In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d take a moment to pay homage to perhaps one of the most dangerous things lurking out there -- FDR said it best -- our own fear.
So you know those warnings about the evil stranger who poisons the Halloween candy? Well, it turns out there’s never been a case of that actually happening. Not a one!
And yet every year, out come the “STRANGER DANGER!” TV reports urging parents to inspect Halloween candy for poison, and, maybe not bother going trick-or-treating at all. Take the little tykes to the mall where they can trick-or-treat under the bright sterilized lights of a Footlocker! Better yet, why leave the house when you could just draw a diagram of your neighborhood on the back of a brown paper bag and have your Sorry!® game piece make the rounds! Throw a square of TP on your Sorry!® game piece, and you’ve got yourself a tiny ghost! Oh, but I digress.
The man behind this finding is a professor of criminal justice at the University of Delaware, Joel Best. He first published on this back in the 1980s (after combing through newspaper reports of supposed Halloween candy tamperings dating back to the 1950s), and has continued following up on every case since. To date, he’s reviewed over 90 cases, searching for evidence of a stranger poisoning Halloween treats, and hasn't been able to locate a single one. Every year around now, he pipes up. He shares this finding with reporters. He's quoted in newspapers and on TV. He points to books he's written about the legend. And yet, for some reason the myth of the Candy Poisoner seems to be debunk-proof.
For a detailed description of Best's findings, see reports compiled by Snopes, The Incidental Economist or Dr. Best's updated research page. But the Cliff's Notes version is this: the vast majority of the reports turned out to be pranks. A couple days later a kid would confess to sprinkling poison (or baking powder, etc) on his own candy in hopes of freaking everybody out. There were also a couple of cases in which a child died while trick-or-treating (or right after) from causes that were unknown for a day or two. For instance, in 1990 a girl died of congenital heart failure, and in 2001 a girl died from a bacterial infection, that had nothing to do with Halloween candy. But in each case, for that moment in time before the coroner’s reports came back, police departments and media outlets went berserk, warning parents to throw away all their children’s candy in the face of a potential poisoning.
There was a sad case in 1970 in which a little boy somehow got into his uncle’s heroin stash and overdosed. It happened in early November, and the family, in an attempt to protect the uncle, sprinkled heroin on the boy’s Halloween candy to make it look like a stranger had done it. The investigation discovered the family's actions, and determined the death wasn't caused by the heroin on the candy -- but again, for a moment in time it looked like a legitimate poisoning. Those couple of days seem to be able to breed a kind of fear that is far more potent than any of the reassurance produced by the reports that a stranger wasn't to blame.
Dr. Best did find one case in which a child died from poisoned Halloween candy -- in 1974, a father killed his own son that way. The father, who was trying to collect on his child's life insurance policy, was discovered, locked up, and sentenced to death. As grim as this is, it’s still a far cry from the evil stranger out to get the innocents at random.
So why? Why do we still think there's a stranger out there? Or that there could be? Or that there once was?
Perhaps it’s simply because the image plays on something so primal -- the worry of a stranger hurting our children -- that all it needs is the occasional suggestion to stay alive. Or perhaps it’s because of Helen Pfeil. A 1960s Long Island housewife who's the closest thing to an origin story that Dr. Best could find.
In 1964, crazy ol’ Helen (ok, she was only 47, but I like to picture her as an old bat) got a funny idea. She thought she’d hassle the kids she deemed too old to be trick-or-treating. Got a little too much hair on your chin? Instead of handing you candy, Helen would hand you a steel-wool sponge thingee. Or a doggie biscuit. Or (judgment fail) a little tablet of ant poison labeled “ANT POISON.” Helen had kids of her own. Her husband thought the idea was a riot. So with a smile and a scold, Helen told each teen who came to her door about the joke. I imagine her shaking her finger, her Halloween take on the old coal-in-the-stocking routine, “too old to be trick or treating missy… here’s what you get!” A doggie biscuit! A clump of steel wool! But still, for the handful of teenagers who came home with ant poison in their sacks, the damage was done. Their parents launched a hunt to find this sicko. Helen Pfeil was arrested. She plead guilty, with her husband cringing in the background, to the sound of the harshest crickets in the land. The gavel.
Could misguided Helen be the source of all our fear?
I titled this post the way I did because I have the scratchy feeling that on one hand even though that fear is useful (erring on the side of caution makes absolute sense when it comes to your child), on the other hand it can grow so large -- this specter, this cloud of collective worry -- that it can do real harm, on a massive scale.
The thing about Halloween is it’s a neat rift in what we usually do. It’s a mask-sanctioned chance to approach the unknown house and see who’s inside. (Sidenote: this is what reporting is all about for me. Every time I call up a new stranger, I get the same fear. I am afraid to burst into their lives.) It’s natural, that fear, and hurtling through it almost ALWAYS ends up in growth. New connections formed, new information learned. From all the memories of trick-or-treating, is it not the hallways that endure? The picture frames you glimpse as you peer behind the person handing you candy. The stairwells. The side-tables. I could still recreate in perfect detail some of the foyers I glimpsed two decades ago. And I think it's because what you're witnessing there is life-shifting for a little kid. It's a moment of a tiny universe expanding -- here’s one other way people do it, how they live. It’s terrifying and intoxicating, to glimpse a stranger’s existence, so terrifying and intoxicating that Halloween's one of the few adult-imposed ideas that kids actually get excited about. It’s a real frickin’ adventure!
In that sense, the damage the Candy Poisoner myth inflicts on society is tangible. It's the burn of a restraint pulled tighter, preventing us from that impulse to reach out and meet one another.
Sigh. But I got one last thing to tell you. The myth of the stranger with a razor may be a little true. Over half a century there have been about ten cases of pins or objects hidden in apples or candy bars that resulted in injury. In the very worst case, a woman had to get a few stitches. I’ll let the good folks at Snopes.com (a very thorough husband and wife reporting team) tell you all about it, but their point is, even though a razor blade may be a more alarming image than poison, it's actually in a far different class: “poison is an attempt to kill, a pin… is an attempt to frighten or injure.” And the fact of its occasional reality, however rare, will no doubt puncture any carpe-Halloween that Dr. Best’s finding may have enthused.
A giant and secretly poisonous Thank You to Chelsey Weber-Smith who initially shared this finding with me, and whose riled-up tone about it all -- "Now, kids go trick or treating at the f-ing mall and miss the intimacy of that moment of standing in a stranger’s doorway and accepting a gift in a mischievous manner. Depressing.” -- inspired me to share it here. May the brave among us trick-or-treat in her honor.