Should a bright UFO ever streak across the night sky in front of you, don't be so quick to think the show might already be over. For throughout the 1960s, some who had that very experience found there was more to come. It came in the figure of a man, unnaturally tall, strangely dressed in a long shiny green metallic jacket, bald headed and eery looking. But his most distinctive feature is that from which his name comes: his bizarre ear-to-ear grin, like a silent shriek dashed across his face. The Grinning Man frightened UFO witnesses for many years, and some say his visitations are not yet finished.
The original Grinning Man report to make it into print, so far as anyone knows, was published in UFO researcher John Keel's 1970 book Strange Creatures from Time and Space. He devotes an entire chapter to the Grinning Man. This original incident concerned two boys walking along a street in New Jersey one night in October 1966. Keel wrote that they saw a strange tall man standing in some brush beneath a turnpike:
Jimmy nudged me... and said "Who's that guy standing behind you?" I looked around and there he was... behind that fence. Just standing there. He pivoted around and looked right at us... and then he grinned a big old grin.
The man was over six feet tall, they agreed, and was dressed in a "sparkling green" coverall costume that shimmered and seemed to reflect the street lights. There was a wide black belt around his waist... He had a very dark complexion and "little round eyes... real beady... set far apart." They could not remember seeing any hair, ears, or nose on this figure, nor did they notice his hands.
That same evening, Keel wrote that a strange UFO was being reported just kilometers away at several sites throughout New Jersey. It was a brilliant white light, darting through the sky and behind hills, and was reported in various locations by civilians and police officers alike, most notably at Wanaque Reservoir.
But the most dramatic and seminal encounter with the Grinning Man came about three weeks later. Woodrow Wilson Derenberger, a 50-year-old sewing machine salesman, was driving home from Marietta, OH to Mineral Wells, WV, on the night of November 2, 1966. He had a very strange experience. So strange, in fact, that the next day he went on WTAP television in Ohio to recount his tale:
I am a salesman and I drive a truck, and last night shortly after 7:00, I was coming from Marietta OH, coming down Interstate 77, and just before I came to the insection of route 47, there was a car, passed me, overtaking me from behind; and following closely behind this car was this unidentified flying object, and as the car behind passed me, this object was following close behind it and swerved directly in front of my truck, turning crosswise. And when it turned crosswise, it slowed down. It started slowing not abruptly or too fast, but gave me plenty of time to step on my brakes and slow down with it. But it forced me to come to a complete stop. As soon as I had stopped, there was a door opened in the side of this vehicle, and this man stepped out, and came directly to me, came to the truck. He walked to the right hand side of the truck, and he told me to roll down the window; he asked me to roll down the window on the right hand side of my truck, and I done what he asked. And this man stood there, and he first asked me what I was called, and I knew he meant my name and I told him my name. And then he asked me, he said "Why are you frightened?" He said "Don't be frightened, we wish you no harm." He said "We mean you no harm, we wish you only happiness." And I told him my name, and when I told him my name, he said he was called Cold. That was the name that he was called by.
They had a telepathic conversation, mostly small talk, where Derenberger was headed, what the next town was; and after a few minutes Cold returned to his vehicle and flew away. Derenberger described the vehicle as a shiny, charcoal-colored thing the shape of a kerosene lamp, tapered at both ends and with a bulge in the middle.
Together, these two events alone comprise the bulk of the Grinning Man legend. Virtually every article you read about the Grinning Man cites these two examples, along with vague statements like "many other cases". John Keel's chapter also goes on to mention many other cases, however the ones he mentions don't have any clear connection to a tall, bald, scary Grinning Man wearing a shiny green jacket. Keel tells about a woman who woke up in the middle of the night to find a man wearing a checkered shirt standing at the foot of her bed. He talks about reports of UFO sightings in Point Pleasant, WV that caused car engines to stop working, and about farmers in upstate New York chasing a "giant, broad-shouldered grinning man with an unruly shock of silver hair." Basically, Keel writes about assorted nighttime prowlers, and asserts that they were sighted some weeks before or after somebody reported a UFO. Keel makes no convincing case that there was any connection between any of the events, or even that any of them were particularly remarkable.
When I'm looking up old stories like those reported in John Keel's chapter on the Grinning Man, I always try to find backup sources. Keel, as prolific as he was, often frustrates me for how rarely he cites sources. For example, he told the story about the two boys encountering the shiny green Grinning Man and described how he and a couple of friends interviewed them, but Keel failed to say how he learned about the event or managed to get in touch with the boys. So I was on my own if I was going to state here that these boys were real and actually did report this event. But, try as I might, I was able to find no corroborating sources at all. Every word printed about the boys and their shiny green man references John Keel's book as the original — and only — source. If Keel did learn about this event from some news report, it evaded my research.
So that brought me to the alleged UFO sightings that were taking place at the same time as Keel's apocryphal boys met the scary green Grinning Man. "New Jersey newspapers from one end of the state to the other," wrote Keel, "were filled with UFO reports during that period." So I set about to corroborate the specific sightings that Keel mentioned. Guess what I found: Nothing. Now, it's fair to say that online searchable news archives from New Jersey from 1966 are pretty slim, and it's a fact that a lot was reported that's not currently discoverable through an online text search. But there are other sources. There are UFO enthusiast groups who catalog every UFO sighting they can get their hands on. Keel was fond of citing NICAP, the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, an enthusiast group that was active at the time of these events, and whose archives are now available online. NICAP lists no UFO sightings either that day or in the preceding weeks. I couldn't find the specific names of the witnesses given by Keel anywhere either, except in various references to Keel's books. So, unfortunately, I'm going to classify Keel's version of events as anecdotal, with no surviving evidence that they ever actually happened.
But even if the tall, creepy Grinning Man that Keel says was reported by two boys did happen, exactly as the story made it into Keel's book, there's little reason to connect it to Woody Derenberger's man on the highway. In Derenberg's television interview, only once did he mention a facial expression on the man, and it was not extraordinary:
He had a smile on his face, he appeared very courteous and friendly.
He looked perfectly natural and normal as any human being, his face looked like he had a good tan, a deep sun tan, he was not too dark, but it was just like he had been out in the sun a lot and had a good tan. His hair was combed straight back and it was a dark brown, and he seemed to have a good thick head of hair. His eyebrows, his face, and his features were very normal. I don't believe that he looked any different than any other man that we'd meet on the street... He looked to be approximately 35-40 years old. He was a very nice looking man, he was neat.
Neither was he unusually tall or large:
I would say he was close to six feet tall and he would weigh around 180 or 185.
Neither was he dressed in an unusual manner, outside of the glossiness of the fabric:
He had a topcoat on, and it was zippered down the front. The top two buttons, like my coat here, were opened, and this outfit was a shiny material, it was a glossy outfit, like it was metallic, I suppose you would call it. And his shirt was a little bit darker than his jacket. And below his coat he had on trousers of the same kind of a cloth material, and I believe the trousers were just a shade lighter than his coat... I would say that it wasn't a uniform, it didn't have the cut of a uniform. It was more like you'd wear a suit to town.
Who knows what actually happened to Derenberger on that strange night; but whoever his friendly telepathic gentleman was, he obviously didn't bear any resemblance to the frightening Grinning Man that urban legendry so often connects him to.
Derenberger's story did little for him. His obsession with it cost him his job and his wife, and according to Keel who visited him a year later, they found him "hiding behind drawn curtains" from what he believed were "hundreds of UFO believers and skeptics," saying that "Indrid Cold and his friends frequently visited the farm, often arriving by automobile, for long, friendly chats." He had almost certainly become delusional. Woody Derenberger died in March of 1990 in Parkersburg, WV, 23 years after Indrid Cold pulled him over on the highway.
So who is the Grinning Man? In point of fact, he's really only the title of Chapter 14 in Strange Creatures from Time and Space. One author says two boys once saw someone who looked strange and had a big scary grin, but that author failed to produce any other accounts that seemed similar. He also failed to convincingly argue that such a man is connected to UFO sightings. So if you're worried about a frightening encounter with a tall, demonic character sporting a malevolent grin, you're probably safe... for now.