Traditionally, the nature of urban legends has precluded them from having traceable origins. Thieved kidneys and DUI victims implanted into a car’s grill were tales passed from person to person for decades, with corroboration impossible.
While the Internet has allowed the proliferation of such tales, it has in some cases made it possible to track down where relatively recent urban legends have come from. A prominent example centers on black-eyed children stopping by for a chilling visit. It’s more than the irises being raven-colored. The eyes seem to have no sclera or pupil, but are just large black orbs between the eyelids. Despite this distinctive feature, these tales usually involve the witness failing to notice it until a few minutes into the encounters.
The genesis of these stories is a first-hand account published by Brian Bethel in a Usenet newsgroup in the summer of 1997. As he told it, two boys wanted to get into his car. Their large black eyes and emotionless voices were unsettling, but they made it clear to Bethel that he would have to invite them into his car, they would not force their way in. Bethel sped away, then looked in the mirror and they were gone in less time that the laws of physics would seem to allow. Tales began streaming in from other anonymous eyewitnesses. This mirrors the sudden rush of stories involving flying saucers that began when pilot Kenneth Arnold reported he had seen a UFO in 1947. Arnold had described the object’s action as akin to a saucer skipping over water. But listeners misunderstood, and thought he was describing the object’s shape, and the flying saucer phenomenon was born.
In subsequent black-eyed children tales, the wanderers are usually homeless or hitchhikers, but the key is, they want in. Like their kindred spirit vampires, they can only come in if invited. They knock at night when the witness is alone because showing up during a birthday party doesn’t make for a spooky story. They usually work in pairs or threes, which means the witness is outnumbered and suggests nefarious plotting. The witness is also hit with a sense of dread. In most recitations, the person is terrified by the monotone delivery, freaky eyes, and repeated requests for entry. So they close the front door or speed off, at which point the duo or trio disappears into the ether. Even with most of the tales taking place since the advent of camera phones, there are no pictures or videos of the unannounced visitors.
There have been a couple of attempts at rational explanations. Some have suggested that juvenile hoaxers with full-sclera contact lenses have had some fun by knocking on doors at night and asking to come in. There’s a good chance someone has tried this, especially in Cannock Chase, England, where there were a spate of reports. But this would fail to explain all of the encounters and does not include the portion of the tale where the knockers seem to disappear. Someone trying to regularly pull this stunt would trip up, get caught, or be photographed before very long.
Others have pointed to mydriasis, or dilation of the pupils, as the cause. This is even less likely than teen pranksters because while it might cause black eyes, it would leave unexplained mysterious raps on stranger doors and repeated requests for admission.
The tales became more frequent in 2013 when MSN ran an article on the phenomenon. The next year, the Birmingham Mail reported that a black-eyed child had appeared in Cannock Chase in 1983. Not coincidentally, a swarm of youngsters with brunette peepers were reported to have then converged on the hamlet. In this British version, the witness is usually alarmed by a screaming child, which ends up being one of the black-eyed tykes. The method of introduction and tone of voice is different from the U. S. tales, but the rest is consistent, including the stories coming from an uncle’s neighbor’s boss or similarly unverifiable source.
With no way to track down these accounts, there is nothing to try and confirm or dispel. There’s no way to tell if the person is telling the story for fun if they believe it. If they do think it authentic, it is likely the result of priming or constructed memories.
Priming is when suggestion is placed in one’s mind and awaits a stimulus to make the connection. Really, really wanting it to happen is another factor. That’s why a large ripple or floating log in Loch Ness becomes a plesiosaur. Those hearing about nearby black-eyed children are expecting them, and are only to happy to see something that confirms this. We can see this power of suggestion in other forms. A garbled unintelligible sound can become “Satan on the throne,” if told to listen for this message in a back-masked song. The same recording can be interpreted as “leave my home” if told it came from a haunted house.
In most U.S. cases, constructed memories are the likely culprit. People hear about pale skin, massive raven eyes, and monotone speakers, then think, ‘Hey, I saw someone like that in my neighborhood eight years ago,’ when it might well have actually been from a TV program featuring aggressive Girl Scout cookie peddlers. The mind can fill in the significant blanks, which can be exacerbated by wanting to believe and communal reinforcement. The tales speak to the notion of corrupted innocence, which most people can relate to in some way. Being children, the perpetrators are seemingly vulnerable, but in fact they are the danger, a theme seen in The Bad Seed, Village of the Damned, and The Omen.
The stories are terse and without resolution, so many questions are left unanswered, making for an appealing mystery. Where are they from, why are they here, why are their eyes black, why must they be asked to come in? Imagine it were revealed they were from Dubuque, they were here for a school convention, they suffered from mydriasis, and they were being polite. With the mystery solved, no one would be looking for them or caring if they did show up, so reports would likely stop. I mean, now that we know who Deep Throat was, who cares who Deep Throat was? Whether the Chicago Cubs will win the 2016 World Series is making for an intriguing storyline. But if they do, whether the Cubs will win the 2017 World Series will be of exponentially less interest for most of us.