Deep in Braxton County, West Virginia, three boys are minding their own business on a September night in 1952. But their evening calm is disrupted by a flash of light, and before long, rumors of a monster stalking the streets of Flatwoods have started to circulate. But just what did come from the skies that evening?
Whatever they saw, it was certainly frightening enough to cause an extreme reaction. This was confirmed by John Gibson, who had at the time been a freshman at high school. He told the History Channel in 2018, “One of the boys peed his pants. Their dog (Rickie) ran with his tail between his legs.”
News of the sighting soon spread – appearing in the media locally and getting picked up across the nation. People everywhere were terrified, and soon the U.S. Air Force decided to send investigators. This was part of the Project Blue Book scheme that looked into unexplained sightings of one type or another.
The tale faded from the national view, but it remained well entrenched in local mythology. Naturally, it has become indelibly associated with the village of Flatwoods ever since. And to this day tourists travel into the depths of the Appalachian hills to visit the museum and purchase souvenirs of the “monster.”
The curious happening was not out of place in the 1950s – a time when suspicion and fear regularly gripped the American people. Anxiety caused by the development of nuclear weaponry formed the backdrop for stories of unexplained happenings and secrets kept from the people. The Soviet Union had only a few years before developed an atomic bomb, and the U.S. Air Force watched the skies fearful of red bombers on their way.
The political atmosphere was equally fervid, and conspiracy theories gripped popular attention. The Rosenbergs had recently been convicted of selling nuclear secrets to the Soviets, and Senator Joe McCarthy was in hot pursuit of communists. Indeed, the fight against communism seemed very real. The Korean War was still raging in 1952 and it had caused the deaths of four young locals in recent times.
At the time, Life magazine whipped up more hysteria with an article headed, “Have we visitors from space?” The story listed lots of sightings of unexplained objects in the sky and claimed to offer “scientific evidence” for flying saucers. This appeared in April 1952, which was only a few months before the “monster” came to Flatwoods.
The village of Flatwoods sits in Braxton County and in the 1950s was home to fewer than 300 souls. This county sits in the middle of rural West Virginia and is a relaxed and slow-moving place. There you can fish in Sutton Lake, take in a meal at the Café Cimino or visit the Sisters Antique Mall. Or, apparently, you can get scared out of your wits.
And the area is no stranger to sightings of monsters and phantoms. Nearby Point Pleasant is home to Mothman – a creature believed to have warned of the Silver Bridge collapse in 1967 which led to 46 fatalities. Mothman had been spotted some time before that catastrophe by five gravediggers and by young couples who claimed to have seen a tall, winged man with fiery eyes.
Soon the police heard from more than 100 people claiming to have spotted the strange man. However, Mothman was not seen again after the bridge had collapsed. The character’s fame was boosted by John Keel’s work of fiction The Mothman Prophecies – which led to an eponymous film. Some claimed, though, that Mothman had been nothing more than a bird.
The tradition of monsters in the West Virginian mountains may have began as early as the 1700s – when German settlers first arrived. Near to Harpers Ferry, Snarly Yow, a vicious beast somewhat like a dog, has terrorized people since the colonists first came across it. Some say they’ve shot it, and others claim that they’ve run it over in their car, but Snarly Yow just gets up and vanishes.
And in the Kanawha Valley, the “White Creature” lurks. It’s as big as a bear but takes the shape of a dog. Clad in dirty white wool, it menaces with fangs like sabers. This monster sheep has gone by the name of Sheepsquatch – a terrifying ovine that has often been seen in the state’s west.
Even Braxton County itself has been haunted by a monster: the so-called Shadow Creature. This is a hulking beast apparently scales six feet, weighs several hundred pounds and has an insect’s shell. People have been talking about the Shadow Creature since the Civil War, when it was held responsible for savaging five Union soldiers.
So in Flatwoods in September 1952, as they played in the evening, three kids, Fred and Edward May and buddy Tommy Hyer, may well have been in the right frame of mind to “see” something. And indeed they did, as a shining object flashed across the night sky – seeming to come down into farmer G. Bailey Fisher’s property.
Curious to learn more about what they had seen, the lads rounded up a posse. It consisted of them, Kathleen May, a beautician in her 30s, a teen National Guardsman Eugene Lemon and two further boys, Neil Nunley and Ronnie Shaver. Together, the gang went to explore Fisher’s farm in the hope of finding something corresponding to the light that the youngsters had spied.
The searchers plodded up to the top of a hill on Fisher’s farm – nervous in the gloaming of the fall evening. Using Lemon’s flashlight to guide their path, they stalked deeper into the night. Suddenly, they saw something that left Lemon screaming. He let his light fall, and the whole posse hightailed it.
The group went to tell the cops what they had seen, but a deputy and a local sheriff found nothing untoward when they arrived at the site. They had already been out because people had reported an airplane crash nearby. But there was nothing. However, the next day Braxton Democrat reporter A. Lee Stewart, Jr. said that he had found “skid marks” and some strange sticky substance – which aroused suspicions of a UFO landing.
Stewart had stormed up to the farm with his shotgun when he’d been told about what the gang had seen. He noted in the paper, “People don’t make up that kind of story that quickly.” And he was clear that the group of mainly young boys were “the most scared people I’ve ever seen.”
The story quickly spread from the local media to go viral. Nationwide there was newspaper coverage, and big networks carried broadcasts about it. Phone calls flooded in from across the United States. A Brooklyn minister turned up to interrogate the Mays, and UFO investigators showed up in town. And the tale blew up so big that it was the nation’s 11th biggest for the year.
Andrew Smith, who is now responsible for a museum dedicated to the sighting and the Braxton County Convention Visitors Bureau, said that the story spread nationwide. And he was echoed by Gibson, who wrote in the local newspaper, “Mrs. May and the National Guard kid ended up going to New York to talk to CBS.”
One of the people who helped spread the tale was Gray Barker. He was a local who not only looked into the Flatwoods sighting, but would also become active in UFO mythmaking. Indeed, it’s Barker who would invent the concept of “Men in Black” – his description of investigators from the U.S. Air Force who had turned up pretending to be journalists.
But what had the gang seen that had caused such a rumpus? Well, when they got to the crest of the hill on Fisher’s farm, Nunley claimed, they’d spotted a red light that pulsed. And according to Joe Nickell’s book The Flatwoods UFO Monster, when Lemon had shone his flashlight into the area where the pulsing light sat, he could see a towering “man-like figure with a round red face surrounded by a pointed, hood-like shape.”
According to History.com, an unnamed local news account reported that Lemon had seen “a ten-foot monster with a blood-red body and a green face that seemed to glow.” And the group thought that perhaps instead of hands, the monster had claws. However, they couldn’t be sure, because a heavy fog had descended on the area.
Barker interviewed various people from the group in a piece for Fate Magazine at the time. There, he reported that they’d said the figure was about ten feet in height – Smith claims 15 feet on average – and had a circular face which was the color of blood. It had a big shape, pointed like a hood, surrounding its face, and shapes that might be eyes gave out a light tinged greenish-orange. And its head topped a dark body which was either green or black.
According to Buddy Griffin in his book The Legend of the Flatwoods Monster, Kathleen May suggested that the monster had “small, claw-like hands.” She apparently added that the creature had folds that were like clothes and a “head that resembled the ace of spades.” The being had hissed and moved in the direction of the astonished group, so it’s perhaps no wonder that they didn’t hang around to get a closer look.
According to Barker, the group had claimed that there was a “pungent mist” around the site. Later, some of them would claim that they’d been left sickened by it. And indeed word soon spread that the sulfurous stench that had been caused by the “crash” had been responsible for several illnesses in the locality.
However, the cops apparently did not take the news of the sighting entirely seriously. History.com said that an unnamed newspaper reported, “State police laughed off the reports as hysteria.” And the cops weren’t impressed by the way that the monster seemed to grow as each person told the next, so that in a single day it had “grown from seven to 17 feet…”
Naturally, the police were not the only people doubtful of the “monster.” In 2000 Joe Nickell, an investigator for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, looked into the affair. His conclusion was that the light that the boys had seen crossing the sky was probably a meteor. Elsewhere, he concluded that the red light that the group had seen was likely a beacon used to alert aircraft to hazards and that the “monster” may have been an owl.
Nickell dismissed what the witnesses thought that they had seen, and he suggested that perhaps they had been suffering from higher than usual anxiety. This may have led them to boost what would otherwise be considered ordinary sights into a monster story. And several other people who’ve investigated the sighting have concluded the same things.
On September 12, the evening that the “monster” was seen, there had been many observations of a meteor. The United States Air Force had confirmed that common meteors had been seen across the eastern seaboard – including by lots of people in Baltimore. And aircraft beacons indeed pulsed in the area.
As for the “monster,” everything about it matches what you’d expect from a barn owl – except for being ten feet tall, of course. Its shape, the way that it moved and the noises that it made all could easily belong to an owl that was simply sitting on the bough of a tree. And the underside of the monster – some said that it had a green skirt – could be explained simply by leaves.
The investigators even had an explanation for why the witnesses disagreed on whether the “monster” came with arms. The answer lay in looking at Kathleen May’s description of its hands being small and like claws which were stretched out to its front. She may well have simply been describing an owl with a branch in its grip.
As for the “skid marks,” Brian Dunning addressed that in his book Skeptoid #434: The Braxton County Monster. Apparently, a youngster confessed that he’d been driving in the area in his truck, “hoping to see something.” But investigators at the time had insisted that the marks and the sticky substance that they found were something to do with the “monster.” Skeptic Ryan Haupt had concluded that the sickness that the youngsters reported after the encounter could be attributed to “hysteria and over-exertion.”
Despite the monster’s dismissal at the hands of skeptics, visitors to Flatwoods flood in every tourist season. The village has put up a sign reading “Welcome to Flatwoods / Home of the Green Monster.” And those who do visit can collect stickers if they photograph all of the five curious attractions that mark sites connected with the creature.
Those five markers are huge chairs that are shaped to look like monsters. They are each ten feet tall and hand painted by Smith himself. Sprinkled liberally around the village at memorial spots, they have turned out to be very popular not just with tourists, but also with the local people.
After the chairs had been successful, Smith had a seven-foot village mascot called Braxxie made. And when he took it to the state tourism fair in 2017, people kept coming up and hailing the “Flatwoods monster.” Smith took the hint, and what had been a small display of memorabilia in a Sutton, West Virginia tourist office became a full-blown museum dedicated to the monster.
For years the monster had been kept quiet in Flatwoods – with locals hoping that the less that was said, the quicker it would be forgotten. Even Gibson, who made “Monster Lamps,” wouldn’t give his name when interviewed by the Roadside America website. However, he learned to love the monster, and now the village too celebrates it. Indeed, the monster takes center stage at the local festival every year.
One place that the monster has expanded its fame is in the video game world. It has appeared in several of them, including Fallout 76. And in 2019 the monster made an appearance on the History Channel in the TV series Project Blue Book – named after the Air Force’s UFO investigation that encompassed the Flatwoods encounter.
Amazingly, the monster has also given its name to a beer. And with a whopping six percent ABV, you too might also be seeing aliens if you drink too many of the fruity ales from Chronicle Brewing. Gibson also knocked out a thousand figurines of the monster in just two years in the late 2010s, and each green statuette went for $30.
Gibson, an octogenarian insurance rep when interviewed by History Channel in 2018, remained skeptical, but that didn’t stop him from cashing in. He said, “I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny. I don’t believe in Santa. And I really don’t believe in the Flatwoods Monster. But I do want to boost our community.”