West Virginia, the small American state best known for its "Wild & Wonderful" motto, ravaged coal mines, and rich Appalachian history, might seem an unlikely birthplace for UFO phenomenology; after all, most people associate aliens and flying saucers with Roswell, New Mexico's otherworldly desert landscape. Without the pioneering West Virginian pulp writer, huckster, and alien enthusiast Gray Barker, however, the seeds of the famous "Roswell Incident" might never have borne fruit. And as the 2009 documentary Shades of Gray - a warm and wistful look at Barker's life - shows, that would have been a shame for American pop culture.
Barker got his start as the voice of the paranoiac fringe of ufology (the study of unidentified flying objects) in the early 1950s, embellishing yarns about a creature sighted in Braxton County, West Virginia, near his hometown. Known alternately as the Braxton County Monster and the Flatwoods Monster, this alleged ten-foot-tall apparition with huge, blank eyes protruding from a heart-shaped face, startled a group of young boys who saw it emerge in a cloud of foul-smelling fog, a red light pulsating beside it.
Barker, an avid sci-fi and horror film fan who worked as a distributor for local drive-in theaters, took the story and ran with it, submitting it to a popular occult magazine of the time, Fate. While contemporary research now suggests that the boys exaggerated the admittedly unsettling spectacle of a large barn owl and a meteor shower, interest in this creature has never waned, and it receives its homage in an annual event, the Flatwoods Green Monster Festival.
Not content to confine his imagination to local monster sightings, Barker made his most lasting contribution to ufology with the 1956 publication of the best-selling book, They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers. As Journal of a UFO Investigator author David Halperin states in Shades of Gray, Barker's book invited readers to participate in solving the mystery of the U.S. government's cover-up of alien encounters and found its niche in the Cold War era. Barker's fanciful tales of "Men in Black" who strong-arm ufologists privy to the secrets of flying saucers and alien colonies into silence resonated with a public that was gradually realizing just how much their government might be hiding from them.
Several interviewees in Shades of Gray also poignantly suggest that Barker's UFO conspiracy theories had their roots in his experiences as a gay man living in a rural small town at a time when homosexuality was feared and demonized. As author David Halperin explains, "Certainly Barker had a tremendous secret that he had to keep - the idea that there is something so explosive that it cannot be revealed and then if you speak about it, you get into trouble, was something that echoed for him."
Barker continued to write books and articles and to speak at ufology gatherings until his death in 1984; The Silver Bridge, published in 1970, speculated on another West Virginia monster, the Mothman, allegedly seen several times in the 1960s. Whether Barker actually believed in Mothman, the Flatwoods Monster, or even the flying saucers that were his bread and butter is open to debate. His friend Jim Moseley deflates the hopes of ardent ufologists when he posits that Barker was "happy to take other people's delusions and encourage them." Another Barker associate, John C. Sherwood, has even published an article in the debunker's bible, Skeptical Inquirer, admitting his part in several of Barker's elaborate hoaxes.
Although Barker may not actually have known "too much about flying saucers," his infectious enthusiasm for local folklore and visitors from other worlds has shaped our paranoid millennium's search for truth.
This article is from the March 24, 2011 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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