Since ancient times, unidentified flying objects have titillated Earthlings. The Roman historian Livy wrote that a “great spectacle of ships gleamed in the sky” one winter in the third century BC. But it was not until the turn of the twentieth century that this phenomenon began to grip the American psyche. Multiple cigar-shaped airships were witnessed in over a dozen states between 1896 and 1897, constituting some of the first documented UFO sightings in US history. Anthropologist Valerii Sanarov claims that these sightings reflected a collective hysteria over the approaching aerospace age. “The conclusion goes without saying,” says the scholar, “flying saucers and little green men do not exist in objective reality.”
Is it right to deal in absolutes, even when it comes to ufology? The study of alien encounters is so marred by embellishment and caricature that most cases are rarely viewed seriously, much less critically. One example is the story of the Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter, an event cherished by UFO enthusiasts and derided by skeptics. The indisputable fact is this: on the night of August 21, 1955, eleven people arrived at the Hopkinsville, Kentucky police station and said, “We need help.” What occurred before this plea, and the reactions to it, demonstrates how cultural expectations can hinder us from uncovering true “objective reality.”
The events of August 21 began at a farmhouse owned by “Lucky” Sutton on Old Madisonville Road, located between the two towns of Kelly and Hopkinsville. A total of eleven men, women, and children were present in the household, including Sutton’s friend Billy Ray Taylor and his family, who were visiting from Pennsylvania. At about 7 pm, Taylor went outside to retrieve a bucket of water and witnessed “what looked like a flying saucer come over the trees” and land in a field near the house. Shortly thereafter, “little men with big heads and long arms” approached the house and peered in the windows. Sutton and Taylor opened fire on the unwanted visitors, piled their families in their cars, and drove to alert the police.
The Kelly-Hopkinsville incident continues to captivate the public’s imagination. For the remainder of their tenure at the farmhouse, the Sutton family fended off curious tourists looking to catch a glimpse of the “little green men.” The Kentucky New Era regularly reprints old features on the incident for nostalgic residents. It is listed in the now-public report of the Air Force’s secretive UFO investigation, Project Blue Book. Carl Sagan, the famed astronomer, even expressed interest in the event.
Many retellings of the story, however, are tinged with both subtle and overt condescension of the witnesses. “Why is it that these supposedly intelligent creatures visit the most unintelligent areas of the Earth?” commented a user in an online discussion. A recent theater show based on the event was described as “aliens and hillbillies in a musical together.” Kelly-Hopkinsville seemingly fits well into the stereotypical extraterrestrial encounter: dumb hillbillies, drunk on moonshine, shoot recklessly at “invaders” that were never there.
Some believe that there is a perfectly logical explanation for what happened on the Sutton homestead that night. Joe Nickell, a noted skeptic and paranormal investigator, posits that “heightened expectation prompted by the earlier ‘flying-saucer’ sighting” caused the witnesses to mistake owls for the “little men.” Weather records show that a minor meteor shower was visible over the state of Kentucky that night, accounting for the possible UFO. And great horned owls, which are very common to the region, resemble the big-eared sketches composed from witness testimony.
The implied characterization of the Sutton and Taylor families, however, misses the mark. An aerial map of the Kelly-Hopkinsville shows that the land is completely flat, with no trace of the remote mountain landscape supposedly typical of “hillbilly” clans. Multiple neighbors’ homes were just a few hundred feet away. Reporters were also quick to emphasize the family’s soberness and unwillingness to capitalize financially on tourists’ attention. In addition, the farmhouse did not have running water. A common owl was likely a familiar sight during a nighttime water-run, casting doubt that the witnesses could not tell the difference between animal and alien.
It is correct that investigators found no physical evidence that invaders stepped foot on the Sutton property that night. No footprints, no blood, and no marks on the house could be identified. Might the family have faked the incident? The prevailing theory of “heightened expectation” (brought on by the witnesses’ backwoods nature) assumes that the Suttons and Taylors did not have the wherewithal to engineer such a ruse. The “hillbillies” are thus unfairly seen as incapable of discerning reality or orchestrating a believable hoax.
The daughter of witness Elmer “Lucky” Sutton, Geraldine Hawkins, continues to defend her father’s claim about the encounter. In a recent interview, Hawkins criticized the fact that many newspaper reports refer to her family as “a low-status group of people.” She added, “You could look at him and tell that something happened to them that night. They couldn’t have made up something like that.” To this day, however, no further evidence has emerged to prove or disprove the event.
The Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter shows how essential it is to examine preconceived perceptions before pronouncing what is “true” or “false.” The Suttons and Taylors were caught in a cultural paradox that is perhaps unique to American identity. While the burden of proof still rests with them, we must also look at how our own approach can be clouded by stereotyping. Did aliens really engage in armed combat with humans on the night of August 21, 1955? Let’s come up with some new theories.
Valerii I. Sanarov, “On the Nature and Origin of Flying Saucers and Little Green Men,”
Current Anthropology, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Apr. 1981), pp. 163-167