Every Halloween, sociologist Joel Best reminds people that there is little evidence of Halloween candy tampering:
For decades, parents have been warned to check sweet-wrappers for signs of tampering, chocolate bars for hidden needles, and apples for surreptitiously inserted razor blades when their children return home from knocking on strangers’ doors. But Dr Joel Best, a sociologist and criminologist at the University of Delaware, has researched every reported case of so-called “Halloween sadism” in the past 45 years, and has concluded that not one of them was genuine…
Dr Best has discovered 90 cases of alleged poisoning reported by newspapers or hospitals since 1958 but he says that none can be attributed to random attempts to harm kids. Most are pranks by children seeking attention; some are murkier attempts by parents to gain compensation…
The myth picked up speed in the late 1960s, as the popularity of Halloween also increased. At the time, many Americans apparently believed that hippies might get a kick from adding LSD to the sweets of unsuspecting children.
The phenomenon peaked in 1970 and 1971, when there were 10 and 14 reported incidents respectively. There was another mini-peak in 1982, when 12 alleged cases occurred. None have ever been confirmed, but the myth of “Halloween Sadism” nonetheless endures. Over the years, America’s National Association of Confectioners, for whom 31 October is crucial, have attempted to persuade the nation that trick-or-treating is safe. But Dr Best’s research, which has informed a book called Threatened Children, leads him to believe they face an uphill struggle.
Some urban legends live on. Here is what might contribute to the longevity of this particular story:
1. Journalists who are looking for such stories. If most of these cases did not pan out, did these same media outlets report this or issue a correction or retraction? Even if they did, the harm was likely already done.
2. Parents who are generally scared for their children in lots of areas, not just candy received on Halloween.
3. Are there any movies, books, or TV shows that have perpetuated this storyline? I can’t think of any but I wouldn’t be surprised if such works exist.
4. It seems like it could be plausible, perhaps even more so than cases like the unsolved 1982 Tylenol cases in Chicago (see a recent oral history here).
5. The holiday of Halloween lends itself to such stories. It is hard to imagine similar stories emerging out of Easter or Christmas, both holidays that involve candy and gifts that could be tampered with.