Black-Eyed Kids and Other Nightmares From the Suburbs

Photo Source Cody Garcia | CC BY 2.0

In the early morning hours of January 16, 1998, Abilene Reporter-News journalist and long-time “student of the occult,” Brian Bethel, laid out the foundation for a modern day urban legend. His tale began on a late night three years prior when he went to the local strip mall to a pay a bill.

Writing a check by the light of a nearby movie marquee, Bethel was startled by a sudden knock on his car window. Outside were two young boys aged around 10-14. “Oh great,” Bethel initially thought, “They’re going to hit me up for money.” Though, he quickly became filled with “an overwhelming sense of fear and unearthliness.”

The children told him that they meant to go to the movies but forgot their money. They asked for a ride to their mother’s house. Suspicious, Bethel asked, “What movie were you going to see?” The youth responded, “Mortal Kombat, of course.”

“C’mon mister. Let us in. We can’t get in your car until you do,” the kids implored. “Just let us in, and we’ll be gone before you know it.” It was at this time that Bethel made eye contact with the kids. Their eyes “were coal black. No pupil. No iris. Just two orbs reflecting the red and white light of the marquee.”

“We can’t come in unless you tell us it’s okay. LET… US… IN!” Bethel tore out of the parking lot leaving the kids behind. Later he would tell a friend, “I kept the doors and windows locked. I knew if they came in, they would kill me.”

With his post, Bethel created the Black-Eyed Kids (BEK for short), an internet urban legend, Slender Man for boomers. Rooted in middle class fears of the homeless, of unattended youths, and of property invasion, BEK stories blew up in the late aughts inspiring hundreds of internet “accounts” across a variety of sitesCoast to Coast episodes, several books, a series of graphic novels, and even a couple of lackluster found-footage horror movies. Like all folklore, BEK stories speak to the deep anxieties of a population that is increasingly isolated and socially alienated. It is a story for a culture that takes seriously Margaret Thatcher’s dictum “There’s no such thing as society,” only individuals.

“Monsters that Look Like People”

Tales of black-eyed kids typically come in two varieties: the home invasion and the roadside encounter. In the home invasion, a knock is heard at the door, usually in the late hours of the night. Outside stand one or, more often, two children who ask to come inside to use the phone. At first the hapless victim is sympathetic to the request, but then a sense of dread takes over leading to the discovery of their unearthly black eyes.

In the most common version of the roadside encounter, the hero is approached while they are either in or near their car and asked by the children to be let inside. Other versions include pedestrian encounters outside the home or on the sidewalk. In all cases, the encounter fills the experiencer with a deep fear and anxiety.

The kids themselves are described as being between the ages of 6 and 16, pale skinned, and having all black eyes. Clad in non-descript clothes, usually a hoody and jeans, they have a confidence with adults that puts BEK readers/writers on edge. “While the average child or teenager is not inclined to approach adults,” writes BEK researcher David Weatherly in his book Black Eyed Children, “these children have no qualms about doing so.”

Hosts of the Astonishing Legends podcast, Scott Philbrook and Forrest Burgess, warn, “It’s our natural inclination to want to help children that are seemingly in trouble.” But as much as you feel like you should help them, “the point is, don’t do it, don’t open the door.”

“Don’t try to make friends with them,” experiencer Ezekiel Finch told paranormal investigator Jason Offut, “[BEK’s are] monsters that look like people.”

It goes without saying that black-eyed kids are entirely fictional. Folklore, however, has always been more intriguing for what it says about the culture that produces it, than any claim to a factual root. In the case of the black-eyed kids, another internet meme frequently spread among older users on Facebook is instructive:

“This is from a County Sheriffs Department, please read this message very carefully. This message is for any lady who goes to work, college or school or even driving or walking the streets alone. If you find a young person crying on the road showing you their address and is asking you to take them to that address… take that child to the POLICE STATION!! No matter what you do, DON’T go that address. This is a new way for gang members to rape women…”

In this hoax warning, it is stated that aiding a lost child could very well lead to the Good Samaritan’s robbery, rape, or murder. The implication being that no one is to be trusted. In the deeply isolated and socially alienated world of America’s suburbs where HOA’s rule over residents like mini-Mussolinis and neighbors rarely talk, a deep fear and suspicion of the public has taken root and shaped its folklore.

Describing the cultural root of the modern zombie in Vox, Zachary Crockett and Javier Zarracina call the current incarnation “a new survivalism fantasy” based on a “post-apocalyptic world… dotted with tribes interested only in their self-preservation; all other life is considered disposable.” For the heroes of these tales, “interconnectedness is the reaper of all personal freedoms—and they do all they can to avoid it.”

It is the ultimate war of each against all. Sympathy for the child in the street is only a weakness to be exploited by a legion of predators. This anxiety is at the heart of BEK lore. In one story, an adult is alarmed by a 12 year old boy at their door asking to use the phone to call their mom. “After I realized that he wasn’t hurt or lost,” the author narrates, “I knew I couldn’t let this stranger in my home even if he was young.” Denying the child entry, our hero chases him away with that favorite of all middle class pastimes, calling the cops.

“Island Nightmares”

When “Katie” was dropped off at her duplex, she noticed two teens, 15 or 16, in hoodies standing in her driveway. “The boys had lurked around her neighborhood for months,” the author notes, “but they’d never been so bold as to stand this close to her home.” Asking why they were on her property, the boys responded that they wanted to come in her house and use her phone. “It was like I wanted to let them in, but I knew there was evil present.” She darted inside, escaping the black-eyed kids.

Adults telling terrifying tales of teens in hoodies wandering neighborhoods chaperone-less at night is nothing new. In Geraldo Rivera’s response to the murder of Trayvon Martin on Fox & Friends, he urged “parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies.” Terrified by the “menacing” nature of the popular garment, Geraldo explained, “the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.” Indeed, many BEK stories bear all the markings of the moral panic over juvenile crime that undergirded the enormous prison boom of the late 1980s and 1990s.

One BEK story on Reddit tells the tale of a female college student who chose to cut through a park on her way home one night. She sees a group of ten black-eyed kids hanging out under a pavilion in the park. When some of the kids begin to follow her, she asks them what they want. The BEKs respond that they want some money for food, which she refuses. The kids then leave.

Why might a very mundane—you might even say boring—story be considered “spooky,” making the author feel “uneasy?” The unease of the story is rooted in its cultural signifiers. Written during the height of the social unrest in Ferguson, the tale takes place in St. Louis and borrows heavily from the 1989 Central Park jogger story that launched the modern moral panic over “wilding” youth.

The absolute terror with which boomers hold their children and grandchildren cannot be overstated. “Kids are coming to school with uzis!” Oprah Winfrey told her audience in 1988, “Kids are hiding guns in their underwear! Knives in their socks!” Shortly after, political scientist John Dilulio coined the term “super-predator” to describe black urban youth “who pack guns instead of lunches… who have absolutely no respect for human life and no sense of the future.” While First Lady, Hillary Clinton promoted her husband’s tough on crime approach by warning of super-predator teens with “no conscience, no empathy,” that we must “bring them to heel.”

Headlines like “The Criminals of Tomorrow,” “Kids Without a Conscience?” and “Should We Cage the New Breed of Vicious Kids?” filled newspapers and magazines. Ridiculous exploitation movies like Only the Strong (1993), Dangerous Minds (1995), and 187 (1997) were taken seriously. An LA Times review of Class of 1999 (1989), in which teen gangs engage in open warfare on the streets of Seattle until Terminator-style cyborg-teachers arrive on the scene, called the movie “uncomfortably close to the possible.”

Urban youth, particularly black and brown youth, became the Other, “born in the midst of panic politics,” to quote the work of sociologist Steven Seidman, forced to “bear the burden of shouldering public anxieties of disorder and dissolution.” As neoliberalism dissolved the social and governmental bonds of previous generations, adults panicked and attacked the younger generation. This is a major source of the anxiety behind BEK mythology.

A further clue as to the root of the appeal of black-eyed kid tales is the fact that the kids in the park asked for money for food. Extreme poverty, homelessness, and panhandling have always been a feature of urban life in America. But the stagnating wages, rising housing costs, and broken windows policing combined with the retreat of the welfare state in the neoliberal era have pushed visible homelessness into the suburbs, much to the dismay of the residents. Capital “creates in its image an idealized citizen archetype, engaged in meaningful consumption,” writes sociologists Jessica Gerrard and David Farrugia, “Within the sea of consumption, the bodies of the visible homeless can appear as island nightmares; visceral reminder of the Other.”

Accelerated by apps like NextDoor, the suburban panic around the homeless Other can reach a fever pitch. When a homeless person(s) left a pair of blankets in a park in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood (median home value $757,400) over Memorial Day weekend, denizens flocked to the Safe Seattle Facebook group. “The problem is not so much that the neighbors see the campers,” a member explained, “but that the campers can observe them and their children, even inside their homes.”

Feeling “unsafe” in their own homes, “several neighbors called 911” on the blankets, but police were not dispatched. One response to the post described the behavior of the blankets as “terrorizing” and “manufactured chaos.” A more pro-active member suggested that they “report it as a terrorist threat” to police. “We’re at the point,” another stated ominously, “where the people need to start taking matters into their own hands.”

Not surprisingly, many BEK accounts take as their setting the everyday encounters with the homeless that mark life in modern America—being approached while in your car in a store parking lot, loitering outside a local store, sitting on the city bus, and even wandering the local Walmart. In these stories, black-eyed kids serve as palatable substitutes for the homeless Other, while also providing justification for the deep anxiety the homeless cause the suburban middle class.

In other stories, this subtext simply becomes text.

A 2017 account, tells of a woman who passed a homeless man on the sidewalk by her home. “There are few homeless people in my area,” she notes, “so he was very noticeable.” After realizing that the only change she had was buried deep in her purse, she “kept walking, pretending not to hear the man.” When the homeless man called out her name, she noticed his black eyes and was filled with dread, “I truly felt that that was not a person. It was a creature.”

In another story, a woman who always “made a point of avoiding eye contact” with a homeless man in her neighborhood, notices his black eyes, “I mean these people absolutely make you feel terrified. It’s like nothing I can explain. Even your bones feel shaky.”

“Damn Right—it’s Dangerous Out There”

Last year, the New Yorker reported on the latest fad among American centi-millionaires and billionaires, doomsday prepping. “Anyone who’s in this community,” hedge fund partner Robert Dugger told the reporter, “knows people who are worried that America is heading toward something like the Russian Revolution.” Apparently rapidly growing inequality has made the .01% much richer, but not much safer. According to one Silicon Valley venture capitalist, “My current state of mind is oscillating between optimism and sheer terror.”

This sense of constant danger doesn’t just afflict the super wealthy. Donald Trump’s election has led to a rash of reporters journeying to Trump country to learn about “real America.” A middle aged Trump voter in a dying steel town in Pennsylvania speculated that Barack Obama might be the antichrist before warning, “I think we’re going to see the end of the world in our generation.” A 51 year old Georgia man with myriad health problems carries an AR-15 with a 100 round drum to Walmart for his soda runs in order to ward off ISIS and MS13. Brandishing matching .380 Berettas to fight off carjackers, a couple in Florida’s posh Villages retirement community warn Politico of life outside the 98% white community, “Damn right—it’s dangerous out there.”

America is a country that is deeply fearful. Social bonds broken by inequality and the neoliberal worship of the market have left many with an intense paranoia about their fellow person. As it turns out, unceasing individual competition for resources in all aspects of life has a negative impact on people’s sense of community and feeling of personal security.

BEK stories are folklore for a society that is increasingly isolated and socially alienated. The deep anxiety of people who see the world as a war of each against all turns every stranger in the neighborhood into a probable invader, every unplanned social encounter into a terrifying assault. In this world the home and the car serve as a fortress against your enemies. It is this mentality that gives the black-eyed kids their power. BEK folklore serves as a social lesson, never help anyone, there is no society after all, only individuals.

Brian Platt is an aerospace machinist who lives in Seattle. Brynn Roth is a preschool teacher who lives in Seattle.