Poisoned Halloween Treats no More than a Publicity Trick

Poisoned Halloween Treats no More than a Publicity Trick

Murray Op-Ed in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune
October 28, 2003

At Halloween we scare ourselves with tales of ghouls, ghosts, and The Boogeyman. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

We adults know these stories are not true, but in recent years we've been spreading myths--even that we believe that homicidal strangers are regularly poisoning trick-or-treat candy.

Every year, newspapers and television programs warn parents about this "threat' with grave reminders to check apples for razor blades and needles.

This year, the Food and Drug Administration has joined in the tale-telling, warning parents to inspect commercially wrapped treats for signs of tampering, such as an unusual appearance or discoloration, tiny pinholes, or tears in wrappers. Throw away anything that looks suspicious.

But the FDA is telling just another scary tale, with as much truth as the legend of Hookhand: Halloween candy-tampering is a myth. <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />University of Delaware sociologist Joel Best studied national criminal data going back to 1958 and found only 76 reports of any kind of tampering, of which almost all turned out to be mistaken or fraudulent.

In all that time, there have been 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 stumbled upon and ate 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. Even though her parents immediately notified the authorities about their daughter's heart condition, television, radio and newspapers blared shocking news reports of poisoned Halloween candy. No evidence of tampering was ever found.

There is one undetermined case. In 1982, 15 children and one adult fell ill after eating candy and cakes 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.'

His conclusion: Such incidents are "mythical.'

So why do we persist in scaring ourselves this way?

Strangely enough, the reason may lie in how safe our society is for children. If our children are not subjected to the real horrors of disease, starvation and war that have worried parents throughout history and still do so in some parts of the world, we still feel a need to protect them from something. The figure of the murderous candy-poisoner fills the vacuum very well.

In recent years, we have conflated the idea with terrorism, to the extent that some parents now worry about al-Qaida operatives tampering with the treats.

To students of psychology, this is an interesting twist in the legend. To children, however, it is positively harmful.

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.

There is another downside. Repeating myths like these every year may ultimately create a self-fulfilling prophecy, inspiring deranged individuals to carry out previously nonexistent crimes.

To paraphrase some useful advice: The FDA should be careful what it warns about, it just might get it.