I admit, I’m a sucker for a spooky tale. As a child of the ’80s, nothing was quite as scary as the idea that someone might slip a razor blade or drugs into my collection of Halloween candy.
So I gave most of it to my sister.
Kidding! I had a peanut allergy back then, but I noshed on my Hershey’s and Milky Ways and Twix and… sorry, I got carried away there. I ate my favorites after ensuring no evil witch had tampered with them.
As an adult, I look back on the idea that people were out to mess with kids. The concept still lives on in the form of fresh warnings every Halloween for parents to diligently check candy. (This year, the focus is THC-laced treats. But I’ll get to that…)
I wondered if any evidence substantiates these concerns or if it’s indeed just an urban legend. Let’s unpack it.
“The idea that you’re consuming something disgusting or dangerous is a very standard kind of theme in urban legends,” says Joel Best, Ph.D., author and professor in the University of Delaware’s Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. “And also the idea that there are people out there who are doing this for no good reason is a very common urban legend.”
Best has been studying deviant behavior since the late ’60s, and he took an interest in what’s now termed as “Halloween sadism” — the concept that people are drugging kids or trying to kill them in other ways via their trick-or-treat loot.
In the ’80s, Best scoured news articles, dating back to the late ’50s, for evidence of Halloween sadism. He updates his research every year, so he seemed like the right person to ask.
“I don’t see any evidence that this has actually happened,” he says. “Now, you can’t prove that it’s never happened, of course. But this would be a big news story. If somebody got poisoned from poisoned Halloween candy and died, this would make national news.”
Best did find five cases in news reports that were attributed to Halloween sadism. But when the info first came out, the public was missing the whole story. The most famous incident, he says, occurred in Texas in 1974.
Eight-year-old Timothy O’Bryan died after eating Halloween candy. His father, Ronald, who was later dubbed the “Candy Man” in prison, was eventually executed by lethal injection for giving his son a cyanide-laced Pixy Stix. According to prosecutors, his goal was to collect on an insurance policy he’d taken out on Timothy.
None of the five deaths originally linked to Halloween sadism that Best found in his research were actually at the hand of some neighborhood psychopath handing out tainted treats. All were later attributed to other causes, a heart condition, for example, or a kid getting into his uncle’s heroin stash.
Best says something else is at play with this urban legend, aside from sensationalized news reports.
“One of the things that that is really interesting to me,” he explains, “is that there is this pattern where something bad happens in September, and then that translates into really intense fears about Halloween.”
He gives the example of the “Tylenol murders” in Chicago in late September and early October of 1982. Seven people died after consuming Tylenol capsules that were laced with potassium cyanide. The incident resulted in a massive recall and led to new guidelines set forth by the Food and Drug Administration to make over-the-counter medications tamper-proof.
“That led to all of these warnings about, “Oh God, you’ve got to really watch your kids’ treats this time of year,’” Best says.
Another infamous example is the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “There were all of these legends that had kind of a riff on terrorists tampering with Halloween candy,” Best says about Halloween in 2001.
Halloween is a notoriously spooky holiday, but it’s also about innocence and nostalgia as we watch kids get hyped on sugar while dressed as their favorite superheroes. The combination of that can play on our worst everyday fears.
“We are surrounded by apocalyptic scenarios that it’s all going to come tumbling down,” Best explains, citing nuclear wars, economic collapse, and robot uprisings — to name a few. “We translate these very completely unmanageable fears about everything going to hell in a handbasket,” he adds, “and we turn it into, ‘We’re going to protect our children, by God.’”
In other words, inspecting the kiddos’ candy stash provides a few minutes of control over all the unknowns in the world. It can also assure a parent that they’re doing right by their children.
“What’s happening this year that’s really interesting,” Best says, “is you get this vaping panic that starts last month. And then there’s this idea of ‘Well, THC could be in Halloween candy.’ So I think we take what’s out there in the news and sort of rework it to fit the contemporary legend.”
Once again authorities and news outlets are warning parents to inspect candy. The new scare comes after the police department in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, issued a statement that they found “Nerds Rope” containing THC while fulfilling a search warrant. The items are labeled “for medical use only” and clearly state “400 mg of THC per rope.”
Basically, we can theorize the police found someone’s marijuana edibles stash.
“Somebody pointed out to me that one of the problems with this is edible marijuana is very expensive,” Best says. “Then probably people are not going to, you know, get a big package of [gummy] bears and distribute them to the neighborhood kids.”
And that’s been the absurdity of the Halloween sadism urban legend all along.
“When I lived in Baltimore City,” says Nashville resident John Winston Heacock, “we just assumed folks with drugs weren’t going to just give them away. Razor blades were a different story,” he adds. “But us kids used that as an excuse not to take apples as a treat from those killjoys who gave ‘healthy’ snacks.”
“My view,” Best says, “is that if you say to somebody, ‘Why would anybody do that?’ and the answer is ‘Well that’s just the kind of thing they do,’ that’s an excellent sign that you’re dealing with a contemporary legend.” His reasoning is based on his decades of research examining deviant behavior. “These people always had reasons for what they did.”
That being said, following the FDA’s Halloween safety tips is always good idea. Sadism aside, allergic reactions and choking are very real hazards of the holiday.
And if you see someone posting about Halloween sadism in a panic over this year’s latest scare, send them this article. Or share an edible with them and watch this YouTube video together. Happy Halloween!
Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.