When it comes to Halloween these days, it seems that parents scare more easily than their children. For the past 15 years, I have checked the news as Halloween approaches. It is always full of warnings from health and safety officialdom that parents should check their children’s collected candy for signs of tampering with nefarious intent. Here are just three examples I found with a 30 second Google search today. It’s just as much hogwash as it was when I started.
The best data we have on such Halloween sadism is compiled each year by University of Delaware professor Joel Best. His conclusion is simple:
In my own research, 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.
Yet the warnings persist. Why? I’m going to repeat what I said, along with my old colleague Howard Fienberg, back in 2001, when there was near panic around Halloween thanks to the events of a few weeks earlier:
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 everyday 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 or foreign terrorist fills the vacuum 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.
That is all the more true this year. Every day since Sept. 11, we have been subjected to scare stories and tales of imminent terror. But since that fateful day, very few have died. Three unfortunate people have died in the anthrax scare that has gripped the nation. Far more have died in car accidents — some of which may have happened after people took the decision to drive rather than fly.
This principle applies well beyond Halloween. It is present when people worry about the effects of genetically engineered food, now that food borne disease is under control. It is present when people worry about chemicals when chemicals have done so much to improve our lives. And it is present when we worry about the wrath of nature as a result of global warming when our societies have become more resilient to the effects of bad weather.
Our lives have become safer, so we invent imaginary fears to replace those that we have conquered. How scary is that?