The story of the well-documented Kentucky UFO landing that spawned the film “E.T.”
With as many things as Kentucky has to brag about — championship college basketball teams, Muhammad Ali, inventing the most delicious distilled spirit in the history of the known universe — there’s one Bluegrass-centric claim to fame that doesn’t often get discussed: “The Kelly Green Men Incident.”
No, not that Green Man, but the dozen or so entities that, in the summer of 1955, allegedly terrorized a small Kentucky town and formed the nucleus for hit paranormal films such as “Poltergeist” and “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.”
But while those films raked in hundreds of millions at the box-office for their depictions of middle-class America seemingly under siege by supernatural forces and cross-dressing humanoids, the real story behind them is decidedly Kentuckian: Salt of the earth country folk, a secluded farm, and lots of shotgun shells.
An “immense, shining object.”
The early evening of August 21, 1955, began as most evenings did in Kelly, a microscopic hamlet in rural West Kentucky situated just 10 miles north of the relatively bustling town of Hopskinville: Quiet, peaceful, and with not much going on. On Old Madisonville Road, Billy Ray Taylor and his wife were visiting at the Sutton family farmhouse, enjoying dinner and conversation without — according to multiple accounts of the bizarre incident that would put Kelly on the map — the aid of liquor.
After dinner, Taylor stepped out of the farmhouse to fetch a pail of water from the Sutton’s well when he noticed an “immense, shining object” in the sky, which landed not far from the property.
According to a dispatch from the August 22, 1955, edition of the Kentucky New Era:
He saw what looked like a flying saucer come over the trees and land in a field at a point about a city block behind the house. There was no explosion, only a semi-hissing sound, and [Taylor] returned to the house with the bucket of water.
A short time later somebody reported some little men with big heads and log arms were approaching the house. The men were described as having huge eyes and hands out of proportion to their small bodies. The visitors were wearing what looked to be metal plate. [sic]
But instead of trying to lure the aliens into their home with a carefully place trail of Reeses’ Pieces, Taylor and household head “Lucky” Sutton did what any self-respecting Kentuckian would do under the circumstances.
The men got their guns, a shotgun for Sutton and a .22 caliber target pistol for Taylor. By and by one of the little men pressed his face against the window. [Sutton fired and] the face disappeared.
The men decided to go outside and see if the visitor had been hit. Taylor was in front and when he emerged from the front door, a huge hand reached down from the low roof above the door and grabbed him by the hair. He pulled away, and the two men went on out of the house.
One of the strange little men was in a nearby tree, another on top of the house. A blast from Sutton’s shotgun knocked another one of the men down but he did not appear hurt. He disappeared in the darkness.
Taylor reportedly opened fire on other members of the invading party, also with little effect. The battle went on for some time. When the occupants of the house saw their chance, they jumped into their cars and drove to Hopkinsville for help.
Their wives and children, Sutton and Taylor floored it to Hopkinsville and alerted local police, who had also claimed to have seen strange lights in the sky that night. Before long, state police and the United States Air Force became involved, interviewing multiple witnesses to the shoot out with the seemingly indestructible invaders, and would find no solid evidence save numerable bullet holes and shell casings to bolster the frightened claims of over a dozen eyewitnesses.
Almost 20 years later, Steven Spielberg would learn of the story while conducting research for his 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
In a 2011 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Spielberg acknowledged that elements of the so-called “Hopkinsville Goblins” case, as it is also known, worked their way into the genesis of the story for “E.T.”
“[E.T.] was going to be called ‘Night Skies,’ based on a piece of UFO mythology … where a farm family reported little spindly grey aliens attacking their farm, even riding cows in the farmyard,” Spielberg said. “This farm family basically huddled together for survival … It’s a story that’s well-known in the world of ufology, and we based our script on that story.”
The script was ultimately reworked to create the iconic, beer-guzzling alien and eliminated the shoot-out altogether.
After the New Era story was published, public reaction was largely skeptical of this tale of rural Kentuckians doing battle with creatures from beyond the stars. The Suttons reportedly never profited from the publicity, and multiple sources describe Lucky’s aversion to all of the attention that descended onto his humble farmhouse.
So was the Kelly Green Men incident a close encounter of the kickass kind? The town of Kelly would like to think so, having established a “Little Green Men” festival replete with costumes, retellings of the event and a battle of the bands. The third annual festival will occur Friday, August 16, in Kelly. More information can be found here.
Skeptics, however, contend that the aliens were actually an escaped circus monkey, or some other more rational explanation. Why, after all, would aliens descend upon an isolated farmhouse, especially when no one was passing around a bottle of bourbon?
But Geraldine Sutton Stith, Lucky’s daughter, believes that what she and her father experienced was decidedly something more than an enraged monkey.
“The family actually battled with something,” Sutton Stith told WLEX-18 last year., saying her father would appear scared every time he told the story.
“It was like a horror movie,” she said.
Jonathan Meador, Writer
Stanley Sievers, Illustration