Hoaxes & Rumors

Poisoned Halloween Candy: A History of the Urban Legend

Poisoned Halloween Candy: A History of the Urban Legend

Today we take a closer look at the long-standing and darkly paranoid urban legend of Halloween candy tainted with poisons, razors, and drugs.

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It is Mostly a Myth.

Whispers of tainted Halloween candy have lingered for decades, but it is mainly a myth. There is a love/hate relationship with urban legends in American culture. On one hand, the rank and file have some kind of bizarre appreciation for modern mythology even if it is frighteningly morbid. On the other, we generally dislike being taken in by widely distributed untruths. Paradoxically, urban legends persist somewhere in between this division. They can seem real and plausible to the imagination, yet intuitively we may sense that they are unreasonable.

History

Urban legends about tainted Halloween candy stretch back to at least the 1940s. According to a 1985 article in the Fort Scott Tribune, throughout the 40s and 50s the legend took the form of callous pranksters who heated pennies until scorching hot and then somehow distributed them to innocent trick-or-treaters. In the 60s, the column reports that the myth had morphed into that of degenerate hippies who spiked Halloween candy with mind-bending drugs.  By the 70s, the myth had settled into its more familiar modern form: random sadists contaminating Halloween candy with poisons and sharp objects (razor blades and needles, for example).

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Despite the horror stories, there is little truth to this legend. Out of millions of trick-or-treaters every year, there are only a handful of instances of candy ever being tainted by small sharp objects and drugs, yet these are often reported to be found before they are ingested by children (see news articles below). It has been claimed that some of these reports may be hoaxes perpetrated by individuals seeking publicity or attention. The fact that some of these reports turn out to be hoaxes seems to partially support this theory.

A 2009 article from Time claims that children are much more likely to be struck by a car on Halloween over acquiring tainted candy through trick-or-treating.

The Research of Joel Best

Joel Best, a University of Delaware sociologist, has been studying the myth of Halloween sadism and tainted candy since the early 1980s. Best has studied reports of tainted Halloween candy going back to 1958, and claims the majority of tainted Halloween candy reports are hoaxes. A 2011 article about Halloween myths from KPLU 88.5 quotes Best as saying, “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.”

According to a page devoted to Best’s research on the University of Delaware website, there have been at least 5 deaths attributed to Halloween sadism, yet in all these cases the deaths were found to be unrelated to tainted Halloween candy from trick-or-treating. In one of these cases, a parent was even tried and convicted of poisoning their own child’s candy.

Best’s research also addresses the practice of  radiologists at local medical facilities X-raying Halloween candy:

“Although many hospitals offer to X-ray Halloween treats, this practice is controversial among radiologists both because few foreign objects are found, and because some worry that the practice may induce a false sense of security, since X-rays cannot detect drugs or poisons.”

Candy Laced with Drugs

With controversies of medicinal and recreational marijuana legalization in the news, the tainted Halloween candy mythology has recently reverted back to its 1960s form of degenerate dopers lacing candy with mind-altering drugs. Consider the following articles which rely on scare tactics to further spread the legend of tainted Halloween candy:

New York Daily News (10/17/2014) – Police in Denver, CO issue a public video warning to parents about the possibility of candy infused with marijuana.

New York Daily News (11/5/2013) – Claims of two separate cases of Halloween candy laced with meth in Southern California. According to the article, a 2-year-old boy in Moreno Valley was taken to the hospital after eating candy tainted with meth. Investigators claimed that they had found several packages of Smarties candies that had been laced with meth from the area. In a separate incident the following night, a 6-year-old boy was treated for ingesting meth in Orange County, yet investigators could not trace the meth back to Halloween candy.

Huffington Post (10/30/2013) – Just prior to Halloween in 2013, police arrested a 24-year-old college student at West Chester University in Pennsylvania for having 40 pounds of homemade candy laced with marijuana. The candy was apparently being sold to adults and was not intended for children, yet this thought is slipped into the article. Prosecutor Patrick Carmody made the following comment to NBC Philadelphia:

“I don’t think these drugs were at all intended for kids. The problem is the recklessness of the individual in this case, who is using these drugs in this form, is that then they get out in the public… With Halloween just around the corner, the last thing we want to see is drug-laced candy hitting the streets.”

Recent Reports of Tainted Candy

Almost every year prior to Halloween, a few news articles appear that seemingly perpetuate the myth of tainted Halloween candy in the public’s consciousness.  On a section of the WebMD website devoted to parental myths, there is a webpage which dispels Halloween myths. Included among their Halloween myths are the stories of candy tainted with drugs, poison, and small sharp objects.  According to WebMD, many of the reports of tainted Halloween candy come from people who are attempting to attract attention or publicity. This does seem to be the case in some reports, some of which were exposed as hoaxes or inaccurate, while others may have been rare cases of actual tampering. Consider the following articles:

WJHG 7 (11/2/2012) – A parent of a trick-or-treater in Panama City Beach, Florida finds a blood pressure medication pill inside of a 3 Musketeers bar. The article states that the parent decided to inspect the candy bar after observing that the package had been opened.

ABC News (10/30/2013) – A 12-year-old boy from Scottsdale, PA claims to have found a razor in a small package of M&Ms that he received while trick-or-treating. The local police felt it may have been an issue with the candy company as the package showed no evidence of manipulation. According to the article, the National Confectioners Association (NCA) had been maintaining a hotline to which police could report tainted candy since 1982, yet the hotline was discontinued in 2012 due to a lack of calls.  NCA spokeswoman Susan Smith was quoted as saying, “Tampering is extremely rare, and we don’t even track it anymore because police just aren’t seeing it”.

WMUR 9 (11/1/2013) – Parents in Nashua, NH find what appears to be a razor blade in their 12-year-old son’s backpack after the boy returns from trick-or-treating. It turns out the razor blade was actually a blade from a broken pencil sharpener which had been in the backpack.

WCPO Cincinnati (11/3/2013) – A Facebook post about six children going to the emergency room over tainted Halloween candy goes viral in Amelia, OH. The rumors are exposed as a hoax, and the Amelia police contact the person who posted the false story and tell them to remove it.

WKRN 2 (11/4/2013) – Two instances of tainted Halloween candy in Lebanon, TN were documented in a now-removed news story. One is of a sewing needle found in the middle of a rewrapped Tootsie Roll. This needle was found by parents who were inspecting the candy. The other report is of a razor blade found at the bottom of a 6-year-old girl’s trick-or-treat bag. According to the mother of the girl, the bag was brand new and had been checked prior to trick-or-treating.

WBNS Ohio (10/30/2015) – A teen in Reynoldsburg, Ohio reportedly found a disposable razor blade stuffed inside a Snicker’s candy bar. Police Lt. Shane Mauger said that “The child went to bite into the Snicker’s and it didn’t feel right, so they stopped and noticed an object in it, which appeared to be a disposable razor blade.” He also pointed out that it was an isolated and rare occurrence. “This is the first time in 19 years that I’ve handled anything like this,” he said. Some commenters on the story have suggested that this could have been a hoax, although there is no evidence yet supporting or denying that theory.

Brief news report about a teenager who found a razor blade in his Halloween candy:

Bottom Line

Halloween sadism and tainted candy are mainly myths that have existed for decades. Every year the legend is brought into public consciousness through media reports. At least some of these news reports turn out to be inaccurate or hoaxes. A University of Delaware sociologist who studied the myth going back to 1958 could not find a single report of a death or severe injury attributable to tainted Halloween candy. Many acknowledge that children are more likely to be struck by a car than to acquire tainted candy on Halloween. It is wise to be aware on Halloween, yet anxious hyper-vigilance is likely unjustified.

Be sure to read author Randal A. Burd Jr.’s thoughts on this topic, in his article entitled, “Trick or Trick: Halloween Sadists and Their Toxic Treats.”

Updated October 30, 2015
Originally published October 2014

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