Did your parents examine your Halloween candy before allowing you to have at all-things fun-sized? For many, the idea that the candy given out to trick-or-treaters may potentially be compromised is nothing new. Stories of razor blades stuffed inside Snickers bars, arsenic in Fun Dip and THC-laden gummy bears posing as Haribo have made their way into our collective consciousness. Yet you may be surprised to learn that these supposed horror stories are far more fiction than fact.
Joel Best, a sociologist and professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, has spent a career researching what's known as "Halloween sadism" and has found that there's very little precedent for parents to be concerned about what’s really in their kids' Halloween candy.
"The idea that people were contaminating treats with pins, razor blades, poison or drugs really takes off in the 1960s, and really got big in the 1970s," he explains to Yahoo Life. "Later, 'Dear Abby' starts writing an annual column saying that a lot of kids are being killed this way, and you have to be careful. This is also around the time police departments get this list of safety tips from organizations and the idea is that you can share this with the newspapers and local news. The idea is, 'This is really dangerous.'"
However frightening these warnings were, and still are, they didn't stem from a slew of real-life incidents. Instead, the poisoned Halloween candy narrative was what Best calls an example of a "contemporary legend." In his continued research into Halloween sadism, he has yet to find any actual incidents of people contaminating Halloween candy with the purpose to harm their neighborhood trick-or-treaters.
Video: The most popular Halloween candy in every state
Yet the idea that people are regularly harmed by their Halloween candy has been connected to at least one real crime, Best says. In 1974, in Pasadena, Texas, resident Ronald O’Bryan gave five kids, including his eight-year-old son Timothy, pixie sticks laced with cyanide. Timothy — the only one who ate the candy — died. It was later revealed that O’Bryan had taken out life insurance policies on his children, and intended to kill him to cash in. Best says that O’Bryan likely saw the pixie stick poisoning as a way to cover his tracks — after all, if so many kids are poisoned on Halloween, as the legend suggests, who would ever suspect him?
Ultimately, however, O’Bryan was convicted of Timothy's murder and was executed in 1984.
Poisonings outside of Halloween have also made people fearful of taking candy from strangers. So is the case of the 1982 Tylenol murders, in which seven people in the Chicago area died after consuming cyanide-laced pills. The perpetrator was never caught. The ordeal led to the creation of tamper-proof medicine bottles, but it also renewed the public interest in Halloween poisonings, as the crimes occurred just one month before the holiday.
"The media got really hyped about this, because they were like, 'Oh my God, there's going to be trick-or-treating,'" Best explains. "The candy industry conducted a research study where they tried to find every incident of contaminated candy, and they tried to follow up on them. They concluded there was nothing. 95 percent of them were hoaxes. It's easy to stick a pin in the candy bar and then run into your parents and say 'Look mom and dad, I found a pin in my Halloween candy.'"
Now, however, it's not just poison and metal objects parents have to worry about. With many states legalizing marijuana, rumors of people giving out THC-laden candies to unsuspecting children have flooded social media. Many images shared online compare nearly identical THC candies to the ones your child might find in their Halloween pack, suggesting someone could give kids candy without disclosing what they really are.
BEWARE: As Halloween gets closer, @BensalemPolice are warning parents to LOOK at your child’s candy before they eat it. They confiscated these snacks that look a lot like the real thing. All are laced with THC @6abc pic.twitter.com/u6GFBXt08g
— Jaclyn Lee (@JaclynLeeTV) September 28, 2021
According to Best, he first saw people talking about the potential for this after marijuana was legalized in Colorado.
"Someone made this video three or four years ago that showed THC edibles and real gummy bears, and they look virtually the same. The idea was how similar they look to real candy, so people thought 'Look, your kids could be given this edible marijuana,'" Best notes. "But what this neglects to mention is, this stuff is expensive. Who is going to buy a bunch of THC-infused dope and pass it out to the neighborhood children at random? What's the point of that? And the answer is always, 'Well, that's what people do.'"
While Best stresses there's very little to be worried about with Halloween candy, that doesn't mean there's much harm in checking your kids' bag, provided it makes you feel better. Still, it might be worth spending more time on making sure children are safe during other aspects of the holiday, pointing out that Halloween is one of the more dangerous holidays for kids due to the potential for getting hit by cars while out at night, or even just tripping over their costume.
"The way I look at this, is it’s the greatest thing in the world to be afraid of," he says. "There is someone down the block who is so crazy that they would cheerfully poison your kid at random. But, they're so tightly wrapped, they only do it once a year."
When you put it like that — it certainly sounds like a legend.
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