The other day, my kids came home from school with a burning question about trick or treating. "Should we throw away all the Pixie Sticks?" they asked. "Drug dealers put crack cocaine in them and then hand them out to kids."
Pixie Sticks are those striped paper straw things loaded with neon-colored sugar that stains the mouth and teeth. They happen to be one of my candidates for "Candy Scourge of the Decade" and I appreciate any opportunity to chuck them. But crack? It didn't make sense, not even to me, and when it comes to my kids, I'm usually willing to see the monster beneath the bed. But in this case, I figured that most drug dealers have enough repeat customers without spiking the candy of suburban kids.
"It's a myth," I told them. "Like the lady who dried her poodle in the microwave."
They nodded knowingly. "But we should still check all the candy, right?"
This is Halloween, America's national holiday of parental terror. Sure, most of us grown-ups have stopped believing in ghosts; we are unmoved by spooky stories and glowing jack-o'-lanterns with demonic grins. But we do not greet this holiday with grown-up complacency. We are afraid -- of Halloween weirdos, poisoned food, razors and kidnappers and child-torturing delinquents.
So tradition demands that we offer a few words of warning before sending our princesses and pirates into the dark. The short list:
I add my own voice to the chorus, dripping with gloom and doom, a voice suited to one of those gaunt, hollow-eyed women carrying a sign: "Beware! The End is Near!" And the bad, bad world isn't bad enough. We must also harangue about tooth decay and stomach aches and righteously hand out tiny boxes of raisins, health food treats, stickers, pencils, even toothbrushes. A trick for a treat.
How did we get this way? How did Halloween get this way? Every holiday has its personalized disaster scenario, the thumb on the bacchanal. Christmas has the tree that goes up in flames and burns down a house. Thanksgiving has the undercooked turkey that sends three generations to the hospital. We know these things have happened and yet we don't approach these holidays with paralyzing fear. Why does so much impending ruin, so much parental anxiety get dumped into Halloween's glow-in-the-dark basket?
Certainly not because anything bad has ever happened on Halloween. Just ask Joel Best, a sociologist from the University of Delaware who has a special interest in deviant behavior and refers to himself as "the world's leading expert on Halloween crime." To earn his title, Best scanned major newspapers between 1958 and 1998 for stories about blades in apples and poisoned Milk Duds. Then he analyzed about a hundred articles and followed up with phone calls to police and hospitals. Best concluded that the grand total of all the kids who have been critically injured by horrible Halloween deeds is ... zero.
"I haven't been able to find any evidence that a kid has ever been killed or seriously injured by a contaminated treat received while trick-or-treating," he says. "I can't say that it has never happened, but to say that it happens a lot, that it happens all the time, that it justifies all the worrying and warnings? That's overblown. There's just no evidence."
But we have read the stories. We know them as gospel. Every year, on Nov. 1, there is an article about a pin pulled out of a Tootsie Roll or a child who was hospitalized due to some Halloween malevolence. It is the story that circulates at the PTA meetings and soccer games, that puts another nail of fear into our consciousness. Each year, we use the story to justify a further tightening of the leash on our long-suffering trick or treaters.
That's the problem, Best says. There is an initial story and it receives front page coverage. But the follow-up is rarely reported. The vast majority of these cases -- more than 90 percent, says Best -- are hoaxes and exaggerations. Most of the time, they turn out to be a kid trying to freak out another kid, or a child who knows that a BB in a gum wrapper will bring instant attention from parents, the police and the media.
In one well-publicized case of "candy tampering," the "victim" actually died of a complicated heart condition. In Texas, an 8-year-old boy died after eating cyanide-laced Pixie Sticks supposedly gathered while trick or treating. In this tragic case, there was indeed a genuine boogeyman, the boy's father, who had taken out an insurance policy and figured that Halloween random poisonings were so commonplace that the police would never suspect him.
"The thing about these Halloween stories is that they don't make sense," says Best. "If there is anything we know about crime is that it does make sense. Why would a drug dealer decide to hook preschoolers on this particular night? Why would a person be a model citizen for 364 days a year and on this one night, start poisoning children at random? Why would someone do that?"
It turns out that only 5 percent of nonfamily child abductions take place in October -- fewer than in any other month. Statistically, my kids are much more likely to be struck by lightning than to be struck down by a tainted m&m. And the PTA scuttlebutt has got it all wrong. This period of history isn't the most dangerous time in human history to be a kid. For most children in this country, it is the safest.
So where do these horror stories come from? And why am I so quick, almost eager, to believe them?
Maybe because it's Halloween. Maybe because I can't go trick or treating and I can't leap out from behind bushes and scare the hell out of my friends as we chase candy from house to house. Maybe this is the way grown-ups celebrate, in a grown-up sort of way. We exploit the opportunity to be scared to death while knowing that everything is going to be OK. (Even Joel Best, statistics at his fingertips, admits that his own wife inspected their family's candy haul before proclaiming it safe for human consumption.)
When you think about it, the stories are not too different from campfire bone-chillers and the Grimms at their bloody best. The characters, the tone, the morals -- all writ large and hot-wired to our greatest fears as parents and protectors -- add up to classic lore. An unknown adult corrupts an innocent youth. A naive child receives a poisoned apple.
As a parent, I want desperately to protect my children as they make their way into adulthood. But most days, I know I can't really do all that much. Most days, I can only take a deep breath and let go little by little, trusting, hoping and praying that the world will treat my children gently.
But on Halloween day, I have society's wholehearted permission to indulge my every fear, to put all my back muscles into maintaining the wall between the world and my children. Suddenly all the vague threats recede and there is only the Halloween maniac, the stomachache, the Hershey Bar full of shrapnel to bravely repel from advancing. And I can. This is the beauty of Halloween, as Joel Best will attest. We always triumph. We always survive.
But is there a price for this annual, faux face-off with our fears? What am I teaching my children? To be paranoid and suspicious?
Maybe not. Not if I don't go too far. Spooked as I may be, I still let my kids trick or treat near home. When we cart the kids to the mall for store-to-store trick or treating (as many parents now do), the message is loud and clear: The only safe place for a kid is an adult-sanctified, commercialized place where there is a security guard at every exit.
But a few words of warning couldn't hurt. It's all part of the ritual. We wring our hands, bark a few orders, confiscate a couple of Pixie Sticks. They dress up like hippies and tarts, skulk around in the dark and gorge on candy corn. And Halloween remains, with annual tweaks to costumes and horror stories, is as it should be, for all of us -- a rush of scary thrills, fierce love and chocolate highs.