With Halloween mere days away and neighborhoods preparing to greet costumed kiddies on their doorsteps with bowls of fun-sized Snickers, we should probably talk about the ever-looming threat of poisoned, pinned or otherwise tainted candy. The universal parental fear dates back to before the advent of trick-or-treating and has taken on a variety of forms over the decades. Today, with cannabis legalization on the uptick and THC-infused gummies increasingly prevalent in homes around the country, this urban legend has taken on its latest zeitgeisty manifestation and leaving Facebook moms shook.
The most recent flare-up comes courtesy of a Facebook post by the Johnstown Police Department in Pennsylvania that highlighted some THC-infused Nerds ropes confiscated during a bust. Though the department offered no indication that these ropes were bound for trick-or-treat distribution, they nonetheless used the mere existence of the edibles as a chance to “urge parents to be ever vigilant in checking their children’s candy.” Naturally, local news stations tripped over themselves at the opportunity to fear monger. Irresponsible headlines with unsubstantiated correlations to the holiday soon made the rounds on social media, including “Police Warn Parents After Finding Halloween Candy Laced with THC that Looks Harmless.”
Of course, the idea of a homeowner intentionally offering expensive cannabis products to children is unlikely. Even an ultra-stoned homeowner accidentally passing out infused products seems like a stretch, what with laws now forbidding packaging or products from looking like candy. If that isn’t enough to quell fears, there are no reported incidents of this scenario actually coming to fruition.
But these fears can never be quelled, of course. They’re inextricably linked to the very idea of mass-produced candy and almost always a mirror of the worries of that epoch. In her book Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure, author Samira Kawash notes that society’s first concerns about the sweets their kids were consuming first arose during the industrial revolution. With a variety of newly manufactured treats hitting store shelves, parents feared children would be eating factory byproducts, paints and other toxins that had been used as cheap filler or simply glommed onto the sweets as the hypothetical child ran about in the filth of the streets. Editorials in The New York Times and other papers of record, dating as far back as 1877, used the potential hazards of “adulterated confectionery” as a Trojan Horse for airing general grievances with the manufacturing boom of the era.
Later, in the middle of the 20th century, with trick-or-treating now an established practice, children were collecting candies from strangers each October. Kawash points out that fears and urban legends only started creeping back into the dinner table conversation during the strife of the ’60s and ’70s. The white picket fence idyllic suburb fantasy of the ’50s had crumbled, revealing the social unrest that had been festering beneath the whole time. Race integration, women’s liberation and anti-war sentiments fractured the nation and changed the demographics of communities. Neighborhoods once full of trusting and sociable homeowners became insular, fearful of the “others” next door who clearly did not share their values. So who knows what sick stuff they might do to their Halloween candy.
As it turns out, those fears were entirely unfounded. In the ensuing decades, urban legends of toffee with pins inside or lye-filled bubble gum persisted, but actual reports of tampered candy were a rare occurrence.
Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, has been tracking and debunking alleged instances of what he calls “Halloween Sadism.” Best found fewer than 90 credible reports of candy tampering over the course of the century. Most years between 1973 and 2012 have either one or zero claims of actual candy tampering, despite the ever-presence of urban legends. The one exception is 1982, where 12 cases were investigated. People were understandably on edge, however, as earlier that year, someone had murdered seven people by putting cyanide capsules in drugstore bottles of Tylenol.
More importantly than the scarcity of the cases, Best’s research and digging around old news stories of Halloween sadism found none that were connected to candy collected during trick-or-treating or “random attempts to harm children.” Sadly, some children did indeed die, but their deaths were misattributed, sometimes the result of previously undiagnosed health problems or a malicious relative. Best found the other non-fatal (and usually non-harmful) cases were overwhelmingly the result of accidental ingestions, family pranks or kids making shit up for attention. He says a parent should be far more concerned about their kid getting hit by a car while trick-or-treating than collecting an apple filled with razor blades.
With this hysteria around tainted candy so ensconced in the holiday, it’s unlikely parents will abandon candy inspections any time soon. If that practice gives them peace of mind and a chance to steal a few choice chocolates off the pile, it’s an ultimately harmless endeavor. Still, in the age of fake news and Mark Zuckerberg unwilling to crack down on blatant lies in Facebook ads, it’s on all of us to push back against the active spread of disinformation. So, the next time you see Aunt Cathy sharing a screen grab of an email that claims “Antifa is giving quick-dry cement filled bonbons to the children of God-fearing Trump voters,” just send her a Snopes link and politely ask her to shut the fuck up.