Posted by: Loren Coleman on November 6th, 2007
The date was September 12, 1952. The place, Flatwoods, West Virginia.
On that crisp fall day, Kathleen May (pictured), Eugene Lemon, 17, Neal Nunley, 14, Eddie May, 13, Teddie May, 14, Ronald Shaver, 10, Teddie Neal, 10, Tommy Hyer, 10, and Lemon’s big old dog, climbed to the top of a hill and saw a “monster.”
They immediately felt they had to run, as fast as they could, someplace.
The huge dark figure with glowing eyes and a head “like the ace of spades” blocked their path. About 12 feet high (4 meters), the figure had a reddish face and seemed to “glide” (as cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson wrote) toward the eyewitnesses, who fled in terror.
The thing was said to be over six feet tall to the monster’s waist, and as opposed to “red” or “orange” eyes as noted in news stories, the witnesses all agreed the eyes’ illumination seemed to be pale blue in color, in records Sanderson kept.
Eugene Lemon fainted.
Grabbing Lemon’s limp body, the group instantly started doing what the dog had done moments earlier. They all turned tail and started running down the hill as fast as they could. Little Tommy Hyer would later tell Ivan T. Sanderson that he crawled under the fence to get away, but that Kathleen May cleared the six-foot gate without opening it.
The dog who had ran first to the bottom of the hill, vomited, then died two days later.
And the rest is history. Or so it once seemed, before postmodernism fell from the sky. Read on.
The old Bailey Fisher property still exists largely untouched, just as it did back over 50 years ago in the little town of Flatwoods, off the big interstate next to Sutton. You will pass a huge signpost that acknowledges the event today at the town limits, reading: “Flatwoods, Home of the Green Monster.” The hill where Kathleen May and the young men saw the Monster is easy to find behind a used car lot, but respect that this is private land, posted with no trespassing signs. You can see it from a distance, from the public road, through the trees.
It looked worse than Frankenstein. It couldn’t have been human.- Kathleen May.
Yesterday, I blogged about the implications for cryptozoology, as the term “cryptid” explodes beyond the boundaries of our field. I attended various panels at the Twenty-First Annual Conference of The Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts 2007, recently held in Portland, Maine. The event was called SLSA ’07: CODE.
While my concentration was keyed on the cryptozoology and cryptid papers at the conference, I began my first day by attending a four-paper presentation about Gray Barker and Flatwoods. This was a panel that needs to be talked about separately, as the presenters discussed these matters without any hint of cryptozoology in the air.
The panelists were mostly researchers from the University of West Virginia (UVW). The panel was entitled “Cyborg Monsters, Literary Hoaxes, and the MiB: from the Saucerian Archives of Gray Barker.” It held some interest for me, as they discussed the research into the Gray Barker archives in Clarksburg, and their view on the Flatwoods Monster. They mentioned many people I had worked with or have known, such as Ivan T. Sanderson, James Moseley, John Keel, and Barker, so the material was firsthand familiar to me.
The individual papers were Sandy Baldwin’s “The Great Hoax: Gray Barker’s saucerian writings and the limit of techno-scientific discourse,” Nick Perich’s “They Knew Too Much: The Men in Black and the Ends of Knowledge,” and Nick Hales’ “How to Make a Myth: The Flatwoods Monster as Cyborg.” All three of those men are from UVW. The last paper was a multimedia show by Brown University’s artist Alan Sondheim, entitled “Gray’s Anatomy: How to make a flying saucer.”
In general, the panel was interesting as I watched how Barker, who is seen as a hoaxster by many ufologists, is now being viewed by these men of academia. I imagined, as I was listening to them, how university professors might study Ray Wallace in future academic research on the history of Bigfoot, placing Wallace front and center as the primary and pivotal figure. A vision of just such an imagined panel flashed, with horror, before me as I was watching this session about promoter and prankster Gray Barker.
Of course, for the entire panel time – almost two hours – they didn’t know I was there, and so I felt like I was an alien in the room watching these intellectual humans giggling their way through a few parts of their papers. It seemed relatively easy to get an academic chuckle by making fun of the contactee stories of George Adamski or of Gray Barker’s prose or poems. The source of the ridicule was not because Barker was a closeted gay, which was acknowledged and moved away from, of course, but because Barker believed in and played games within the wonderful world of “flying saucers.”
I did feel like a spy from the outside (actually even outside of ufology), watching an academic insiders’ gathering having so many laughs at the expense of ufology.
They seemed to understand who Barker was but they decided to elevate him to an even grander status, probably merely as a result of the archives being nearby and thus he is the focus. To hear them, Barker was the center of the universe of “Saucerian” matters (the term of Barker’s they used throughout their papers to talk about ufology).
That’s all well and good, but the remarkably high-brow joking got tiring by the end of their presentations.
Because these scholars live with Gray Barker’s archives in their own backyard, in the library at Clarksburg, West Virginia, they are thoroughly documenting and studying it, from their point of view. I’m actually glad they are, and I can have a bit of a sense of humor about all of this if the end result is good scholarship, which it is obviously their goal.
Back to Flatwoods. All of the four presentations were worthy of my close awareness, but I wanted to pay special attention to the Flatwoods one.
Nick Hales’ abstract of his paper, “How to Make a Myth: The Flatwoods Monster as Cyborg,” follows:
Gray Barker adroitly integrated a host of diverse texts into what constitutes an ultimate postmodern novel/anti-novel, the Gray Barker archive: a hodge podge of correspondences, newsletters, sci-fi stories, photographs, alien seeds, amateur metaphysical musings, folklore, etc., most of which have the alien Other as a central thematic. West Virginia, where he resided and which Barker dubbed “the mini Bermuda triangle,” was indeed a rich resource for Barker’s vivid fictive and myth-making imagination.
West Virginia’s location at the margins of American cultural and economic life lent itself to a production of strange folklore texts: mysterious swamp gas light shows, ghost stories, monsters and alien abductions. One of the “texts” from which Barker drew is the Flatwoods Monster encounter of September 12, 1952 in Braxton County WV. In this paper I will look at the way the Flatwoods Monster emerged as a text both at the local level as folklore and at the national level as one of series of alien encounters during the Cold War.
I’m particularly interested in the way Barker folded the Flatwoods monster myth into his extant archive and the way he helped to develop and define the myth. The Flatwoods Monster emerged as a strange hybrid between monster, alien, and rocket ship. What is most intriguing about the Flatwoods Monster is just how early, like other alien abduction texts, it prognosticated the posthumanist transformation ushered in by the Cold War.
The Flatwoods Monster was a kind of cyborg Other developed as folklore before the formal text of the cyborg was produced in the early 1960s. – Nick Hale, “How to Make a Myth: The Flatwoods Monster as Cyborg,” SLSA ’07: CODE, November 1, 2007.
Hale’s paper, due to the pivotal role of Gray Barker in the beginning of the history of the Flatwoods Monster, was intriguing to watch and hear unfold. Hale said several things I have a different point of view about, such as implying that Ivan T. Sanderson called West Virginia a “vile vortex” or that, in some way, Kathleen May is responsible for the shift in drawings of the Flatwoods Monster or even of the shifting stories that you can read in each new writer’s retelling. These “narrative vortices,” Hale said, were part of the moving landscape of Barker’s world. (I don’t recall Sanderson saying West Virginia was a vortex, but he may have; I certainly know that eyewitness stories shift due to editors, authors, and media changes in the accounts, especially in the case of the Flatwoods scenario. Is that Kathleen May’s fault, as impied by Hale?)
One solid area of agreement I have with Hale’s presentation was his dissection of the recent complete rewriting and revisionistic history of the Flatwoods Monster into some kind of robotic cyborg, as a tool of a vast governmental conspiracy. Hale noted that the level of paranoia and revisions of the original story have been extreme in recent years, traveling far from anything in the archives, the historical record or the eyewitnesses’ sightings.
The crowd of 25 or so were quiet after the presentation, and no one wanted to ask questions or respond. So I stood up, and was allowed to be a “respondent.” I didn’t mention the vortices subject, mostly because I forgot it for the moment to mention the following points.
I briefly identified myself, and set out to share a little information that countered the incorrect statements of historical fact that were made in their talks:
1) They were unaware of the reality of Carlos Allende, who was an actual historical figure named Carl Allen, a con man who created the Philadephia Experiment fiction. The presenters appeared to wish to pin many of Allende’s activities on the publisher/hoaxster Barker;
2) Allende most assuredly was the source of the notations in the Vero edition, not Barker;
3) Barker did not “cause” M. K. Jessup’s suicide in 1959, by pushing him over the edge; Jessup’s own depression and personal problems apparently did;
4) Barker superimposed the drawing of the Flatwoods Monster on a photograph of a WV site to show what the incident would look like in situ (a typical technique in studying ufological events), not to mix mediums to confuse realities;
5) I pointed out that the papers ignored the overt influence that the subculture of being gay had on Barker’s life and his pornographic writings, as many of the jokes with James Moseley were an artifact of that; the presenters were unaware that rumors had circulated around George Adamski that he had seduced young boys; and finally,
6) The Flatwoods incident did not happen in a vacuum as there were several monsters and “meteorites” seen around West Virginia that night and the following one.
During my comment on the photograph, Alan Sondheim brought up – I thought out-of-the-blue – the fact that a local informant had told the researchers that he was the source of the Flatwoods Monster, and it was all a hoax. Of course, I pointed out that anyone, years later, can always step forward and claim a hoax for their 15 minutes of fame. Sondheim felt that was a dismissal, and the claimant wasn’t out for glory.
I found our exchange amusing. Yes, Sondheim might have been right about my counter, but what did his point have to do with the photo? We were engaging in an intellectual academic debate that hardly had anything to do with any realities. We quickly caught ourselves, I sat down, and then Alan asked if I had any more comments.
I mentioned I’d talk to them later, after they dismissed the panel.
I spoke to Sandy Baldwin privately soon afterwards, and we promised to email each other more about their project.
The next day, as it turned out, I gave the team a copy of my 2002 Mothman book to assist them with some insider-ufology clarifications. In Chapter 1, “Flatwoods,” of the book, for example, I document that the story includes several similar sightings of “monsters” in that part of West Virginia. Indeed, Flatwoods does exist in a context, which is historically, geographically, sexually, and culturally significant. These scholars know that, but seemed to merely need to keep looking beyond Clarksburg to get more of the code.
Sometimes the SLSA folks can be strangers in a strange land too.
The SLSA ’07: CODE papers on Barker and Flatwoods were good, and like the souvenirs I used throughout this blog to illustrate it, the cultural impacts, interpretations, and implications of the Flatwoods Monster today go far beyond West Virginia.