudate. As for the skid marks, these were not in evidence at the time of Sanderson’s search, and thus suffer from lack of credibility. Allegedly, they were 10-12 feet apart, while the creature was estimated to be 4 feet wide, a physical contradiction. If the marks did exist at all, they were probably left by Max Lockhart’s pickup truck. Since many searchers visited the hilltop during the night, they were no doubt responsible for the ‘huge area’ of flattened grass as well (a conclusion conceded by Barker, who likewise found no evidence of skid marks or grease). The ‘strange mist’ was simply what the sheriff noticed upon his arrival: a fog which was “settling over the hillside” (Keyhoe, 1953).


It is tempting to want to examine the underlying psychological motivations behind the events at Flatwoods. When West Virginia was settled by the Scots-Irish and Welsh in the latter part of the 18th century, these immigrants carried with them a cultural legacy rich in superstition. Even to this day the region is rife with tales of ghosts, hauntings, witches, magic spells and hexes (Gaines, 1975). British folklore speaks of the devil as clad in a black gown, with burning eyes and claws, accompanied by sulphurous or other vile odours (Keith, 1997; Ritchie, 1994). Another legendary character, Springheel Jack was said to have haunted London in the late 1830s. Citizens were startled by a huge cloaked figure with glowing eyes, pointed ears, a metallic-looking helmet, and fingers which felt like iron claws (Clark, 1992). Memories of these tales, combined with a superstitious mind-set and the growing public awareness of `flying saucers’ in the early 1950s created the belief system necessary for the `sighting’.


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