Halloween tends to be an annual event which highlights the stark contrast between the way things are now and the way things used to be. The modern routine for All Hallows Eve involves parental paranoia at a level never experienced in days gone by. Kids still dress up in disguises and knock on the doors of strangers to receive candy, but now parents use the Internet to brush up on where all the sex offenders live, just in case. Often parents drive their kids around the neighborhood in their cars, and trick-or-treating in many communities is often completed before dark. It is also not uncommon for communities and religious groups to hold alternative events or move trick-or-treating activities to an alternate day or time for one reason or another. And while pacification of this dark-yet-festive day may seem, in the eyes of those who have lived through several, to be a steady trend, one continuing contributor to the trick-or-treat paranoia is an urban legend which just will not go away: Halloween sadists and the toxic treats they offer to costumed children.
The urban legend of sadists who offer harmful things to children seeking candy on Halloween is not a new idea. Parents feared red-hot pennies being distributed in the 1940s and 50s, drug-laced candy in the 1960s, and candy containing sharp-objects in the 1970s and 80s. An article by Malcolm Ritter in the Fort Scott Tribune details the evolution of the Halloween sadist urban legend.
The article, “Sociologist says ‘Halloween Sadism’ Reports are Overblown,” from October 29th, 1985, discusses the research of sociology professor Joel Best of California State University in Fresno, who researched the instances of Halloween sadism reported in major newspapers between 1958 and 1984 and found very few instances of candy being tampered with. Of those few instances found, it appears the tampering was most often done by relatives. Professor Best, now at the University of Delaware, has continually updated his research into the legend of Halloween sadists, and continues to find the danger greatly exaggerated, if not mostly unfounded. Best explains his methodology on his faculty webpage, which includes references to dates as recent as 2011. But the fear continues.
Despite the relatively few reported incidents of Halloween sadism between 1958 and 2013 as evidenced by a chart on Best’s faculty page, a 2011 Harris interactive poll found that 24 percent of parents still had concerns about poisoned treats, and 15 percent feared child abduction. Steps are still taken to combat a threat which is practically nonexistent. Hospitals continue to x-ray Halloween candy even though few foreign objects are found, and despite the fact that x-rays would not detect drugs or poison. Many communities ban sex offenders from handing out candy, despite a lack of evidence that offenses from non-family members have ever increased around or during Halloween. People are always comforted by extra steps taken to ensure the safety of children, regardless of whether those steps are effective or whether the danger is real.
While Halloween can be a dangerous day for children (the chance of a child being hit by a car is four times greater on Halloween than on an ordinary day), there is not a substantial risk of children receiving toxic or harmful treats from strangers on this day, nor is there a heightened risk of children being abused or abducted by strangers on Halloween. The urban legend of the Halloween sadist is for all practical purposes, another terrifying tale for the most frighteningly fun day of the year.
For additional historic information on the urban legend of poisoned Halloween candy, see Poisoned Halloween Candy: A History of the Urban Legend.