Kentucky’s Storied History of High Strangeness

Originally published in Volume 1, Issue 1 and Volume 1, Issue 2 of The Lake Cumberland Current.

Encounters with the unknown bind us together unlike any other aspect of the human experience. Speak with enough people on the subject for long enough and it quickly becomes obvious that almost everyone has, at some point in their life, been confronted by a strange circumstance that defies explanation. Be it sighting a mysterious light traversing the night sky, a crossing of paths with some anomalous creature, or simply a series of events that seem somewhat too convenient to be coincidence, those of us lucky, or unlucky, enough to have seen the briefest glimpse of that which transcends our current knowledge of the known universe are forever changed. Conservative and liberal, religious and secular, skeptic and believer, witnesses are bonded by their having come face to face with the ethereal and otherworldly and the questions raised and left to ponder long after the initial encounter has ended.

Small towns are strange by nature, with their cozy quirks and tight knit communities, and it seems often play the backdrop to events of the supernatural, paranormal, and just plain weird. Towns like Roswell, New Mexico, famous for becoming a supposed UFO crash site in 1947, and Point Pleasant, West Virginia, home to the enigmatic Mothman sightings of the late 60s, host multi-day paranormal themed festivals with thousands in attendance. However, even within these renowned hotspots of high strangeness, researchers and investigators have spent decades drawing out the stories from residents and peeling back the layers of these communities to give full shape to the phenomena that put them on the map. For every place like Roswell, which has come to fully embrace it’s paranormal past, there are a hundred stories that still linger on the fringes of their small town homes; awkward pieces of local history that are kept alive by witnesses and interested parties brought together by their experiences and those inevitable questions that are raised by encounters with the unknown.

As one half of the Midnight in Kentucky podcast, an ongoing series taking a look at the spectrum of strange happenings in the bluegrass region, co-host Stephen Clark and I have taken a deep dive into several small towns in the commonwealth that harbor their own tales of alien craft in the skies overhead or humanoid creatures lurking deep within the forest. Though Kentucky may not immediately spring to mind when considering hubs for the otherworldly, strange things have been happening in the bluegrass since pioneers first began exploration of the region. In fact, the personal journals of famed settler Daniel Boone record bringing down a ten foot tall hairy giant with his rifle, Boone dubbed a ‘Yahoo,’ while making his way through the Kentucky wilderness in July of 1771. 

Just over one hundred years later, in the late 1890s, Kentuckians joined residents of Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and others, in reporting mysterious airships passing over in the skies above, a precursor to the UFO phenomenon that would explode some fifty years later. Kentucky would also serve as the sight of one of the first reported casualties of a UFO when Kentucky Air National Guard Captain Thomas F. Mantell crashed his P-51 Mustang in pursuit of an unidentified object over Owensboro in 1948, where a historical marker now stands in commemoration of the event. Mantell either fell victim to low oxygen, or was shot down by the UFO, depending on who you speak to in the community. 

In the small town of Kelly, Kentucky, lying just outside of Hopkinsville, members of the Sutton and Taylor family claimed short goblin like entities began appearing from the woods, to peek in the windows of their rural farmhouse, following a wave of UFO sightings in the area in August of 1955. Twenty years later, in 1976, the small community in and around Stanford, Kentucky was rocked when three of its most respected citizens reported being taken aboard one of these craft. The object first appeared as a red orange fireball in the distance and then an enormous disc that followed them closely along Highway 78 on their way to Hustonville.

Though these incidents are perhaps the most famous examples of high strangeness within the small towns of the commonwealth, weird occurrences continue in high frequency and show no signs of slowing down. As recently as 2013, residents of Waddy, Kentucky, in Shelby County, reported seeing a massive bipedal canine like creature lurking in the alleyways beside their homes, chasing cars on Ditto road, and mutilating livestock, gaining the beast the moniker ‘The Waddy Werewolf’. Unexplained livestock mutilations in Monroe County from 2018 echo the look of the supposed Werewolf’s victims. In addition, at the end of 2018, paranormal investigators Greg and Dana Newkirk released ‘Hellier,’ a five part documentary series recording their own investigations in Hellier, Kentucky, just outside of Pikeville, into sightings of beings that bear striking similarities to the aforementioned Hopkinsville goblins. All of this and we still haven’t even touched on Bobby Mackey’s Music World or Waverly Hills, both located within Kentucky and both considered among the world’s most haunted places, where shadow men and ethereal entities are still seen and photographed regularly.

Famed gonzo writer and Kentuckian Hunter S. Thompson may have put it best when he said of his home state, simply, “This is a weird place.” Just what makes Kentucky so wonderfully strange, though? Some paranormal researchers believe the state’s location along the 37th parallel North has something to do with it. This latitude line, than very nearly cuts the U.S. down the middle, has become well known in research circles as ‘America’s Paranormal Highway’ due to the overwhelming amount of phenomena to occur along its stretch. Sightings of both UFOs and unknown creatures, as well as animal mutilations and anomalies such as missing time, and time slips, occur in much greater frequency along this coordinate than anywhere else in the world. Recently ‘raided’ Area 51, sites of multiple well known UFO experiences, and Dulce, New Mexico, known for rumors of an alien base below its surface, join all of the Kentucky incidences listed above in falling directly on, or within 70 miles, of the 37th parallel. My own particular affinity for this pattern of phenomena is spurred by my small town home of Russell County being directly crossed by the 37th, with the county seat of Jamestown lying almost dead center within its path.

Russell County features many staples of the multitude of small communities that lay along the 37th parallel, including ghost towns lined with abandoned buildings, the discovery of Native American mounds in the area, and odd natural formations that imbue the very land itself with an ancient and strange energy. We are also no stranger to otherworldly goings on. Various hunters and woodsmen have spoken in quieted voices around gas station breakfast tables about a hairy hominid stalking through the wooded areas of the county only to be relieved when a friend corroborates their tale with one of their own. In addition, a multitude of Russell Countians have been witness to the red orange fireballs that seem to float carelessly through the skies overhead, stopping every once in awhile to hover silently and observe small town Kentucky life. Some discussion of this may exist online, but for the most part, like many other small towns, the stories of these encounters are passed on in hushed tones to those who claim to have witnessed them as well, or to those who have proven that they take the subject seriously enough to relay the circumstances to without fear of ridicule. 

It was one of those stories that first caught my attention as a child growing up in Russell County. The caged grave is, as its name suggests, a plot located in a small back road cemetery on Concord Ridge in lower Russell County covered completely by a long steel cage. At least, it was, until the cage was removed recently and the gravel back road blacktopped. The tales associated with the grave varied, but were told to my sisters and me, countless times, by our grandmother, Memi B. In every variation I’ve heard over the years, the grave has always been the final resting place of a young bride. In some, her husband, gone mad with grief, attempts to excavate the body, being the reason for the grave’s confinement. However, it was always the more supernatural casting of the story that haunted my boyhood dreams when I would spend the night with Memi and Papa B. on Bernard Ridge, just minutes from where the grave lay. In that version it is the recently deceased bride herself that claws her way through the Russell County dirt to reunite with her husband, the cage being placed on the grave to keep her undead body from roaming the ridge. 

There is another, perhaps more plausible reason, for the cage’s placement, as was found out by my sister who herself was doing research for a local newspaper article on the grave in the early 90s. “It’s to keep the cows off of it.” She was told by the farmer who owned the land on which the cemetery sat at the time. The same ‘plausible’ explanations’ exist for almost all the occurrences we’ve discussed. Perhaps, in the cold harsh light of objective truth the UFO crash at Roswell was nothing more than a weather balloon; the Mothman of Point Pleasant nothing more than an oversized owl; the Stanford abductions nothing more than an episode of collective psychosis. As an investigator committed to applying this harsh light of objective truth to these various phenomena, I will have to come to terms with the fact that the cage I once believed to keep an undead bride locked into her place of rest is, more than likely, nothing more than a livestock deterrent.

It is important to remember when considering things of this nature, however, that there is another kind of truth. A truth that is somewhat more subtle and far more elusive than objectively determining if an event did or did not happen and if otherworldly forces were or were not involved. This truth is passed down from grandmothers to their grandchildren. It reminds us of the history of the small towns that we make our homes and the people that made them what they are. It reminds us of the stories of those lands before they became our small towns and the people that made their homes of them then. It binds us across the dividing lines of politics, religion, morality, and whatever else, to ask those immortal questions about our place in the universe, together. This truth is a human truth and as the old adage goes, the truth is out there, just as it is right here, in your small home town. ‘Til the next moon rises, Nightowls!