Part of a series about monsters and other scary things happening here through Halloween.
I fed myself a steady diet of the paranormal growing up, in between all the comic books and all the television. The enthusiasm does tend to wane the further away from childhood you get, but it never really goes away. I grew up hoping, believing, that the world was weirder than the grown-ups would tell you. And I liked it that way. It helped that I grew up in West Virginia, where you're never too far from the woods or a mountain or a swamp, places for mysterious things to hide and then jump out at you.
So of all the really good monster stories out there, let's go with this one, one of the more vivid incidents in American paranormal history. One reason I’m recommending it is that it has a foot in both Monster Lore and UFO Lore, which traditionally do not overlap until you get deep, deep in the weeds of the newsletters and the pamphlets and the websites that look like they're still hosted by Geocities. This makes it akin to what would have been the best “X-Files” episode ever: one that features a swamp creature, the flying saucer with Mulder’s sister in it, and Peter Boyle guest-starring. It's the story of the Flatwoods Monster.
Flatwoods is a very small town in the center of West Virginia, not particularly close to anything resembling a city. On the evening of September 12, 1952, a handful of friends playing football in the school field saw a flash in the sky. It was an object, seemingly fiery, that zoomed overhead and crashed into a hill not far from the boys. Impelled by curiosity to investigate they headed for the hill, picking up along the way a local mother and her two boys, and a 17-year-old National Guardsman and his dog. Darkness was falling. The dog darted ahead up the hillside, barking, and then returned with its tail between its legs and took off back down the mountain. The group pressed on, noticing an odd, metallic-smelling mist. At the top of the hill, they found a pulsating, hissing object, measuring about ten feet across. The search party freaked and backed away. But turning around, they discovered two smaller lights in front of them. The Guardsman raised his flashlight, revealing a twelve-foot-tall creature, floating off the ground, with arms hooked into claws, two glowing eyes and a head, or maybe a cowl, shaped like a spade. And so they ran, all the way back down the hill, to wait for the authorities.
The sheriff came, of course, and more local kids, and the mother led the party back up the hill to investigate. The metallic smell was still there, but the object and the creature were not. The next morning the local reporter came. Revisiting in the light of day, they found skidmarks and pieces of black plastic-like material on the ground. The reporter also received multiple reports of lights in the sky, including one from a witness claiming to have seen a flying saucer take off that morning. A 21-year-old woman some miles away claimed to have seen the same creature weeks before, an event that scared her so badly that she was hospitalized for three weeks. And another woman, the mother of the Guardsman, reported that, the evening before, her house shook like it was coming off the foundation, after which the radio cut out for 45 minutes. And some of the kids who were on the hilltop that night came down with a weird nausea. Two days later, the dog, sadly, started vomiting and died.
It was a big deal, a Close Encounter of the Third Kind, as they came to call it.
This story got into my little-kid head pretty good. In the 70s, my dad’s side of the family decamped from Charleston, West Virginia, for the more rural environs of Buckhannon and Philippi, 125 miles to the northeast. Staying at Grandma’s was always an exercise in the night terrors. The bumps in the night you hear in the country are not the same as you hear in the suburbs. They are more laden with meaning. They are probably monsters. This was before Interstate 79 was completed, so it was a longer drive then than it is now, up and down rolling hills, winding around hollers and valleys of the Allegheny Mountains, crossing creeks and streams. And, as I figured out after we’d moved away from Charleston, that last leg of the drive to Grandma’s traversed Braxton County, which contains Flatwoods, which is why the Flatwoods Monster is alternately known as the Braxton County Monster. In fact, Exit 67 of I-79 is the Flatwoods exit. That was enough to blow my mind. I knew all kinds of really scary monster stories, but none that happened in places I've actually been, let alone not 50 miles from where my actual family lived.
The Flatwoods Monster story is emblematic of the time. In the early 1950s, the U.S. was undergoing some UFO hysteria. Even aside from well-known incidents like the crash at Roswell and the Flatwoods Monster, people were seeing lights in the sky and taking seriously for the first time the idea that we might not be alone. One explanation posits that the obsession was a manifestation of the general anxiety of the Cold War; whatever the impetus, the fascination with the extraterrestrial wing of the paranormal became widespread. We'd had flying saucer stories forever, going back to Ezekiel's wheel through the Martian invasion in HG Wells' War Of The Worlds, but the 50s brought a high pitch of paranoia about the little green men in the pilot’s seat of the UFOs—or, in the case of Braxton County, one very large one. The story of that night in Braxton County may have faded over time (and the depiction of the actual monster, constructed from witnesses’ descriptions, is not a little bit comical), but it fueled the imaginations of the generation of scientists and researchers (and sometimes, yes, kooks) that went on to define the field, for better or worse. Ivan Sanderson and John Keel both personally investigated the Flatwoods Monster—Sanderson going on to become an eminent cryptozoologist and Keel eventually popularizing the term "men in black" as a prominent UFOlogist.
And of course the inevitable result of the incident was the debunking that followed, including one study conducted as recently as 2000. Sober types were quick to suggest that the glowing object was a meteorological event, or a mountaintop navigational beacon, and that the creature was a barn owl sitting on a tree stump. Additionally, all the witnesses were frightened, and frightened people always see things that aren’t there (or something). This is a pro forma explanation for most of the stories of this ilk, of which West Virginia is strangely chock full. You’ve probably also heard of the Mothman of Point Pleasant, immortalized in the tepid Richard Gere vehicle, but if you poke around you’ll also find the (locally-sourced!) Beast of Bertha Hill; the 19th-century bigfoot predecessor Yayho; the dragon-like Snallygaster of the Blue Ridge Mountains; and even Sheepsquatch, which is just what it sounds like. Wild, Wonderful West Virginia indeed.
But the Flatwoods Monster was one of the big ones of paranormal lore, revisited equally by those who are Ready To Believe and those who would have us be done with such things. It certainly kept me terrified, reading books after bedtime, and whatever town we lived in I’d put the book down around one or two in the morning and look out the window into whatever copse of woods that was near and wonder just what exactly was out there.
Maybe it was a barn owl. Maybe even it was a twelve-foot-tall barn owl. Or maybe it was a hoax—maybe this fellow is legit and not a soul seeking an easy moment in the spotlight. Hoax claims are easy to make and tough to disprove. But the story of the Flatwoods Monster was born in a time when the world was considerably weirder than it is now, when the consensus was a little less jaded and a little more open to consider the impossible as something other than unlikely.
To paraphrase author Warren Ellis, I keep hoping that it’s a strange world out there, and I’d like to keep it that way. It's why we have monster stories, and it's why we keep repeating them. And in the case of the Flatwoods Monster, that story's also a little bit of home, and so all the better.
Previously in series: The Eternal Life Of 'Twilight' In Forks, Washington