I never saw the tinfoil space-suited alien that caused such an uproar in the rural community of Falkville, Ala., in 1973. Only one person claimed to have witnessed the real thing, whatever it was: a UFO experience or well-executed hoax.
But when I went to work for the local newspaper in 1978, the controversial incident was still fresh on people’s minds. From time-to-time, newspaper staffers would field questions from national publications or UFO/occult magazines about what came to be known as the Tin Foil Alien.
In our photo archives were copies of the original four Polaroid images that made the front pages of papers across the nation and were transmitted by wire services around the world. Jeff Greenhaw was the photographer and sole person to encounter what he believed was a visitor from outer space.
At the time – Oct. 17, 1973 – he was the 26-year-old police chief of Falkville, a small town in south Morgan County, about 60 miles north of Birmingham off Interstate 65. Responding to a call from a hysterical woman about something strange that had landed in a local field, Chief Greenhaw went to investigate.
What he found and photographed would make him the hero of UFO-ologists and infamous with the UFO skeptics. It was so hokey as to be unbelievable, at least this was the opinion of local newspaper readers; but at the same time, his story had staying power. Forty-five years later, I am still asked by strangers who’ve learned I worked for a newspaper that covered the incident if the alien encounter was real.
What Greenhaw captured with several Polaroid shots was a man-shaped figure covered in shiny metallic skin, standing in the middle of a narrow gravel road. Appearing almost robot-like and humanoid at the same time, the Tin Foil Alien image, as it was later dubbed, endures whenever an author decides to delve into UFO encounters from the early 1970s, a very active time for flying saucers, according to reports.
Three of the photos (the first is too dark to see anything) show a figure in a wrinkled shiny head-to-toe suit, almost like wrapped aluminum foil or an asbestos fire suit. There seems to be a lozenge-shaped helmet of the same material on the figure’s head, but without eye holes or visible features.
Greenhaw later reported the thing had an antenna sticking out the top of its head and moved in a jerky, mechanical manner. The figure fled from him and easily outdistanced Greenhaw’s vehicle, running – according to the police chief – at speeds faster than a human and making long jumps indicative of some type of propulsion system.
The policeman’s vehicle slid into a ditch, and he watched as the mysterious shiny figure disappeared.
But the story did not end. Excitement reached a fever pitch when larger Alabama newspapers than our humble weekly pounced on the alien report. For a period of time, the media focused heavily on Greenhaw’s improbable encounter. It was not the type of fame that was good for his career.
The town council fired him several months later. As far as I know, he never confessed to being part of a hoax or recanted his story of meeting an alien on a lonely road one fall night. According to those who further investigated and analyzed the story, Greenhaw never monetarily benefited from the photos or his personal recollections of that eerie encounter. If it was intended as a practical joke, the backfire cost him a lot.
The Tin Foil Alien became a favorite topic of discussion among newspaper editors and reporters during press conventions. Journalists enjoy “one-upping” their peers with “you’ll-never-believe-this” recollections of weird stories. So far as I know, no one ever topped the alien encounter in Falkville, Ala.
Five years after Greenhaw’s photos brought international media attention to a very rural area, Steve Spielberg’s movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was released. The plot told of common people – an electric lineman, a single mother and her son, and others – trying to understand encounters with seemingly alien entities.
Today, the movies, TV shows and streaming video series about aliens coming to earth are so numerous as to be routine entertainment fare. I wonder if it all started with those strange images snapped by Jeff Greenhaw and shared with tens of millions — both skeptics, believers and those undecided but with imagination enough to speculate: “What if?”