Poison Candy Panic!
Ah, yes, it’s October. Time for macabre yard decorations, creative costumes, and all things pumpkin spice. And for the slightly odd American ritual: the “safe trick-or-treat” event. For decades, police departments, shopping malls, and other community organizations have been hosting these events, either where kids can come and get their candy from nice people in a controlled environment, or else to get their “suspect” candy X-rayed or otherwise inspected. After all, the thinking goes, your kids’ Halloween candy might be poisoned, or contain illegal drugs, or have razor blades or other sharp objects hidden inside. What parent wouldn’t want to make sure their kids’ Halloween candy was safe?
But this brings up a couple important questions: is the danger of poisoned candy even a thing? And, if so, are these venues any safer than your own neighborhood?
The Poison Candy Panic is Born
When you’re trying to understand a cultural phenomenon, it’s important to find out where it started. And the poison candy panic started with the death of 8-year-old Timothy O’Bryan in 1974. Timothy died after eating cyanide-laced Pixie Stix while trick-or-treating. Though at first it was assumed that the candy had been poisoned by a random psycho, some digging revealed the boy’s father, Ronald O’Bryan, was deeply in debt. He had also very recently taken out a hefty insurance policy on both his children. Ronald gave cyanide-laced candy to his two children - and a few other children as well, to cover his tracks. Luckily for them, the other children hadn’t eaten the candy.
Ronald O’Bryan was convicted and executed for the murder of his son in 1984 - a full decade after the poisoning, and enough time for the story of little Timothy’s death to start moving out of the realm of a tragic family murder and into the realm of urban legend.
Then something else happened that stoked America’s fears of random poisonings. Right around Halloween, in September and October of 1982 to be exact, someone in Chicago began putting cyanide into bottles of Tylenol, killing seven people. No one was ever caught (though New York City resident James William Lewis was considered the prime suspect). This gruesome act inspired literally hundreds of copycats around the country, resulting in at least three more deaths.
Somehow, in some people’s minds, the two events became conflated, and the “poison candy panic” was born. In 1983, Dear Abby, a nationally syndicated advice columnist, published a Halloween-themed column titled “A Night of Treats, not Tricks.” In that column, she warned, “[s]omebody’s child will become violently ill or die after eating poisoned candy or an apple containing a razor blade.” Jack Chick even wrote one of his (in)famous tracts about Satanists poisoning Halloween candy.
News stations across the country weren’t about to let a sensationalist trend pass them by; facts be damned, they ran with it. All that fear-mongering worked: by 1985, a Washington Post poll showed 60 percent of people were afraid their children would be harmed by trick-or-treat candy.
This even though there was literally no evidence that any kid has ever been poisoned or drugged via their Halloween candy by a random stranger. Not once.
Yet the rumors persist. Part of the problem is humans’ selective memory: people hear an initial news story about poisoned or drugged Halloween candy and freak out. But they either don’t hear or don’t remember the follow-up, where it turns out the candy wasn’t actually poisoned, or the kid really just died of natural causes, or the drugs came from someone the child knew. Only the freak-out gets remembered.
Yet newscasters around the country keep repeating it year after year - or, if not repeating it outright, still promoting the “safe trick-or-treat” events, as though there’s no need to explain why regular old trick-or-treating isn’t safe. The urban legend has been repeated so often, it’s just taken as self-evident now.
Better Safe than Sorry?
Well, some might say, what’s the harm in taking my kid to the Mall-o-ween or Trunk-or-Treat? Sure, my neighbors might be perfectly safe treat-providers, but why take chances?
To which I say, what makes you think these events are any safer than your own neighborhood?
Let me share my experience with a “safe trick-or-treat.” In my younger days, I once worked at the local mall, and one year had to work Mall-o-ween. Hundreds of kids would line up and trudge from store to store, holding out their plastic pumpkins and paper sacks for one piece of candy from each place. Because our mall was so big, and there were so many kids, the lines were hours long, and the resulting candy haul was pitiful. It was about as much fun for the kids as a trip to the DMV.
And, worst of all, it was objectively *less* safe than if those kids would have just trick-or-treated in their own neighborhoods. It struck me, a budding horror writer, that for a real psycho, this would actually be the perfect scenario to kill a lot of kids and get away with it. Let me explain: First, with so many kids from all over the area coming there, if someone wanted to really hurt a bunch of kids, it would be the perfect opportunity. Not one of the mall employees who were handing out candy that night had gone through any kind of screening or background check. The candy wasn’t inspected, either - the managers (whoever they were, they weren’t vetted either) brought the candy in and told us to hand it out. What was to stop a manager from poisoning the candy before bringing it in? What was to stop the employee from poisoning it when no one was around? And once the kids were poisoned, how in the world would the police be able to track down where they’d gotten it?
The same questions apply to the new “trunk-or-treat” events. While I suppose holding a mini-Halloween fair in a parking lot is safer in terms of protecting kids from traffic, how do you know the guy handing out candy from the back of his van there is any safer than the guy handing out candy from his own front door?
The other common “safe trick-or-treat” event is usually a local police department or hospital that offers to X-ray your candy to check for needles or other sharp objects. There’s certainly no harm in doing so - but the instances of sharp objects embedded in trick-or-treat candy is pretty low. Since 1959, there have less than 100 reports of objects embedded in Halloween candy, and the vast majority of those were hoaxes. And the few that turned out to be true were actually done by friends and family members as a sort of “joke,” not by the mythical psycho handing out razor-bladed apples to random kids.
I get it - Halloween is a holiday based on fear. The fears of scary stories and urban legends start to become just a little more solid, a little more real, on this night. And of all the fears we can have, this one is a good one - you only have to have it one night a year! But we shouldn’t ruin Halloween over fears based on nothing but an urban legend.
If you want a real reason to be afraid for your kids on Halloween, be afraid they’ll be hit by a car.