Dark Visitors: Black-Eyed Kids - Horror or Hoax?

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What would you do if they came knocking?.

Does the black-eyed kids phenomenon have a basis in fact, or is it a product of our misperceptions and fears?

In the ten years of being a paranormal researcher, I have run across certain urban legends and folktales that have achieved a twisted sense of immortality despite their concocted convoluted nature. People love to believe a good story and, more important, they love to be scared. Terrified, in fact.

It’s a perverse pleasure we all take. There are monsters of every shape and size, acts of violence and terror that would chill even the hardiest soul to the bone. Sometimes however, the monster comes in a guise that appears innocent but in fact is so insidious as to set every hair on our heads and bodies on end as a raging ice storm of a chill shoots down our spine to our toes and our mental alarm bells begin to scream: Run!

One of the most infamous instances of such a creature of urban legend are the black-eyed kids.  The black-eyed kids are supposedly otherwise normal-looking children ranging in ages from five or six to their mid-teens. Some have been described as wearing white bed clothes, normal attire, or as having pale skin with the pallor of death upon it. One key feature, however, remains constant about the appearance of these creatures: their eyes. Their eyes always appear as jet black pools of inky darkness with no discernable sclera (whites), iris or pupil.

According to the urban legends, these black-eyed creatures appear to the unwary, often late at night, knocking on doors and windows, asking in monotonous voices to be let in or giggling in a high-pitched tone, as if they know something funny that would most likely curdle your blood. The most repeated advice to those who are rapt in attention to the tale of the black-eyed kids, or BEKs as they are called, is to ignore them, slam the door in their faces and walk away, as it would imperil your very soul to acquiesce to their siren call.

In 2013, the number of reports and stories of BEKs spiked like Walmart sales on Black Friday: through the roof.

ORIGINS

So what are black-eyed kids? Is there a rational explanation for them? If not, then what could be the source of these creepy little ghouls?

The origin of the tale of the black-eyed kids is very hard to pin down to an exact origin point or a single source. The stories about them began slowly at first back in the mid- to late-1990s across internet message boards, which were at the time the Facebook or MySpace of the day. For years, the message boards were lit up with stories of encounters, and as the internet grew in scope, becoming more and more integrated into our lives, it also began to shape our experiences and the frames of reference in which we put things into.

While difficult to pin down the exact origin of the black-eyed kids stories, one source might have been the story of Brian Bethel, an Internet blogger/journalist who claims his was the first black-eyed kid encounter. It happened in 1996 in Abilene, Texas. Bethel’s encounter took place in the spring or summer of that year he reports:

I had gone down to the former site of Camalott Communications, one of the area’s original Internet providers, to pay my bill. At the time, Camalott was near the movie theater. I was using the light of the theater’s marquee to write out my check, which I planned to put in Camalott’s night drop-slot. Involved in my work, I never heard them approach.

There was a knock on my driver’s side window. Two young boys, somewhere between nine to 12 years old and dressed in hooded pullovers, stood outside. I cracked the window a bit, anticipating a spiel for money, but I was immediately gripped by an incomprehensible, soul-wracking fear. I had no idea why.

A conversation ensued between one boy, a somewhat suave, olive-skinned, curly-headed young man, and myself. The other, a red-headed, pale-skinned, freckled young man, stayed in the background. The “spokesman,” as I've come to think of him, told me that he and his companion needed a ride. They wanted to see a movie, Mortal Kombat, but they left their money at their mother’s house. Could I give them a ride?

Plausible enough. But all throughout this exchange, the irrational fear continued and grew. I had no reason to be frightened of these two boys, but I was. Terribly. After a bit more conversation, I looked up at the theater marquee and down at the digital clock display in my car. Mortal Kombat’s last show of the night had already started. By the time I could have driven the boys anywhere and back, it would practically have been over.

All the while, the spokesman uttered assurances: It wouldn't take long… They were just two little kids… They didn't have a gun or anything. The last part was a bit unnerving. In the short time I had broken the gaze of the spokesman, something had changed, and my mind exploded in a vortex of all-consuming terror. Both boys stared at me with coal-black eyes. Soulless orbs like two great swathes of starless night.

I full-on freaked out inside while trying to appear completely sane and calm. I made whatever excuses came to mind, all of them designed to get me the hell out of there. I wrapped my hand around the gearshift, threw the car into reverse, and began to roll up the window, apologizing all the while.

My fear must have been evident. The boy in the back wore a look of confusion. The spokesman banged sharply on the window as I rolled it up. His words, full of anger, echo in my mind even today: “We can't come in unless you tell us it’s okay. Let us in!”

I drove out of the parking lot in blind fear, and I’m surprised I didn't sideswipe a car or two along the way. I stole a quick look in my rearview mirror before peeling out into the night. The boys were gone. Even if they had run, I don’t believe there was any place they could have hidden from view that quickly. (Bethel, 2013).

From that single seed that Bethel let loose in 1998 on a ghost hunter forum two years after his experience, the legend of the BEK was released onto the world. For a time, reports seemed to flood into every ghost hunter’s inbox. Was this the result of increased sightings and encounters or simply a paranoid overreaction to everyday events? Strangely, the evidence isn't clear either way.

There has never been a shred of physical evidence to suggest that BEKs are physically present in any way, if they exist, nor has there ever been anyone to my knowledge that has been caught engaging in a hoax to scare unknown people by putting in contacts and running around asking to be let in. So if we cannot say the BEK are real due to lack of evidence that supports their existence, what else is there?

Next page: Misperceptions and medical causes

PRIMING AND PAREIDOLIA

What else could a black-eyed kid be? There are several interesting possibilities. The first, of course, would be an over-reaction on the part of the witness who had been prepared mentally for such an event. This preparation is called "priming". Priming is where a pre-suggestion has already been placed into the mind and only an activator stimulus that is appropriately vague in the right circumstances sets off the connection between the knowledge in your brain and your senses, making a false connection between the two and leading you to a flawed conclusion that isn’t supported by evidence (Kolb & Whishaw, 2008).

This happens quite a bit with so-called EVPs and photos purported to be paranormal. If I played for you a low-class EVP and not tell you anything about it, you wouldn't hear any coherent voice or statement from the recording nine times out of ten. But if I did the same thing and said, "There is a male voice there saying, 'Get out'," and then played the recording for you, nine times out of ten you would suddenly hear, “Get out!”

If I showed you a photo of wood grain and said what do you see, you would say, "Nothing but wood." But if I did the same thing with a photo and pointed to certain areas and said, a person took this and says, "Jesus is right there, his face is. See here is his beard, etc…." you would most likely see the face of Jesus. Is it really there? Of course not.

Priming is tied to pareidolia, which is the unification of sensory data into a familiar subject based on the perception of complex lines, patterns, gradations, sounds, or random colors (Voss, Federmeier & Paller, 2012).

Our perceptions of the everyday world work the exact same way.

Frame of reference and context are everything. For example, if you visit an old rundown place in the middle of the day and hear stories about it being haunted and you probably won’t be scared at all. Visit the same place in the dead of night or during a thunderstorm, and your perceptions will change drastically.

After Bethel’s experience was reported, as mentioned above, the numbers of BEK reports spiked. The encounters almost always had certain factors in common: it was almost always late at night, storming, with normal activities being engaged in when suddenly these BEKs appear, extreme fear being experienced and then the witness running away just in time, surviving to tell the story. These are all hallmarks of urban legends.

Why the sudden spike in 2013 in black-eyed kids reports? Are they multiplying? Hardly. This year was ripe with black-eyed kid movies, stories and appearances in the media.

From Snopes: "….Black-eyed children fever hit the Internet in February, 2013, when a two-minute video episode of ‘Weekly Strange’ featuring a look at these strange, putative beings was posted to the entertainment section of the MSN web site. Not surprisingly, the appearance of the black-eyed children video on MSN coincided with the release of Black-Eyed Kids, an urban legend-based horror film." (Mikkelson, 2013).

So in short, priming, pareidolia, frame of reference (fictional movies, books), and context all play important roles in how we perceive events and experiences, even other people, and all of these things can combine together to create one helluva scary experience, even if by the light of day we would dismiss such an idea out of hand for its ridiculousness.

CAUSES FOR BLACK EYES

Could black-eyed kids really exist as real flesh-and-blood people? What could possibly cause such a thing to be seen if, for the sake of argument, we discount priming and all the other stuff?

Since we've looked at the perception of the witness and how psychology impacts it, let’s look at medical causes that, combined with the above discussed psychological factors and environmental parameters of the reported experiences, could present a situation to one's mind as a BEK encounter.

The dilation of the pupil in the human eye is called mydriasis. This term is often used when referring to pupil dilation that is not the result of a physiological condition or cause, such as drugs, illness, or injury. Normally, the pupil enlarges or constricts based on the amount of light entering the eye at any given time.

Besides light, arousal, either negative or positive (such being about to get into a fight or sexual arousal) can cause the pupil's to dilate, often noticeably. There are several conditions that can cause a pupil to expand beyond what most people have seen in another human being or display other abnormal behavior. Some of them are:

  1. Blown pupil: This is an informal term referring to when a set of pupils is dilated beyond normal limits due to possible and likely increased intracranial pressure (brain hemorrhaging for example).
  2. Adie's Tonic Pupil: A condition where one pupil is noticeably larger than the other often mismatched in size. In this condition, the one pupil gradually grows smaller and smaller until it appears to be permanently in that state however, it will expand to light, but far slower than a natural reaction will, but will respond normally to what is called the "near reflex," the instinctive automatic pupilary response to stimuli too close to the face that moves suddenly.
  3. Drugs: phenylephrine (found in sudafed and decongestants), adrenaline, ephinepherin, antimuscarinics (atropine, Atropen, etc), tricyclic antidepressants, amfetamines and ecstasy.
  4. Traumatic iris damage, third cranial nerve palsy, pharmacological dilation (ie dilating drops), iris rubeosis. (Paitient UK, 2013).

While none of these presents as a full-blown black-eyed kid appearance (i.e. totally black eye including no iris, no visible pupil and no sclera… nothing but black), if combined with the right atmospheric parameters and/or primed conditioning, such as being a paranormal enthusiast or a believer in the unexplained, it may cause the brain to make a connection between confusing and unknown sensory data (not many people are familiar with the anatomy and conditions of the eye or pharmacological effects) and information held in long term memory, creating an experience where there really isn't one.

Next page: What about hoaxes?

WHAT ABOUT HOAXES?

Teenagers and kids are among the most internet idiotic and the most internet savvy people at the same time. This contradictory existence enables kids to do what they have always done: be exquisite pranksters. As time has went on, information on the internet became easier and easier to obtain, easier to fake, and easier to decimate, making the problem of priming and pareidolia all the more invasive.

A kid with a mischievous streak could easily read a story by a "witness" of a BEK and think "this would be funny!" and order a certain kind of contact lens called a "sclera contact" that covers the entire eye.

These sclera contacts are relatively expensive (if made professionally) and often are custom made (again if made professionally and legally). They have a variety of uses from theater and special effects in movies to medical treatment. Just because of the price, many people have discounted it as a possibility for modern kids to buy them. This would be an extremely illogical idea because there is precedent for kids getting access to special contact lenses, price be damned.

It is illegal under United States law to sell any contact lens corrective or cosmetic without a prescription, yet they are available from a variety of dicey websites for as little as twenty dollars a pair. If people are selling cheap contact lenses, why could they not be selling cheap (and dangerous) sclera lenses as well?

Take, for example, my results in searching for cheap sclera lenses. I found a website in less than forty seconds that offered them for about $126. That may seem expensive, but remember we are talking about an age group – especially the 15 to 16 year old ranges – that can and do have jobs and can easily afford them.

The point is, it is possible for kids to buy cheap, illegal contacts no questions asked and pull pranks. Which is more likely? A demon or ET with all-black eyes that wants to eat your brain and soul, knocking on your door asking to come in, or pranks set up by mischievous kids with access to relatively easy money and too much time on their hands?

A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

In closing, I would like to relate an experience of my own. This experience happened to me recently in the grocery store. I had gone out to get the oil changed in our car. After getting the oil changed, I ran over to FoodCity to pick up stuff for a meatloaf country dinner.

I was walking down the meat aisle when a woman caught my attention. She was walking strangely, sort of hunched over a bit, pushing her cart, looking at the ground mostly, glancing every once in a while around to pick up an item. I moved to get out of her way and let her pass when suddenly she jerked her head up and I saw her face for the first time. It looked like any normal face of an older lady – except her eyes. Her eyes were jet black… so black they almost appeared red, especially around the edges of her eyelids.

Now, I have been the chat moderator for Dave Schrader and Tim Dennis’s Darkness Radio paranormal talk show for several years in different formats, and one of the favorite creepy topics of the show and in the chat used to be black-eyed kid stories.

They would freak the chatters out. I dismissed the stories as just urban legends and fakes. But the moment I saw her eyes, every single one of them slammed down on me instantly, a speeding locomotive train of horror hitting me all at once: I was wrong.

For half a second, I actually stopped in my tracks as she grinned madly from ear to ear, pinning me with those dark eyes and she opened her mouth and said in a gentle but creepily happy voice, "Oops, gotta go around!"

And then I looked again, my investigators instinct kicking in, ready to document this experience so I could relate it to Dave once I got the chat room re-opened for listeners one Monday during call-in night so I could finally admit my stubborn pride was wrong. I took a second look, trying to see past the priming and pareidolia from all the ghost stories and BEK encounters that I had heard.

Then I saw her sclera were simply bloodshot and yellowed, probably from smoking, I realized. Her natural eye color, like mine, was a very deep brown. My eyes are a naturally super dark brown and unless the light hits them right, they appear quite black.

I relaxed as a realized she was just an old lady shopping and being polite in the best way she knew how, and that she was harmless. Needless to say, I picked up the rest of the groceries we needed and headed home with a new appreciation for how the mind works and how it pieces together everything from memory, obscure knowledge, dismissed ideas and experiences in the here and now into a single brilliant moment of perception that is so striking it can at times blind us to the very truth of what is really in front of us.

Are black eyed kids real? Are they hoaxes? Is Brian Bethel a fabulous story teller? The answer remains as elusive as it will always be. In my opinion, black-eyed kids are nothing more than an urban legend sparked by one story many years ago that has taken on a life of its own. However, their legacy is not one of ectoplasmic miasmas, but rather a testament to the power of the human mind to take information, fold it, and surprise us in ways we never thought possible. And while we think of ourselves as the most rational intelligent beings on the planet, perhaps, just perhaps, we really are fooling ourselves.

Did you just hear a knock? At this hour? Who could it be? Go look out your window and see.

A. Milhorn is the founder and lead investigator for the TAPS Family Team for East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia called SSPRS or Southern States Paranormal Research Society.

Sources:

Bethel, B. (2013, April 13). Brian bethel recounts his possible paranormal encounter with 'beks'. Retrieved from http://www.reporternews.com/news/2013/apr/13/brian-bethel-recounts-his-paranormal-encounter/ Date: December 28, 2013.

Kolb, B., & Whishaw, I. (2008). Fundamentals of human neuropsychology. (pp. 453-454, 457). New   York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Voss, J., Federmeier, K., & Paller, K. (2012). The potato chip really does look like elvis! neural hallmarks of conceptual processing associated with finding novel shapes subjectively meaningful . Oxford Journal: Cerebral Cortex, doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhr315

Pupillary abnormalities. (n.d.) http://www.patient.co.uk/doctor/pupillary-abnormalities. Retrieved: December 28, 2013.

Louis, C. (2010, July 03). What big eyes you have, dear, but are those contacts risky?. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/04/fashion/04lenses.html December 28, 2012.

Mikkelson, D., & Mikkelson, B. (2013, April 29). Black-eyed children. Retrieved from http://www.snopes.com/horrors/ghosts/blackeyed.asp