This week’s episode of History Channel’s (overly?) dramatic interpretation of the U.S. Air Force’s mid-20th century investigation of UFOs, Project Blue Book, was a doozy, with radiation-encrusted eyeballs and old ladies being flung out of windows. Those fantastic events were matched by the real UFO report the episode touched on, a case renowned as the “Flatwoods Monster.” Unlike in the first episode, this wasn’t just a light in the sky, but included a description of a strange being (before all aliens were thin-limbed, bug-eyed gray guys) unlike anything ever seen on Earth.
Well, depending on how you look at it.
On the evening of September 12, 1952, a light did streak across the West Virginia sky. Three boys, ages 10, 13 and 14, thought the bright, red object had landed on the hill of a nearby farm in the tiny town of Flatwoods. Two of the boys, Eddie and Fredie May, told their mother Kathleen the story, and along with two other local children and 17-year-old National Guardsman Eugene Lemon, the group set out to investigate.
What happened next … isn’t exactly clear. As is common in situations of great stress and anxiety, the accounts of the witnesses don’t completely match up with each other. It’s one of the reasons eyewitness testimony is increasingly seen as unreliable in criminal court cases.
Generally, the group reported seeing a blinking red light, and when Lemon aimed his flashlight in that direction, they saw a pair of shining red eyes, silhouetted by a “pointed, hood-like shape.” The creature seemed to be exceedingly tall, maybe 10 feet, with a dark body that could barely be discerned, though Kathleen had seen “folds” that might have been clothing, and “small, claw-like hands.”
The glimpse lasted only a moment, as the monster almost immediately hissed and “glided” toward the group. Understandably, Lemon dropped his flashlight and everyone got the hell out of there.
The truth is, there was an unusual light in the sky that evening. A staff member of the Maryland Academy of Sciences confirmed that a meteor had been spotted over Baltimore just before the UFO was seen in Flatwoods, and it was also reported by observers in Pennsylvania and, yes, West Virginia. As pointed out by a local school teacher after the incident, blinking red airplane navigation beacons were also within sight of the hill where it all went down.
And what about the monster itself? Could you produce such a detailed description of this thing no one’s ever seen before while scared sh*tless and running for your f*cking life?
Joe Nickell, Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, thinks he has as definitive an explanation of the actual Flatwoods Monster as we’ll ever get. There’s something from that area with eyes that shine (when illuminated), claws, and could have been seen at a great height, something you definitely don’t see every day — a barn owl.
Before you brush that off, consider: Kathleen May’s description of a cloak or something is pretty iffy, and could have easily been contours of foliage. The owl could have been sitting on a branch, swooping off its perch when startled, and man, do they ever make make some terrible screeching and hissing sounds. Barn owls reach heights of almost two feet, but research shows that we’re really bad at estimating distances when we’re frightened, thinking things are closer (and bigger) than they actually are.
It’s been said that a mystery is an ordinary thing out of place. In the case of the Flatwoods Monster, it was probably several unusual things in the same place at the same time. Independently, the witnesses probably could have identified a meteor, an airplane beacon or an owl. But you put all those unlikely things together, mixed up with some fear and anxiety, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a terrifying account that still resonates, over 65 years later.