Monday, February 3, 2014

The Flatwoods Monster

People have an irritating tendency to associate cryptids with aliens.  Cryptozoology, as the name implies, focuses on unknown (but plausible) animals.  Its hypotheses should thus be naturalistic in origin.  "The Yeti evolved from Gigantopithecus" is a valid theory.  "Bigfoot comes from outer space" is not.  In general, the "extraterrestrial explanation" is just poor science -- it may be exciting, but there's almost always a better answer.

I say "almost " because there's an exception to every rule.  One of those exceptions may be the Flatwoods Monster.  In September 1952, three Virginian schoolboys saw a glowing object shoot through the night.  It came to rest on a nearby farm, upon which two of the boys immediately rushed to tell their mother.  Along with three other locals, she went to investigate, and to see what had fallen from the sky.

Navigating by flashlight, the party of four traveled through the woods.  Eventually, they reached the top of a hill -- where they found a "pulsating ball of fire".  Even more startlingly, they saw a monstrous creature gliding towards them.  It was ten feet tall, with a red face and a spade-shaped hood.  The creature had small, talonlike arms and hissed as it glided across the ground, its feet invisible between a green skirtlike garment.  Terrified, the witnesses fled down the hill, and reported their experience.

In the wake of the encounter, all the witnesses immediately became ill.  They reported a chemical mist they had smelled on the hilltop, something to which they attributed their sickness.  The doctor who examined them, evidently, had seen their symptoms before -- in victims of mustard-gas attacks.  On top of their physical problems, the Flatwoods group were all traumatized.  They reported persistent nightmares, and one was hospitalized for weeks.

It's easy to see why people call this monster an alien.  This ten-foot, spade-hooded being sounds like nothing on earth -- and it appeared alongside a fiery UFO.  In this case, extraterrestrial explanations seem to be justified.  But of course, there are always alternative theories.  Two in particular come to mind -- and they aren't mutually exclusive.  The first is that the Flatwoods witnesses merely saw a barn owl.  Before you scoff, consider this:  these owls have heart-shape faces, hiss while they fly, and often perch ten feet off the ground.  When startled, it would be easy to mistake such a bird for a monster -- especially in poor lighting.

Another theory is mass hysteria.  1952 was dubbed "The Year of the Flying Saucers" -- dozens of sightings were reported across America, and UFOs were on everybody's mind.  A meteor was seen over Virginia on the same night that the monster appeared.  Perhaps the three Virginian boys saw it, and reported it to their mother.  Upon hearing of a fiery object in the sky, she and the other witnesses jumped to conclusions -- they expected to find a spaceship, and perhaps even an alien, where the fireball had landed.

Of course, this would have made them nervous and jumpy.  You would be, too, if you were searching the woods by flashlight for a UFO!  So when they reached the top of the hill, it would have been easy for the witnesses to panic.  Perhaps they did see a barn owl, and in their paranoid state mistook it for a monster.  And what of the toxic fumes?  There may have been none at all.  Hysteria, Wikipedia notes, produces symptoms very similar to mustard gas.  The Flatwoods quartet could have been suffering from either.

There are a number of details in the Flatwoods case that are hard to explain away.  No owl has this monster's coloration, and it's hard to hallucinate a giant fireball.  I'm not convinced this cryptid was an alien -- but the idea isn't ludicrous.  The Flatwoods Monster has been sighted only once, so we may never determine its identity.  But for once, I'm willing to entertain a less natural explanation.

Read more about the Flatwoods Monster:
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