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The Flatwoods Monster

Original sketch of the Flatwoods Monster

When I began writing this column, I did so because I wanted people to know about all the cool stories I’d heard as a child reading stories about UFOs and the paranormal, while understanding that they’re only that: stories. That’s a filter I never had as a child, and while I believe that being so interested in that paranormal mumbo-jumbo eventually made me into a better person, I shudder to think how close I came to continuing down that path and becoming a UFO-chasing simpleton.

When I wrote the article about the Hopkinsville Goblins, I decided I’d try to stick to the lesser-known tales. Everyone knows about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, and most reasonable people know that they’re baloney. But who among you knows of the hairy hands, of Gef the ghost of a talking mongoose, of the Shaver hoax?
Boy howdy, did I save a good one for last. Allow me to introduce you to a story so terrifying, yet so indescribably ridiculous, that you may or may not soil your trousers just by reading it: the story of the Flatwoods Monster.

The year was 1952. Roswell, New Mexico occurred but 5 years before in 1947, the year of the first great Flying Saucer wave. The government uses the phrase “mass hysteria” and the UFOlogists use the phrase “flap” but I’ll just call it a wave, since I’m in a generous mood. Little did the people living in the lovely, rural hills of Braxton County, West Virginia, know that September 12 would be a date indelibly stamped on their lives. Stamped in pure terror!

It seems that that night some locals saw a fireball fall from the sky. This is the way it is initially reported, as far as I can tell: a fireball. The UFOlogists and other nuts would later claim that it was a damaged spacecraft, but in those early days, before the hype and the hysteria, it was known only as a fireball.

In case you don’t know, Braxton County was a little hard up for laughs in the olden days, so local townfolk decided to go out and investigate. As they crested a hill they saw a figure standing next to a large tree. This was no ordinary figure: this was the Flatwoods Monster, the Braxton County Monster, the Phantom of the Flatwoods, the Green Monster. Leaning against a tree (though later there would be some confusion after a reporter claimed it had been floating in mid air; this claim was repeated and is now a staple of the UFOlogists’ argument for the other-worldly nature of the monster) was a humanoid figure twelve feet in height! It was a light green color, with bulging eyes that glowed red. It had a perfectly round head and wore a sort of dress. His collar rose up behind its head and was shaped like an ace of spades.

Artist Gray Barker's renditionof the monster, using witness descriptions. The horror, the horror.

Had I seen this monster, I know exactly what I would have done. I would have fallen over dead. I’m no coward, but years of poor dietary choices have left my heart little more than a week glob of ventricle-shaped bacon. Even thinking about the monster makes my heart race; his countenance haunted my every childhood nightmare.

The people of Braxton County are a heartier breed, though, and did what I would suggest to you should you ever be in their position: they ran like hell. They ran like it was going out of style. They ran so fast that hummingbirds stared and said “wow, that’s fast.”

But sadly, that’s where this story takes a turn for the ridiculous. It couldn’t remain just a creepy little local legend, a story with which to scare your children, oh no. It became a national phenomenon. People flocked to the little town to hunt for aliens.
What’s ridiculous about this story is that eventually the group that spotted the monster decided it was probably just an owl sitting in the tree that had spooked them, combined with some sort of trick of the lighting. Do you think that UFOlogists accept that? As they say in the Corps, sir no sir.

UFOlogists began claiming, and claim to this very day, that the owl explanation was a pile of lies cooked up by the government. You see, this was a few months after the so-called UFO sightings around the capital and the nation was terrified of a flying saucer invasion. Apparently, at that time, the nation didn’t have a lot going on and could afford to fritter away time on silly fears. Anyway, the UFOlogists claim that the owl explanation surfaced to keep a mass panic from breaking out. They further claim that the scenario played out something like this: a damaged UFO, which was clearly seen from the ground as being a UFO and not a ‘fireball’, had to land to make some emergency repairs. The townspeople came across one of the crew, a 12-foot tall fire-breathing monster, and they quite correctly ran for their lives. The ship was repaired and left, but the government began an extensive “dis-information” campaign to silence the truth and explain it all away as a thing of owls and shooting stars. The fact that a veritable media circus came along with the plenty of curious sightseers certainly helped nothing. Every nut with a few minutes to spare and a story to tell got to be on TV.

To their credit, the people of Braxton county seem to have the same attitude today as the people of Hopkinsville, Kentucky: they think their local monster is a good thing to scare children with, sometimes discussing the monster leads into deep philosophical discussions about where exactly god created what, and it makes a good excuse to have a festival every now and then. It seems that it’s part of West Virginia folklore, and few people in Braxton county take it seriously. Yet there is an insane minority of outsiders that insists this was a genuine alien encounter. If you can ignore their frantic clamor, this is a good old fashioned spooky monster story, the perfect thing to carry you into exam week. Happy holidays!

First published in The Triangle 10 December 2004.