The Chicago Tribune
Scary Scams
by Iain Murray and Howard Fienberg
October 29, 1999

Halloween is a time for scary stories, tales of ghouls, ghosts, Hookhand and The Boogeyman. At least we adults know these stories are not true. But in recent years we've been spreading myths even we believe--that homicidal strangers are regularly poisoning trick-or-treat candy. Every year, newspapers and television programs warn parents about these "threats," usually including grave reminders to check apples for razor blades and needles. In recent years, hospitals and airports have taken to X-raying children's trick-or-treat bags as a community service. In fact, this time-consuming and expensive practice has become so widespread that a controversy arose in St. Louis a few years ago when a local hospital decided to stop offering the service.

Why would a hospital be willing to risk children's lives to save a few dollars? Because their experience has been consistent with the national data: Halloween candy-tampering is a myth.

University of California system researchers Joel Best1 and Gerald Horiuchi studied national criminal data going back to 1958 and found only 76 reports of any kind of tampering. Almost all of these have turned out to be mistaken or fraudulent.

In all that time, there have been only three incidents of children dying in what were reported as cases of tainted candy. But even these had nothing to do with homicidal strangers. A case in 1970 involved a child from Detroit who had stumbled upon, and eaten, his uncle's stash of heroin. The child's parents, not wanting the uncle to go to jail for possession, concocted the tainted-candy story. In 1974, a Houston boy was intentionally poisoned by his father, who then made up the story about contaminated candy. The third case, in 1990, concerned a Los Angeles-area girl with a congenital heart condition. The girl had a fatal seizure while trick-or-treating, and even though her parents immediately notified the authorities about their daughter's heart condition, television, radio and newspapers blared shocking news reports of yet another incident of poisoned Halloween candy. Needless to say, no evidence of tampering was ever found.

There is one undetermined case. In 1982, 15 children and one adult fell ill following eating candy and cakes supplied at a New Jersey school Halloween party. Some observers were suspicious, although there did not appear to be any tampering. Regardless, no one died.

The lack of evidence is such that Mt. Holyoke College criminologist Richard Moran could "not uncover a single case of child murder that could be attributed to Halloween sadists." He dubs them "mythical."

So why do we persist in scaring ourselves this way? Strangely enough, the reason may lie in how safe our society is for our children. If our children are not subjected to the real horrors of disease, starvation and war that have been major worries for parents throughout history, we still feel a need to protect them from something. The figure of the murderous candy-poisoner fills the vacuum very well. But, in protecting children from an unproven threat, parents may not just be taking some of the fun out of childhood but also raising children in an atmosphere of paranoia, which cannot be good for them.

The trail of Halloween "incidents" almost always leads to crimes directed at specific individuals or misdiagnosed illnesses or fatalities. The news media, however, rarely retract scare stories as prominently as they sound the initial alarm.

They may have a point. Perversely, repeating myths like these every year may ultimately elicit a "copycat" effect, inspiring deranged individuals to carry out previously non-existent crimes. To paraphrase some useful advice: Be careful what you warn about--you might just get it.

Iain Murray is senior analyst and Howard Fienberg is research analyst at the Statistical Assessment Service, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to improving public understanding of scientific and quantitative information.

1  Joel Best is currently in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware.

This article was reprinted in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.


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