Obligatory sociological reminder that there is little evidence of Halloween candy tampering

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.

Cities ranked by the “Trick or Treat Index”

Richard Florida has put some of his data to use to answer an important question: what are the best cities in the united States for trick or treating on Halloween?

According to National Retail Federation projections, Americans will spend $6.86 billion on Halloween this year, up from $3.3 billion in 2005 when a lot fewer of us were out of work. But even as Halloween edges up on Christmas as a shopping opportunity, the trick-or-treating experience is a lot less universal than it was. In some towns, you see hardly any unsupervised trick-or-treaters after dark; in other places—Brooklyn Heights or my neighborhood in Toronto leap to mind—there are more kids than you can imagine.

Herewith the 2011 edition of the Trick-or-Treater Index developed with the ever-able number-crunching of my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague, Charlotta Mellander. The 2011 Index is based on the following five metrics: the share of children aged 5 to 14; median household income (figuring the haul will be better in more affluent metros), population density, walkability (measured as the percentage of people who walk or bike to work) and creative spirit (which we measured as the percentage of artists, designers, and other cultural creatives). The data are from the American Community Survey and cover all U.S. metro areas, both their cores and suburbs…

As for the top ranking metros, Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Connecticut, comes in first again this year. Greater New York has moved up to second place, followed by Chicago, greater Washington, D.C., and the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Los Angeles, last year’s runner-up, has dropped to 7th place. Big metros dominate the top spots, but Lancaster, Pennsylvania, has moved all the way up from 16th last year to 6th on our 2011 rankings. And college towns like Ann Arbor, Michigan, Boulder, Colorado, and New Haven, Connecticut, also rank among the top 25.

This reminds me of another recent odd use of data that ranked the luckiest cities. So people with more money, who are more creative, and live in more walkable areas necessarily give more or better candy? Might they also be the people who are more likely to give substitutes to candy? Could this also be related to health measures, like obesity or life expectancy? This seems like opportunistic, atheoretical data mining meant to get a few page clicks (like me).

And since there are probably few people who would go to a whole new metropolitan area just to get candy, wouldn’t this be a better analysis if it was at a zip code, community, or census block level?

Debunking the myth of poisoned candy

Amidst an argument about how the supervision of Halloween activities due to fear has spread to other arenas, sociologist Joel Best is mentioned as an expert who every year tries to remind people that poisoned candy is not a threat to children:

Take “stranger danger,” the classic Halloween horror. Even when I was a kid, back in the “Bewitched” and “Brady Bunch” costume era, parents were already worried about neighbors poisoning candy. Sure, the folks down the street might smile and wave the rest of the year, but apparently they were just biding their time before stuffing us silly with strychnine-laced Smarties.

That was a wacky idea, but we bought it. We still buy it, even though Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, has researched the topic and spends every October telling the press that there has never been a single case of any child being killed by a stranger’s Halloween candy. (Oh, yes, he concedes, there was once a Texas boy poisoned by a Pixie Stix. But his dad did it for the insurance money. He was executed.)

There is little or no evidence for this problem – and yet the stories continue. This might be considered an “invented social problem,” a situation where people fear something that doesn’t really exist. In contrast, many people are trying to get people to recognize valid social problems, like poverty or fighting certain kinds of cancer.

I wonder if this fear about candy is linked to general fears that suburbanites have about their neighbors and outside forces that might affect them.