As you read this, the kids are already getting excited, picking out their costumes and planning routes. Supermarket shelves are sagging with sugar and corn syrup stuffed in bright orange and black bags.
But amidst all the anticipation, parents get nervous. We hear stories of truly depraved crimes on Halloween. An apple with a razor blade slid inside. A sewing needle in a candy bar. Poison. These stories have been around a long time. How many of them are true? How much do we need to worry that someone may be out to hurt our kids on Halloween?
The quick answers first: Very few of the stories that originally inspired these fears turned out to be true, and harmful tampering with Halloween candy is extremely rare. On the other hand, there will always be a few sickos out there. Let’s take a closer look at the risks.
Is food tampering common?
In 1974, an 8-year-old boy in Texas tragically died after eating candy poisoned with cyanide.
The investigation eventually revealed that he had been murdered by his own father, who wanted to collect on a life insurance policy he had taken out on the boy. Unfortunately, this terrible incident helped stir widespread public concern that sadistic psychopaths were tampering with candy. No neighborhood was safe, and what had once been a carefree night of innocent candy hunting was now perceived as potentially risky. The deaths of seven people in 1982 from cyanide-laced Tylenol did nothing to allay public fears of murder by tampering.
In the ensuing years there have been persistent public warnings in the days surrounding Halloween, and everyone from the local police to the National Confectioners Association (including us) provides lists of tips, warnings, and reassurances on the topic. In some cities, hospitals even make x-ray machines available to inspect candy for foreign objects.
But the evidence doesn’t really measure up to the drama of heightened public concern. Joel Best, PhD, author of the book Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians and Activists, has followed the stories of Halloween candy sabotage for years. After researching reports from major newspapers around the country for the 26 years between 1958 and 1984, Best, a professor of sociology at the University of Delaware, found a total of 78 documented cases. Most of the cases were pranks by kids trying to shock their siblings, parents, or neighbors by inserting sharp objects into their own fruit or candy.
Two deaths during that time period were initially blamed on sabotaged candy. One was the Texas boy who ate the cyanide-tainted candy. The other was a boy who died from a heroin overdose after getting into his uncle’s stash. The boy’s relatives sprinkled heroin on his Halloween candy to draw investigators’ attention away from the uncle. Over the years, three other deaths have at first been connected to poisoned candy -- but each death was later attributed to natural causes.
Each year, Best continues to investigate and document reports of candy tampering. According to the LEXIS-NEXIS database Best uses, there have been 13 reports of sabotaged candy in 23 years since his original 1985 report. There was one reported case in 2007, and none in the three years prior to that. The number of deaths from poison? Zero. The number of injuries? No more than a small handful, and none life threatening.
"I have been unable to find a substantiated report of a child being killed or seriously injured by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating," says Best. "When we worry that maniacs are out to poison our children, I just don’t see any evidence of that. Even the media doesn’t really cover this, because there isn’t anything to cover. It’s a legend that spreads by word of mouth -- there’s no evidence, but everyone takes it as true. The media contributes to it only in a weak-kneed sense -- there will be organizations that send out warnings every year, and the local police chief will appear in the newspaper. Hospitals will volunteer x-ray machines to look for foreign objects. There will be trick-or-treat at the local mall or church. There will be trunk-or-treat parties in the parking lot."
Is this just another example of the American public’s need for scintillation and thrills? Well, probably, although, as Best says, you can’t prove a negative. As long as you can’t say definitively that children aren’t being done in by their candy, the legend is likely to persist.
Myth made to order
In some ways, the idea of twisted sociopaths plotting to kill innocent children across the country is the perfect Halloween horror story for parents who are still thrilled by things that go bump in the night. Maybe this is why the myth endures.
"Here’s this terrible danger -- but it’s only on one night of the year," Best says. "On Halloween the maniacs come out of the woodwork -- and you must be vigilant! Then, on November first, you look around your breakfast table and everyone is still alive!"
What will happen in 2008? Best is getting ready for the usual onslaught of reporters’ questions (we got ours in early). Meanwhile he acknowledges that we should be concerned about Halloween, but not so much about the candy. "One thing that becomes clear from reading press coverage is that Halloween is dangerous," he says. "We send millions of kids out into the dark, and they risk being struck by cars, falling down, and so on. It just isn't clear that tampered with candy is a big problem."
Aside from being struck by cars, the biggest danger for most kids, on Halloween or at any other time of year, is eating too much sugar, especially if it’s just another big night in a lifestyle fueled by a steady stream of candy and soda. The candy diet is a straight path to obesity, diabetes, and many other health problems down the road. So probably the best thing you can do for your kids on Halloween in the first place is limit their sugar intake. But let’s be realistic, you say. OK, here are some time-honored tips:
- Consider eliminating the trick-or-treat process altogether. Throw a Halloween party, maybe in cooperation with your neighbors, so all the kids congregate in a central place, and all the sweets are bought and inspected (or even handmade) beforehand.
- If your kids trick-or-treat around the neighborhood, tell them not to open or eat anything until they get home. When they get home, have them empty their booty on a well-lit table, and help them sort and inspect their treats.
- Keep only candy that arrives in an undamaged commercial wrapper. Toss out anything that has been exposed or damaged. Accept no fruit, and be careful of home-made items like cookies, caramel popcorn, or crispy treats, wrapped or unwrapped, if you don’t know who made them.
- Make sure the kids have a square meal before hitting the candy trail. It will reduce the urge to snack en route, and help everyone the morning after.
- Little children should always have an adult accompany them during Halloween, both for safety and fun.
- Don’t let your children enter anyone’s house, especially if you don’t know the homeowners. Trick-or-treat should be done at the front door, under ample light.
- Take charge of the candy pile. It should be under adult control, with sensible daily allotments after Halloween. Make it last a few weeks or more. You may want to allow them to pick their favorites and throw out the rest. Reinforce that candy is OK but only in small amounts.