A little after 7:00 P.M. on September 12, 1952, three boys were playing football on the school playground in the small West Virginia town of Flatwoods when they saw something flash across the sky and land on the property of a nearby farmer.
Sounds like the beginning of any number of alien invasion stories, doesn’t it? And it is—at least after a fashion. The story of what the boys saw that night would go down in history and put the tiny town on the cryptozoological map to this very day.
What exactly the boys saw is up for some debate. Even among cryptozoologists it goes by many names, including the Braxton County Monster and the Phantom of Flatwoods. In its home county of Braxton, it is sometimes known by the affectionate nickname “Braxxie,” but it is most commonly called simply the Flatwoods Monster.
Two of the boys on that football field were brothers, the children of Kathleen May, and before long they had recruited their mom and several other kids to undertake an expedition to go and find the unidentified flying (or, in this case, falling) object. Six children in all, ranging in ages from 10 to 17, and a dog accompanied Mrs. May out to find the creature that would go down in history as the Flatwoods Monster.
As they crested a hill on the property where the boys had seen the object go down, they saw a pulsating red light. This was their first indication of trouble. The oldest boy, 17-year-old Gene Lemon, a member of the West Virginia National Guard, later told investigators and UFOlogists that he shined his flashlight in the direction of the glow, which is how the group saw the monster.
Descriptions of the monster vary, depending upon which of the seven who saw it you ask, or who is doing the retelling of their accounts, but in general, the Flatwoods Monster was described as being taller than a man, with a round, red face and a dark green body.
Kathleen May described the creature as having “small, claw-like hands that extended in front of it,” a lower body with what looked like pleated folds or drapes of fabric, and a sort of hood around its face that “resembled the ace of spades.” All of these elements would later become fairly standard in depictions of the Flatwoods Monster.
The somewhat jumbled nature of the witnesses’ descriptions of the creature can perhaps be forgiven since, as soon as they turned the flashlight upon it, the monster made a sound that was “something between a hiss and a high-pitched squeal” and glided toward the assembled throng. Terrified, Lemon dropped the flashlight, and all of them ran.
Shortly afterward, the sheriff and a deputy came from investigating a report of a downed airplane—which was probably actually the same fiery shape in the sky which the boys had spotted, and not a plane at all—and investigated the scene, but they found nothing. No flying saucer, and no monster.
The following morning, the editor of the Braxton Democrat visited the site, where he discovered “skid marks” and “an odd, gummy deposit” in the field. In the years since, true believers have tried to tout these findings as proof of a UFO landing, though Joe Nickell of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry interviewed locals as part of an investigation of the Flatwoods Monster in 2000 and was told that the “landing evidence” was actually left by a 1942 Chevy pickup truck belonging to one Max Lockard, who had driven out to investigate the spot during the night.
In his ensuing article, Nickell also explained away the rest of the legend surrounding the Flatwoods Monster. The pulsing red glow he attributed to one of three airplane navigation beacons visible from the hilltop, while the unidentified flying object was, he argued, actually just a meteor. In fact, a meteor had been visible that night across three different states, including West Virginia. As for the monster itself?
By Nickell’s estimation, what the kids and Kathleen May saw in the field that night was nothing more sinister than a barn owl perched on a branch. It explains the shape of the creature’s head, the “small, claw-like hands,” and even the creature’s hissing squeal and gliding motion. The green body could have simply been underbrush beneath the limb, while the reddish glow of its head could have been a reflection from those same airplane navigation beacons.
Could the Flatwoods Monster have been something as simple as an owl in a tree? For some, Nickell’s explanation more than fits the bill. Others prefer to continue to believe in the existence of Braxxie. Regardless of whether the Flatwoods Monster was real, or just a figment borne of panic and excitement, the effect of the monster’s sighting on the local community is very real indeed.
Today, you can buy toys, shirts, posters, and all sorts of other memorabilia emblazoned with the figure of the Flatwoods Monster. When you drive into the small West Virginia town, you are greeted with a sign that says “Welcome to Flatwoods / Home of the Green Monster.”
There is a museum dedicated to the creature, and the Braxton County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau has installed tall chairs built and painted to look like the Flatwoods Monster, ready-made for tourist photos. You can even get a “Free Braxxie” sticker depicting the monster if you take photos of all five chairs. And every year, the community observes Flatwoods Days, which, according to the Braxton County website, celebrates the history of Flatwoods and “the legend of the Braxton County Monster.”
[via the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry]