Okay, Weenies. I recently had the dubious pleasure of reading a teen essay on the dangers of Halloween, including the potential for adults poisoning candy and handing it out to trick-or-treaters. (To protect her privacy, I am not posting the author’s name or the link here.)
The essay was only two weeks old. Yes, folks, the “poisoned candy” scares are alive and well.
Is there any truth to these stories?
The Official Terrifying Halloween Candy Death Count: One Child in the Past 40 Years
Well, let’s check out the facts.
According to nbcnews.com, in the past four decades, there has been exactly one death directly attributed to Halloween candy poisoning. The poisoning and the child’s death occurred on Oct. 31, 1974.
…and Tragically, the Poisoning Was Actually Committed By a Family Member
Although the death of even one child is one too many, it is important to note that the candy was poisoned by the child’s father.
Dad desired the money from Junior’s life insurance policy, and as his coverup, he placed a poisoned Pixie Stix candy into his child’s bag and into the bags of several of the child’s friends. This was to create an assumption that someone in the neighborhood had randomly passed out poisoned candy. None of the other children were harmed.
The victim of the tragedy was eight-year-old Timothy Marc O’Bryan. His father, hideously coined “The Candyman,” was executed via lethal injection in 1984, 10 years after the incident.
This is sick, surely. But it is important to note that this was not a case of a random Halloween poisoning by a stranger or vicious neighbor.
Unfortunately, this image lives in the collective consciousness even today as “proof that random people try to poison children with Halloween candy” and that “Trick-or-treating is dangerous because of crazy, homicidal strangers” — the fact that this single recorded Halloween candy death was from a non-stranger notwithstanding.
Tampering Investigations: No Child Deaths, a Li’l Fibbin’
Of course, I’m all about keeping things real. Therefore I say: though Timothy O’Bryan’s death stands alone for the Halloween deaths via poisoning record, there have been been investigations involving potential tampering of Halloween candy.
Generally these have not involved poisons such as cyanide or arsenic, the exception being Helen Pfeil in the mid-1960s (see below).
None have ended in child deaths, most have been debunked by authorities as pranks (some on the part of the child him or herself) and several actual child deaths originally suspected of being Halloween candy poisoning were entirely disproven. (Tragically, one incident was a case of congenital heart disease; in another case, a child got into his parents’ heroin stash at home and overdosed.)
Snopes has a great list of various “Halloween candy tampering” allegations and the realities here.
The Originator of the “Poisoning” Frenzy: Helen Pfeil
A decade before the tragic and horrifying death of Timothy O’Bryan, a case of ant traps being handed out to trick-or-treaters started the “poisoned Halloween candy” frenzy. (The ensuing panic provided the M.O. for Ryan Clark O’Bryan to later murder his son.)
In 1964, New York housewife Helen Pfeil handed out non-candy items such as steel wool and dog biscuits to children she judged as “too old” to be trick-or-treating. Unfortunately, she also handed out “ant buttons,” intended to kill ants. She labeled these bags with a skull and crossbones. The ant buttons were clearly marked POISON and she outright told the children as she handed out these bags that they were NOT meant to be eaten, according to authorities. Remember, her point was to “ah-ha” the kids and shame them for trick-or-treating past a certain age.
Though her actions were unbelievably stuipid and irresponsible, as well as potentially harmful, this was not a case of a child hater lying in wait to kill unsuspecting children.
But whatever her warped reasoning and her “precautions,” her actions began a half-century long rumor mill.
Pin/Needle/Razor Blade Investigations
There have been several investigations over the past 50 years of objects, such as pins, possibly being embedded into Halloween candy (no deaths or permanent damage ensued). It’s worthy of note that no case of a razor blade being embedded in an apple and handed to a trick-or-treater has ever been substantiated.
The single undeniably provable case was James Joseph Smith, who embedded needles in Snickers bars in 2000. One child was pricked; no other children were harmed.
According to snopes.com, nearly all “object embedment” cases were found to be untrue or were perpetuated by the “victim” him or herself.
Non-Halloween Related Attempted Poisonings: The Media Fuels the Fire
There have also been, of course, the various highly publicized incidents of store shelf items being tampered with, though these are in no way restricted to candy and most have absolutely no connection to Halloween.
The gold-standard example of these was the tampered Tylenol incident, known as “the Chicago Tylenol murders,” in 1982.
The tampered Tylenol capsules sparked a huge media frenzy “warning” parents that the same could happen to Halloween candy (um…why? I guess because it happened in October?). Multiple broadcasts linking the Tylenol poisonings to potential Halloween horrors had parents across the nation either holding their kids back from trick-or-treating or taking bags of candy to be X-rayed.
Today, the media continues to fan the flames each year with explicit warnings related to Halloween candy (without actually providing data to back up the extent of this fear). Because fear for our children is perhaps our greatest, deepest and most emotional worry, media-encouraged “Halloween candy panic” is re-fueled en force each October, facts be damned. (Linking the word “poisoning” with “children” in any unsubstantiated way is sure to have its effect; it’s media gold.)
Of course, two wonderful things result each year: 1. children who were already not in danger continue to not be in danger and 2. the media makes a HELL of a lot of money. So if you’re a news jockey, bully for you; at least someone is getting something out of all this.
What Can Cause Halloween Deaths? Cars, Say Officials
In fact, the number one cause of injury to children on Halloween is car accidents — a smarter, more real and more controllable fear to address. Levelheaded precautions include wearing glow sticks or reflective clothing, holding your children’s hands while crossing streets, and not going onto busy streets. As a driver, drive very carefully on Halloween.
Be Smart, Not Scared
People, please don’t add to the unsubstantiated Halloween candy panic.
Be smart. If candy has been opened, it could be contaminated by perfectly mundane things — feces on unwashed hands, for example. Throw such items away.
If You Suspect Tampering
Of course, just because it generally doesn’t happen doesn’t mean it can’t happen, amiright?
Your child’s Halloween candy (or your makeup, your son’s school glue, the lettuce on the produce shelf, that Egg McMuffin you munched on the way to work or any random Advil…or pretty much anything, if you really want to be a paranoid freak about it) could leave you suspicious in some way.
So I’ve compiled a few handy tips.
1. If a piece of your child’s Halloween candy has 90 little pin pricks in it, is torn wide-open and has something odd and white sprinkled all over it or has a huge old-school razor blade sticking out (do they actually still sell those things?), take the candy to the police, duh.
2. “Test” your child’s candy first: eat half of every piece. This is far and away my favorite method of keeping my children safe from unsubstantiated urban legends. Just taking one for the team here. My kids haven’t yet gotten it together enough to question why I always seem to suspect the Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups the most. I’m hoping I can ride this out for a few more years.
3. If you open an investigation (police have nothing better to do on Halloween night) involving some weird object sticking out of an apple and your child (and his friends, all of whom are now laughing their balls off at Mom) is revealed to be the culprit, do the following:
- Ground him. For at least a month. I mean…are you kidding me?
- Charge him out of his allowance for every bottle of hair color you’re forced to now buy based on the gray hairs the incident has given you.
- Throw his phone, tablet and Xbox into the toilet.
- Tell him he’s lucky that’s all the punishment Mommy doled out for scaring the living fuck out of her.
…And if You’re That Scared…Don’t Take Your Kids Out. Leave the Fun to the Rest of Us
I am not belittling the very few real incidents, nor am I downplaying child safety. I’m a parent too, after all. I’d be gutted if anything ever happened to any of my children.
However, there’s a very real bottom line here. Parents, if, despite the data, you’re still frightened your children might fall prey to some child-hating monster on your block, don’t take your kids out trick-or-treating. It’s that simple. You’re the parent. It’s your choice.
…Or: Simply Expose Your Child’s Food to Radiation. Danger Averted!
It boggles my mind that thousands of Halloween candy bags are X-rayed by various police headquarters, hospitals and other facilities in the U.S. every year.
Really? You suspect that “maybe” your neighbors are attempting to murder your children with candy…so you’re going to let the kids go out, probably munch half their candy on the way (if they’re normal kids) but hey, later you’re going to have the remainder X-rayed so it’s probably okay?
Yeah, erm…so maybe we just have different parenting styles.
If I “suspected” my neighbors were out to kill my children (logic notwithstanding), you can be damned sure I’d just have a little party for my children in our own house on Halloween.
The Bottom Line
I would hate to put the kibosh on trick-or-treating, but please know that, facetious comments aside, I do take parents’ concerns seriously. (Especially when they’re real, substantiated concerns…not rumor.) I am in no way trying to encourage frightened parents to put themselves into a situation that will worry them. If it worries you, don’t do it.
This post is not an agenda-driven call for parents to send their kids willy-nilly out onto the streets every October 31. That’s their decision, and I have no personal stake in who trick-or-treats and who doesn’t.
However, my feeling on the matter is that smart, informed parents will still take their kids out…and will still take the smartest steps to keep their children safe. Bottom line, they’ll make smart decisions, whether those involve trick-or-treating or staying home.
But feeding the media that doesn’t actually give one shit about your children, and instead is deliberately trying to terrify you in order to make front-page news? Come on.
How is that keeping anyone safe?
Do your homework, make your decision…and whatever you come up with, have a happy and safe Halloween.
Peace out, my Weenies.